Ed Miliband says the unions should not strike on 30 June because they risk alienating public opinion. Thousands of teachers, civil servants and lecturers know he is wrong. Striking on 30 June — and organising for further strikes— is right and necessary.
Striking is the most effective way to stop the government from destroying public sector pensions, reducing health and social services to a “death's door only” minimum and condemning millions to a “choice” between penury or becoming cheap labour for multi-millionaires.
Striking is necessary because the government wants to negotiate only on details of its pension reform.
Striking is necessary not just because it is a more effective protest than demonstrations or lobbies. Strikes are a direct challenge to the power of bosses and the government and their ability to implement reforms.
The bosses and government know they cannot run public services without teachers, civil servants and other public sector workers. If the bosses also know workers will not put up with job losses, wage freezes, pension cuts they will feel a lot more pressure. They may respond with belligerence. They may back off. We have to know what we are up against and what we can do to strengthen our fight.
Do the unions have all of “public opinion” on their side? Probably not. But they have a lot more sympathy than Miliband and the rest of the Labour frontbench will give credit for. Millions of people are in the same boat as teachers and civil servants, facing an old age of poverty, restricted opportunities and fear of losing their independence.
And other public sector workers are looking to the teachers and civil servants to start a fight. They do not want to do what Tony Blair — a man truly despised in the “court of public opinion” — calls “engage with change”. They know that “engaging with change” means seeing “non-essential” hip operations cancelled, nurseries closing and teachers forced out of their jobs.
Ed Miliband didn't back the strike on 30 June because this and further strikes will change the nature of the opposition to the coalition. They will require him to change his “I’m getting tougher” stance. He is less able to say “leave it to us, and when Labour gets into power we will make it all right.”
Anyway Miliband and his Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls have not said they will repeal the Tory policies. They have not committed to opening nurseries, reversing privatisations, and cutting the new pension age?
We cannot and should not “leave it to them”. Nor should we not let them get away with their disgraceful, anti-strike, demagogic lecturing. The unions should call them to account.
The labour movement needs political alternatives — in the first place a clear idea of what it is fighting for and not just on the pension issue.
Over the last few years Workers’ Liberty has argued for Workers' Plan for the Crisis — a programme which brings together ideas for action and demands to inspire, shape and advance the class struggle against the bosses’ drive to make the working-class pay for the crisis; a programme for union and anti-cuts activists to fight for in the labour movement.
In the wake of 30 June this programme can be a tool that will strengthen our struggle. The programme must include:
• Fully fund public sector pensions, no rise in worker contributions!
• Immediately reverse the index link for pensions back to RPI from CPI.
• Pensions (and benefits and the minimum wage) should rise in line with prices or earnings, whichever is higher. (At the same time the unions should calculate an inflation figure which matches the real spending needs of workers and the poor.)
• Make the state retirement age for men and women 60. All workers deserve to enjoy life “after work”.
• Tax the private bosses to fund pensions for private sector workers, levelled up to the value of public sector pensions.
• Workers’ control of pension funds.
• Oppose and reverse Tory Welfare Reform, which will force jobless and disabled into low paid, insecure employment.
• End all “workfare” cheap labour schemes.
• Benefits should be at levels appropriate to need — sufficient to cover all extra costs for childcare and disability — and be enough to live on.
• End all means testing.
• Stop the job cuts in public services. Jobs for all!
• End and reverse the privatisation of public services.
• Cut the working week without loss of pay to create jobs for all who need them.
To many working-class people such policies seem hard to win. The first question asked is “how can we afford it?” The straight answer is that “we” cannot afford it unless we seize the wealth of the ultra-rich.
Seizing the loot which the ultra-rich have extracted over years and centuries of exploitation, taxing rich households and companies, taking banks and industry into public ownershi, could finance all of this and much more to meet the needs of working-class people. For instance, serious taxation of just the top 1000 richest people in this country could yield hundreds of billions of pounds.
Many unions already have policies along these lines — less radical, but roughly speaking similar. If the unions were even pursue their own policies with conviction, such demands would seem much less “unrealistic”.
The demand to “end to means testing” — to stop the state shaming the poor — was once a well-understood and “bottom-line” policy in the labour movement. Years of inaction by union leaders, and pleading for “crumbs from the bosses table” have meant such policies have faded from political life. Debating and discussing what should be the labour movement’s new “bottom line” can restore such ideas, restore the practice of having principles and the idea that it is right to fight on a point of principle.
In the fight to save pensions, jobs and services we need something much much better than little concessions from the bosses and deals negotiated behind the backs of the workers. We should not leave it to Miliband to “get on with it” if and when Labour gets elected to government. We call on the unions to put pressure on Labour, and that could commit Labour to stronger opposition. But at the same time we know that, left to its own devices, Labour merely stands for a more “humane” deficit reduction and that too is an attack on working-class people.
To win our whole programme and a radical transformation of society, we need a different kind of government — a workers' government — one which understands the necessity of attacking the wealth and power of the ruling class.
That's a big idea — a socialist idea. We hope labour movement activists who now see better possibilities of fighting back will want to discuss that idea with us in the coming months.