By Maria Exall
The joint union action on 30 November looks set to be the biggest strike for a generation. The fact that so many public sector workers are protesting against being forced to pay for the crisis caused by the excesses of the financial services sector and the failure of neo-liberal economic orthodoxy is good and necessary. We need resistance.
It has the potential to move things forward both on the public sector pensions issue and on the wider ideological matter of the necessity of a cuts agenda. However, resistance is not enough. No matter how big or successful N30 is, there are key challenges faced by the labour movement in coming few months.
Firstly — be prepared for the backlash. After N30, Coalition politicians and the reactionary media will be re-raising the familiar arguments against trade union rights and pressing for changes that make it harder to take industrial action.They are also highly likely to include attacks on employment rights in general under the guise of getting rid of “red tape”. Union leaders need to stand firm and be prepared to mobilise against such attacks. Secondly — where is the strategy to take the pensions fight further? Though all the union leaders are making clear current government proposals are unacceptable, many union activists suspect the bottom line will be a compromise that erodes pension provision in the long term.
Thirdly — what next in the fight against the cuts agenda itself? The TUC has set aside a campaign fund of £1 million to make the case for the alternative to cuts, at an ideological, strategic and grassroots level. There will be an anti-austerity conference in the new year and “community organisers” are currently being appointed. But all this campaigning will only work if a clear economic alternative is articulated.
Lastly then, there is an urgent need to win the battle of ideas on political economy. Vague references to workers’ co-operatives and economic democracy are not sufficient. We need to popularise a clear alternative and organise support for it. Yes, we need democracy in our economy, but that can only be achieved by a political fight.
As socialists we need to argue the case for working-class control of industry through public ownership and democratic control. This applies not just to the financial sector, but to other utilities and areas of mass production in the private sector. And the case for the economic alternative also needs to be made in a public sector that is run on “private sector disciplines”, where low pay, casualisation, contracting out and other forms of marketisation have been well-rooted since Blairite reforms of the public services. Which brings us back to the matter of pensions.
If those managing the public sector can relieve themselves of the burdens of pensions, obligations which amount to billions of pounds, that means full steam ahead for full scale privatisation.