With the TUC conference taking place this week Robert Gant takes a look at the rhetoric coming from different sections of the political left and explores the possibility of strikes, protests and union militancy.
In the face of severe spending and public service cuts the trade union movement has found its voice and is preparing to take action if what union leaders see as ‘attacks’ on jobs and public services continue.
It is no secret that the relationship between the Conservative Party and the trade unions is historically that of two ideological enemies. Years of tension, strikes and protests by the unions climaxed in the 1980’s in a series of bitter industrial disputes between the major trade unions and the Tory government led by Margaret Thatcher.
With a new Conservative led coalition government in power and an extensive programme of spending cuts taking place this year’s TUC conference in Manchester is hugely significant, perhaps the most significant meeting of the trade unions for decades.
With a budget deficit the Tories inherited from New Labour it was no surprise that spending cuts would occur across the board. What many politicians, trade unionists, political analysts and members of the public have found alarming is the size and speed of the cuts. The cuts and spending reviews have been so extreme and immediate that many feel the coalition government are using the cuts as cover for a campaign of privatisation and a complete reduction in the size and role of the state.
Paul Kenny, GMB union leader described the cuts as ‘needlessly and ideologically driven’. Deputy Labour leader and acting party leader Harriet Harman also condemned the nature of the cuts and said her party was feeling ‘militant’ about the way the government is attempting to reduce the budget deficit.
So what is the issue? The unions and the Labour Party think the level of the cuts is too much too soon; risking a double dip recession that they argue will affect the most vulnerable members of society the most. They have a point. BBC research revealed that the cuts would hit the north of the country hardest. It ranked 324 council areas in order of how vulnerable to government cuts they are. The deprived old industrial communities of the north, the midlands and south Wales were all areas most vulnerable to government cuts.
The anger and statements issued from the TUC conference have been unprecedented. One delegate described the government action as ‘all out class warfare.’ Interestingly, and unusually there were lots of strong calls for joint, united trade union action.
Bob Crow, general secretary for the Rail Maritime and Transport Union said ‘This is an opportunity for the entire trade union movement to come together and mobilise support. Unions should also link up together, because we are confronting the same enemy. Otherwise they will pick us off one at a time.’
General Secretary of the TUC echoed those sentiments and wrote in the Morning Star: ‘The TUC will do all we can to promote the alternate economic policies that we will set out later, but the key to getting the government to change course will be grass-roots community organisation in coalition-held seats.’
The language is more militant and aggressive than seen for many years. There were industrial strikes during the Labour years but nothing on the scale that the trade unions are advocating now against the coalition government.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union described a future after the cuts as ‘bleak’ and said ‘industrial action is inevitable’. Harriet Harman backed the union’s position. While saying nobody wanted to see strikes she emphasised ‘trade unions have the democratic right to protest.’ Some have seen that as an endorsement for industrial action from the country’s mainstream left-of-centre party.
The big question that all this raises is whether it is all empty rhetoric or whether the country will be brought to a standstill by collective union action? Despite the more militant tone of this TUC conference the prospects of a winter of discontent are slim. The Labour government did little to reverse the legislation passed by consecutive Tory governments which outlawed secondary picketing and made achieving industrial action an uphill struggle within itself.
Also despite efforts to achieve a united leftist front to tackle the coalition government and try and change its plans for spending cuts, many moderate elements within the trade unionist movement will be reluctant to put their unions on strike and cripple the country’s public services.
With all that said, it is highly likely that within the next six months the battle lines will be drawn and industrial action will take place. We may just find it will be on a small, local scale rather than a national, united trade union led movement on the scale of the anti-poll tax movement.
Only time will tell just how effectively the left can work together to try and change the government’s plans regarding cuts and public service jobs losses. What is evident in the wake of comments from the TUC conference is that the trade unions intent is there. It is now a question of whether they can turn that intent into collective, publicly supported civil and industrial action.