The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Great Britain:
Mobilization of the Public Sector against Austerity

Dec 12, 2011

Public workers struck in Britain on November 30th, the first time since December 1978. It was the third time for an important mobilization since the beginning of the crisis.

This time, unlike the strike of last June 30th, which included only teachers, students and national government employees, the union apparatuses called out big battalions of health and city government workers to join the strike. Some three million union members voted for this strike day with their feet.

The strike was a success, as even the government had to recognize. The rallies and demonstrations of strikers took place in a hundred cities and brought together hundreds of thousands of participants. Unlike other times, a significant number of workers from the private sector joined these strikers, although certainly not invited by the union apparatuses. And passers-by applauded the demonstrators.

Like the preceding mobilizations, the union leaders chose to limit this to only the issue of attacks against the public workers’ pensions. These attacks include raising the age of retirement from 60 to 67 for everyone, an immediate increase in workers’ contributions (3% more of their pay, while public sector wages are frozen for two years), and a series of changes in the way of calculating and indexing pensions, which will lead to an average cut of 15% to 25%. Since half of public sector retirees already get pensions of less than $700 a month, there are obvious reasons for anger.

Since the November 30th strike, the union leaders have kept silent. Negotiations have occurred at the highest level between the union apparatuses and the government, without a word leaking out. Some workers remember a similar set of negotiations in 2008, under the preceding Labor Party government, during which these same union leaders accepted an increase in the retirement age from 60 to 65, without getting a thing in return.

Workers are also angry about other austerity measures of the Conservative government. But the union apparatus chose not to oppose any of these attacks, and sometimes assisted the government in putting these measures into effect.

On November 30th there were a number of hand-written signs protesting job cuts. This year 240,000 public jobs are being cut. Other signs opposed big wage cuts imposed by some city governments. These cuts have gone through with the aid of the union apparatuses, in particular in the big Labor Party-run cities like Birmingham.

So, despite the success of November 30th, British workers can hardly trust the union leaders to lead the necessary test of strength against the attacks of the bourgeoisie. To make that challenge, there must be an explosion of anger sufficiently strong to shake off the control the union apparatuses maintain over labor’s biggest battalions.