British strike could start turning tide of a generation
It was the wrong time to call a strike. Industrial
inflict "huge damage" on the economy. It would make no difference. Public
sector workers wouldn't turn out and public opinion would be against them.
Downing Street was said to be "privately delighted" the unions had "fallen
into their trap".
The campaign against today's day of action has been ramped up for weeks,
and in recent days has verged on the hysterical. The Mail claimed the
street cleaners and care workers striking to defend their pensions were
holding the country to "ransom", led by "monsters", while Rupert Murdoch's
Sun called them "reckless" and "selfish".
Michael Gove and David Cameron reached for the spirit of the 1980s, the
education secretary damning strike leaders as "hardliners itching for a
fight", and the prime minister condemning the walkouts as the "height of
irresponsibility", while also insisting on the day they had been a "damp
But up to two million public employees, from teachers and nurses to dinner
ladies, ignored them and staged Britain's biggest strike for more than 30
years. The absurd government rhetoric about gold-plated public pensions � 50%
get �5,600 or less <http://www.civilservant.org.uk/pensions.shtml> �
It's not just the scale of the strike, though, but its breadth, from
headteachers to school cleaners in every part of the country, that has set
it apart. Most of those taking action were women, and the majority had
never been on strike before. This has been the "big society" in action, but
not as Cameron meant it.
And despite the best efforts of ministers and media, it has attracted
strong public sympathy. The balance of opinion has varied depending on the
question, but a BBC ComRes poll last
61% agreeing that public service workers were "justified in going on strike
over changes to their pensions".
Of course that might well change if the dispute and service disruption
drags on. But the day's mass walkouts should help bury the toxic political
legacy of the winter of discontent <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7598647.stm> �
that large-scale public sector strikes can never win public support and are
terminal for any politician that doesn't denounce and face them down.
The Tory leadership is unmistakably locked into that Thatcher-era mindset.
Not only did George Osborne's autumn statement this week respond to the
failure of his austerity programme by piling on more of the same for years
to come, it was also the most nakedly class budget since Nigel Lawson
hacked a third off the tax rate for the rich in 1988.
Any claim that "we're all in this together" can now only be an object
of ridicule after Osborne coolly slashed child tax credit for the low
paid, propelling 100,000 more children into poverty, to fund new bypasses
and lower fuel duty.
And by announcing a 16% cut in public sector pay and
2015 along with a loss of 710,000 jobs, the chancellor declared war on his
own workforce. Add to that the threat of less employment protection to
sweeten privatisation deals and an end to national pay scales, and Osborne
couldn't have made a stronger case for industrial action.
Public service workers are right to strike because that's the only way they
can defend their pensions from Osborne's 3.2% raid and the only reason the
government has made any concessions at all. They are also protecting public
services from a race to the bottom in pay and conditions which can only
erode their quality.
And far from damaging the economy, which is being dragged down by lack of
demand and investment, the more successful they are in resisting cuts and
protecting their living standards the more they will contribute to keeping
But today's strike and whatever action follows it isn't just about
pensions. It's also about resisting a drive to make public service workers
pay for a crisis they have no responsibility for � while the bloated
incomes of those in the financial and corporate sector who actually caused
the havoc scandalously continue to swell.
When real incomes are being forced down for the majority, as directors' pay
has risen 49% and bank bonuses have topped �14bn, that's an aim most people
have no problem identifying with. Across the entire workforce there's
little disagreement about who's been "reckless" and "greedy" � and it isn't
public service workers.
As one Leeds gardener on �15,000 a year told the Guardian, striking was the
only way to get the desperation of the low-paid on to the agenda of the
wealthy: "they just don't have any idea of what it's like to live on pay
Cameron and Osborne's strategy from the start has been to divide the public
sector workforce from the
hammer them to win extra market credibility � and convince private sector
workers they'd be better off if education and health service pensions could
be driven down to the often miserable or nonexistent level of most of the
The Conservative policy minister, Oliver Letwin, gave a taste of what else
they have in mind when he told a consultancy firm that public services
could only be reformed with "some real discipline and some
But it looks as though ministers may have miscalculated. The message
of striking public service workers chimes with the public mood.
Private sector Unilever workers have just voted to take industrial
defend their own pensions.
A crucial factor in the dire state of private sector pensions � and the
wider wealth grab and mushrooming of inequality over the past generation �
has been the decline in trade union strength. The fall in union membership
since the 1970s is an almost exact mirror image of the runaway increase in
the share of national income taken by the top 1% over the same period.
That is the common experience across the world wherever neoliberal
capitalism has held sway, as are the attacks on living standards and public
services, strikes, occupations and riots that Britain has had a taste of in
the last 18 months. Which is why today's walkouts have attracted support
from Nicaragua to Bangladesh.
One strike isn't, of course, going to force the government to turn tail.
After Osborne's pay and jobs battering, the likelihood must be of more
industrial action, with no guarantee of success. But today was a powerful
demonstration of democratic workplace strength � which offers a chance to
begin to turn the tide of a generation.
�Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is humanity�s
original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made,
through disobedience and through rebellion.� � Oscar Wilde, Soul of Man
�The free market is perfectly natural... do you think I am some kind of
dummy?� � Jarvis Cocker
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