Workers show power in action

Richie Venton Posted by on December 9, 2011. Filed under Public Spending Cuts,Workplace News. Posted with the tags:,
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Workers show power in action

Thousands marched in Edinburgh as the public sector walked out in protest at pensions robbery. Photo by Craig Maclean

“I’LL remember this day for the rest of my life!”

So said Steven, a UNISON steward in Glasgow’s museums, as we marched with about 20,000 others to Glasgow’s Barrowlands on 30 November.

He has that in common with over 300,000 people across Scotland, up to 3million UK-wide, who made N30 the biggest single day of strike action since the momentous 1926 General Strike.

In Scotland, 180,000 council workers went on strike; 50,000 NHS staff; tens of thousands of teachers and civil servants. Tens of thousands marched to rallies in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness, Motherwell, Paisley, Glenrothes, St Andrews, Dumfries, and a host of other tons and cities.

It was a massive display of the indispensable role of the working class in the production of vital services and goods – and the power of workers to challenge the government.

Picket-line Avenue

The morning of N30 was a spectacle to behold, music to anyone who wants to change the world to a better, fairer place. It was picket lines everywhere: every corner, every side of hospital buildings, council offices and depots, civil service offices, schools, colleges, universities, police HQs… every area of the public sector.

On several streets, you could see the multiple flags and banners of several different unions on two or three other picket lines from the one you were standing on. The sense of unity and strength was palpable.

The numbers on picket lines were massively larger than usual. Fifty or more at many hospital gates (despite the ruthless intimidation meted out to NHS workers by senior management on the eve of the strike); dozens at college, university and civil service buildings that are well accustomed to strike action against axe-wielding Tory and Labour governments in recent years.

The success in getting workers to honour the strike was phenomenal. A PCS officer getting reports on her phone from all over Scotland told me it was over 95 per cent out on strike; in some buildings we visited to show the SSP’s solidarity, it was 97 per cent. Only 33 schools out of 2,700 in the whole of Scotland were open!

“This was about everything”

It was about brutal attacks on workers’ pensions – being asked to pay more, for longer, for lesser pensions – but it was about far more. As a council worker in Paisley remarked to me the next day, “This was about everything, the whole lot. We’ve had enough – and I hope this doesn’t turn out to be a one-day wonder.”

A nurse at Glasgow’s Western Infirmary perhaps captured best the thoughts and feelings behind the decision by 3 million workers to lose a day’s pay.

“I was out on strike in 1982, never since. I’ve brought my young teenage daughter with me on the picket so she can understand what this is about.” A woman who was gentle in manner, polite, probably not in the habit of swearing, then almost whispered to me, “This is against everything the government is doing to us. They are pissing on us from a great height.”

Decisive, united strike action raised millions of other working class people off their knees. Rather than condemn the strikers, as Tories and LibDems tried to incite them to do, thousands of shoppers stood on every street corner and road junction, applauding the marching strikers, shouting their encouragement, making the hair stand on the back of your neck with the sense of workers’ solidarity.

A political strike

Sneering millionaire Cameron tried to dismiss the strike as “a damp squib”. He’s not even kidding himself! He and his Cabinet know this was a powerfully political strike; not party political, but clearly and resolutely anti-government.

Many chanted “Tories Out” as they marched. The SNP MSPs were booed at the Edinburgh rally for crossing picket lines to conduct ‘business as usual’ in the Scottish parliament. Labour MSPs desperately sought to be seen on the marches – especially those competing for the Scottish Labour leader’s post! But strikers booed at mention of the hypocrisy of Labour MPs crossing Westminster pickets and the Labour leadership refusing to support the strike,

Fury fuelled byinequality

The strikers’ political awareness has been fuelled by rage at the bankers; fury at the revelations that Britain has the most rapidly growing inequality of any advanced country; anger at the rank lies from the government about there being ‘no money’, whilst company directors have average pensions of £175,000 – after pocketing pay rises of a mind-boggling 4,000 per cent since 1980!

Far from being ‘a damp squib’ the potent cocktail of pay freezes, rocketing prices for essentials like food and fuel, and savage job losses exploded into this mass strike.

Many – probably a huge majority – had never been on strike before.

Women were there in vast numbers, which is hardly surprising, given they make up over 75 per cent of public sector workers, but also given the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ report showing they face 75 per cent of the cuts to pay, benefits and pensions in Osborne’s plans.

War declared by Osborne

Osborne’s Autumn Statement on the eve of the strike demonstrated the callous determination of the ConDems to forge ahead with cuts, and with attacks on workers’ rights that not even the hate-figure Thatcher dared implement.

Their answer to rocketing unemployment is to make it far easier to sack workers! They want to make it almost impossible to vote for strike action. They plan to charge workers £1,000 for an Employment Tribunal hearing against unfair dismissal – and only then if they’ve been in the job for two years, rather than the current one year. Their Sackers’ Charter combined with two more years of horrendous austerity inflamed tens of thousands of workers who might not otherwise have bothered to actually picket their workplace.

Further strike days

One of the most common remarks from strikers was “I’m afraid we’ll have to be out again”. Not with reckless enthusiasm for losing more days’ pay – but a steely determination to see this fight through to victory, recognising that although N30 has rattled the Butchers’ government, it will take further strikes and protests to force them to abandon their savage cuts.

To their credit, the leadership of the civil service union, PCS, shares that understanding and has initiated a mid-December summit of union leaders to discuss the next steps.

Resist divide and rule

One of the oldest dirty tricks in the book is ‘divide and rule’. The union leaderships need to guard against government attempts to reach shoddy compromises on specific pension schemes. In a sense there is nothing to negotiate; the increased pension contributions being demanded of workers has nothing to do with filling gaps in pension schemes, many of which are in vast surplus (£2billion in the black in the case of the NHS scheme). This is theft of workers’ wages, a double taxation, to bail out the bankers and the growing deficit exacerbated by the government’s cuts programme.

No delay – name theday

Timing is of the essence. Hot on the heels of the most dramatic display of the power of the awakening giant of the trade union movement, workers and communities need a swift follow-up, to keep chasing the millionaires’ Cabinet – and to pound the SNP government with demands to ‘stand up for Scotland’ instead of meekly passing on Westminster’s cuts.

The SNP MSPs and Ministers who criticised Osborne’s declaration of war on the working class lamentably failed to side with 300,000 workers and their allies when they stood up to the Twin Tory bullies. Instead, John Swinney told Newsnight Scotland that the one per cent cap on public sector pay for two years after the current pay freeze “seemed about right”!

Demand Defiance – not destruction

In January and early February, the Scottish government and local councils will finalise their budgets. That is when workers’ organised power should be wielded – alongside communities, students, pensioners, disabled people and the unemployed – in a one-day or two-day mass strike, with tens of thousands mobilised to lobby the parliament and council buildings.

The STUC and public sector unions should popularise the unifying slogan “No cuts – tax the rich”, and demand that councillors and MSPs set No-Cuts Defiance budgets, instead of cravenly kow­towing to the dictatorship of Cameron and Clegg’s Coalition. These millionaires have no mandate to rule and ruin Scotland; there are more Pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs!

For socialist independence from the Butchers

N30 was historic. But it would be criminal if any union leaders made it into an exercise in letting off steam. Instead, they should harness the energy and fury expressed by workers into a powerful motor for social change, with a further united national strike in early New Year.

Union members – those who joined the pickets and demos – should bombard union leaders with calls for this swift follow-up blow to the governments that seek to make workers pay for a crisis of capitalism.

And in fighting back against the cuts, thousands will see the sense of a socialist case against all cuts – for taxation of the rich and democratic public ownership of the banks, big business, services and energy resources – putting people before profit.

They will increasingly support the SSP’s call for independence from the Westminster Butchers – but not so that Salmond and Swinney can wrap cuts in the Saltire instead. For a cuts-free, poverty-free, independent socialist Scotland; that’s what we need to re-double our efforts towards in 2012.