This year’s meeting of the TUC in Manchester could be the most important for years. In the face of a vicious attack on the living standards of the working class by the new coalition government, workers will be looking to the trade union movement for a way of fighting back. Jeremy Dear, General secretary of the NUJ and TUC General Council member, looks at the issues to be dealt with on next week’s conference agenda.
Against a backdrop of savage cuts, austerity programmes and fears over the scale of the threat to jobs and services, which will result from October’s Comprehensive Spending Review, it is little wonder this year’s TUC conference will be dominated by debates about how to fight back.
Workers in health, education, local government, transport, the civil service and every part of the public sector are facing attacks on jobs, pensions and a threat to the services they provide. Not surprisingly then that unions representing those members are at the forefront of calls for co-ordinated and urgent action and will be leading the debates at Congress.
“Union barons are secretely plotting a series of crippling general strikes in protest at Government cuts” screams the Daily Mail. But this is no secret and general strikes do not just happen. What is clear this year is that there is an unprecedented coalition of unions lining up to call for active resistance and co-ordinated action across the public and private sector.
These issues have already been debated at the TUC’s General Council and provoked sharp division. The division is not over whether to fight the cuts – we are all opposed to them – but how. Many unions have called for a national demonstration to coincide with the CSR as a starting point for wider campaigns and action. This has been counterposed by those who say we need to have local campaigns and that there isn’t at this stage the mood for national action and that a national protest would not attract sufficient numbers and therefore show weakness.
National and local activity shouldn’t be seen as contradictory. They are complimentary.
Of course we need to build local campaigns against the cuts in local services, the devastating impact on local education, local facilities and local communities.
But local campaigns are not enough. They need to be built as part of a network of such campaigns uniting the unions representing the workers and service users, uniting local campaigns on a regional and national basis.
This is not a fight against one council, one authority but a fight against a government engaged in the most savage attack on jobs and services most of us have ever witnessed.
So we see motions from the GMB calling on the TUC to “co-ordinate union resistance to arbitrary attacks on good quality occupational pension schemes.” Also a motion from the NUT to “support and co-ordinate public sector unions in campaigns, including co-ordinated industrial action and a national demonstration in defence of pensions.” The PCS is calling for the TUC to “organise a national demonstration in London against the cuts on 23 October…call a day of action in opposition to the proposed cuts for 20 October…support and co-ordinate campaigning and joint union industrial action, nationally and locally, in opposition to attacks on jobs, pensions, pay or public services” and from the RMT for a summit to “co-ordinate industrial action to defend jobs, pensions and conditions…national demonstration, lobby of Parliament and national days of protest” against the cuts need to be supported – and then acted on, urgently. As a starting point the TUC should build for a 24-hour stoppage involving the whole labour movement.
But there also needs to be a clear alternative to the cuts. Because this is also a battle of ideas. The trade union movement must be clear – the crisis is not our fault and the cuts are not necessary. It’s not enough for the Labour leadership contenders or former ministers to oppose the ConDem government cuts by saying they are being carried out too quickly. It’s not a question of timing. The cuts are not necessary. And the cuts, making the poor poorer, will have a knock on impact on the economy – less spending will mean less jobs and tax revenues.
We are in debt because the banking sector collapsed. Bailing out the banks cost £1.3trn. Yet we are being asked to pay in jobs and cuts in services affecting both the private and public sector.
Yet at the same time £70bn is lost to the economy through tax evasion and a further £25bn through tax avoidance. Stopping the replacement of Trident would save a further £78bn over 30 years. The annual cost of the war in Afghanistan has tripled, projected to be £3.7 billion in 2009-10. This is equivalent to the cost of funding 10,800 new teachers for 10 years.
The TUC should be the launch for a massive campaign against the cuts as part of a clear socialist programme for the labour movement.