Next week’s conference of the public sector union Unison will be the
most important for decades given the severity of the cuts being
promised by the new government. Many of Unison’s members are low paid
or part time and will be hit hard by a government keen to cut costs to
bail out the bosses crisis. Below we look at the issues facing Unison delegates and members:
The scene is set for perhaps the biggest assault on the public sector that Britain has ever seen and the workers will be made to pay for the crisis. Workers in the health service, the civil service and in local government will be anticipating the worst. The first cuts were announced on May 24th – £6 billion worth, designed for the TV sound bites, but the reality is much more serious.
The General Election debate over the cuts was largely about tempo and the danger of cutting government spending at this point in the economic cycle. The experience of the 1930s was that cutting wages and public spending further depressed the economy. Now the Tories and Liberals have won, the LibDems have already ditched their promise to oppose the Tories’ plans. These are new cuts on top of a whole series of existing “efficiency savings”.
The tempo of the cuts, particularly in local government, will vary area by area. In some areas the Tories will see the election result as a green light for vicious attacks as in Essex County Council and Barnet. In the North East the Tories took control of North Tyneside Council last year after winning the Mayoral Election and are planning to introduce a whole series of changes to staff conditions of service and allowances.
The General Election saw a hardening of the Labour vote in many industrial areas and some very significant gains in terms of council seats. Labour took a number of councils from the Tories, Lib Dems and various coalitions where there was no overall control. They wiped out the BNP in Barking and Dagenham. Labour’s bad showing over the past few years in local elections has been partially reversed.
The effect of the cuts won’t be uniform. The Tories intend to target “The North” and Northern Ireland, areas with a higher proportion of public spending. The most likely outcome is a series of localised battles over cuts in services and redundancies. But the Tories may blunder into a wider confrontation with public sector workers. The scale of the crisis means that they have no option but to take on the working class, because the Tories and Liberals stand for the interests of the bosses. The extent of the cuts in itself could provoke a generalised response. That’s the lesson of Greece and Ireland, but the Tories might try to avoid an all-out battle until they feel confident enough.
Cameron may attempt to face down the trade union leaders. They might attempt to attack pensions, cut wages and slash conditions. Generalised assaults require a coordinated national response by the unions. Key to any perspective as to the way things are likely to develop will be the attitude of the trade union leaders who will be forced to respond to the new situation. Their response will vary. The PCS and CWU have been on strike recently while UNISON has maintained close relations with New Labour. The Tory threats to pensions and services are already having an effect in the branches. There is a grim realisation that there are choppy waters ahead. The mood is different from a couple of years ago, when the economic crash put workers onto the back foot. The Con Dems are a big enough threat to focus the minds of the active trade unionists. We have no choice other than to fight back.
There is no basis for a cosy relationship with the Tories. The economic situation means mounting pressure on the trade union leaders, especially in UNISON to fight for the members. But the ConDems are very weak by comparison with Thatcher and the mood of the working class across Europe has become more militant.
Most struggles will begin on a local basis and as such the key task of Marxists in the unions will be to offer a lead on a local basis, explain how to fight the cuts and how to build solidarity and effective action, then generalise it and spread it – taking it on to a higher level. Merely criticising the leadership is not enough. This also means developing a political aspect to the struggle and fighting within the labour movement for a socialist programme. That task is going to be made far easier as younger, more militant workers come to the fore on the basis of the struggles that emerge. The General Election represents a watershed; the next period will see big changes. We must patiently explain how to fight back, transform the unions and turn these words into reality.
- No cuts, no job losses, make the bosses pay!
- For a fighting and democratic union!
Unison Conference Meeting:
"Which way forward for Unison?"
Thurs 17th June 5.30pm start
Speaker: Rob Sewell
Royal Exeter Hotel, Bournemouth.
(Opposite the BIC conference venue)