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“Who’s afraid of the general strike” | Jeremy Drinkall’s industrial overview

“No one was talking about a general strike.”

This is how Brendan Barber opened his account of the 28 January TUC summit to a BBC radio interviewer. How odd, I wonder, how many other people start a report with a denial?

It reminded me of Len McCluskey’s article in The Guardian just before Christmas. He praised the “magnificent students’ movement” before contemplating the labour movement’s role:

“The response of trade unions will now be critical. While it is easy to dismiss ‘general strike now’ rhetoric from the usual quarters, we have to be preparing for battle.”

Then Tory minister Francis Maude issued a New Year’s message saying, “No-one is talking about a general strike – that would be illegal.”

Before I come back to examine the mystery of the general strike that everyone agrees no one is talking about, what exactly is the TUC proposing instead? After the TUC summit, general secretary Barber announced joint action – but it was nothing new. He just reminded us of the TUC demonstration on 26 March which he’d already announced two months ago.

I don’t doubt that the demonstration can provide a focal point for activists around the country and everyone should work to make it the most militant and biggest march for years. But if this is all it is, a demonstration of our numbers, then the harsh truth is that it could go down in history as the day we did not stop the cuts – just as on 15 February 2003, when two million marched in London and 30 million around the world, marked not just the highpoint of the antiwar movement, but also the point from which it subsequently declined.

And that is what Barber and the right wing of the TUC hope for: a day for people to let off steam, after which it will be business as usual. So we have to ensure the 26 March demo rings out with demands for strikes, coordinated action and above all the very thing Barber, Maude and McCluskey all insist is not on the agenda: a general strike to bring down the government.

But what of the more militant union leaders? The TUC left like Bob Crow of the RMT, Mark Serwotka of the PCS and Matt Wrack of the FBU have been talking about coordinated strikes. The NUT teachers union has proposed a strike against the coming attack on public service pensions and invited other unions to join them. The lecturers (UCU), civil servants (PCS), firefighters (FBU) and railworkers (RMT) have all “not ruled out” working together on industrial action.

But there are two big problems. First the big general unions Unite, GMB and Unison have yet to support the call. And second, the TUC lefts have been backtracking and qualifying their support.

The RMT’s Bob Crow has stepped back from his call last summer for “general and coordinated strike action across the public and private sectors”. When he emerged from the TUC summit, he repeatedly emphasised the RMT would only take up “legal trade disputes”.

Fear of the anti-union laws runs deep with all union leaders, left and right. They have repeatedly and blatantly been used to quash strike ballots, most recently against RMT workers on the London DLR railway. Both Maude and Tory London Mayor Boris Johnson have indicated that if need be they would try to strengthen these reactionary laws, possibly by counting all non-returned ballot papers as “No” votes. If our union leaders continue to buckle in the face of the judges, then a coordinated strike could crumble in the courts.

The FBU’s Matt Wrack has offered to synchronise action through the Labour left affiliated Trade Union Coordinating Group. Significantly this would take the running of strikes out of the hands of rank and file members – or even their elected union officials – and place them under the control of the general secretaries.

Besides which – I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice that the FBU pulled the plug on the last co-ordinated strike, the “bonfire night strike” only to capitulate before the Tory-led London Fire Authority?

The well-supported strike, during which FBU pickets were assaulted and suspended, was called off hours before NUJ journalists at the BBC were due to come out. Quietly, two months later, the FBU signed up to new shift patterns remarkably similar to the changes they struck against in the first place.

Can we really rely on Matt Wrack co-ordinating cross-union action next time round?

Finally, let’s look at what PCS leader Mark Serwotka is saying. He recently won a 90 per cent majority in a ballot to reject the government cuts. But so far there has been no national action.

Worse, backed by PCS executive members from the opportunist Socialist Party, Serwotka is talking about striking not over pensions but only over cuts to redundancy pay. Shouldn’t a fight to defend every job go alongside action to protect redundancy money? What message does this send out except that the PCS has surrendered public services and jobs? By balloting on a separate issue, a fissure in the united front to defend public sector jobs has already appeared, waiting to be exploited by the Tories.

Now it is not my intention to dampen expectations by pouring cold water on the union leaders’ plans. We should all support every move towards sustained and co-ordinated strikes. But obviously we should not rely on the union leaders, even the left wing ones, to deliver.

So what should we do?

The events in Tunisia show how to bring down a government – just the threat of a general strike sent dictator Ben Ali fleeing the country. That’s why the Con Dems are so keen to avoid one – that’s why Maude and the union leaders keep on saying it’s not even being discussed.

If that makes me one of McCluskey’s ‘usual suspects’ I’m happy to plead guilty.

The TUC would only call a general strike is if they felt the movement slipping away from their control. In short, if the pressure mounts to take action without their say-so.

So the answer is to raise the call now for a general strike, call for the TUC to do it but don’t rely on them, and crucially build the anticuts committees that are spring up across the country to coordinate action from below.

Then we can head towards a mighty demo on 26 March where the call goes up from thousands and tens of thousands: “Bring Down the Tories! General Strike!”

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