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How we can beat the cuts

Why the left wing union leaders have failed – and what should socialists do about it

Text of the Workers Power leaflet to Marxism 2012

THE COALITION has unleashed an unprecedented attack on the British working class – an attempt to undermine and dismantle the education, health and welfare systems gained after the Second World War.

Cameron and Clegg are using the “Great Recession”, now in its fifth year, to ram this through. This is no ordinary recession, but a historic crisis of capitalism.

It has left 2.6 million out of work with millions more – especially the young – driven into low paid McJobs. Benefits and wages have failed to keep up with inflation – Bank of England Governor Mervyn King, no friend of workers, has called this a “ferocious squeeze in the purchasing power of take-home pay”.

Having bailed out the banks as “too big to fail” at the expense of the state, they turned to slashing state social spending. The benefits system is being eroded, leading to pensioner poverty, homelessness and disabled people losing the essential means of coping. On top of this the NHS is now wide open to privatisation while undergoing £20 billion cuts.
Women, youth, black and Asian people and the disabled have borne the brunt of this onslaught. The truth about last summer’s riots is now being revealed – this was an uprising of the dispossessed against a society that rewards the rich and corrupt while meting out repression and harassment against everybody else.

The pensions debacle
In these circumstances, millions of workers looked to their bedrock organizations – the unions. However the TUC delayed calling a national demonstration for the better part of a year – giving the Tories and Lib-Dems plenty of time to line up their attacks. They seemed surprised when half a million turned up to voice their anger on 26 March 2011. Nevertheless it took an alliance of public sector unions, mainly in health and education, to call out 2 million members on 30 November against the government’s proposed pension “reform”.

Yet within weeks Brendan Barber, Dave Prentis retreated into a scheme-by-scheme negotiation process, effectively signing up to ‘no strike’ agreements. The unity of 30 November lay in tatters.

This year more radical public sector unions – the Universities and Colleges Union, National Union of Teachers and Public and Commercial Services union – combined to pull 750,000 workers out on coordinated strike action on 30 June in defence of public sector pensions. While this was neither the most immediate nor the most class-wide issue on the agenda, it had an electrifying effect on the masses.

The fact that they also managed to hook a number of smaller, more conservative unions into taking strike action alongside them – many for the first time – increased the pressure on the big union leaders at Unite, the GMB and Unison to join in.

But the lefts paid a heavy price for pursuing a strategy relying on the cooperation of the leaders of the big three unions. Several attempts to reignite the fire were made, but the PCS and NUT in particular failed to agree to come out together and neither of the big strikes lasted more than a day.

At the same time the NHS “reforms”, which open the health service to wholesale privatization, saw the unions paralyzed by their craven submission to the anti-union laws. Despite widespread anger, the passage through parliament of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 was not even met by a national demonstration let alone a day of strike action. And this despite the fact that opinion polls showed a huge majority against the government. Again the fear that action would be deemed political and therefore unlawful terrified the cowards who head our unions.

The SWP and Unite The Resistance
Could it have turned out any better, given the balance of forces? This is the big question facing socialists. The answer has to be an emphatic yes. So what could we have done?
There can be no doubt that Socialist Workers Party members played a huge role in ensuring that these strikes took place at all. With members on the executives of all the most important fighting unions, they argued hard for the coordination to take place. Hundreds more organised during the ballots, in the workplaces and on the picket lines to shut down schools, colleges, hospitals and offices.

To their credit the SWP also called for the strikes to become more frequent and of longer duration. They built local activist committees to coordinate the action from below, using the trades councils where possible but on an ad hoc basis where necessary. They agitated for bringing private sector workers into the fray, like those at Unilever and the impressive grassroots mobilization by the ‘sparks’ electricians in Unite.

But the crucial mistake the SWP leadership made was refusing to challenge the bureaucrats for leadership of the strike movement and failing to launch a fight to wrest control from them. They did not warn the rank and file that even the left union leaders could not be relied on to continue the struggle. And, strangely, considering the prominence the SWP gave to the slogan of the general strike in the previous six months, this was dropped from their diet of daily agitation.

Unite The Resistance was launched with two contradictory aims – to uncritically support the left union leaders and to organise the trade union rank and file. It drew 800 militants to its first conference in June 2011 and a massive 1,200 to its second on 19 November.

On both occasions left leaders like Mark Serwotka (PCS) and Kevin Courtney (NUT) graced the platforms. But on both occasions not a single demand was placed on them: either to name another strike day, or to move beyond one day actions. The uncomfortable question: would they continue the fight – if, as seemed likely the mainstream union leaders betrayed the struggle – was neither asked nor answered.

Workers Power, alongside other socialists, including some SWP members, submitted a five-point resolution to the second conference, arguing that “maximum coordinated strike action – official if possible, unofficial if necessary – must be organised to throw back the Tory-led offensive” and this needed to grow into a general strike. “We must build now for extended action at a local and regional level – all out, stay out,” we argued.

We called for “cross-union strike committees… to organise effective coordinated action… with local anti-cuts committees” to “reject any attempts to break ranks by the union leaders/TUC on 30 November or after – no settlement until everyone settles”.

Crucially we called for an elected steering committee to organise regional conferences, “inviting the National Shop Stewards network and Coalition of Resistance to involve themselves in the organisation,” and for “practical steps to build a cross-union rank and file movement to organise for the above actions, hold our leaders to account and transform the unions into fighting organisations”.

For a new Minority Movement
While there is no doubt that the biggest traitors in our movement are Brendan Barber and Dave Prentis, along with their political counterparts, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, it is criminally irresponsible for revolutionary socialists to fail to warn that all the trade union leaders – left as well as right – will capitulate at crucial moments in the struggle- if we let them.

Charlie Kimber, in his article, The rebirth of our power? After the 30 November mass strike (ISJ 133), says, “UTR is informed by the experience of the early years of the Minority Movement of the 1920s” and that “We have to learn from both the positive aspects of this movement and avoid falling into the trap of reliance on trade union officials, left or right.”

We couldn’t agree more with this history lesson – but has the SWP really learned this lesson?

The young Communist Party formed the Minority Movement when the working class had just suffered the betrayals of the first Labour government (1924). The unions had shrunk from 8.3 to 5.5 million members between 1921-1924 and the CPGB was certainly no bigger than the far left is today. Yet in these difficult years it was the CP which launched the fightback.

Encouraged by Leon Trotsky, it did not shrink from the task of organising the rank and file independently from “trade union officials, left or right”. In 1924 CP leader JR Campbell wrote in their paper, Workers’ Weekly:

“It would be a suicidal policy, however, for the Communist Party and the Minority Movement to place too much reliance on what we have called the official left wing… It is the duty of our party and the Minority Movement to criticise its weaknesses relentlessly and endeavour to change the muddled and incomplete left wing viewpoint of the more progressive leaders into a real revolutionary viewpoint. But the revolutionary workers must never forget that their main activity must be devoted to capturing the masses.”

Every revolutionary in Britain knows the tragedy that followed: how the CP, misled by the Stalin-Bukharin leadership, changed its position to one of reliance on the TUC Lefts and in the General Strike May 1926 raised the slogan “All power to the [TUC] General Council.” It neither warned of the right wing’s inevitable betrayal nor of the left wing’s inevitable capitulation to the right.

So which CP does the SWP model itself and UTR on? The revolutionary party of 1920-24, or the centrist party of 1925-1926? We argue that – at the crucial moment last year – the SWP muzzled UTR, shielded the “official left wing” from criticism and meekly fell in behind the (mis)leadership of Serwotka, Courtney and Co.

But it does not have to remain this way. The crisis is so great that there will be more giant economic shockwaves before it is resolved. The Coalition is starting to develop cracks under the pressure of the crisis above it and the workers’ struggles below.

The first outbreaks of new rank and file militancy have emerged – particularly among private-sector workers. The sparks followed up their stunning victory against Balfour Beatty and the big six with successful unofficial action in Radcliffe upon Soar. London’s bus drivers mounted picket lines of 50-100 and physically blocked scab buses from coming out; they too appear on the verge of victory. And 100 teacher reps gathered in Liverpool last month to launch a new left wing caucus in opposition to the official left leaders in the STA, who sold out the pensions struggle.

It is the duty of revolutionaries to seize the day and call openly for what is needed to apply the lessons of the Minority Movement to the struggles of 2012.

If the grassroots organisations are to succeed they must warn workers about the weaknesses of the bureaucrats – and face down attempted betrayals with militant action independent of the officials and in spite of the courts. Such rank and file organisation can prepare the way for a general strike against the austerity government, which depends not on the leaders of the TUC, but on a democratically chosen leadership of the most militant sections of the working class.

We urge all SWP members to demand their leaders adopt such a policy and join with Workers Power to fight for such an outcome.

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