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TUC’s Future that Works demo: 150,000 march – and vote – for a general strike

The 20 October demonstration in London and rally in Hyde Park were remarkable in that so many union leaders took up the call, passed by the TUC, to consider the practicality of a general strike. Dave Stockton reports

Remarkable too is the fact that the mainstream media – the BBC and the “quality press” alike – have blacked out this fact. Indeed they have hardly reported the whole day’s events. And the reason they blacked it out – rather than making a hue and cry about it – is simple. A huge crowd of people indicated their approval for this call by raising their voices – and hands.

At least 150,000 marched through London with a further 10,000 taking to the streets of both Glasgow and Belfast. South London local anti-cuts campaigns and unions led a sizeable feeder march and the students mounted another from the University of London to Embankment. There must have been about a thousand on each.

At the end of the demonstration courageous militants from Disabled People Against Cuts occupied the road at Marble Arch blocking the entrance to the luxury hotels and apartments of Park Lane. UK Uncut and other young people took advantage of Oxford Street to expose – and occupy – the tax dodging billionaire owned shops: Top Shop, Boots, Starbucks, etc.

Numbers were certainly down on the 500,000 who demonstrated on the last TUC demo on 26 March 2011, and on those who picketed and demonstrated across the country in every town and city during on the public sector one day “general strike” on 30 November last year. The decline in numbers reflects the effects of the betrayal by the leaders of the biggest unions of the pension struggle, as well as the flawed strategy of “coordinating” sectional strikes, in order to duck the effects of the anti-union laws which ban political strikes.

Yet despite being smaller, the march and rally gave evidence of a harder, more determined mood growing apace amongst a vanguard of tens of thousands of militants.

This came out at the Rally in Hyde Park, without any possibility of being contradicted, thanks to Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite.

The Resolution of Hyde Park

At the climax of his speech McCluskey said –

“There was a motion at the TUC to consult on a general strike. We were asked to look at the practicalities and start a consultation. Well, let’s start the consultation today: are you prepared to strike?” Deafening cries of “Yes” and blowing of vuvuzelas!

“Let’s have a vote,” he added. A huge forest of hands shot up. “I think that’s carried,” he announced and concluded, “Sisters and brothers, have the courage so that we can rise like lions and fight, fight, fight for a better world!”

The RMT general secretary Bob Crow effectively seconded McCluskey’s resolution. He started with criticism of the Labour leader. Referring to Ed Milband’s speech he declared:

“It’s no good Ed Miliband coming here and saying he’s with us today. We want him to say he’s on the side of working men and working women – and that he will refuse to put through any further cuts.”

Crow was drowned out by applause when he added, “We’ve marched twice now. It’s about time we looked at the practicalities of a general strike.”

The call for class wide strike action was endorsed by Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS: “We are in a worst place than we were a year ago.”

“If marching doesn’t stop them,” he said, “we’ve got to do what they’ve done in Greece, Portugal and Spain. We’ve got to have strike action right across the economy. It’s not enough to wish it. We’ve got to make it happen. Let’s say to our trade union leaders, me included, the time has come to strike and when we strike together we can win.”

But the rally also made it clear that there was not unanimity for the general strike among the bureaucrats. But while the left got cheers, the right were politely listened to – or heckled.

Dave Prentis, Unison general secretary, spent much of his speech congratulating the turnout of Unison members and indeed there was a huge contingent from the union. But his speech was out of tune with the mood of the crowd, including many of his own members. He was effectively heckled as to whether he supported a general strike. He replied coldly that Unison had “voted ‘Yes’ for the motion considering the implication of a general strike at the TUC Congress.”

Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said unionists needed to strike together but added a caveat: “when the time is right and all the practicalities have been considered”. This effectively grants the right wing all the time needed to let the call go cold and resignation to set in among the masses.

And if the general strike call was given a decisive YES from tens of thousands, Ed Miliband’s “One Nation Labour” message was greeted by groans and whistles. He was not helped by the fact that he did not did not march on the demonstration. The crowd loudly booed him when he said:

“There will still be hard choices- it’s right that we level with people,”

Everyone present understood this to mean – a Labour Government will continue to make cuts, will continue to freeze public sector wages, will not reverse the terrible damage the Tories are trying to do to the National Health and education services. The booing visibly flustered him and he only recovered attention by promising to repeal the new NHS Act.

By the time retiring TUC general secretary Brendan Barber came forward, the crowd was dwindling. A Workers Power supporter heckled him with a megaphone, “It’s not what you’ve got to say; it’s what six million members have got to say. Let’s have a vote. Let’s have a general strike.”

Although one or two activists asked for Barber to be heard, when the police moved in to try and silence him, a dozen others gathered round to prevent any arrest or seizure of the loudhailer. It about summed up the balance of forces among the audience.

The role of the Left

Workers Power members distributed thousands of leaflets saying “YES to a General Strike” and we got an overwhelmingly positive reaction especially amongst the huge Unite contingent, the RMT, the PCS and all those unions whose leaders supported the call for a general strike. If as Trotsky said, “agitation is a dialogue with the masses”, then the answer we got time and again was “YES, we agree, that is just what we need!”

We also carried a huge banner with the slogan, “TUC – call a general strike”, which attracted lots of approval.

It is the far left – a substantial part of it that is – who have put the general strike firmly on the agenda. But agitation for it is only just beginning.

The biggest of the left groups, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party and “their” respective fronts, the National Shop Stewards Network and Unite the Resistance, need to unite, consciously and openly in a campaign of mass agitation for a general strike in the union branches and workplaces, on the streets and squares up and down the country.

One can only hope that those groups – Counterfire and Socialist Resistance (and their front the Coalition of Resistance), the Alliance for Workers Liberty and the Weekly Worker – who have been stubbornly opposing calls for a general strike because of the supposedly low level of consciousness and organisation of the mass of workers will, now so many of the left leaders they court so assiduously and uncritically have come out for it, instead try raising their own consciousness and organisation to the level of the workers in Hyde Park!

Collectively we must pile pressure on all the union leaders to organise workplace and branch meetings to discuss the general strike and vote for or against calling one. We must speed up the consultation and focus it on the membership, not the lawyers and fulltimers. We should demand that those unions who came out for a general strike on Saturday should lead the way by pressing the General Council to come out in favour now, coordinating strikes in their own unions before the end of the year, and preparing to go it alone if the right wing block a general strike from above.

The Hyde Park vote for mass strike action must not be allowed go cold. We must seek to get all the unions which supported the TUC resolution and even branches of those who did not but whose local membership is in favour, to organise local delegate conferences to debate the practicalities of a general strike.

If branches and shop stewards committees and the more revived trades councils can be won to this then the creation of local councils of action representing all sectors of the movement is a real possibility. They could draw in delegates from the students (schools and FE colleges as well as universities), from the militant organisations of the disabled and pensioners, and from the unemployed. In the process we can organise local and regional demonstrations.

The rival anticuts campaigns should unite their forces, nationally and locally, so that we have a movement like the Anti Poll Tax Federation and the Stop the War Coalition. This is what we need to turn back the Tory attacks and create the basis – for not only a one-day general strike which defies the antiunion laws, but also following close on its heel, an all-out general strike to stop all the cuts and drive those implementing them from power.

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