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John McDonnell MP calls for general strike at London rally

An evening rally and demo called for solidarity with the 14 November European general strikes – but union leaders expose the gulf between the British movement and that of the mainland, says Jeremy Dewar

Three hundred protesters gathered at the London HQ of the European Commission on a cold and dark November evening to show their solidarity with the general strikes and militant action against austerity on the continent.

We heard of Belgian workers laying down on tracks to stop the Eurostar from leaving Brussels, of Italian school students taking over their schools, of the Spanish indignados, who 18 months ago were totally dismissive of the official trade unions, joining hands with workers on strike.

General strikes were held in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, France, Belgium, Cyprus and Malta. Mass demonstrations and solidarity actions were held in Germany, Poland and elsewhere.

Here in Britain a number of smaller workplace and campus based actions were also held. In my school for example, a dozen staff members held an impromptu meeting outside the gates with the support of some students, where speeches were made and a lively discussion on how to get a general strike in the UK followed.

Frances O’Grady

As we waited for forces to gather for a short demo, an outside stage was readied for some preliminary speeches.

Sam Fairbairn of Coalition of Resistance, which was hosting the event, was one of the first up. He spoke well about the crisis, calling for more action, but finished on an anti-climax when he called for – not a general strike – but a People’s Assembly in June next year! This led to the first of many heckles for a general strike.

Indeed, the CoR newssheet – with articles from Len McCluskey, Frances O’Grady, Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, Lindsey German and Tony Benn – failed to mention the word strike once: except in relation to army strike breakers. So a general strike really was out of the question. This is scandalous, considering Counterfire leads the CoR.

Next up was Mark Serwotka. He warmed the crowd up by promising a ballot of 300,000 PCS members for strike action against job losses and pay cuts “in the next few months” (though this later transpired to mean in the new year). He said, “We would prefer to do that alongside others in the private as well as the public sector, but we will do so on our own if need be.”

Serwotka also announced local protests on 30 November – the anniversary of the 2 million strong pensions strike – across the country. He concluded by saying, “We need to move towards coordinated strike action.” So, as on 20 October, Serwotka retreated from his own union’s position of campaigning for a general strike, and from his own promise to do so at the Unite the Resistance rally last month.

Frances O’Grady, the general Secretary elect of the TUC, was the surprise speaker. That at least was an advance on Brendan Barber, who would never have graced any such platform in a million years. She said how proud she was of the actions, that she sent her solidarity, and then condemned the bankers and the Tories.

It started with the odd one or two heckles, but rose steadily into a chorus of, “We want a general strike – here, now!” In spite of retired union bureaucrat Paul Macknee’s obvious displeasure, O’Grady was rightly given a rough ride – and rightly so. Anyone who thinks we have to mollycoddle bureaucrats when they turn up on our platforms has learned nothing of the failure of the mass anti-war movement failure to secure real action to stop the Iraq invasion.

McDonnell turns up the heat

After some far better speeches from Sean Vernell (UCU executive and SWP member) and Rob Williams (NSSN secretary and Socialist Party member), which drew warm applause whenever they called for a general strike, we headed off “to Parliament” – only we didn’t, presumably because the police forbade it!

Instead, we went to the Emmanuel Centre for more speeches and video links to Europe’s hotspots. Andrew Burgin opened the indoor rally with an update on the day’s events, including breaking news that the police had just opened fire with plastic bullets in Barcelona.

He concluded saying that “The ruling class acts as one, acts in a global way; we need to act in a global way… We need a united movement in Britain, all the anti-austerity campaigns – in the NHS and elsewhere – have to come together.”

If this means joining in the next general strike wave, and if Burgin is arguing for unity between CoR, Unite the Resistance and the NSSN – then fine. But if this is simply a platitude to cheer on our European neighbours, and to all fall in behind CoR’s “broad coalition” where the union leaders feel no pressure to act – then it’s a dead end. We shall have to see what CoR – and in particular Counterfire – have to say at their annual conference on 2 December.

But the centrepiece of the evening was John McDonnell’s speech. He contrasted the magnificent strikes in southern Europe with “a press release from the TUC” which was all the official movement could muster here. “Maybe we need to occupy Congress House,” he suggested to wild applause.

“This is where respectability has got us,” he continued, “It is time for a general strike, time to take back our unions from the bureaucrats.” (More applause.) After calling also for coordinated strike action, he finished on an even stronger demand: “Bring us out – but on marches, on strike. But bring us out to stay out! Solidarity!”

The hall – full to overcrowding and with probably over half the crowd Europeans – rose in acclamation.

Next up was John Rees, theoretician of Counterfire, who had in September blocked Workers Power’s resolution calling for a campaign for a general strike. How would he respond?

Well, he did readjust his position to the left, calling for a campaign for a general strike, which he admitted, “we should be doing today”. But he stressed it would “take a lot of hard work” and it would be “a long and difficult struggle”.

He called for some useful campaigning tools – petitions and workplace meetings, local assemblies – all of which we support. But the overall message was still: slowly, slowly, don’t expect too much in the next year or two, be patient.

The problem is, this jars with objective reality. We need to strike while the iron is hot. The attacks are coming thick and fast now – with 80% of the austerity measures to be implemented in the next few years. If we do not inject some urgency into the movement, then there may be precious little left to save.

In contrast, Rees concluded by repeating Fairbairn’s call for People’s Assembly way off, in June 2013. This is the wrong call at the wrong time. The class struggle has developed to the stage where the two great classes – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – have to confront each other and fight it out. The growing popularity for the general strike demonstrates this. We do not need populist demands for people’s assemblies at this moment, but clear and precise demands for workers’ councils of action. If Rees had remembered any of his Marxism, he would know this.

The European movement is an inspiration to all of us fighting austerity here in Britain. But it is also a warning. One-day actions and sectional, purely economic responses are not going to be enough. Either we seize the day and take the power – or fascists, like those in Golden Dawn in Greece, will be preparing to do so.

Like in 1925-26, the ruling class is today preparing for a general strike, while our side is sleepwalking into a disaster. Time for a change. Now.

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