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Looking backwards and looking forwards
Saturday, 18 February 2012 05:13

History in 2011 was made by the uprisings of the working class, oppressed and exploited of the world—in the Middle East, Africa and across Europe. 

In Britain there were more protests, strikes and unrest on the streets than there have been for many years. Workers came out on strike in January and continued throughout the year to December and are now making further plans for action in 2012 because the working class are clear that they should not be forced to pay the debts of the financial institutions and big business who are responsible for the economic crisis.

The Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrat coalition, like governments in most European countries, have set in place an austerity programme that will cut basic services, reduce salaries and pensions, and cut jobs—all of which will seriously impact adversely on the lives and conditions of the working class. There is no plan to address the greed and corruption of the bankers, speculators and the rich who continue to collect their huge bonuses, enormous salaries and extortionate profits!

A protest, March for the Alternative, was organised by the TUC in March and 500,000 people took to the streets of London. Following this, on 28 May UK Uncut organised 40 direct actions, with the support of unions and health workers, calling for support of the NHS and against the cuts and privatizations of health services and attacking the banks over their responsibility for the situation we are in. On 30th June, known as J30, a one day strike took place against the plan to attack pensions—raise retirement age from 60 to 66, increase contributions and lower pensions. That is, work longer, pay more and receive less! Teachers and education workers from the NUT, UCU and other unions formed picket lines, and for many this was their first picket! More than 11,000 schools were affected and more than 3,200 were closed.

In November 2010 tens of thousands of students organised a mass demonstration in London against plans to increase tuition fees and this was followed by a number of occupations. Fees were introduced in 1989/9 at £1,000 a year, in 2006 this was increased to £3,000 a year and in 2012 it will rise to £9,000 a year. With maintenance loans students will leave university with debts of at least £43,000, thus pricing many from the working class out of university. But the government was not prepared to listen to any concerns and set about heavily and brutally attacking the march, resulting in harm and serious injury to many of the students.

Don’t pay for their crisis

A year on, 9th November 2011, 5,000 students protested against fees and against the privatisation of university education—for the right to free education for all, which includes those on the minimum wage of £6.08 an hour. And like workers, there was a general awareness that it’s the bankers who should be paying for the crisis. The state sees protests as a threat and wants to stop them, so 4,000 police officers were mobilised with an added threat that plastic bullets would be used if necessary. Also a written warning was sent to students who had attended previous protests, and coaches were stopped and warning fliers given to those travelling to the protest. The police went on to heavily corral the march and forcefully put down attempts to occupy Trafalgar Square.

On the same day 300 out of 2,000 construction electricians, plumbers and engineers who were on strike and had been marching since 7am, with many having travelled overnight, were on their way to join the students in an act of class solidarity. However they were aggressively kettled in Fleet Street for over an hour by the Met’s Territorial Support Group and police dogs were used to prevent them reaching the students. On leaving the kettle many were searched and forced to give police their details.

The construction workers have been staging wildcat strikes since August 13 when 500 sparks met in London against the intentions of some employers to scrap their Joint Industry Board contacts which will result in deskilling and pay cut of 35%. Over 100 protests have been organised at major construction sites across the country. Balfour Beatty threatened workers that if they didn’t sign for their own pay cut then they had effectively dismissed themselves! Workers compelled their union to take action, so the strike on November 9 was organised by Unite. Balfour Beatty made a profit of £91 million over the previous 6 months and had an order book of £15 billion. On December 9, despite Unite calling off a strike for legal reasons, workers went ahead in the largest national unofficial strike for many years.

The British working class and students are not daunted by the state’s heavy handed repression. On November 30 a large number of unions mobilised 2 million public sector workers to strike against the attack on pensions. This was the largest number on strike in one day since the first general strike in 1926!

Throughout Britain in villages, towns and cities people demonstrated and protested defeating David Cameron’s attempt to underplay its success—more than 17,000 schools closed with only 2,700 open, hospitals only responded to emergency calls only and 5000 operations were postponed. With 700,000 jobs under threat, thousands of people are facing homelessness, and the ill and disabled are having their benefits slashed and dignity removed. The working class has nothing to lose, and they can no longer tolerate attacks on their rights and conditions—the fight back has begun.

Private sector strikes

On December 9, 2011, workers at the consumer goods giant Unilever went on strike, the first ever national strike at the company, and 2000 people demonstrated in front of the factory against company plans to remove 5,000 workers from the final salary scheme, which will cut pension income by 40%. Unilever made £2.41 billion profit in 2011. Unite; USDAW and GMB have taken further strike action since January 17.

In December, 35 logistics drivers employed by Norbert Dentressangle, who deliver the Argos Distribution contract at Glasgow Motherwell, struck in defence of their pension rights, which have been under attack for over a decade as constant subcontracting has been eroding their pay, conditions and pension rights. Argos retain control of the pension scheme and the longest serving workers stand to lose tens of thousands of pounds as a result of this latest attack. Argos made £3.6 billion profit in 2011, another act of unacceptable greed!

Other large companies and multinationals are seeking to close their final salary schemes such as Ford, BMW and Shell, one of the world’s richest and most powerful corporations. This is part  of a deep trend in Britain where only 19% of final salary and average salary schemes are open to new employees.

Nine out of 10 private sector-defined benefit schemes are now closed to new workers and four out of 10 prevent existing staff building up further benefits. Workers in the public sector are being told by the government that they must pay more and work longer to receive less. As the majority of British workers face an uncertain and insecure retirement, uniting the private and public sector workers in a fight against undermining the right to a decent income in retirement is essential.

The government is not listening to the unions and is not looking for an alternative to resolve this crisis. It is clear that trade unionists and workers will have to unite and strike in order to defeat the government. However 2011 ended in a betrayal by some of the leaders (supported by TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber) in an attempt to halt the growing movement by calling on all unions to sign up to the government’s plan.

But unions remain defiant and the fight continues. In January 2012 a fight began to halt the betrayal by the right wing union leaders—led by the PCS and NUT. Others such as Unison and the GMB have stated that they intend to continue ‘negotiations’ with the government, but signing up to the “heads of agreement” is an act of collusion with the agenda to make the working class pay for the crisis. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka has correctly pointed out that acceptance of the government’s plan represents a total defeat for the trade union movement.

We condemn any sell out of workers’ rights and encourage the building of links across all unions. Where betrayal occurs then we must construct alternative leaderships. Across Britain and the world workers have begun fighting back and uniting against an unsustainable and decaying system of capitalist privilege for the rich and exploitation and poverty for the rest. The working class must face up to the tasks ahead of them and take control of their lives and future. Mass movements and revolutions are the real levers of history.

Margaret McAdam is a  Socialist Voice's Editor and Canan Sagar member of the ISL

Related article: Brazilian Trade Unionists Visit England


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