Public sector on the picket line in Britain

June 30, 2011

James Illingworth explains the backdrop to a one-day public-sector strike in Britain.

BRITISH UNIONS are gearing up for one of the biggest days of industrial action in recent years. As many as 750,000 public-sector workers are expected to walk out on June 30 in protest at the right-wing coalition government's attack on pensions.

Led by Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the ruling coalition of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is proposing major cuts in pensions for government workers. Under the plan put forward by Cameron and Osborne, public-sector workers will be forced to work years longer, pay more in contributions and retire with less money.

Teachers and civil servants from several public-sector unions, including the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), National Union of Teachers (NUT), Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and University and College Union (UCU) are set to strike. For the ATL, this will be the first national strike in the union's history, demonstrating the depth of anger against the government's proposals.

British Prime Minister David Cameron
British Prime Minister David Cameron (Guillaume Paumier)

As in other countries around the world, the British government is trying to make public-sector workers the scapegoats for the ongoing economic crisis. In 2008, the Labour Party government under Gordon Brown bailed out British banks to the tune of $850 billion. Now, with the sovereign debt crisis sweeping Europe, the British coalition government is making massive cuts to welfare programs and public services and launching a war on government unions. The Conservative-led government has already announced plans to make $130 billion in cuts by 2015.

The coalition has a lot at stake in the fight with the unions. Despite widespread contempt for Gordon Brown and his Labour Party government before national elections in May 2010, the Conservatives weren't able to win a decisive victory and were forced to seek a partnership with the smaller Liberal Democrats.

Before taking office, the Liberal Democrats themselves had a reputation as a moderate or even left-of-center party. But they have joined the Tories in the campaign against working people.

Vince Cable, the government's Business Secretary and a representative of the Liberal Democrats in the Cabinet, has repeatedly denounced the strikes. Speaking at a union conference in early June, Cable had the gall to threaten legislation to restrict the right to strike if unions tried to resist his government's offensive. "Should strikes impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric, the pressure on us to act would ratchet up," he said.

Some of the more militant labor leaders recognize that the pensions issue is just the tip of the iceberg, and that unions will have to start fighting now in order to save public-sector jobs and conditions further down the line.

"The pensions issue was just the vehicle that allowed for legal, coordinated strikes with the teachers' unions," Mark Serwotka, head of the PCS union, told the New Statesman magazine earlier this month. "If we're defeated on pensions, it makes it a lot easier to cut the jobs and services, but if we can fight back, then the ability for that resistance to broaden out shouldn't be underestimated."

SIGNIFICANTLY, PUBLIC-sector unions have begun to join forces with others challenging austerity. For example, union officials recently met with members of UK Uncut, the activist group whose anti-corporate protests and occupations have inspired international imitators. UK Uncut will encourage its supporters to visit striking workers on the picket lines, and plans a "spectacular" public event to coincide with the walkouts.

The British student movement, energized by last winter's militant protests against rising tuition fees, will also come out in support of public-sector workers. Groups of young people are planning to join the picket lines, walk out of school and stage building occupations in solidarity with the unions.

The Labour Party has taken a much different attitude to the strikes, however. Kicked out of office a year ago because of its pro-war and business-friendly agenda, Labour seems determined to continue its rightward trajectory. Just two weeks before the strikes, the party's financial spokesman Ed Balls went public with an attack on the unions, urging them not to "walk into the trap" of striking against the government's austerity agenda.

Labour leader Ed Miliband went even further this week, stating that strike action "inconveniences the public" and "must always be the very last resort."

Miliband was seen as something of a left-wing alternative to the New Labour era of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when he came to the leadership of the Labour Party last year. Since then, however, he has failed to mount any serious opposition to the government's attacks on working people and is reeling from dismal public approval ratings. Clearly, he sees distancing himself from the unions as part of an effort to gain "mainstream" credibility.

Indeed, in the days before the strike, it became clear that Labour Party leaders would actually encourage their members of parliament to cross picket lines. Even though civil servants at the Houses of Parliament and other public buildings will be on strike, a spokesperson for Miliband said MPs "will be coming to work as usual."

Despite the craven attitude of the Labour Party leadership, British workers are clearly prepared to fight. Only months after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and an upheaval sweeping the Middle East, class struggle has erupted in Europe. The recent anti-austerity general strikes in Greece and plaza occupations in Spain, not to mention last year's student rebellion in Britain itself, have undoubtedly pushed union leaders toward coordinated strike action.

The mass strikes on June 30 could be a sign that the fight has reached a new stage. Other unions are discussing walkouts in the fall, with Dave Prentis, the head of Unison, Britain's biggest union, promising the most serious wave of industrial unrest since the general strike of 1926.

It remains to be seen whether union leaders will follow through on such rhetoric and meet the sentiment for action among workers with concrete plans.

But this much is clear--it will take a fight for British workers to stop the austerity agenda. In Greece this week, the government passed a new round of draconian austerity measures despite an inspiring wave of mass protests and general strikes. That shows it will take at least this level of struggle to push back the Conservative attacks.

Further Reading

From the archives