Trade union members and their families are trying to survive in a blizzard of austerity. The constant fear of unemployment, cuts in wages and the withdrawal of the social security safety net, all combine to create a climate of insecurity in the present and an ever present fear for the future for the vast majority of working class people. Nobody, except the super rich, is safe from this recession which has entered its fifth year and looks set to match the decade long depression of the 1930s.
Where do people look to for protection against the cuts in their living standards and for some hope for the future? Naturally, for many, the first place to look is to the institutions that their parents and grandparents created out of their experience of previous economic crises. For day to day protection at work, the trade unions. For hope for the future, the Labour Party.
The hard truth that we need to face up to is that when people have looked to both of these sections of the working class movement they have largely found them severely wanting. A group of Left unions are organising, mobilising and fighting a daily, almost hand to hand, pitched battle against this Government and against ruthless employers for every job and against every cut in wages and working conditions. Wherever they can they are co-ordinating their campaigns and taking action together in displays of solidarity that are in the finest traditions of our movement.
But where are the TUC and some of the larger unions in this struggle? We have to wake up to some harsh realities about the state our movement is in.
The TUC appears totally cut off from the reality of the threats and hardships that working people are facing in their daily lives. Almost frightened of its own shadow, the TUC bureaucracy has just wanted to keep its head down, longing for a return of the quiet life of producing reams of reports and comfy chats with Ministers. As a concession to demands for action from campaigning trade unions and rank and file trade unionists, the TUC will fretfully organise a demonstration now and then but will make sure that the Government is reassured that this is as far as any opposition will go and that everything is under control.
It avoids and eventually kills off all attempts to get it to play its proper role in co-ordinating the action of its affiliated unions. Any talk of a general strike is derided and there is a defeatist acquiescence to this Government’s cuts, privatisations and undermining of employment rights because the TUC was so heavily implicated in the acceptance of these measures under the last government.
Some of the larger trade unions have also become virtually completely bureaucratised. Led by trade union bureaucrats whose lifestyles reflect more the lifestyles of the employers than the life styles of the members they are supposed to represent, many are more interested in closing down demands for active campaigning and dissent within their unions than mobilising their members to protect their jobs and wages. Internal democracy within some of these larger bureaucracies has been effectively closed down. Structures may exist, ballots may take place and conferences may be convened but they are so tightly controlled by the suits that they are looked upon as tokenistic, anachronisms from a long gone once democratic past.
The irony is that by failing to serve their members and respond to their pleas for support, these bureaucrats are destroying the very organisations that gives them their living. People see no point in being a member of a union that does nothing for them. Membership of these bureaucratised unions is therefore either stagnating or falling. Near panic is beginning to set in within the higher echelons of some of these bureaucracies as they wake up to the fact that less members means declining income from contributions and less money to pay their wages. For some of these unions the decline in membership density, organisation on the ground and the loss of experienced activists means that even if they want to mobilise their members, they have lost a great deal of the union’s capacity to do so effectively.
The TUC and some of the large bureaucratised unions are leading the trade union movement in Britain into near extinction, reflecting the decline of the trade union movement in places like the United States where the movement became largely incorporated into the system.
The hope for the future of the trade union movement in this country lies with those unions that have recognised that they can’t stand by and let this Government destroy the jobs, incomes and pensions of their members without a fight. It lies with those unions that have confidence in their members. Time and time again the members of these fighting unions have demonstrated their willingness and determination to fight back.
This doesn’t mean that union leaderships blindly throw their members into unwinnable confrontations. Intelligent planning and strategic decision-making are always key elements in waging any effective campaign. The fighting unions are truly democratic and recognise that mobilising their members for a fight back involves the intensive engagement of members in discussion and persuasion followed by fully democratic decision making to determine the nature of the action to be taken.
Even though the TUC refuses to play its role in co-ordinating action, the fighting unions have come together within the Trade Union Co-ordinating Group specifically for the purpose of co-ordinating their campaigning activities and linking up with other unions and campaigning organisations that share a willingness to act.
Nobody within these unions thinks that mobilising for this fightback is easy. Nobody can be sure of the outcome of any of the campaigns being waged. But one thing that they can be certain of is that by doing nothing and simply rolling over in the face of this Government’s austerity programme leads to certain defeat and simply encourages the Government to come back for more.
The other lesson that is being learnt is that in the absence of anyone else with the resources or organisational experience, it is the trade union movement that now has to step up to the plate to mobilise and support a wider community campaign of resistance to austerity.
The time has now come for this mobilisation. Increasingly people are up for a fight. In the 1930s economic crisis there was an inevitable time delay between the initial shock of the crisis, the attempts by the existing institutions to tackle it, their failure, and the opportunity for alternatives to be mobilised and take serious hold in the popular consciousness.
I believe that we are now reaching the same timing in this cycle of resistance that was reached in the mid- to late-1930s. The austerity measures are beginning to hurt more people within our society harder and more extensively. Austerity as a policy is being questioned across society and the credibility of austerity politicians is being shredded as their policies fail and the real world encroaches. The fear is that the right are waiting in the wings to capitalise on the crisis with a racist anti immigrant campaign.
Now is the time and now is the opportunity for a mass mobilisation against austerity from the Left. The problem is one of agency. The various resistance groups that have been formed lack the authority, the organisational ability and resources to mobilise a mass movement. Whereas in places like Greece political parties like Syriza have emerged connected to popular resistance movements, in Britain the Labour Party no longer sees itself as a mass mobiliser of protest. Although in opposition the Labour Party has moved to distance itself from some of the policy nightmares associated with New Labour, its credibility in mobilising resistance to austerity is hampered by its continuing advocacy of a self defeating austerity-lite programme itself.
The only feasible way in which an effective anti austerity movement can be got off the ground in this country is if the fighting unions come together to launch this campaign. Marx described trade unions as “organising centres for the working class”. That is what they have to become again. There is nobody else available to play this role effectively.
Some of this work has already begun as local trade unions have come together to organise local campaigns and link up with local community groups campaigning on their particular issue. Now is the time for an initiative like this to be undertaken at the national level.
The prospect of the national co-ordination of trade union campaigns, industrial action and direct action would give people the hope that they need that we can resist and we can defeat austerity together. We have an overriding responsibility in the trade union movement to seize this opportunity now.