Analysis | Why was the TUC demonstration a failure?

The TUC demonstration on October 20 illustrated the strength of public opposition to austerity and sent a strong message to politicians. Or did it? Andreas Bieler, Professor of Political Economy, argues that the demonstration was largely a failure, rooted in the trade unions' timid approach to the destruction of Britain's welfare state. "The union leadership has let its members, working people and the wider public down."

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, October 30, 2012 1:43 - 0 Comments

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Hyde Park, after the march, 20th Oct 2012 (source: www.urban75.org)

 

According to the Trades Union Congress, more than 150,000 people participated in the march against austerity and ‘For a Future that Works’ in London on Saturday, 20 October. Affiliated unions up and down the country had mobilised. Members from Unison, the national teachers union NASUWT, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), the University and College Union (UCU) and others were clearly visible.

The march was colourful, the mood buoyant, the chanting intensive. Protesters were furious about the cuts to education, the privatisation of the NHS, and large-scale restructuring in the public sector. They signalled their willingness to resist. There was a feeling of empowerment, of a possibility to go beyond the current ConDem government. And yet – looking at developments over the last 18 months – is such an optimistic assessment warranted?

This was not the first time that the TUC had called for a march against austerity. Already on 26 March 2011, people had gathered in London to register their opposition to welfare cuts. At that time, there were around 250,000 people – clearly more than last Saturday – and there was a genuine sense of a demonstration by society at large. Families with their children, members of the public not necessarily closely involved with the labour movement, considered it important to be present.

This time around, the core of the demonstrators was made up of trade union activists. Yes, unions were successful at mobilising. But they mainly reached their own activists – people who would anyway support their agenda and come out if called upon. The wider population was hardly involved.

This assessment is even more damning when compared with the public sector strike on 30 November 2011, when 30 trade unions successfully co-ordinated strike action across the country, and many demonstrations took place across the country. Compared to these developments last year, the assessment of the demonstration on 20 October has to be much more pessimistic. The smaller numbers on the march, which are not substantially improved by the 5,000 people marching in Glasgow and the 1,000 people on the streets in Belfast, clearly indicate that the impetus of 30 November 2011 has evaporated. Why has this happened?

The public sector strike and the related demonstration on 30 November were a clear success. But trade unions failed to see it as a starting point for a more sustained strategy against austerity. Instead of setting a further date for co-ordinated strike action, and instead of planning further marches against austerity linked to 30 November, several of the health, civil service and teaching unions reached an agreement with government in December 2011. Others – such as the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) – walked out of negotiations and continued to threaten strike action. The trade union front was split. Some still talked about joint strike action, but this came to nothing. A clear opportunity had been wasted by a short-sighted focus on minor gains in the immediate future. Unsurprisingly, what followed was demobilisation of union members and wider society up and down the country.

My own trade union, the University of College Union (UCU), provides an excellent example of how this demobilisation was carried out. As a result of the improved government offer on pensions to public sector unions, the University pension fund also had to demonstrate its willingness to improve the pension scheme for Higher Education (HE). At a special HE sector conference in London in January 2012, a majority of delegates supported the motion proposed by UCU leadership to suspend action and instead enter discussions.

The agreement to suspend action followed a proposal from employers: yet only few concessions had been made, and employers had not even talked about negotiations. Nonetheless, the UCU leadership – having always been reluctant to coordinate strike action – felt that suspending action was the way forward. The University pension fund would not be a public sector pension scheme and therefore joint strike action would put no pressure on employers in HE, it was argued. Rather than seeing the struggle against pension cuts as a more general struggle for proper pensions for all, as a more general struggle against austerity, the dominant view was always to evaluate pension cuts in a narrow, HE-specific way.

The decision to suspend industrial action was confirmed at another HE sector conference in September 2012. The national leadership had circulated a motion to members, which argued that – if industrial action was chosen – only all-out strike could be a successful. Instead of thinking in imaginative ways about how action could focus on negative publicity for employers – potentially highly effective at a moment when Universities feel under particular public scrutiny due to the first cohort of students paying £9,000 tuition fees arriving on campuses – a strategy going back to the 1970s was put forward.

It is doubtful that the national leadership ever wanted that motion to succeed; more likely it wanted to scare off members. And in that it succeeded: a majority of delegates endorsed suspension. But while successful on the day, what the strategy also implied was a complete demobilisation of members more generally.

Shortly after the decision to suspend action over pensions, UCU held a ballot on industrial action over pay. While a majority of members endorsed action short of strike, a majority also rejected any further strike action. The ballot was lost. Overall, at the moment of the most severe attack on Higher and Further Education, the union is at its weakest. The signal to employers is clear: you can impose whatever cuts to pensions and pay you want, UCU will not mobilise for action.

It is this kind of strategy – an unwillingness to see the wider picture of restructuring and act accordingly together with other trade unions – which has put the labour movement on the back foot and is ultimately responsible for the disappointing turnout on 20 October. At the TUC congress in September 2012, there were yet again calls for a general strike. Interviewed on 20 October, however, the former general secretary of the TUC, Brendan Barber, indicated that this had been yet again empty talk, saying ‘he did not think a general strike by unions was likely, [and] adding: “Some of my colleagues may talk about that. I don’t hear too many people calling for a general strike”.’

The union leadership has let its members, working people and the wider public down. All that is on offer now is the hope for a return to power by New Labour at the next elections. Considering how many of the current ConDem restructuring measures had actually been initiated by New Labour in the first place, this is not a very encouraging prospect.

In sum, the trade union centred approach on resisting austerity has failed. October 20 has demonstrated this. As one of the participants pointed out, the march was mainly a trade union ritual, an effort to be seen to be doing something. It was not part of a wider strategy of resistance against austerity.

What potential ways forward can be identified? In my view, mobilisation has to start again from below with trade union activists attempting to forge broader alliances through concrete campaigns with other social movements. One example in this area is the current local campaign in Broxtowe, an area in Nottingham, to save the NHS. Another example is the European-wide campaign for the right to water and against the privatisation of water provision, in which the European Federation of Public Service Unions co-operates closely with other social movements across Europe.

These broader campaigns, which have a focus on issues beyond the workplace, may provide the impetus for a new way forward. The alternative would be an exclusive emphasis by trade unions on how best to service the interests of their individual members. That would entail renouncing a role for trade unions in wider societal debates, and yet further irrelevance of organised labour.

Andreas Bieler

Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Nottingham. His most recent book, Global Restructuring, Labour and the Challenges for Transnational Solidarity, was published by Routledge. His website is http://andreasbieler.net.

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