Opposing the Age of Austerity
Gall, Gregor, Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics
Creating alliances of public service workers and users
It has now been a year since the 201 0 TUC Congress. All affiliates bar one voted to organise the 'co-ordination of industrial action where appropriate and to fully support any workers forced to take industrial action in defence of pension rights' and to 'support and co-ordinate campaigning and joint union industrial action, nationally and locally, in opposition to attacks on jobs, pensions, pay or public services'.
Since then, the union movement has organised a single - albeit very well supported - demonstration on 26 March 2011 and just four of the smaller unions (PCS, NUT, ATL and UCU), with around 750,000 members, took a single day of strike action against pension reform on 30 June 2011. Absent from this action was the biggest public sector union, Unison (with 1.2 million members) and the two other biggest unions, the GMB and Unite, which have between them another a half a million plus public sector members. Of the unions that took action on 30 June, only the PCS and NUT are so far definite in planning to have a further day of strike action in the latter part of November 2011. Whether other unions, like the FDA and Prospect, join them, remains to be seen at the time of writing.
It is noticeable on the agenda for the 2011 TUC Congress that only the PCS, NUT and UCU unions are calling for further industrial action on pensions and the coordination of that action. The CWU is calling for another 'national day of action' like the 26 March. While Unison, Unite and the GMB may yet choose to support the PCS, NUT and UCU motions, they are unlikely to do so with much enthusiasm or seriousness. If they were enthusiastic and serious, they would have put forward their own motions.
The passage - if not waste - of time, the absence of hard-hitting collective industrial action and the deep divisions over which way to proceed amongst the unions highlight the ever more pressing need for unions to take the lead in creating national and local civil alliances of the providers and users of public services to defend public services from the coalition government's 'age of austerity'.
The particular salience of these civil alliances is that industrial action on its own is unlikely to ever create sufficient political leverage to be able to resist successfully the attacks on public services. This is all the more so because a) getting all relevant unions to take action and do so in a coordinated way is very problematic; and b) the industrial action may concern - as it has done so far - only workers' terms and conditions of employment. That said, industrial action, particularly strike action, has an important role to play as part of a wider popular mobilisation, particularly as it can deliver a sharp punch (rather than a knockout blow) and help make an issue a political hot potato.
Before laying out my proposition and the rationale for creating such civil alliances, it is essential to explain why the unions are the starting point for their creation. Simply put, and in spite everything that has been thrown at unions in Britain and despite any flaws and deficiencies they may have, with some 6.5 million members, they remain the largest organised bodies in civil society.
Unions are also the remaining ideological repository of social democracy in Britain because they seek to protect their members from the outcomes of capitalism by advocating the regulation of the processes of the market. More than that, they operate on the basis of collective association and collective action, with the wellsprings of their potential power being found in their ability to disrupt the means of production, distribution and exchange and to put masses of workers-cum-citizens on the streets.
These characteristics bring forth resources and potential strategic power. In these respects, they have no challengers, particularly as any extant social movements are too narrow or specific to cover issues relating to the defence of public services and those that do exist are in decline. Groups like UK Uncut, which are independent of unions, do not cut the mustard here as capable alternatives.
Moreover, to aid evaluating my proposition, it is worth recalling that the last mass popular and successful domestic rebellion was over the poll tax, involving millions of people in activities ranging from non-registration and non-payment to more public forms of activism such as demonstrating and stopping warrant sales. The key to understanding the poll tax rebellion was not just the anger it generated or that Thatcher provided a hated point of focus for the rebels. Nor was it just that the poll tax affected the overwhelming majority of citizens at the same time and in the same way. Rather, the nature of the poll tax meant that the opposition to it had the leverage created by the government requiring citizens to register for it and then pay it (as it was not deducted at source as income tax is).
So there was a holy trinity of a) mass, direct and undifferentiated impact, b) the cost and injustice were immediately obvious and quantifiable, and c) there was leverage to resist through non-payment because the tax was dependent upon cooperation. (Something similar could be said of the bin tax rebellion in Eire). This meant that the poll tax rebellion was a genuinely mass one, with hundreds of local groups made up of thousands upon thousands of activists and campaigners.
What would an alliance of providers and users of services look like?
It's easier to start by saying what it would and should not look like, whether It be of a national, sectoral or regional nature. Thus, there is little point to creating elite alliances based solely on the coming together of the 'great and the good' of existing organisational leaderships (like headquarters staff). Neither is there much point to creating alliances which spend most of their time holding meetings without activity beyond that or which exist only in a virtual sense of publishing reports and issuing media statements.
The raison d'etre of the alliances must be to engage with affected communities in their communities and through their communities where the links are organic and the purpose mobilisation (1). The easiest illustration of such an alliance and its activity would be over closure and retrenchment in highly regarded and highly visible public services. However, the alliances would not merely be campaigns (or even just lobbies, demonstrations and public meetings) but rather standing organisations which engage in campaigns against closures and the like and for better provision of services, where issues of democratic control of those services would also be discussed and campaigned upon. Along the way, this would provide a counter-weight to the 'big society' idea whereby middle-class and professional groups assume control of service provision in a way that amounts to de facto privatisation. This is the case with the first 'free schools'.
The successful result of effective alliances would be a) mass participation and heightened activism; b) the development of political leverage; and c) the defence of services. Part and parcel of union involvement would be to engender grassroots activity with existing milieus of (union) activists able to use their social capital to develop this phenomenon (2). Put bluntly, in being so created, the alliances could provide the requisite social weight and embeddedness to mount an effective challenge to the cuts.
While not suggested as a magic panacea for the aforementioned challenges of creating united and effective industrial action, alliances of providers and users of services would serve two other immediate purposes when instigated and led by unions.
The first is that critics (government, press, the right etc) can very easily portray union oppositional action as nothing more than the protection of sectional and vested interests, which is thus contrary to the so-called 'national interest'. By creating these alliances of providers and users this criticism can be potentially circumvented and negated because 'vested interest" is situated within altruism and on pursuit of a common good.
The second dimension is that linking the providers and users of the public services helps establish the intimate and tangible link between the jobs and the terms and conditions of the job holders on the one hand, and the quality of the services provided on the other. It is to unashamedly say that good quality staffing, on good quality terms and conditions of employment, is an essential component of providing good quality services (alongside more general levels of adequate funding for equipment and buildings).
To envisage the most obvious alliance is to see a single unified campaign which all public sector unions sign up to and is led by Unison and PCS as the main unions in this sector. Here, Unison and PCS with Unite would take the initiative (as per PCS's joint memoranda of 2009 and 2011 with these unions) so that they create the momentum which the other smaller public sector unions can get behind. They would work with interested parties amongst NGOs, charities and pressure groups to lay the foundation for the kind of aforementioned alliances.
So far, a plethora of organisations exist which are in some ways akin to what is being suggested - yet in many ways they also differ and have not shown the ability to develop the required scale of political leverage. Among their number are Unison's campaigns like ? Million Voices For Public Services' and 'Positively Public', the 'Public Services Not Private Profit' network, and the 'Keep our NHS Public' and 1NHS Together' campaigns (3). But given that these organisations, alliances and campaigns have not realised their potential, it is critical to examine the challenges in creating the proffered alliances of providers and users of public services.
The experience of the cuts
The first problem is that the nature of the impact of cuts means that not every citizen is affected in the same way and at the same time. For example, and notwithstanding its relative protection, cuts in the NHS most immediately affect the patient and his/her family and friends but we do not all use the NHS at the same time and in the same way. Even more extreme is the case of the fire service - we seldom need or use it (even if we do fear its absence).
And cuts are something that is done to us and we can be left feeling powerless and disenfranchised by them. By contrast, there was a level of dependence of government upon citizens in the case of the poll tax. Here, it was a case of what 'we did' rather than just 'what was done to us'. In other words, there is a differential effect and one that does not necessarily lead to the possibility of citizens being able to empower themselves.
The salient point here then is that the levels of experience-cum-oppositional consciousness amongst citizens required to provide an Open door' to the civil alliances over cuts do not necessarily already exist in meaningful and tangible ways. Save the 26 March 2011 London and the 23 October 2010 Edinburgh demonstrations, turnouts for other national and regional demonstrations have not been on such a scale.
The second problem Is the conservatism of the unions themselves. Even though some unions have moved towards working with social forces outside of themselves and the union movement, there are many that have not. Inexperience of, and scepticism about, these other social forces plays an important role in accounting for this. The experience of London Citizens (formerly TELCO) and the inability to generalise this praxis outside the capital (save Birmingham) attests to these characteristics of inexperience and scepticism.
Moreover, even where unions have moved towards working with these external social forces, the extent of the working may not extend much beyond providing formal and financial support to organisations like False Economy and the New Economics Foundation. This also points to the conservatism at the local level within national unions (despite exhortation from some of their national leaders). Thus, for example, over the last year, a sizeable number of strikes in councils have taken place over jobs and pay cuts, but it appears that the relevant unions have not sought to engage in the kind of coalition or alliance-building (other than in the Southampton case) that is advocated in this article.
This problem of conservatism - and the lack of the ability to think creatively - is likely to be related to the denudation of resources, especially that of activists. Depleted In number and motivation, the confidence and willingness of activists to mount the kind of aforementioned activity can be severely reduced. Despite a slight revival in recent years, local Trade Union Councils experience the same type of problems here and so provide no obvious way to square the circle.
The third problem is that of a competing array of similar but different national anti-cuts organisations. Each competes for an authence and affiliation from the unions (and others), with very little meaningful cooperation between them. Indeed, it is more accurate to see them as each trying to lay claim to be the anti-cuts campaign or organisation and delimit co-operation with other such organisations. These organisations are
* the Coalition of Resistance, launched in late 2010 and formally led by Tony Benn but effectively controlled by the Counterfire group (a breakaway from the SWP);
* the Right to Work campaign, established by the SWP in 2009;
* the People's Charter, emanating from the Communist Party of Britain and established in 2009; and
* the National Shop Stewards' Network, initiated by the RMT but essentially controlled by the Socialist Party (formerly Militant).
So far a number of unions like the RMT, CWU, FBU, PCS, NUT, NUJ, BFAWU, Unite and UCU have given support to one or more of these campaign groups. These groups exist in addition to the Trade Union Coordinating Group of left unions led by John McDonnell MP, and the aforementioned Keep our NHS Public and NHS Together. At the local level, the four national campaigning groups have their own presences in many but not all towns and cities which further complicate the picture given that many local and more organic citywide campaigns and groups have emerged over the last year.
The multiplicity of groups at national and local levels creates unnecessary duplication and ambiguity even though some form of national organisation is desirable so that (unaffiliated) local groups do not remain stand-alone groups and, thus, isolated from other anti-cuts activity. Having groups affiliated to a national campaigning organisation in the manner that local anti-poll tax groups were federated to regional and national federations is a useful model to recall. An obvious role for the unions here would to bang organisational heads together at both the local and national levels in order to generate the most efficient and effective organisational forms, given that the unions have the necessary and greater resources (finance, activists, networks) to do so, as well as a vested interest in a more unified movement.
However, what unions do here is guided by their own internal political regimes, thus aligning with some campaigns groups and not others, and more often than not the unions tend to let their (own) internal affairs take precedence to the detriment of making outside interventions. Consequently, the relationship between unions and campaigning groups here is not quite as asymmetrical as it might seem, so that unions may not wield the influence they might otherwise be supposed to have.
The Labour Party
The fourth problem is the issue of the Labour Party. Its role and influence inside the unions remain not inconsiderable after the period of 'new1 Labour. Fifteen unions are affiliated, with some three million of their members paying the political levy. The election of Ed, rather than David, Miliband was not only secured by these union members' vote, but Ed was also recognisably to the social democratic left in formal political terms compared to his brother.
Nonetheless, and notwithstanding Miliband's plan to re-orientate party organisation towards building local community links, obstacles remain in terms of whether Labour would or could support or assist in the establishment of civic alliances between providers and users of public services. Some of these obstacles are of a more practical nature. Despite the recent spate of those joining - or returning to - Labour In the run up to and after the 2010 leadership election, local party organisation is atrophied and often moribund. But where activists and social capital do exist, the salient question then becomes whether the over-parliamentary focus of Labour would compel it to ignore or resist an extra-parliamentary campaign, and what autonomy local constituency parties and branches have and are prepared to exercise (should they disagree with the national steer not to involve themselves).
But some obstacles are of a more political nature. Ed Miliband has sought to distance himself from his union supporters since assuming the party leadership - over issues like the 30 June 2011 pensions strike - and his plans for internal party reform put him at loggerheads with the affiliated unions. The extra-parliamentary focus of the alliances - with the potential use of civil disobethence - does not sit well with a party and leader attempting to renew the organisation in the context of being overly mindful of the conservative influence of the media. All this sits in the context of a new leader that has closed the door on 'new' Labour but not yet opened one to a form of social democracy.
Users are not organised
The fifth problem is that the users of services are not organised as collectives so that the unions do not have the luxury of having ready-made potential alliance partners. So while it is easy enough for unions to make links with various charities and pressure groups that work on behalf of a range of deprived and excluded groups (as some have already done), these organisations are not organisations of the groups themselves. Often they are organisations of professional campaigners who are well-intentioned and often well connected but they lack critical social weight and mass. Consequently, they do not have the capacity to act as mass organisations capable of mobilising their memberships.
The one clear exception Is probably the National Pensioners' Convention. Another exception might be parents of school children because Parent Teacher Associations already exist (as do the Boards of Governors) where parents are represented and, thus, in close contact with teachers. Moreover, the teachers also have another link to the parents through school kids. By contrast, organisations of claimants and the unemployed are so atrophied that it would be an exaggeration to even say that they are no longer shadows of their former selves.
The same kind of point can be made about the various quangos that represent 'consumer' Interests within public services. They are created by government fiat following acts of parliament and are watch dogs (whether toothless or not). They are not campaigning organisations with voluntary memberships that number hundreds of thousands of people.
Therefore, the unions may have to help create such groups, like claimant groups or revitalise others like groups of the unemployed, by using their own resources and organisation.
Last, but not least, there Is the problem of the poverty of social democracy per se as an organised and influential ideology. To have stated earlier that unions are the last remaining ideological repository of social democracy is not a boon here. It suggests that the Labour Party is politically denuded, in spite of affiliated union influence. Moreover, collective bargaining over terms and conditions, rather than articulating and prosecuting an alternative worldview to neo-liberalism, is the main purpose and activity of unions.
The collective impact of these is that social democracy is not (or has not been) presented as a credible alternative to neo-liberalism. Indeed, in spite of the ideological crisis of neo-liberalism, neo-liberalism has emerged relatively unscathed and this has been due in no small way to the incapacity of social democracy.
The pertinence of this is that the creation of civil alliances of providers and users is most likely to come about where there already exists an influential strain of thought which posits that profit-seeking is not the only way of organising the economy and society and that human need must take precedence over human greed. In other words, such an influential strain of thought would provide an ideological and political foundation for these projects to emerge from. This is particularly so because not only does the activity of opposition organically throw up questions about future possibilities and alternative scenarios but a successful campaign to defend and renew public services is likely to require such an ideology.
Without posing the relationship between collective struggle and mobilisation, on the one hand, and progressive ideological renewal, on the other hand, in a mechanical 'chicken and egg' way, there is at least the possibility - rather than probability - that the economistic and material struggle to defend public services could help rekindle the ideological struggle to reassert social democracy.
Time is not on the side of the unions and their potential allies who wish to defend and maintain public services. At some point in the not too distant future, a tipping point into despair may occur if the anger and hope in opposition to the cuts in public services turns not into action but into inaction. This is all the more the case because the civil alliances proposed cannot be conjured out of thin air. They take time to be agreed upon and established and for the trust and familiarity necessary for them to be developed.
This discussion of the challenges and obstacles should leave the reader in no doubt that creating these alliances will be no easy or simple matter. Above all, it will take persistent and consistent union action to, at the very least, get the ball rolling. To envisage a dense network of these alliances as active and vibrant bodies throughout Britain is to envisage something akin to a new social movement of 'people before profit'. The only saving grace is that a weak and divided government is an easier opponent to take on than a strong and united one. Time will tell whether the opposition to the cuts is afforded this luxury.
1. This makes the reasonable assumption that such alliances are unlikely to emerge entirely spontaneously and organically from within the communities themselves.
2. The proposition here has some parallels with that of Amanda Tattersall (2011). See my review of her book Power in Coalition: Strategies for Strong Unions and Social Change (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2010): Gall, 2011.
3. Another example might be the Unite campaign, 'Don't break Britain', launched by the incoming general secretary, Len McCluskey. So far, it has not amounted to much more than a press launch in January 2011, the printing of placards for the 26 March demonstration, and a series of internal union regional meetings.
Gall, G. (2011) review of Amanda Tattersall, Power in Coalition, Journal of Industrial Relations 53 (3): 41 4-1 6.
Tattersall, A. (2011) 'The power of union-community coalitions', Renewal 19 (1): 75-82.
Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Hertfordshire.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Opposing the Age of Austerity. Contributors: Gall, Gregor - Author. Magazine title: Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics. Volume: 19. Issue: 3/4 Publication date: July 1, 2011. Page number: 69+. © Lawrence & Wishart 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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