Organising Against Austerity: Economic Power, Unions and Communities
In the UK today we no longer have mass industrial trade unions; with the possible exception of the transport unions it is hard to have an effect that can’t simply be ignored and waited out by government and employers. How can UCU (the Universities and Colleges Union), my own, for example put pressure on the government (effectively our employers)? We’ve just voted in favour of both strikes and action short of a strike over both jobs and pay and pension reform; I supported a yes vote in both ballots. But strikes have the greatest effect on staff themselves and on students, neither of whom we want to hurt. It is difficult to see where leverage over the government can come from. Do we need to think about new ways to organise and to make ourselves listened to?
Demonstrations outside Topshop, marches through town centres and letters to papers and politicians all have their place (I’ve been involved in all of them at various times) but do they really have an effect if that is as far as the protest goes? None of these actions changes our situation on their own and is there really a great enough incentive for the government to listen to us? This far from a Westminster election and in the wake of Iraq, when millions marched to little or no effect, if all we can hope to do is influence public opinion, can the Tories simply ignore us safe in the knowledge that things will have moved on in four years time? I suspect to actually stop the cuts we will need real economic leverage.
Organising a march or a demo is relatively easy, with the right backing and organised enough in advance it’s not difficult to get a reasonable number of people out. Building support for alternatives from the base up and engaging beyond the usual suspects and the lowest hanging fruit is much harder, but likely to be necessary if we want lasting success.
The public need to be educated on the alternatives to cuts and why they are a false economy. Communities need to be given support to resist austerity, to defend their local services and themselves and to both see how that links into the broader argument and how they can be part of that broader movement.
We need to build support for other actions, particularly for strike actions. There are likely to be many more strikes in the coming months and solid public support for action that goes beyond single days here and there is absolutely essential if they are to succeed. It was heartening to hear at Netroots in January that the TSSA are now hiring community organisers to do just that sort of work and that they are working to encourage the RMT to do likewise. That was probably the most pleasing thing I heard that weekend and I hope it will be repeated by other unions.
It almost seems to have been forgotten about already but in 2009 there was a wave of militant industrial action unprecedented in recent times in this country. At Lindsay, Prisme, Vestas and Visteon workers refused to accept that their factories were being closed or their jobs lost. We saw wild cat strikes and occupations of workplaces. Not all were successful, but some were. Workers at Prisme and Visteon won improved settlements that would not have been possible without the occupations and at Lindasy all victimised workers were re-employed. It was disappointing that that militancy and willingness to take risks was lost in 2010 (in industrial settings at least, we did, of course, have many excellent student occupations). In 2011 we need to regain that militancy but also go much further.
Residential Occupations & Rent Strikes
The cuts to housing are likely to have some of the most drastic and devastating effects of any of the cuts being forced on us by the coalition. While it was pleasing to see that the proposed 10% cut to anyone out of work for a year or more has now been dropped, communities will still be torn apart. Research by London Councils shows that 70,000 claims will be affected by those changes, at an average cost of more than £1000 a year. That’s a lot of money for people on low incomes to find from elsewhere. Undoubtedly many people will have to move.
But what if they didn’t? What if communities worked together to defend where they lived and refused to pay the excess? Rent strikes and occupations of residential property carry huge risks for the participants. Being removed from the university building I’ve occupied is disappointing, but it clearly doesn’t compare to being evicted from your home. Residential occupations would represent a massive escalation in the action we as a opposition are taking against the drive for austerity. They’re not something we could undertake lightly, or that could be decided by anyone other than the affected communities, but if successfully could force huge changes in government policy.
I started writing this article several weeks ago, before getting distracted and never having the time to finish it. At the time we were starting to see discontent in North Africa, but there was, as yet, no sign that it would lead as far as it has. What interested me, initially, though, was that while the protests have presented as about democratic reform and overthrowing autocratic and despotic elites, which undoubtedly forms part of their intent, they were fuelled by demonstrations over the price of food.
Now, food may not be as expensive here, relative to our wealth, but while CPI inflation is around 4% overall, food and non-alcoholic beverages are up over 6% in the last year. At a time when wages are being frozen that’s a significant increase for a lot of people. Is it inconceivable that before this government are gone we’ll see our own price riots? Will people organise to expropriate what they see as overpriced goods out of Tescos? It seems outlandish at first thought, but if prices keep going up, benefits are cut and wages stagnate while Tesco makes £6000 a minute who is to say they won’t?
Good Work Strikes
Good work strikes start from the principle that workers don’t want to harm the people they work with and for whom they provide services; we want to harm the profits of the people in charge, while continuing to do the real, productive part of our jobs. That might mean transport workers refusing to collect tickets or opening the gates to let people onto trains and buses for free, as happened in Lisbon in 1968 and Melbourne in 1990; it might mean ignoring paperwork and billing to focus on patients like staff at Mercy hospital in France did; or it might mean undercharging and serving larger portions in a restaurant. Whatever way you do it, customers get better service, rather than worse as in a no-work strike, and the people you want to hurt feel the pain. Public support is likely to be much higher and you have the bonus of showing that another economy is possible, one where we co-operatively work to provide the best service not the highest profit.