|Written by Cecília Toledo|
|Wednesday, 14 December 2011 02:46|
|Demonstrations with 30 thousand people in London, 20 thousand in Manchester and 15 thousand in Liverpool are some of the events that marked the day that 2 million public sector workers walked out in England. The British government tried to minimize the impact of the biggest day of strike action in the country since the late 1970s, but failed. The strike, decided in October at the Trade Union Congress, should last for only one day, November 30, and limited to the public sector, threatened by a privatization plan and by the government economic policy of cuts in pensions.
However even with these limitations, the movement had a major impact on the whole working class, because it exposed to light the true intention of the government: to force the workers pay for the economic crisis. Although it was a strike by civil servants against the reform of their pension’s scheme, many young people participated in demonstrations, because youth has been heavily penalized by unemployment and lack of future prospects.
A strong strike, despite the law
To evaluate a strike in Britain is necessary to take into account the draconian anti-strike legislation that oppresses working class since the days of Margaret Thatcher and has to be overcome by those who want to fight the government and the employers. Strikes are not voted on at rank and file assemblies, but must face a long and complicated process of ballot; in which each worker separately vote at their homes. The process is entirely driven by the trade union leadership and overseen by the government. Add to this the fact that the British trade unions are under strong control of a powerful bureaucracy and are politically leaded by the Labor Party, who has not put any force in the preparation of the strike.
Even with all this, numbers released by the British press showed that the strike was strong, reaching particularly teachers: 19,000 of 21,700 schools in England and Wales closed or partly closed; 6,000 of 30,000 non-emergency surgeries were cancelled (Guardian, 30/11). Even Prime Minister David Cameron couldn’t hide the strike’s success. Just a day after telling MPs that the day of action on Wednesday would be a “damp squib”, he conceded that the 24-hour walkout by public sector workers was “obviously a big strike”. But added, referring to the Labour Party: “Striking isn’t going to achieve anything, particularly when negotiations are ongoing. I think it’s irresponsible.”
Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader, said the government must accept blame for the strikes. He asked Cameron: “Why do you think so many decent, hard-working public sector workers, many of whom have never been on strike before, feel the government simply isn’t listening?” But it’s all just rhetoric because in fact even the Labour Party did nothing to help the mass walkout. So Cameron has no reason to criticize Miliband, because he did not cooperate at all for the success of the strike and also gave statements like “I hate the strike, but do not condemn those who did,” “we must pay the debt, so the cuts are necessary” in September, after it was voted at the TUC. Such a statement, coming from a party in which most workers still have illusions that it defends its interests, only serves to humiliate and demoralize those who are struggling and being accused of refusing to negotiate with the government.
However, a key union leader, Brian Strutton, from the GMB union (Transport) said that negotiations with the government on the cut in pensions were going nowhere, and a spokesperson for the TUC said up to 2 million workers took part in the biggest industrial action since 1979, and said: “The government is clutching at straws. The real question remains, how did this government provoke so many ordinary, decent people to go on strike for the first time in their lives?”
Mark Serwotka, leader of the PCS (Public and Commercial Services union), said the picket lines showed a great unity, with up to 90% of employees of some government departments taking action. “I have been to pickets around central London and spirits are sky-high” he said.
Heathrow, Britain’s biggest airport, reported everything was normal, but major airlines such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic indicated that thousands of travelers had rebooked to an alternative date. Virgin Atlantic said it was operating at 50% capacity. The trade unions reported that in Wales about 170,000 workers and in Scotland about 300,000 workers went on strike. More than 1,000 marches and demonstrations occurred throughout the country.
The Secretary-General of the Unite (public service workers, especially the health sector) Len McCluskey said thatNovember 30 will be remembered as the day when workers fought together to protect the economy and the welfare state: “Working people are being asked to pay for the economic mess caused by the greedy City elite, whose behavior this spineless government has repeatedly failed to tackle”. He also added that “the action today has been a brilliant display of courage and concern by public servants who are being demonized by a government that has lost its moral compass.”
Why the teachers went on strike?
The English teachers are very angry at the reforms aimed to change the rules of retirement. The government proposed that they pay more and work longer. Teachers argue that one of the greatest benefits for their work is a safe and decent pension and that the changes proposed by the government will make the more graduate professionals to avoid embracing the profession. They also believe that their job is particularly stressful and it is simply impossible to work up to 68 years old, the retirement age advocated by the government.
Government plans a 50% increase in teachers’ monthly contributions, from 6.4% to 9.6% by 2014 and of retirement age, from 60 to 65 years old, which would rise to 66 in 2020 and then to 68 years. The government offered exemptions to all those who, before the changes, in April would be less than 10 years from retirement.
Nick Gibb, the Minister for Schools, says that reforms to public sector pensions are inevitable, as the cost to the taxpayer will double from £5bn in 2006 to £10bn in 2016. He said savings of £2.8bn from the public sector pensions bill are expected by 2015 and that this will require a 3.2 percentage point increase in contributions.
David Cameron said: “It really is irresponsible when negotiations are ongoing call strikes that will lead to the closure of most of the classrooms in this country. The pension deal is extremely reasonable. It’s not just the union leaders who don’t understand this but the party opposite who refuses to condemn this strike.”
Britain could fall into recession
It appears that Britain will enter recession in the next period, influenced by the crisis in the Euro area, and the working class will pay high for it, with rising unemployment, cutbacks in public services and reduction of household budgets. Counterpoising the reasoning of Chancellor George Osborne that the expansion of the private sector could offset job losses in the public sector, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said the dole queues will continue. The OECD warned that more than 30 developed countries will contract their economies by 0.2% and Britain could expand only 0.5%. Pier Carlo Padoan, the organization’s chief economist, said: “The global economy has deteriorated significantly and the advanced economies are in decline, leading the Euro zone into recession.”
Mervyn King, governor of Bank of England, warned about the threat of inflation in the country. “Rising of energy and food prices was higher than we expected.” He said the problems in the Euro zone increase the risks to the health of the banking system in the industrialized world. “And it increased the cost of banks to obtain funds and therefore the cost of lending money for companies. These are enormous challenges and will not be easy to meet them.”
Adam Posen, of Monetary Policy Committee, said he is more concerned with economic stagnation than inflation and that central banks need to be alert to avoid repeating the same mistakes of 1930, when there was a major crisis of capitalism. “If we repeat the mistakes of the past, premature or not effectively tighten the relaxation, no matter what kind of fiscal policy, the introduction of what kind of financial regulatory requirements, will seem insignificant in the face of error.” For the working class, this tightening means cuts in public services, privatization of essential services as healthcare and education, rising prices of food, increasing unemployment and retirement age. Just the program the workers are fighting back, whose strike was a fundamental starting point for demonstrating to the government that the powerful English working class is not willing to accept quietly this economic package that compromises their families’ future.