War on the working class

During the three months to June 2012 the British economy contracted by 0.5%, with manufacturing falling by 0.9%. Now deep in a double-dip recession, the economy is currently smaller than it was in May 2010, and 4.3% below the early 2008 peak. Only Italy of the world’s leading G8 capitalist economies is performing worse. At the beginning of September, the OECD slashed an earlier forecast of 0.5% growth for 2012 to a 0.7% contraction. In November 2011 it had predicted 0.9% growth. Robert Clough reports

The coalition is making sure that the working class continues to pay for the crisis. Behind Chancellor George Osborne’s boast that the private sector has created 800,000 new jobs, lies the loss of 432,000 public sector jobs in the two years to April-June 2012 and, over the same period, a rise of 350,000 people working part time because they could not find a full-time job. Overall, the number of people wanting full-time jobs but forced to work part time rose from 681,000 in April-June 2008 to 1,079,000 in April-June 2010 and 1,422,000 in April-June 2012. Under the Welfare Reform Act those who cannot work full time could be sanctioned for not seeking additional hours. In addition there are uncounted tens and possibly hundreds of thousands in temporary full-time work because they cannot get a permanent job. Like McDonalds, many NHS hospital trusts are now using zero-hour contracts to cut costs: University Hospital Bristol has 1,200 people on its books with such contracts. Such casualisation is part and parcel of the privatisation of the NHS.

Real household income fell by 0.6% per head in the first quarter of 2012 to the lowest level since 2005. Councils are now making plans for a third year of drastic cuts. For example, Wirral is asking residents to help find £100m savings, Rochdale plans for £45m cuts, Kent £60m. Services for the elderly have been hardest hit in the first two rounds, particularly under poorer Labour-run councils. Tens of thousands more jobs are set to go as more and more essential services are axed. A 10% cut in central government funding of council tax benefit will leave poor households £420 a year worse off. The new Universal Credit, to be introduced from April 2013, will penalise millions of people further.

The vindictiveness of the government is nowhere clearer than in the recent proposal that disabled people who have been stripped of their ESA by Atos will be fined £71 out of their maximum allowance of £99.15 if they do not participate in work-related activities. Every aspect of government policy is designed to punish and further impoverish the already poor.

Cabinet reshuffle

The September cabinet re-shuffle clearly signalled the determination of the ConDem government to press ahead with its assault on the working class despite the complete failure of its economic strategy. It presses on regardless, apparently convinced that it will not be seriously challenged. The absence of any sustained resistance has given it confidence, and the recent TUC congress will not have given it any cause for alarm. But anger is mounting, and, even on a small scale, the campaigns we report on in this issue of FRFI are giving expression to this.

Despite growing ruling class unease over the direction of the government, Prime Minister Cameron deliberately promoted right-wingers. Chris Grayling became Justice Secretary. In his final days as Minister for Employment Grayling announced that 16 to 24-year-olds in London signing on for the first time will be forced to work for their benefits for three months, arguing that ‘a something-for-nothing culture does no one any favours’. Such a culture worked for him. He used tax-payer funded loans to buy a flat in central London although he had three properties within the boundary of the M25 and claimed tens of thousands of pounds to renovate it.

Jeremy Hunt, former Culture Secretary and the Murdochs’ Cabinet gofer, became Health Secretary. He is now doubling up as tax-avoider Sir Richard Branson’s gofer as well: he lobbied for Virgin Care’s £650m takeover of hospitals and medical centres in his Surrey constituency. He also co-authored a book which advocated the replacement of the NHS with a system funded through personal insurance.

There has also been promotion for former Housing Minister Grant Shapps, now Tory Party co-chairman and Minister without Portfolio. He founded a software company called TrafficPaymaster which he claimed would enable people to ‘make $20,000 in 20 days guaranteed or your money back’. This is something-for-nothing with a vengeance. The software has been banned by Google for breaching its codes of practice in relation to copyright.

Trade union resistance?

So what of trade union resistance? There has been no shortage of fighting talk. 18 months ago at the 26 March 2011 TUC demonstration against the cuts, its then general secretary Brendan Barber told the crowd: ‘We will fight their savage cuts...We're not going away. This is just the beginning of our campaign!’ Unite the Union general secretary Len McCluskey declared: ‘We’re not prepared to stand idly by and let them dismantle our society ...We will not sit by as a gaggle of public schoolboys tear [the welfare state] down. Unless they stop their attacks this will be their Poll Tax. I have a message to the Labour Party. We need strong opposition. We need you on the barricades with us NOW. This is only the start. We need a plan of resistance including coordinated strike action…We should rule nothing out.’

It took a further three months for the trade unions to organise a one-day strike against the attack on public sector pensions, and another five months to organise a second strike. And that was that. Despite widespread verbal opposition to the cuts in the NHS, no trade union action has followed. In 2011, total days lost through strikes were 1,390,000; of these, 1,250,000 days were a consequence of one-day protests against public sector pension cuts. A further 113,000 days were lost through strikes in the private sector. The miniscule balance of 27,000 days in public sector strike action demonstrates the extent to which trade unions, far from challenging council cuts and hundreds of thousands of jobs losses, have colluded with their implementation.

Nothing has changed so far in 2012: a mere 208,000 days were lost through strikes in the first six months. Nor was there any chance of the Labour Party joining trade unions on the barricades. Labour leaders have repeatedly argued that their disagreement with the coalition is over the speed and extent of public sector cuts and not with their necessity. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls supports the government’s public sector pay freeze. As millions face deepening poverty, Labour leader Ed Miliband pointed out that he wasn’t against people getting rich ‘if you make it the hard way’ and declared that a 50% income tax rate is ‘pretty much the limit.’

The TUC Congress in early September heard yet more fighting talk. However, an overwhelmingly supported motion to investigate the ‘practicalities’ of calling a general strike was a way of kicking the whole idea into the long grass. The ‘practicalities’ will become ‘impracticalities’, not least of which will be the fear that such action will breach the anti-trade union laws for being political. The strike just will not happen, and nor is it intended to. In the meantime, all that is on offer is another TUC demonstration on 20 October.

As in March 2011, the TUC is co-operating with the police to ensure the protest remains under control: it has reportedly handed over the names of 150 ‘violent activists’ to the Metropolitan Police, and is contacting UK Uncut to persuade it not to organise any actions on the same day.

It does not want to be upstaged again by direct action like the Fortnum and Mason’s occupation. Left-wing Guardian columnist Seumas Milne has argued that ‘the problem with the unions is that they are not strong enough.’ The problem is that they are shackled to the Labour Party and their leadership is determined to stop any effective working class resistance to austerity.

Build a new movement

Effective resistance requires new forces and these will have to emerge from outside the Labour Party, trade union movement and their apologists in the social democratic left. The August 2011 riots following the police murder of Mark Duggan and the support for the Occupy movement illustrated the depth of anger at the ruling class onslaught. The success of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign in exposing the cover-up that followed the disaster in 1989 shows what can be achieved if working class people get organised. Both the trade unions and the Labour Party tried to prevent real resistance to the Poll Tax; it was only defeated by working class people organised in their communities. Elsewhere in this issue of FRFI we report on other struggles which are also giving expression to working class resistance: Justice4Grainger, the Counihan Family and Glasgow Atos campaigns (see pages 4 and 16). They are showing that it possible to fight back, and to do that now. We urge our readers to support these and similar campaigns where they live.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 229 October/November 2012

 

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