time to cut the anti-cuts campaigns?

In the lead-up to the latest national strike day on 28 March, Sheila Cohen asks whether the anti-cuts campaigns are working

I have been asked to write an article about anti-cuts campaigns, and said I don’t know much about them. I don’t know much about them because I don’t think they work. I don’t think they work because the government and ruling-class generally are rabid hyenas without an iota of inclination to give a flying **** about the needs and wishes of so-called “ordinary people” – if they did give such a thing they wouldn’t be, well, ruling. But I was asked to write nonetheless.

The several large demonstrations against the cuts programme have presented a confident outward image, mocking the Coalition: but what power do we actually have to stop Cameron and co.?

As a dutiful writer, I began preparing for this piece by doing (admittedly, a very small modicum of) research. One dedicated anti-cuts organisation I turned up which shall be nameless, but describes itself on its website as “a diverse collation of…groups and individuals that have come together to challenge social exclusion and promote social justice” includes as part of its many activities a project to unite unemployed workers, a “celebration” of its locality with a “one day community event” and, of course, intransigent opposition to racism – and quite right too. The community event was warmly received, with one participant commenting that it had, indeed, given “a real sense of community”. So what’s not to like?

Let’s start with one of the key features of many anti-cuts campaigns – “demands”. But rather than looking at the demands raised by anti-cuts campaigns (which presumably tend to focus on the demand not to make the various cuts so enthusiastically sought by the Con-Dems in the wake of New Labour and Thatcher – not to mention Callaghan and Healey after the IMF delivered its stern 1976 warning, or the 1945 Labour government after the US demanded its pound of flesh for  the Marshall Plan, or the very first Labour government under MacDonald, though there wasn’t that much to cut in those days) I think I would prefer to look at another, very different set of demands. These are the demands raised by the recently victorious “Sparks” (construction electricians).

The Sparks and Red Ken

As one activist reports in one of the best emails I’ve read for a very long time: “An amazing couple of days in the BESNA [Building Engineering Services National Agreement] dispute. The fun began at the ECIA [Engineering Construction Industry Association] dinner and dance at Grosvenor Hotel, Park Lane on 15 February. Around 150 construction workers gathered at 5.30 pm – we decided we would have our own party in the street. Sean Prophet was MC and provided some great party music outside the hotel, and it wasn’t long before we had blocked off Park Lane – traffic soon backed up and we were dancing in the street to the Irish Rover and other main top tunes. We blocked the road off for over an hour – PC Plod finally arrived – they were stuck in the traffic [see above] and had to come on foot. After a vote we gave them one lane back [dual power! – SC]. We barracked the dinner suit brigade no end, chasing them all round the hotel as they scurried in side doors to enjoy their champagne and fine grub; they were nicking food from our tables and we let them know we weren’t happy. We also collared Red Ken Livingstone as he went in (‘shame on you!’).

“The following day we were overjoyed to hear that the High Court had ruled in our favour – Balfour Beatty had withdrawn from BESNA – what a result! One of the biggest construction companies in the world had crumbled – superb – our struggle had paid off, the rank and file were truly on the march, and we believe it won’t be long before the others pull out as well…The word on the street is SPIE [a construction “support services” company] are ready to pull back soon – all our hard work is paying off…”

Talk about a festival of the oppressed – and yes, shame on you, Ken Livingstone. But the justified jubilation is followed by – guess what – a list of demands. ‘Oh no’, we think. Yet these demands are as different from the idealist “calls” for “social and economic justice” of the anti-cuts campaigns as – well, revolutionary socialism from social democracy. This list is concrete, specific and above all related to the struggles of a set of exploited workers who represent a much wider constituency – the working class. So, for example:

– An increase in the hourly rate; one hourly rate across the board

– A 35-hour basic week; overtime rates increased

– Elected reps on all large projects

– No more blacklisting or victimisation

– No agency labour until a job is nearly complete; no redundancies while agency labour are on any site.

– Increase in fare-payments, travel-time and lodging allowance

– A sick pay scheme

– Fares from home for all

– No deskilling

– Proper apprenticeships

This, comrades, is how to fight the good fight. The plethora of “anti-cuts campaigns” which have mushroomed across the country since – well, since Thatcher really began to sink her teeth into us all, since “New Labour” showed itself to be viciously distinct from the bad-enough old variety, and since the Con-Dems graced us with their reinvention of concepts like “education” and “health care” – hold in common their fundamental absence of – well, teeth. The only people who can fight these cuts are those who, like the Sparks, have both teeth and muscle born of their firm grounding in – guess where – the workplace.

From disruption to victory

As one highly commendable US university campaign to win a living wage for “all University employees” complains mournfully, “Since March 2011, the Living Wage Campaign at the University of Virginia has repeatedly provided detailed documentation highlighting the dire need for a living wage for all University employees. As of today, these demands have not been met…”   Perhaps this is because the University of Virginia campaigners are not themselves the employees for who they campaign, the catering, cleaning and security workers who could rapidly, if they withdrew their labour, (unlike these warmhearted academics) bring the no doubt lucrative environs of the U of V to a shuddering halt.

Curious, then, that when Len McCluskey of UNITE ventures to suggest that low-paid public sector workers should strike during the Olympics, the chorus of condemnation has ranged across all sections of the great and the good, including, of course, our very own Ed Miliband. Workers on near-minimum wage whose work is fundamental to the very workings of society withdrawing – shock, horror – their labour?! However will we get along? The fact that the great British public has so far, despite bucket-loads of promotion, failed to register more than a minority (47%) of support for this spectacle cannot detract from the horror of the powers-that-be at the thought of any disruption of, literally, business as usual. And yet disruption is exactly what happens when workers stop work. A point that should surely be germane to the good McCluskey when, rather than uniting the low-paid busworkers of London in all-out strike action for a decent wage all year round, he parrots Crow by demanding a one-off payment of £500 during the Olympics, and calls on “the public” to engage in “all forms of civil disobedience within the law” in the campaign against cuts.

Well, much as I would love to join an all-singing, all-dancing, millions-strong march to express the disgust of all sane members of society for the “reforms” proposed for the NHS, the reason why I’ve so far managed to resist the enticements of the campaigning zeitgeist is that I’m looking for more effective ways of using the years that are left to me. Like working on Trade Union Solidarity, a newly-launched trade union magazine aiming to bring together the committed workplace activists who actually hold the class awareness and potential power to do as the “Sparks” have done across the working class as a whole. Let’s hope that works. Nothing else will.

10 thoughts on “time to cut the anti-cuts campaigns?

  1. As somebody who has been involved in borough anti-cuts groups, I think there is quite a lot that could be said about why they made some headway in Autumn/Winter 2010/11 and are now in decline ( some blame could be placed on sectarian behaviour by some Trot groups but the antics of anarchists/autonomists was perhaps even more fatal in some localities). The article does not deal with this. On the NHS, it is now or never. The majority of the people are on our side, not just the organised working class. Not all the water cannon in the world could put out the fire if we got our act together and Assad like use of plastic/rubber/ lead bullets on the streets of London against NHS protest might be more than even Cameron and Clegg would do. During Jubilee/Oympics whole world would be watching. Probably already said more than I should on FB.


  2. “the antics of anarchists/autonomists was perhaps even more fatal in some localities” – care to give any examples of this? I’m assuming you’re referring to the town hall riot and Brendan Barber getting egged in Lewisham?


  3. The Sparks fighting grass roots campaign,did not pull any punches. Its boldness and direct action was in stark contrast to the general Nostalgia for old labour and the welfare state, of the anti cuts groups. But these groups do have some roots in the workplace. The problem is a strategy of pressure on officials or transforming the unions, replaces or prevents the emergence of a direct assertion of the rank and file, across and within ,Trade Unions. Another problem is political timidity and the reluctance to offend or openly criticise Trade union officials. Oddly enough despite the “outrageous” headline, cut the anti cuts groups, sheila cannot bring herself to name the Cuts campaign she criticises.Also, I seem to remember, that her Rank and file paper holds back from openly criticising Trade union leaders, as some kind of editorial policy, which does not seem to be inspired by the sparks actions,but by the trade union lefts gentle pressure on Trade Union officialdom.


  4. I read the above article with interest as an official of Save Our services in Huddersfield, the anti-cuts campaigns have served a usefull purpose in raising the question of the cuts and drawing some people into the struggle, anything that encourages resistance is a good thing but the fact of the matter is that anti-cuts campaigns were always bount to have a limitted effect.
    When we began the battle against austerity many people drew lessons from the anti-poll tax struggle quite rightly, but there is a huge difference between now and then namely that during the poll tax we could all have an effect by not paying and challanging the tax in court which made it un-workable and therefore defeated it. Today it is evident that no amount of petitioning and demonstrating alone will divert a callous governmnet and local council from their position of cuts.
    What the sparks have show and indeed struggles such as the victorious strike of signel men in Scotland or Vrirgin Train Cleaners is that it is strike action and effective direct action that can have an effect.
    In Huddersfield Kirklees Council threatened to make 300 compulsory redundant last year that threat was dealt with so effectivly by the threat of strike action that now this year they scurried about in a panick rather than make only one worker redundant.This is another little victory but one that an anti cuts campaign on its own could not have achieved.
    But of course in the main the leaders of the trade unions have been unwilling to challange austerity because they them selves in the main are part of the system and are awiting their reward in the Hous of Lords for serving the establishment.
    The Trots are right when they say that we must push the trade unon leaders into action but we must unltimatly push them to one side and establish democratic mass modes of struggle.
    Another problem has been the de-politiocalisation of the working class over the decades through defeats and the effcts of mass media and consumerism, it has bread an apathy from which we have suffered. This can be turned around through hard work and explaining the potential for struggle and by the experiences of the people themselves indeed many people are waking up and getting involved but it is a trickle and not a deluge the occupy movement has been an important part of this process.
    If when local budgets are set we could organise not hundreds but thousands to occupy every town hall in the land then councils would be less keen to make cuts. I dare say that many anti cuts campaigns have suffered from sectarianism and division that we could well do without anti cuts capmaigns should be a forum where the communities and rank and file trade unionists can come together and plan action without the red tape of the union movement strangeling creativity.
    So dont cut the anti cuts campaigns they are part of the resistance, develope them but be aware of their limitations.


  5. Yeah, I agree that there’s a need for a radical critique of the anti-cuts movement and I think there’s a lot to be learned from the Sparks, but this seems a bit crudely workerist. The sparks aren’t just important because they’re based in the workplace, but because the rank-and-file group’s been able to keep its independence from the union bureaucracy and the grassroots have stayed in control of the struggle, to talk about their campaign without explicitly mentioning that factor is to obscure the reason why they were able to win.
    My local anti-cuts campaign has been very supportive of strike action when it’s happened, but there’s been no real criticism of the union leadership, and so no attempt to move beyond the strategy of occasional one-day strikes that look good but don’t change anything. I think anti-cuts campaigns could potentially serve a really useful role in pulling together local networks of militant workers who want to go beyond the failed strategy being pushed by the unions. If the anti-cuts groups we have now aren’t playing that role, then that means we need better anti-cuts groups, not that they’re inherently pointless. And at a time when ever-growing numbers of working-class people are out of work, revolutionaries need to have something to say to them other than “come back when you’ve got a job”.
    Any serious consideration of the effectiveness of workplace vs. non-workplace action needs to take into account things like the movement against the poll tax, which is still one of the very few major national battles the working class have won in the UK in the last few years, the widespread disruption caused by last summer’s riots, the ongoing struggles around benefits and workfare, and the Oakland General Strike and West Coast Port Shutdown – two really inspiring pieces of disruptive action that came out of the Occupy movement, which is definitely not a traditional workplace organisation. I don’t deny that industrial action needs to be a vital part of any successful struggle, but it’s not a magic bullet – it’s possible to take effective action outside of the workplace, just like it’s possible to have massive strikes, like J30 and N30, that don’t really achieve anything.


  6. Exactly! ‘nothingiseverlost’ makes a crucial point. the Sparks won because it operated without the bonds of official trade unionism and the poll tax also won because it was unnoficial rank and file, community based and couldnt be sabotaged by labour/trade union beaurocracy.
    I also agree that this isnt been stated in the anti-cuts movement and that critisism of the trade union movement is muted in part I think because the SP/SWP groups in the anti cuts movement are too married to the trade union movement as it is and lack a vision for creating unnoficial rank and file movements, of which anti-cuts groups should be a part.
    Indeed the SWP has developed a fetish that the way to build the movement is to ingratiate ourselves to Labour and Trade Union leaders. Now I have no problems with working with genuine anti cuts Labour Party members but I do draw the line at allowing pro cuts labour councillors to hijack the movement.
    This however is the nature of the movement, it is a fermament of ideas, these discussions need to be had……….and the good thing is…………..that we are having them.


  7. I really don’t think it is the fault of this or that left wing group that the anti-cuts groups haven’t swelled into a mass movement yet. The working class in Britain has taken one hell of a beating in the last 30 years which has knocked peoples confidence in their ability to fight back. When I speak with my fellow workers this becomes very apparent. Loss of belief in an alternative has had the effect of many working class people accomodating themselves to the system and therefore becoming divided by it. Most workers still think of the soviet union when they hear “socialism” and many workers have no experience of collectively sticking up for themselves. We have to help change this before we can have any significant impact on our class. The anti-cuts alliances aren’t perfect but they are a start and they don’t preclude us getting out there and stating that what is really needed is revolutionary socialism and worker’s management rather than a reworking of old Labour.


  8. Yes I agree, we are building trade unionism and the struggle from scratch which though difficult may give us the chance to build it a new and more a libertarian way of doing things.


  9. Whether anti cuts groups work or are successful, only time will tell. I think you may miss the point that they are just one part of the jigsaw of building a campaign for change that touch ordinary people who may or may not be members of a political party or an Union. On their own they are not the answer in the same way that political parties, other campaign groups and Trade Unions on their own are not the answer. It is all about raising awareness building bonds and growing a movement


  10. The problem with this article is it doesn’t propose anything practical – ie, sure, strikes are much more effective than demonstrations, but people can’t just strike as easily as they can do a demo on the weekend. Striking is in many cases illegal, people can be fired if they strike, etc.
    With skilled workers – ie workers who aren’t replaceable – it’s easier to strike and win, but how do we get most people, who work in offices or shops, to strike? (especially as these people with minimum wage, unskilled jobs are some of those most affected by cuts.) I don’t have an answer to this – but neither does the article, which so confidently proposes the power of strikes.
    The anti-cuts community based stuff is vital inasfar as creating community is vital for the left. The left needs some kind of emotional base with people, within their community or whatever. Instead, the British left has no place in any community – no-one even knows about it, and those that do see it as a weird intellectual movement, not something that could be important to their daily lives (and hence get an emotional connection with people).


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