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.
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.