The NUT and ATL teaching unions have both voted to endorse strike action over the government’s changes to pensions. In the NUT, the “yes” vote was overwhelming – some 92%. In the ATL, a traditionally conservative union, the vote was hardly less compelling, with 83% backing strike action. The government’s plans involve teachers working longer, paying more and getting less at the end of their working lives. Teachers will be expected to work until they’re 68, increase contributions by up to 50%, and will receive a lower pension based on a new “career average” index when they retire. Their rejection of this could not be clearer, and the teachers’ yes vote opens the way to mass, co-ordinated strike action on 30 June and beyond.
The patronising cliché about such votes is that they show the “strength of feeling” on the ground: in fact, what they show is that the government lost the argument hands down. The Tories have notably failed to make a compelling ideological case for their cuts agenda. The allure of “competition” and the “self-regulating market”, once a cornerstone of Thatcherite Toryism, has been demolished in recent years. So, the government’s sole trump card has been that its policies are necessary because of the need to reduce the deficit. Yet this card has been depreciating in value as it has become clear that the cuts are intended to be permanent, many of the policies have nothing to do with cost-cutting, and austerity has plunged both Greece and Ireland into repeated crises and thus undermined its appeal as a panacea.
Why, one might ask, should it matter if the government can’t win the argument with unionised workers? What Tory government ever has? The reason is that even the Tories can’t do without negotiation and bargaining, a fact acknowledged by their faltering efforts to “modernise” relations with the unions. In recent years, they have attempted to make great play of adopting a more open attitude toward the unions, nominating former Labour MEP Richard Balfe as their “envoy” to the trade union leadership. To an extent, this was because of their electoral weakness – they needed to shed the toxic aura of confrontation inherited from the 1980s to build a viable coalition of voters. That weakness has only been plastered over, not fixed, through an unstable coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Partly as a result, they would much rather force through these policies with the acquiescence of the union leadership than have to weather a prolonged conflict which they may lose.
Bear in mind that this is just one of several fronts of antagonism opened up by the government’s cuts. Civil servants, council workers, health workers and lecturers are now poised for strike action. In addition, Unison, which has thus far retreated from outright conflict with the government, now warns that if the government does not make further concessions on pensions and pay, then the union’s 1.2 million members will be balloted for strike action.
Moreover, these are not just sectional strikes. “Political” strikes are banned under anti-union legislation, but there’s no doubt that at stake in these struggles is not just the income or conditions of one group of workers but rather the whole future direction of British society. It is because of this recognition of a shared interest that there has been such pressure for co-ordinated action among unionised workers. And it is because of this that they can potentially win much wider support among communities facing cuts to their health, schools, rubbish collection and welfare – as they evidently did on 26 March.
The government has already faced a revolt by students over their unpopular higher education policies, and has now been compelled to backtrack over some of the more egregious measures in their proposed NHS shakeup, watering down pro-market measures and leaving the health secretary accountable for the NHS. The overall thrust of the policies, constituting privatisation on a hitherto unseen scale, remains intact. But this retreat has been carried out before a single shot has been fired.
It seems extraordinary that a government as electorally fragile and ideologically weak as this one should knowingly provoke such a wide-ranging conflict with so many different sectors of society. The government may calculate that, if they ride out the crisis that their policies create, policing its effects, then all parties to the coalition will gain the credit when growth is eventually restored to the economy and the country returns to the polls in four years’ time. Alternatively, they may have bet on the union leaders being too cautious and conservative to risk a war with the government.
The trouble is that the pressure from workers for action has become impossible to ignore, and the workers they’re picking on are in a strategically privileged position since the infrastructures they maintain are central to the efficient working of the economy. The government may think they can ride it out to 2015, but if they can’t govern, then they may not last that long.
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