The Point
Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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The unions, the fight against austerity, and the possibilities for a general strike

Gregor Gall


The approaching 20th October ‘A Future that Works’ demonstrations in Belfast, Glasgow and London will be a critical barometer of where the anti-cuts and anti-austerity movement is in terms of its size, vitality and future direction. Last year, the two highpoints of this struggle were the 26t March London demo and the 30th November mass strike on public sector pension reform.

Anything between 250,000 to 750,000 citizens were reported to have attended the March 2011 demonstration. Given its unprecedented size and the fact that there are, this time round, three regional demonstrations rather than just the one national one, it would seem likely that the 20 October London one will be smaller than the March 2011 one. It will not climb the lofty heights of reaching one million as some on the far left are arguing. The media will no doubt jump on this in order to speculate upon the death of the anti-cuts movement.

But probably far more important than this in determining the turnout in London and elsewhere is that there has been a considerable loss of momentum in the anti-cuts movement since 26 March 2011. This demo represented such a highpoint as the first big – indeed, truly massive – show of opposition against the coalition government.  People were left feeling exhilarated and asking ‘So what are we going to do now?’ There was a genuine sense of expectation and bated breath thereafter.

Despite a one-day strike in June by a small handful of unions, the answer did not come until the 30th November 2011 against reform of public sector pensions. And again, despite some smaller subsequent strikes, there have been no further days of strike action that kept up the momentum. Indeed, several of the smaller strikes after 30 November have been pretty demoralising for those that took part because some unions that pledged to strike with them did not. And, overall, the pensions fight has fragmented and dissipated. Large sections of Unison, GMB and Unite have accepted the pre-30 November concessions leaving unions like the PCS, NUT and UCU rather stranded. 

Stating the obvious, nonetheless, it is important to recognise this has been a fight over public sector pensions and not job cuts or pay freezes in the public sector. Despite the heightened rhetoric at the recent TUC Congress, it very much remains to be seen whether a fight will get off the ground against the pay freezes (that now continue into their third year) as well as what the TUC general council will feel compelled during and after looking into the legal and logistical practicalities of holding a general strike (as it was mandated to do).

So it would be wrong to expect the 20th October demos can somehow overcome all the deficiencies and problems. Indeed, a good show of strength on the day can easily be ignored by the government because it is a one-day flash in the pan that did not (especially on a Saturday) stop the workings on the economy. Nevertheless, it is still right to expect and demand that certain things do come out of the three demos.

On the basis of decent to good turnouts, the key development that has to emerge to strengthen, widen and deepen the anti-cuts movement is a national alliance of the producers and users of public services, organised and led by the TUC on behalf of its national union affiliates.

The critical attributes of such an alliance are to three-fold. First, to establish that because jobs cuts lead to deterioration in the quality of public services then both the producers and the users of those services have a common and vested interest in fighting to stop them. The users may be those who are unemployed or unable to work.

Second, to provide the basis for uniting public and private sector workers.  Many of the public services are used by workers (and their families) from the private sector. So far, the government has been able to take advantage of portraying the fight against the cuts as just about public sector workers with not just pensions but gold-plated pensions.

Third, to recognise that industrial action on its own cannot win the political fights that are being fought. Whilst any strike in the public sector is primarily a political strike because it seeks to put pressure on the government – rather than impose an economic cost – it is still the case that industrial action cannot involve all those that might want to be involved. Support on picket lines by non-strikers is one thing but involving strikers and non-strikers in an alliance where they can make equal contributions is quite another.

Recognising that such an alliance is necessary, Steve Hart, Unite’s director of policy, recently argued for example: ‘We cannot win the battle for the NHS simply by conducting a ballot of our members in the NHS. Defending the NHS is about me, my neighbours, our community, standing up for our NHS.’

New TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, is in an excellent position to spearhead the development of such a national alliance as well as it spawning sons and daughters at the regional and local levels. As a new broom with previous experience of campaigning with and through pressure groups – as well as a greater orientation on forces outside the union movement, she could make a huge contribution by leading in this way.

To foresee such a development is also envisage the re-flowering of the union movement as force for social liberation for wider citizenry and where the union movement is known no longer to be concerned the narrower, sectional and more immediate concerns of just its members.

It would also put the union movement in Britain on a par with its sister movements in mainland Europe like Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy. In such a situation, the issue of the TUC calling a general strike would no longer look quite so odd as it might once have done. In other words, if the TUC did ever get round to calling a general strike, it could do so in some firm knowledge that the strike would come from the wellspring of an active, generalised and embedded opposition to the government.   

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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