UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

UNISON Active Analysis - It's time to go on the offensive

Saturday 26 March 2011 was a momentous day with estimates ranging from quarter to a half a million people taking to the streets of London to protest against this Government's austerity measures. The TUC March for an Alternative exceeded anticipation and expectation.

From the North East there were thousands of people, and for many this was their first demonstration. It is this broad depth and range of alliances that are coming together which means the Coalition Government should be worried.

From young to old, from trade unionists to community groups, there was a real feeling of cohesiveness and collective purpose. People coming together to say we do not and will not accept the political and economic policies being pursued with a dogged determination that shows no regard for the devastating consequences that will be felt by millions.

These included public sector workers, those working in community/voluntary sector organisations, small charities, and the private sector, and young people struggling to find a job, or priced out of continuing education, and of course service users - all joining together to demand a change in course from the Government.

We are told there is no alternative to the current economic approach, that we have to reduce our deficit hard and fast, but the reality is that these economic and political arguments are flawed. The Coalition Government is only pursuing one course of action which is to reduce the deficit by cutting public sector spending. The consequences of this will be catastrophic for people up and down the Country, and particularly for those who are some of the most vulnerable in our society.

There are clear alternatives to this approach such as tackling tax avoidance; increasing (not reducing) tax on the profits of big business; investing in green technology; investing in innovation (rather than pricing young people out of further education); lowering VAT (one of the most regressive taxes there is); investing in public sector infrastructure realising this generates jobs in the private sector; keeping public sector workers in employment so they can contribute financially to their local economies; and of course having a fairer tax system which makes those who earn vast sums pay a more equitable share of taxation.

The Government's forecasts on growth have had to be revised down yet again in the budget last week, and unemployment is rising. It is quite clear their policies are not working and are frankly economically dangerous.

Public opinion has shifted since the election last year, and now we see poll after poll showing a majority do not support the Government's slash and burn approach to public services, however what we still need is a clear, articulate alternative economic and political vision to be set out.

Cameron's 'Big Society' is being ridiculed from all sides as being clearly unworkable when public services are being decimated, when voluntary sector organisations, and charities are seeing their funding lost due to financial squeeze, and when people are being put on the unemployment queue and having benefits cut it is farcical to suggest that they should take up unpaid work.

In this changing context it is critical to mobilise and harness the growing anger and determination seen on the TUC demonstration and build on the Trade Union unity which was key to its success. It was right to have such a big national event however the key is going to be building stronger and broader local alliances locally up and down the country to make lasting coalitions to challenge the Government's economic and political policies.

This must include

- building on initiatives such as the Northern Public Services Alliance bringing together all trade unions regionally in a common campaign, working with the NTUC to agree a common agenda promoting an alternative, agreeing action and putting common cause and unity at the centre of what we do. Building community coalitions at local level - by engaging with tenants and community groups, students, young people and pensioners - to campaign in local areas against public sector cuts in order to to keep services which communities rely on. Providing support and resources and building alliances with voluntary organisations to make sure they are not starved of funding, and also not used by the Government to essentially 'privatise' public services

- building links with students and young people who have shown their anger at cuts in youth services, career guidance, the Government's increase in tuition fees, and the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, which will stop many young people being able to go to university, college or stay on at school

- ensuring that our coalitions and activities are all inclusive, represent and are led by the broad diversity of our workplaces and communities, using new ways or organising to encourage young people, women and underrepresented groups to lead our campaigns

- organising and recruiting in both the public and private sector, to build trade union membership to protect our current terms and conditions which are under attack, but also to strengthen our voice in workplaces showing the critical role of trade unions. An immediate issue for many braches, particularly in local government is to minimise job loss and especially compulsory redundancies.

- strengthening political alliances, prioritising the elections in may, taking our alternative policies and manifesto for the local elections to local Councillors and MPs and asking them to sign up to pledge their support for challenging this Government, but also to promoting a positive alternative approach, one based on supporting public services, and not attacking the most vulnerable in our communities. Persuading Liberal Democrats with some integrity to call for their Ministers to leave the Government.

- Planning further local, regional and national action to build on the success of the 26th March and building pensions campaign groups in workplaces and regionally to maximise the opportunities for co-ordinated industrial action.

This Government is desperate to get legislation agreed which will bring in fixed term Parliaments. It is essential to their economic plans that they have a full term and they are relying on their determined frontloading of public sector cuts to have been forgotten by the time they are up for re-election.

Trade unions are showing their relevance by standing up for the rights of the majority, for decent public services, for a decent society, and this is why the TUC demonstration was a significant event in the work already underway, but also is not the end in itself - the energy, enthusiasm, and determination of those who marched, along with those who were not able to but don’t support the Government must be the motivation to continue the work of challenging them at every turn, locally, regionally and nationally.

This Government does not have a democratic mandate for its policies, and when people come together with common purpose their voices cannot be ignored forever.

The times are changing and trade unions are showing their relevance not only as representatives of workers, but also in the wider civic society and must remain at the forefront of building the broadest alliances to challenge this Government. Unity and collectivism are our strength.

The stakes are high and from the show of solidarity on the demonstration in London, this is a fight we can win.

Kenny Bell and Clare Williams
UNISON Northern Region