When people try to remember where they were when they heard that Maggie Thatcher had died, their reaction will tell us everything about her legacy – Cameron and Clegg’s austerity Britain.
The millionaires, including two-thirds of the Cabinet, will think of the 5% tax cut they started to pocket on the first day of the new tax year. But 8 April was also the day the vicious axing of Disability Living Allowance was implemented, alongside April’s other brutal changes that will attack the poor, the unemployed, and the disabled.
If anything sums up Thatcher and her modern-day apostles it is the same cruel class warfare she fostered that wrecked mining communities from South Wales to Yorkshire and Scotland, while calling miners “the enemy within”.
Thatcher’s government opened the way for all the different themes of the Con-Dems’ austerity – cutting the NHS, education, public services and the welfare state, along with privatisation and tax cuts for the rich.
She wrote the manual for taking on the trade unions. The anti-trade union laws were the fundamental tool of the ruling class to weaken the working class in preparation for this offensive. Shamefully, the 13 years of Blair and Brown’s New Labour were wasted years from the point of view of a working class desperate to reverse this neoliberal juggernaut. This allowed Cameron and Co to go further even than Thatcher herself dared.
No doubt the cynics and pessimists in the labour and trade union movement will also offer a sanitised view of the Thatcher years. They will try and explain away their inaction by pleading that she was too powerful and her anti-union laws too restrictive. But on a number of occasions, her government was rocking under mass working-class pressure.
The council struggle in Liverpool inflicted a temporary defeat on Thatcher, while the mighty anti-poll tax campaign of up to 18 million non-payers actually made her rule untenable in 1990.
But in the incredible and heroic Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, she was able to cling on because the trade union leaders refused to back up the National Union of Mineworkers with a 24-hour general strike. Defeat was not inevitable – a victory for the miners could have transformed the industrial and political situation, and at the very least, temporarily halted the Thatcherite onslaught. In France, the shadow of the Great General Strike of 1968 acted for decades as a restraining force on the French establishment.
Similarly today, there is nothing inevitable about the Con-Dems being able to force through the full agenda of their cuts package.
A relative lull in industrial action has followed the right-wing sell-out of the public sector pensions’ struggle which reached its peak on the 30 November 2011 joint union strike of two million. It was the biggest single day of strike action since the 1926 general strike.
But the past two years have seen the highest pitch of working class struggle for decades, including the biggest trade union demonstration for a century on 26 March 2011.
It could have and should have been the platform to launch a campaign of continued mass strike action, reaching from the public to the private sector, that could have forced the Con-Dems back and even out of office. Scandalously, it was stalled primarily by the right-wing TUC, Unison and GMB union leaderships. But general strike action is even more necessary now and would be incredibly popular with those on the receiving end of these cuts.
The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) has championed the demand for a 24-hour general strike to face the effects of the cuts which are ruining the poor and the working class.
The NSSN lobbied the TUC Conference last September with 1,000 union activists. That conference voted overwhelmingly to pass the POA prison officers’ motion which called on the TUC to consider “the practicalities of a general strike”. Seven long months later, the union leaders will be meeting at the TUC General Council on 24 April to weigh the various union responses.
Thatcher’s death is monopolising the front pages now but previous to that the idea of a general strike had even made it to the Independent’s front page and reports of the planned debate featured in the Financial Times and other papers.
Mark Serwotka PCS General Secretary told Sky News: “We are definitely having a discussion about generalised strike action. More imminently than that we are having the beginnings of discussions between unions who have real industrial issues in front of them now about co-coordinating their efforts.”
The National Shop Stewards Network has called on trade unionists to lobby the general council meeting, to demand that the TUC name the date for a 24-hour general strike.
As reported in the media, the left unions have made positive submissions on the idea of a general strike and the meeting will be discussing the legalities of such a move, facing Thatcher’s anti-union laws, the most undemocratic in Western Europe, as Tony Blair, one of her disciples, bragged about when in office.
But that need not be a barrier to mass coordinated strike action as we saw on N30. Whether it is to defend jobs, pay, terms and conditions, pensions, or the fight against privatisation, the issues are present and pressing now to join together.
PCS members have just concluded the second strike of their national action programme, with HMRC workers ending their half-day strike and walking into work when Thatcher’s death was announced! They can’t be left to fight alone.
Branches and workplace meetings should pass resolutions urging their union leaderships to respond to the letters from the PCS leadership for discussion among the left unions’ leaders about how to prepare for coordinated action.
Those union leaders should go to the April general council with the confidence and knowledge that their members and the rank and file of other unions will not be satisfied with anything less than a strike date. Members attending the lobby should ask to meet their union representatives on the council beforehand to make the case for setting a date.
They should point out that even before the latest swathe of austerity measures, which includes more increases in pension contributions and the continuation of the pay freeze for public sector workers, real wages have been cut by an average of 16%.
The TUC must name the day for a 24-hour general strike and we need all of you to practically encourage your members and friends to attend the lobby as well as put pressure upwards on this.
(We will add the listings etc to another posting later)