Thursday will see upwards of two million people on strike - a substantial proportion of the British workforce. A number of unions have coincided their members’ strike ballots into one combined day of action, which promises to send a powerful message of the popular strength of feeling against austerity.
It is those unionised workplaces that have suffered
directly from the Coalition’s dogma of cuts and pay restraint that
are leading the charge. Local authority and school workers in Unite,
GMB and Unison have voted to strike in response to a 1% pay offer,
which of course amounts to a fourth consecutive real terms pay cut.
PCS members are striking against the year-on-year pay cap that has
been imposed on civil servants, with a demand for a pay increase that
would begin to make up for the years of downward pressure.
Teachers in the NUT are taking action in response to the wide-ranging attack that the Coalition, led by Michael Gove, has waged on education, including his attempts to weaken legal protections and terms and conditions for teachers. And the Fire Brigades’ Union is participating too, before eight days of consecutive action beginning on 14 July, in protest at eye-watering hikes in firefighters’ pension contributions. And spare a thought for the hundreds of thousands of former public sector workers who might well have voted for industrial action were it not for the fact that they have already been sacked by the ‘small government’ zealots of Whitehall.
These millions of vital public sector workers have more than a strong enough case to take action. The government’s policy of pushing down pay has created a new financial crisis: substantial economic hardship for millions of households across the country. Inflation has outstripped growth in wages throughout this recession. PCS figures put the rise at the cost of food at 16%, and the rise in electricity bills at 22% since 2010, but most pay packets have been frozen or barely risen.
This has had a disastrous ripple effect across the economy, because it has pushed down demand for goods and services and held back recovery. Meanwhile the wealthiest 1,000 people in Britain have seen their assets double in value since 2009. A recovery has clearly taken place, but not for the vast majority of the population.
And as a Unison member has said, local government workers “shouldn’t be scapegoated to make up for the incompetence and greed of the bankers”. That’s exactly it. It’s hard to see any explanation other than the standard of living of millions of people is being sacrificed to restore stability to an economic model that delivers almost exclusively for the wealthiest 1% of society.
That is why it is so important that so many people are making a stand against austerity on 10 July. Many will have been motivated to vote in favour of the strike on account of their own, acutely-felt consequences of the Coalition’s policy. They have seen their family’s income slip for no fault of their own. But the benefit of their taking action could well be felt additionally by millions of non-unionised workers, those in the private sector, older people and the unemployed. What such a considerable show of force can do is demonstrate the wild unpopularity of continuing austerity policies. That should be noticed in Whitehall and it should be noticed too in the Labour party, where many senior figures still believe that signing up to Tory spending plans represent the best path to power.
It is obvious then that the action on 10 July should be actively supported and assisted by anyone who wants a society founded on social justice. If you’re not on strike yourself, there are still many ways in which solidarity can be offered.
For example, many of those taking action may never have been on strike before, and be nervous about what the Daily Mail will say about them, or worse what their neighbour will say about them. Others will be worried about intimidation at work as a result. If you have friends or family on strike, make sure they know you’re behind them.
You can also get onto Twitter and Facebook to show strikers whose side you’re on. Messages of support from non-strikers are really appreciated.
And if you can, you should drop by a local picket line – these will be outside many buildings where people are striking. You can find out where and what time picket lines will be near you by tweeting at the union’s local regions and asking them. Don’t turn up empty handed. Striking isn’t easy, and a cup of tea and a cake will mean a lot.
Don’t forget too opportunities to get involved with further action: the TUC march on 18 October will be an important chance to develop the movement for a new economic plan which invests in people and the economy.
Whatever you do, the important thing is that you stand prepared to defend and support those taking action. To invoke an old slogan: it’s not just for themselves that they are fighting.