It has now been a year since the 2010 TUC Congress. All affiliates bar one voted to organise the 'co-ordination of industrial action where appropriate and to fully support any workers forced to take industrial action in defence of pension rights' and to 'support and co-ordinate campaigning and joint union industrial action, nationally and locally, in opposition to attacks on jobs, pensions, pay or public services'.
Since then, the union movement has organised a single - albeit very well supported - demonstration on 26 March 2011 and just four of the smaller unions (PCS, NUT, ATL and UCU), with around 750,000 members, took a single day of strike action against pension reform on 30 June 2011. Absent from this action was the biggest public sector union, Unison (with 1.2 million members) and the two other biggest unions, the GMB and Unite, which have between them another a half a million plus public sector members. Of the unions that took action on 30 June, only the PCS and NUT are so far definite in planning to have a further day of strike action in the latter part of November 2011. Whether other unions, like the FDA and Prospect, join them, remains to be seen at the time of writing.
It is noticeable on the agenda for the 2011 TUC Congress that only the PCS, NUT and UCU unions are calling for further industrial action on pensions and the coordination of that action. The CWU is calling for another 'national day of action' like the 26 March. While Unison, Unite and the GMB may yet choose to support the PCS, NUT and UCU motions, they are unlikely to do so with much enthusiasm or seriousness. If they were enthusiastic and serious, they would have put forward their own motions.
The passage - if not waste - of time, the absence of hard-hitting collective industrial action and the deep divisions over which way to proceed amongst the unions highlight the ever more pressing need for unions to take the lead in creating national and local civil alliances of the providers and users of public services to defend public services from the coalition government's 'age of austerity'.
The particular salience of these civil alliances is that industrial action on its own is unlikely to ever create sufficient political leverage to be able to resist successfully the attacks on public services. This is all the more so because a) getting all relevant unions to take action and do so in a coordinated way is very problematic; and b) the industrial action may concern - as it has done so far - only workers' terms and conditions of employment. That said, industrial action, particularly strike action, has an important role to play as part of a wider popular mobilisation, particularly as it can deliver a sharp punch (rather than a knockout blow) and help make an issue a political hot potato.
Before laying out my proposition and the rationale for creating such civil alliances, it is essential to explain why the unions are the starting point for their creation. Simply put, and in spite everything that has been thrown at unions in Britain and despite any flaws and deficiencies they may have, with some 6.5 million members, they remain the largest organised bodies in civil society.
Unions are also the remaining ideological repository of social democracy in Britain because they seek to protect their members from the outcomes of capitalism by advocating the regulation of the processes of the market. More than that, they operate on the basis of collective association and collective action, with the wellsprings of their potential power being found in their ability to disrupt the means of production, distribution and exchange and to put masses of workers-cum-citizens on the streets.
These characteristics bring forth resources and potential strategic power. In these respects, they have no challengers, particularly as any extant social movements are too narrow or specific to cover issues relating to the defence of public services and those that do exist are in decline. Groups like UK Uncut, which are independent of unions, do not cut the mustard here as capable alternatives.
Moreover, to aid evaluating my proposition, it is worth recalling that the last mass popular and successful domestic rebellion was over the poll tax, involving millions of people in activities ranging from non-registration and non-payment to more public forms of activism such as demonstrating and stopping warrant sales. The key to understanding the poll tax rebellion was not just the anger it generated or that Thatcher provided a hated point of focus for the rebels. Nor was it just that the poll tax affected the overwhelming majority of citizens at the same time and in the same way. Rather, the nature of the poll tax meant that the opposition to it had the leverage created by the government requiring citizens to register for it and then pay it (as it was not deducted at source as income tax is).
So there was a holy trinity of a) mass, direct and undifferentiated impact, b) the cost and injustice were...