There are times, decades even, when events drag and nothing seems to happen, and there are weeks and months when history seems to leap forward. There can be no question that the announcement, by a host of public sector unions, at September's TUC conference of plans for a one-day strike on 30 November marks a sharp escalation in the class struggle in Britain
The decision by more unions to ballot their members over the assault on pensions and coordinate a strike with the four unions that struck on 30 June means that up to 3 million workers could strike together in what is effectively a public sector general strike.
This would be the biggest industrial confrontation since the Miners' Strike in 1984-5 and the biggest single day of strike action in Britain since the 1926 General Strike. The drive to make public sector workers pay more, work longer and receive less for their pensions is a major part of a much wider attempt to shift the burden of the worst economic crisis since the Second World War onto the shoulders of workers. The outcome of this battle could shape the political terrain in Britain for the foreseeable future.
Learning from Thatcher
A strike by millions can provide a glimpse of the power workers possess and begin to transform workers' confidence. The government seems to have forgotten a central lesson of Margaret Thatcher's approach to the unions - the careful preparation of divide and rule tactics to isolate different groups of workers one by one. Failure to do so risks a generalised confrontation with workers like that which destroyed Ted Heath's Tory government in 1974. When Thatcher's government, overconfident after its victory over successive groups of workers, did move to attack all workers simultaneously through the poll tax the resulting revolt forced Thatcher out of office.
Instead of recalling this experience, the Tory/Lib Dem coalition has managed to unite all the unions, offering next to no concessions in the talks as we go to press. This is for two reasons. Firstly, the scale of the offensive they are trying to push through is the biggest austerity programme of any leading industrial nation. Secondly, ministers' appear to believe that most workers will be reluctant to heed their union leaders calls for action, or at least to take no more than token action.
Francis Maude, the cabinet office minister who together with Lib Dem Treasury minister Danny Alexander is leading the negotiations with the unions over the pension changes summed up the prevailing assumption in ruling circles when he declared, "The unions' own members want to be going to work. They don't want to give up a day's pay at a time when we are all of us working under constraints." This may prove a major miscalculation.
But neither is it simple to buy off opposition. Any significant retreat over pensions risks a dangerous loss of authority by the government. Proof that industrial action gets results risks opening the floodgates to strikes over a myriad of other issues - from pay and job cuts to the privatisation of the NHS. And it would encourage resistance in the private sector as well as the public.
The coalition's position is increasingly difficult.
According to the Financial Times, the day before the public sector unions announced their plans for strike ballots at the TUC George Osborne told the cabinet that they were "confronted with a bleak political picture" and that "UK growth prospects [are] deteriorating and did not look like they were coming back soon".
The eurozone crisis and the slowdown in the US economy has put paid to easy hopes that a couple of years of economic pain will be followed by a private sector led recovery, with a general election in 2015 dominated by debate about how to spend the proceeds. This throws the political assumptions that underlie the coalition into disarray and will sharpen debate both within the government and within the wider ruling class about economic strategy.
Of course a one-day strike, even involving millions of workers, is unlikely to be enough. Even the union leaders who have been the most reluctant to join the fight acknowledge this, with talk of action over the winter and into the spring and even summer of 2012. But can the union leaders be trusted to lead a fightback that matches the mood of rising anger and that can deliver the kind of powerful action that can knock the government off course?
The three biggest unions, Unite, GMB and Unison, have been slow to join the fight. The fact that they have now done so reflects both the pressures they are under from above from the government and significant pressure from below. The action the four unions that struck together on 30 June, with socialists in the PCS, UCU and NUT playing an important role in winning the argument not to wait for other unions to move, was a crucial step that combined with growing class bitterness at the coalition's attacks to push a swathe of other union leaders to announce strike ballots.
Their aim is to force the government to reopen "meaningful" negotiations that offer some concessions. The danger is that they will settle for the first crumbs offered and fail to match the mood of growing class bitterness towards the government. Certainly the strategy being touted, a coordinated one-day strike, followed by selective action by different groups of workers, risks dissipating the struggle into drawn-out battles that leave those sections called out feeling isolated.
The 1995 Juppé plan
A very different, and far more effective, approach was taken by French workers in 1995 when prime minister Juppé launched an attack on the social security system, including public sector pensions, combined with a public sector pay freeze.
The more radical union leaders called a day of action in October 1995 against the pay freeze that was followed by another against the Juppé plan in late November. On the surface this followed a well-worn pattern where the unions called limited one-day actions to pressure the governments and employers to return to the negotiating table.
But the response to the call for action was huge. Le Monde reported, "Rarely has a demonstration in Paris been more impressive. Behind the civil servants and local government employees there was a river of workers from the engineering and chemical industries, from textiles and the print. Teachers were also there in large numbers."
The demonstrations outside Paris were even more impressive. In Marseilles it was the biggest protest since 1968 and tens of thousands marched in Toulouse, Lyons, Lille and other cities.
But what changed everything was the decision by groups of rail workers to hold general assemblies in the big rail depots and vote to stay out, meeting each day to decide to continue the action. The action spread to the Paris Metro and buses and across the transport system. It then spread to the postal sorting offices, often located near the big rail stations. A wave of student strikes also spread across the colleges.
A report in Le Monde described what happened in Paris: "Tuesday evening, some postal workers brought together some striking railway workers they had met on the demonstration of that day. At 8pm delegates from the CGT and the [independent union] SUD called, 'To throw the Juppé plan into the dustbin of history'. They then went out and visited the different offices and held an improvised general assembly... voted to strike and then, led by railway workers, walked along the rail track to the Austerlitz sorting office on the other side of the Seine which they also pulled out." The growing momentum forced the union leaders to call further days of action. It also forced the more right wing union, Force Ouvrière, to join the campaign.
The all-out strikes spread to telecom, electricity and gas workers and teachers. By December there were repeated days of action called by all the union federations, one or two a week, with strikes across the public sector and huge demonstrations, combined with a growing wave of all-out strikes in key sections. In some areas, the general assemblies began to turn into coordinating strike committees for all those sections of workers on strike in a town or local area. The government had expected token resistance; instead Juppé was forced into a humiliating retreat, making major concessions in his plans.
Similar potential existed last year in France when Sarkozy returned to the offensive over pensions. Again union leaders were forced to call repeated days of action involving strikes and protests. The response was even bigger than in 1995, with up to 3.5 million people taking part. The power of the mobilisations was again significantly boosted by all-out strikes by sections of workers, in particular workers at the oil refineries.
But when Sarkozy used riot police to smash a blockade at the Grandpuits refinery near Paris he was successful in forcing strikers to return to work, and breaking the overall momentum of the strike wave. What was missing was a swift and organised group of militants with sufficient roots in the working class to reinforce the blockade and argue for immediate walkouts and protests in solidarity across France to force Sarkozy to retreat.
Lessons for socialists
The lessons for socialists in Britain are clear. We have to throw everything into ensuring that if a mass strike is called for 30 November it is a significant success. That means mobilising networks of activists to campaign for big yes votes in the unions balloting, putting the case for the next round of strikes and seeking to draw in further unions.
Huge picket lines and local rallies on the strike day can draw workers into active participation in the strikes - as we saw on 30 June when up to 100,000 strikers marched. They can also provide a focus for workers in the private sector who can join rallies and send delegations on protests and for everyone from pensioners to students who wants to fight back. This also requires pulling together local union reps and activists from across the different unions planning to strike in order to plan the action on 30 November.
It also means working with those sections of trade union leadership that want to push the strikes forward. Yet there will also be pressure on the more left wing unions to accommodate to the pace of the more conservative. Socialists will have to work with and against the union leaders if they try to apply the brakes. All this increases the importance of developing local and national networks of militants.
Hence the importance of the Unite the Resistance conference on 19 November which can help pull together sections of the trade union leadership and the militant minority who want to drive the campaign to success. The combination of an increasingly intractable economic crisis and the return of mass strikes mean the stakes are very high. We have to go all out to win.