Workers of Britain: Unite!
by Andrea Gibbons
I’ve been teaching the social history of London, and—cynical as I am—I confess the more I read the more amazed I am about this crazy idea that free markets solve all problems has any traction at all. We tried it once. In the Victorian days of laissez-faire when there was no social housing, no health care, no eight-hour-day or worker protection or minimum wage or sick pay or holidays or workers compensation, when the free market proved just how devastating it could be, families literally starved to death if their children did not work. Many starved to death anyway. Old people hanged themselves so as not to have to try and survive through another winter. Through struggle and the strength of unions we changed all of that, we won pensions to support ourselves with dignity in old age and not burden our children, and now they’re telling us to go back?
We refuse to go back. And more and more people are joining us. Officially the strikes are all about pensions, those fabled creatures of distant myth in the minds of most Americans. A guaranteed income when you retire drawn from the pot of money that you and your employer contribute to, it is not subject to the vagaries of the stock market, and it’s a truly beautiful thing. The conservatives have been calling public-sector pensions ‘gold-plated,’ trying to paint nurses and teachers as greedy. A hard trick to pull, when the average yearly pension is only £7,800 (around $11,000), and in fact far lower than that for many. For a nice visual breakdown of pensions you can click here, but just one example of what the current deals on the table would mean: a 42-year-old nurse in the NHS would be £283 worse off per year, and have to work an additional 7 years before retiring. We all know the cost of living won’t be going down with her paycheck.
But now, this past Wednesday, over a million British workers went on strike, making it the biggest in Britain since 1979 or 1926, depending on who you talk to and which paper you read. Nurses, teachers, social workers, firefighters, librarians, probation officers, they were all out. 62% of schools shut for the day, another 14% were partially closed, and the children of the UK jumped for joy.
That morning I awoke at seven a bit bleary eyed, threw on multiple layers of clothing, and headed out my door. I stopped at the University College Union (UCU) picket at Lambeth College first, only a few minutes away. It was a small picket, but only because the union is so strong there that there was no need … I heard only 7 of 200 employees showed up to work, and we didn’t see any in my stint passing out flyers to folks walking by.
I continued down Brixton Hill to the Olive Morris House (named after Brixton’s most famous Black feminist activist in what can only be an attempt at irony from our government), where another friend of mine was on the picket line. That was more heartbreaking. He works for the council’s call centre, helping refer people to the services they need, many of which are provided in the same building. The entire call centre had just been outsourced; the switch happened on December 1. My friend had to watch his co-workers walk right past him, even knowing that they will all be out of a job come April when the company moves operations to Southampton.
Other picketers also called out the names of their co-workers, “Not you, John, tell me you’re not crossing the picket line …” And it hurt to watch them lower their eyes and keep walking. A couple of them were angry and stayed to argue. One said he had a son to feed.
But he was answered, “For how much longer will you be able to feed him, and will he have to take care of you when you are old?” He still went in.
The thing about scabs is that even one hurts, but only a quarter of the people in Olive Morris House came to work. Others were more successful. Only two people came to work in Lambeth’s libraries; one of them had to sit alone in a huge locked building while the strike festival took place in the square right in front of her.
I was rather late for my own picket line I’m afraid, but made it in the end. The union struggle at the London School of Economics just didn’t feel as vital, probably because it’s the kind of place where for all its radical history, Morgan Stanley now sponsors National Aids Day, and a number of my students’ only goal is for a job with Goldman Sachs. Even so, it felt good to stand on the steps of St Clements with a few of my co-workers, all new friends. We had enough people to actually picket every entrance, and the campus was practically deserted—with only the hardcore anti-strike students present. Students had put caution tape everywhere. I didn’t see the profs go in.
The best part of the picket was an eleven(ish)-year-old who told student after student not to cross the picket line and made them all wear UCU stickers. Very few were able to resist her winning smile and sledgehammer tactics. I loved her, and the beautiful woman who brought us donuts.
Unofficially tens of thousand of people took to the streets on Wednesday not just over pensions, but over the ideological attack against workers and students, one that is hitting women and children, the poor and people of colour the hardest. Billions of pounds are being cut from budgets, thousands of people are being sacked and outsourced. The coalition government is trying to close all libraries, has already shut down playgrounds, children’s programs and community gyms. They are cutting millions of pounds from school budgets forcing entire departments to close even as they force students to take on massive debt. It’s horrifying, particularly after the riots of the summer. People are angry, and they’re getting angrier as the full effects of the cuts are gradually being felt.
But after the huge march, in the warmth and cheer of the Chandos pub where we all headed to avoid the boring speeches (along with many another union member), the feeling was buoyant, and all of us are now full of the question: what next? There will be more strikes, oh yes. David Cameron can pretend this is nothing, but it feels like the entire nation is slowly winding itself up for the fight of this generation …