Archive for December, 2011

The public sector strike in Britain and Northern Ireland (30 November) involved around 2 million workers from a wide  range of services, trades unions and professional associations, making it one of the biggest of its kind in over 30 years. It was an act of protest and solidarity in defence of decent pensions, especially for younger workers just starting out in their careers who will be hit hardest if the government gets its way and pushes through its pension “reforms”. It turned out to be a decent, good-humoured strike during which there was no trouble and no arrests by police. But it is clear that government spin has had the effect of sowing confusion amid the wider public and distracting from the issues at the heart of the dispute.

In the run up to the day of action, the government line was that it would be a hugely disruptive, therefore irresponsible strike whipped up by militant trades union leaders with only personal agendas at heart. The scare tactics were legion and based on rumour and outright lies.  The sick would not get emergency treatment; patients would have vital surgery cancelled after waiting for months; children would lose a day at school, thus disrupting their education and forcing their parents to stay off work; the elderly would be housebound because public transport would grind to a halt; hard-working students, burdened by hefty student loans, would have their lectures cancelled; border controls would be compromised, leading to long delays for international travellers, especially at airports where some might have to sit on the plane on the runway for hours, unable even to get to the terminal buildings; hundreds of illegal immigrants would be able to slip through unchecked; and the operation to neuter Jeremy Clarkson would have to be cancelled!

STRIKE VICTIM: JEREMY CLARKSON PROTESTS AS OPERATION CANCELLED

Then came the glorious day and the spin changed. The government started to dispute the turn-out figures. Not two million, said Cameron and his cronies; probably more like 500,000. “A damp squib”, said he. By mid-afternoon, as the rallies drew to a close,  a strange text came in to BBC Radio 5 Live saying that a shopping centre somewhere was jammed with teachers using the strike as a good opportunity to skive off and shop! The texter didn’t say how he or she knew they were striking teachers but reporters were duly dispatched to their nearest shopping centre to see if this was a nationwide phenomenon and, sure enough, the story changed suddenly from Biggest Public Sector Strike in Decades to Biggest Shopping Day of the Year.

After the downgrading and the distractions came the smear tactics. Michael Gove (one-time journalist and union man himself) came on Radio 5 Live for an interview with presenter Peter Allen to explain the glaring contradictions between the reality of the strike as reported by the station all day long and his government’s spin about it. Instead of answering the question, he maintained the spin by diverting attention to the dubious credentials of the union general secretaries: communist and Trotskyite militants whipping up (for their own devious, self-interested ends of course!) ordinary, decent civil servants, teachers and lollipop ladies into a frenzy of class hatred.  An irritated Peter Allen finally gave up asking the question at hand and ended the interview.

So either it’s a hugely disruptive strike that will damage the UK’s already battered economy or it’s a damp squib? Either it’s a damp squib or a strike whipped up by revolutionaries to bring down the state? What would explain this apparent confusion or contradiction in the government’s line? I don’t think there was any confusion there at all. Rather, I suspect it was a deliberate strategy to confuse the wider public about the true nature of the strike and its aims, further driving a divisive wedge between public and private sector workers. And looking at some of the stupid, disingenuous, ill-informed and truly hateful reactions on the media discussion threads out there, it seems to have had a measure of success. Even if we dismiss such people as ignorant crackpots, we only have to talk to friends and relatives who work in the private sector to see how deeply ingrained government propaganda really is even among the most reasonable people. As a striking school manager, Tom Footes, told Newsnight (BBC2, 30 November):

There’s an awful lot of negative banter on Facebook. A lot of people in the private sector don’t see any need for what we’re doing because of the situation they’re finding themselves in. And you’re trying to justify your position with theirs…it’s proving very difficult.

The Day of Action, then, was not just in defence of decent and fair public sector pensions; it was in defence of the public sector per se and the Tory strategy to shrink it, if not destroy it completely, under the fig leaf of fiscal responsibility. In his Autumn Statement, delivered on the eve of the Day of Action (29 November),  The Chancellor of Exchequer George Osborne announced that he was getting rid of 750,000 public sector jobs (yes, that’s three quarters of a million!); cutting pay even further with a four-year freeze; and scrapping the national pay structure. And all with the blessing of the Liberal Democrats.

The strike was also an act of defiance against government  lies and propaganda designed to divide and conquer workers in both public and private sectors.

I was proud to be part of it.

UPDATE (5 DECEMBER): Meanwhile, over at Media Studies is Shit, Rab has an opposite take on the government’s approach. In the interests of democracy and free speech, check it out. He argues that the government is confused and stupid in the messages it has put out about pensions, the public sector strike and the leaders of the public sector unions who, by contrast, have a clear and reasonable message the majority of the British public believe and support.  I agree that the unions have  made a clear and reasonable case but it’s wishful thinking to interpret mixed messages at the heart of government as confusion or stupidity. There is a clear strategy at work to undermine public sector workers and their unions and divert anger among poorly paid private sector workers, who have little or no protection by union or employment law, towards those working in the public sector.  Why? Because they are softening the underbelly of public opinion for radical changes ahead: the scrapping of employment laws, which will further castrate what little power the unions have left since Maggie Thatcher wielded the knife in the 1980s, mass compulsory redundancies among public sector workers and, ultimately, the shrinking of the public sector through privatisation. And with an impotent coalition partner that faces total wipe out at the next general election and a pathetic Labour Opposition, whose leader hadn’t the guts to support the one-day strike on 30 November, there’s no political leadership out there that’s going to stop them. But with prudence, patience and their  clear, understandable message, public sector workers and their Unions can.

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