30 June 2012     

Push back

As the media focus on Martin McGuinness’s handshake with the Queen as a sideshow in the Royal Jubilee circus, the real business of class politics goes on.
     As with the attention to the gesture politics of reconciliation at the recent Sinn Féin ard-fheis, these distractions are necessary but only because of the legacy of deepened sectarian division that resulted from thirty years of state violence, loyalist paramilitarism, and the politically misguided armed struggle of the IRA. Much more significant are the continued efforts of the ruling class to deal with their internal divisions and strengthen their ability to wage class war.
     Last week saw the British Tory-led coalition attack the benefits of workers on strike. Under current rules a drop in income when on strike entitles workers on less than £13,000 a year to benefits. But according to Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith (whose own personal wealth is estimated at around £1 million), “striking is a choice, and in future benefit claimants will have to pay the price for that choice.” In future, employers will report their staff on strike, and their benefits will be frozen.
     This week prime minister Cameron, under pressure from the ultra-right in his party, came clean about his class politics. In a statement that smacked not only of crass class prejudice but also racism and sectarianism, Cameron threatened an end to housing benefit for under-25s, the slashing of benefits for families with three or more children, and compulsory community work gangs for all claimants after a period on benefits. Those out of work in austerity Britain are to be forced by poverty, not least the poverty of their children, into the ranks of a cowed, low-paid work force.
     But this week has also seen thousands of workers say No to Cameron and his class and Yes to a people’s alternative.
     Transport workers in Unite in London delivered “solid” strike action in pursuit of a £500 payment for the massive extra work load expected during the Olympics. The fight for public services was boosted by the 55,000 PCS members in Revenue and Customs who formed picket lines across England and Scotland to stop the government’s plans to axe 10,000 jobs. PCS has pledged to continue a campaign of industrial action short of strike until the government reverses its policies. The lecturers’ union UCU has also resumed its action short of strike to force employers back into negotiations on pensions. UCU and Unite members lobbied a meeting of the Senate at Queen’s University, Belfast, about pensions and wages.
     The AGM of the transport workers’ union RMT was opened with a blistering attack on privatisation and the EU by their president. Alex Gordon pledged the union to “confront the threats that working people face”: attacks on their rights, wages, pensions, and public services. The Unite policy conference called for nationalisation to be put back on the political agenda as part of a social and economic alternative. In the words of their general secretary, Len McCluskey, “our members have drawn a line in the sand over the greedy excesses of feral and uncontrolled capitalism.”
     Unite National Women’s Committee chairwoman Susan Matthews made a plea for a national march against austerity and a lobby of Parliament to highlight that women are bearing the brunt of the cuts—a point well made earlier in the week on the steps of Stormont by the protest of community and trade union activists organised by the Empty Purse Campaign.
     Unity in struggle is the way to real reconciliation and shared futures.
     Never mind the handshake: organise the push back!

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