Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dented shield or alternative programme?

Martin Wicks yesterday published a useful critique of what he sees as the approach of the trade unions - and UNISON in particular - to confronting the cuts (http://martinwicks.wordpress.com/2011/04/25/after-the-march-the-return-of-the-%e2%80%9cdented-shield%e2%80%9d/).
He pulls apart two related aspects of our response, first, the demands we place upon employers (with particular reference to Labour local authorities, upon whom we are - as an affiliated trade union - in a particular position to place demands), and, second, how we work co-operatively with employers making cuts (and what that means for our role in the anti-cuts movement).
In a nutshell, Wicks is critical of our refusal - at a national level - to demand that Councils (and in particular Labour Councils) do not make cuts and sees this reflected in "partnership" practice locally, where branches are surrendering pay or conditions in return for (unreliable?) promises of "no compulsory redundancies" which amount to acquiescence in cuts and therefore isolate us from the anti-cuts movement.
Both aspects of this problem reflect the debilitating perception that there is no alternative but to make cuts (albeit we may query their "speed" or "depth").
The overall impact of this perception is a return to the "dented shield" advocated by Neil Kinnock a quarter century ago - where Labour clings on to office wherever it can and the trade unions cling on to the hope that a Labour Government will arrive soon to rescue us.
I think these criticisms (although perhaps not so much that comparison) are well made and commend the original article to you. However, I think the conclusions are overly pessimistic because the analysis misses a couple of important points, one about local activism and one about national policy.
Locally, there are UNISON branches opposing every cut (as best they may) and responding to job losses with resistance rather than concessions. The best recent example of action being taken in this cause is the joint strike by UNISON and NUT members in Tower Hamlets (http://falseeconomy.org.uk/campaigns/event/tower-hamlets-demo-march-nut-and-unison-on-strike-against-the-cuts). However - even where such action cannot be delivered locally - there are many more examples of branches taking a principled position to resist attacks on jobs and conditions of service.
These glimmers of local activity are consistent with the formal national policy position, which is that spending cuts are not necessary (as set out in UNISON's alternative budget) (http://www.unison.org.uk/asppresspack/pressrelease_view.asp?id=1890).
The material is available, from UNISON's national policy and the local practice of branches and activists, to construct a coherent alternative approach to that criticised by Wicks.
We can make the case that there is no "economic necessity" for the current deficit reduction programme, and certainly not for the cuts. These are a political choice and require a political response.
The grave disappointments of the last Government indicate that our political response should not be unquestioning support for the inadequate policies of the Labour Party. Voting out Coalition candidates is necessary but insufficient.
Instead we must redouble our efforts to build, on the basis of the splendid response on 26 March, the emerging anti-cuts movement, both as a bulwark of opposition to cuts in the here and now and as a force to shift the centre of political gravity leftwards.
It follows from this that we should avoid approaches which, in accepting cuts, isolate us from opposition to cuts. It also follows that we should unashamedly oppose the cuts and call upon all those charged to make them not to do so.
These debates will need to be had at Conference in June - although, as ever, we'll have to have some discussions with Standing Orders Committees about just what it is we can debate.
Those who want UNISON to fight as hard for the future of the Welfare State as it will for the future of UNISON also need to get the vote out now for the candidates of the left in the current NEC elections .
We need to build an alternative approach for UNISON, not in opposition, but based upon the best of our current response, nationally and locally.

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