Thursday, February 09, 2012

Sh! You're Waking the Giant!

SLOW TO ROUSE, and good-natured to a fault, but stirring and starting to move.

EDUCATION minister Michael Gove blubbed about "militants itching for a fight".
Danny Alexander, chief Secretary to the Treasury, assured us it was a "diversion".
Then after it went ahead and was a success, the head boy David Cameron put on a brave face to jeer that it had just been a "damp squib".

Though its organisations have been weakened over past decades, its defences and resistance lowered and consciousness confused, the British working class is a sleeping giant. Slow to rouse, not easy to wake, and good-natured to a fault. Even that over-paid pillock Jeremy Clarkson, saying on the BBC that we should all be shot, drew lots of protest messages to the BBC and yet, far less anger than contempt.

But the giant is awakening, and we must at least partly thank our enemies for that. An article in the current issue of Labour Research says that unions are reporting an upsurge in membership since the November 30 strike to defend public sector pensions, and are thanking government ministers like those quoted for being the best recruitment sergeants!

Some two million public service workers, from head teachers to dinner ladies, paramedics to probation officers, took part in the November 30 day of action called by the TUC, and of the 30 unions whose members participated, seven were not even TUC affiliated. Members of the National Association of Head Teachers took national strike action for the first time in their union's 114 years of history.

If Cameron thinks such steps are insignificant he is out of touch with reality. Of course, whether the prime minister really believes anything he says is open to question.

All the same, unions have reason to be grateful to the government.

"The applications to join spike every time Danny Alexander is on his feet in the House, talking about his plans for public sector pensions," says Unison's general secretary Dave Prentis. A comparison of monthly figures showed that applications rose a massive 126 per cent since the reults were announced of the union's ballot for strike action.

The University and College lecturers' union UCU reported that around 2,500 new members swelled its ranks in November. In particular, Monday, November 28, the day education Minister Michael Gove madehis speech about "militants, itching for a fight", was a "bumper recruitment day" for the union.

Great play was made by ministers and the media with the supposed privilege of public sector workers enjoying generous pensions compared to most private sector workers. Besides exagerrating what most public sector workers earn or can expect to receive in pensions, they trusted in people not asking what they had done for, or rather to, private sector pensions. But in any case the divide and rule tactic did not succeed. They forget that working people do not live in pigeon holes, and increasingly do not believe everything they read in the press. Everyone has a relative, friend or neighbour who is a public sector worker, or can talk to their kids' teacher or mum's nurse.

It is unfortunate for this government but in view of recent scandals and court cases involving, rather than reported by, the newspapers, people may be more inclined to believe someone they know rather than the Tory press. And what with cuts and attacks affecting everybody except the super rich there's a widespread mood, when ministers say "we're in this together" to answer "we are -against you!"

So there was widespread sympathy for the public sector workers on stike or demonstrating against the government on November 30.

What's more, the GMB union which organises across both sectors reports that not only did large numbers of local government, NHS and schools staff join the union in November, concerned at threats to their jobs and pay. The union also saw a spike in recruitment from large private companies where pensions are under threat, as Martin Smith told Labour Research:

"Despite the government's efforts to divide public and private sector workers, we are finding that the pensions battle is having an impact on recruitment in the private sector, particularly in large companies where final salary schemes still exist and are defendable."

Among the less familiar banners I remarked on the November 30 demonstration in London was that of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists. If there was an "I-Spy Union Banners" book for spotting on marches I'm sure that one would be worth quite a few points.

The 36,000 member CSP is not noted for militancy, having only had one previous strike -in 1980 - in its 117 year history, Labour Research says. But CSP assistant director for union services Claire Sullivan says that in the campaign for November 30 "we had lots of enquiries from people who had never felt the need or urge to join a trade union before but who wanted to participate in the industrial action." The Society has had a 15 per cent increase in membership among qualified physiotherapists, despite job losses and unemployment among graduates.
Associate membership, open to support workers and asistants, tripled in October and November.

Away from the hustle and bustle of the streets, schools and hospitals, in the quiet of Kew Gardens, something else is growing besides the plants. I've only previously encountered Prospect, the union representing civil service professionals, scientists, managers etc, at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). But its branch at the Royal Botanical Gardens increased its membership from 151 on October 1 to 169 on December 1.

Most had little previous experience of strike action, or knowledge of what it entailed, but the branch produced a briefing explaining their rights and assuring them of union support. It seems to have worked, not just on the day, but in encouraging people who had taken part in action on Novemeber 30 to come forward as union reps.

Pensions strike boosts trade union recruitment, Labour Research February 2012.

So, messrs Cameron and co, better shift because something is stirring under your feet!

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