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Millions of British Public Sector Workers Take to the Streets in Historic General Strike

Richard Seymour, Amy Goodman and and Nermeen Shaikh; Democracy Now
AMY GOODMAN: In Britain, 2 million workers are in the streets today participating in the largest mass protest in generations. Teachers, hospital staff, garbage collectors, firefighters, and border guards are participating in the 24-hour strike. A coalition of 30 trade unions have organized approximately 1000 demonstrations and rallies across the country.

Picket lines are anticipated to spring up around public buildings and hospitals during the day. On Monday, airlines said they were were cutting flights into the London Heathrow Europe’s busiest airport because of fears of long delays and overcrowding due to the strike. The airport workers are part of the approximately 2 million public sector workers opposed to reforms that unions say will force them to pay more for their pensions and work for longer before they retire.

… AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron has condemned the strike as irresponsible and urged unions to continue talking as negotiations on pensions run until the end of the year. The Conservative led coalition government also said reform is needed as people are living longer and public service pensions are unaffordable.

Yesterday, the British government announced another dose of austerity. Finance Minister George Osborne said pay raises for public sector workers, already under a two-year freeze, would be capped at 1% from 2013, while job losses would shoot up to 710,000 from an original estimate of 400,000. For more we go, right now, to London to speak with Richard Seymour, one of Britain’s most popular bloggers. His blog is called, Lenin’s Tomb. Richard, welcome to Democracy Now!. This is the largest mass protest in generations. Talk about its significance.

RICHARD SEYMOUR: Right, well, first of all, the important thing to recognize is that Britain is not like the continent. We don’t have strikes like this on a regular basis. France does, Greece does, Britain doesn’t.

This is the largest strike in British history since 1926, which was a general strike. So, that is the significance of this and it means it will have a much greater political impact in the United Kingdom than it would have in its continental counterparts.

The other thing is that, a year ago, things looked very different. If you go back to the summer of 2010, you find a very somber mood among trade unionists. There was an invitation to David Cameron, even, to speak at the Trade Union Congress. There was no talk of mass strikes taking place. But, the deal in which David Cameron was coming to speak at Congress was scuppered due to the anger of ordinary rank and file trade unionists. Subsequently, the Congress itself was a very angry affair in which trade union leaders felt pressured to actually organize some sort of response to the cuts.

In October, I think, they came up with the idea of having a March, a big trade union march by March 26. At the time, it was seen as too little, too late. But, in the interim, very importantly, there was the student movement, and the student movement just came out of nowhere. It flew up like a rocket, proverbially, and basically, made a huge amount of difference in terms of the arguments that were going on within the trade union movement because it cut away at some of the pessimism and despair that ordinary people felt that they couldn’t challenge these cuts.

So when the march actually happened, it was one of the largest trade union marches and British history. It was 500,000 strong, it represented every sector of the British working-class movement. And when trade union and leaders like Mark Serwotka of the PCS Union, Civil Service Union, stood up and said, if we can march together, we can strike together, people listened and applauded. I think, I believe his speech was one of the most popular of the day. And that was the basis for the pressure to have this sort of strike action.

On June 30th, there was a large scale strike held by some of the smaller, more militant unions, that are not affiliated to Labor Party. And that put—-the success of that strike on that day—-put more pressure on the leaders of the larger unions, which are affiliated to the Labor Party and which have consequently been far more reluctant to call strike action. That’s how we got where we are today, and that’s the significance of this.

The other thing, of course, is the fact that the government hasn’t really been negotiating. In fact, it seems to have been remarkably insouciant about the possibilities of provoking opposition. You mentioned in your report the escalation of the austerity measures that are being proposed. In addition to the wage cuts, they’re talking about transforming wage bargaining fundamentally by making it responsible to regional wage market conditions. That means that basically, if you’re a public sector worker in Manchester you’ll probably find your wages much lower than they are in London.

And the ostensible rationale for this is to make things easier for the private sector, because they say that at the moment, high public sector wages crowds out cut the private sector. So, this is a fairly drastic restructuring, all in all of the whole British economy.

And I have to be honest, the last time this was done it was by an administration, Thatcher administration, which was far more aware of the possible dangers of tempting its opponents, provoking its opponents. That Government came to power and adopted a strategy of salami-slicing its opponents. Starting by taking on the weaker unions, conceding to the larger unions at first, racking up a number of defeats inflicted on the weaker unions, and only then going after one of the stronger unions, known colloquially as the big battalions of the labor movement. And only then did they take on the miners and the print workers and defeat them. So, this Government seems to be walking into this fight really without much of a sign of care. But it may be complacency.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Richard Seymour, can you say little about how this strike has affected the position of the Labor Party? You mentioned earlier how they’ve been responding to unions. How have their positions changed, if at all, in response to the strike?

RICHARD SEYMOUR: Well, the first thing to say is that the Labor Party has never—-at least the Labor leadership has never supported strikes. So, it would be a rare departure if they decided they were going to support this one. However, very noticeably they have changed their tone.
(1 December 2011)
Related from Seaumus Milne at the Guardian:
This strike could start to turn the tide of a generation

Lessons from Egypt: Occupy the Democratic Party

David Atkins, Digby’s Hullabaloo
The election results in Egypt are in. As expected, the Islamists have taken a commanding lead:

Islamists claimed a decisive victory on Wednesday as early election results put them on track to win a dominant majority in Egypt’s first Parliament since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the most significant step yet in the religious movement’s rise since the start of the Arab Spring.

The party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s mainstream Islamist group, appeared to have taken about 40 percent of the vote, as expected. But a big surprise was the strong showing of ultraconservative Islamists, called Salafis, many of whom see most popular entertainment as sinful and reject women’s participation in voting or public life.

Analysts in the state-run news media said early returns indicated that Salafi groups could take as much as a quarter of the vote, giving the two groups of Islamists combined control of nearly 65 percent of the parliamentary seats.

Most media sources are concentrating on the further rise of conservative religious power in the Middle East after the election. But that perspective obscures a greater lesson: in electoral democracy, those who are best organized are the ones who usually win, no matter how inspiring the revolutionary movement may be.

Consider Egypt: in the months and days leading up to the vote, there were multiple calls to delay the election. Why? Because in the divide between secular and religious revolutionaries in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis were much better organized than the more liberal opposition.

More secular and liberal Egyptians wanted more time to organize their political parties; the Brotherhood wanted to hold elections as quickly as possible. The Brotherhood got its wish, and the result is that the better organized Islamists won the day handily, in spite of the fact that it was the secular and liberal Egyptians who helped propel the anit-Mubarak regime forward.

That victory came at the expense of the liberal parties and youth activists who set off the revolution, affirming their fears that they would be unable to compete with Islamists who emerged from the Mubarak years organized and with an established following. Poorly organized and internally divided, the liberal parties could not compete with Islamists disciplined by decades as the sole opposition to Mr. Mubarak. “We were washed out,” said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, one of the most politically active of the group. …

There is a lesson here. No matter how well-intentioned the revolutionaries and no matter how successful the revolution, at the end of the day organizational power will step in to win the day. It always does. That organizational power can be a force for good or for ill. But especially in democratic societies, the ability to leverage organized support toward specific ends will always trump anarchic mass sentiment. There’s a reason that feel-good stories like the original Star Wars trilogy end with the death of the Emperor and the destruction of the Imperial regime; good storytellers spare us the ugly aftermath of the fractious rebuilding process because the results are rarely pretty.

It’s easy to understand the sentiments of those who seek anti-organizational and apolitical solutions to America’s problems, and who see the system as so hopelessly corrupted that it’s barely worth voting much less becoming organizationally involved. But unfortunately, those who either refuse to or fall behind in participation in the process, like the liberals and secularists in Egypt, will find themselves at the mercy of those who do.

… Similar lessons will apply for the Occupy movement. No matter how successful the movement may become in terms of shaking the foundations of the financial elite, power will ultimately be leveraged at the ballot box or not at all. As in Egypt, those who ignore or are unable to leverage the power of organization will be condemned to be subject to those who do have that power.
(X November 2011)
It should be pointed out that working for Democratic candidates is not the only form of political organizing. There seems to be a marked lack of enthusiasm for Obama and the Democrats at Occupy events. -BA

Student Protests Spread Throughout Region

Pamela Sepúlveda, Inter Press Service
In support of Chile’s ongoing student protests, and voicing their own demands, thousands of people took to the streets in more than a dozen cities in Latin America Thursday demanding quality public education.

The Latin American March for Education was called by the Chilean students’ confederation, and demonstrations were held in Argentina, Brazil, Chile,Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Some 10,000 protesters – according to the organisers – marched through the streets of Santiago once again demanding reforms of the educational system. And again, there was a crackdown by the anti-riot police, who arrested some 60 people.

… José Barrera, a civil engineering student at the Catholic University, said that what is happening in Chile “is an example of what education is like when it’s privatised, when it is no longer defended as a right of everyone.”

An education law enacted by the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet set off a process of decentralisation and privatisation that gave private schools free rein to pursue profit and use entrance exams to select their students.

The Chilean system is not just divided into paid private education and tuition-free public education, but is split into three: municipal schools run by local governments, which are publicly funded and free, state-subsidised private schools, and private schools that charge tuition.

Within the sphere of state-subsidised private education, students get free tuition at some schools, while at others families pay monthly fees, an arrangement known as “shared financing.”

The protest movement is calling for an end to the freedom of private schools receiving state subsidies to levy fees at will. Instead of the current system, under which administrators of these institutions rack up profits, the demonstrators want school fees to be invested in under-funded public schools.
(1 December 2011)