On September 29 I joined many other people in Spain and supported the general strike. Although I have reservations about strikes, a subject to which I will return, I did so because whilst I accept that strong measures are required to solve the financial crisis making the weak and vulnerable pay for the sins of the bankers is not the solution nor is it just.
José Javier Cubillo, national organisation secretary of the UGT, said the strike had drawn the support of 70 per cent of workers of whom 10 million had been called out. The union, along with its CC.OO partners, insisted this meant the government had to reconsider its tough economic and labour reform policies.
So what did the strike achieve? If we are talking of the objectives of the unions - nothing! The government is sticking to its cuts. Moodys down graded Spain’s credit rating from Aaa to Aa1 shortly after whilst the centre right Partido Popular gained a few points in the opinion polls making it even more likely they will form the new government in 2012. Their policies will be tougher than socialist PSOE.
I want to go back to the East End of London in 1926 the year of the General Strike. By then my uncle Len was a communist. My maternal grandmother – his sister and a socialist all her life - was bringing my mother up on her own after being widowed when her young husband was struck down by TB.
Life for that working class generation was tough. There was neither the social welfare safety net nor the national health service that we take for granted today.
It was my grandmother who was the rock on which I forged my early values. Yet the most telling moment came in the late 1960s when I went in to her room where she was watching TV. The news was about another strike and tears were running down her cheeks. She was so furious with the actions of the unions that she could not contain herself as she felt they were destroying everything the union and Labour movements had fought so hard to build up.
Certainly the world she now viewed about her was vastly different from the one she had been a teenager and a young adult in. She held firmly to her core socialist beliefs but believed the unions were knocking down what had been built up with so much pain. Her feelings struck a chord in my soul.
Although the General Strike of 1926 is now a part of the socialist and union movement heritage it lasted ten days and totally failed in its objectives of preventing wage reduction and worsening conditions for the miners. The unions’ winter of discontent of 1979 did more to usher in the Thatcher era than anything the Labour Government of Jim Callaghan did. Then as now in Spain we are railing against a socialist government in the full knowledge that the outcome will almost certainly be a centre-right government which will hammer the people even harder.
There is something noble about a person having the inalienable right to withdraw his or her labour and to strike to defend their rights or the rights of others. Yet when in the days of the cotton mills that could bring production to a crashing halt or a dock strike could prevent the mill receiving its raw materials or exporting its finished product the reality today is very different.
In an age when money or information can be passed around the world in a split second, or a factory can be relocated to Eastern Europe or Asia, we are still manning pickets, waving banners, marching and shouting slogans. The world has passed our mode of protest by. Whilst I joined the strike on September 29 because I believed a stand had to be made against the wrongs that were being committed against pensioners, public service employees, those in work and the unemployed in the name of clearing up the mess left by the financial sector – I did so in the full knowledge that it would amount to nothing. Indeed the end result could be a switch from a socialist to a centre right government.
Governments today, regardless of political persuasion, dance to a different beat and centre right Sarkozy is no more going to back down on pension reform in France than centre left Zapatero is in Spain. In the future if we are to take on governments or employers and win the battle for social justice we will need a new armoury.
Unions have a problem. Ninety-five per cent of their work is defending the rights of workers, negotiating with management, education – and if the truth were told a good union is an important part of our economic engine as any entrepreneur. Yet it goes totally unreported. What the public is aware of is the set piece strikes and more often than not these efforts are unsuccessful. Unions worldwide in this modern age are fighting 21 st century battles with 19 th century weapons - that has to change and fast.
(The above article appeared in the Morning Star on September 17 2010)