Wednesday, 25 August 2010

More than one way to fight the cuts?

Tonight's meeting at the Brent Trades Hall to discuss organising against the cuts will be vitally important. One important issue will be the type of action that can be taken. The problem with strike action, although a key weapon, is that such action by public sector workers can impact on the very people we are trying to defend. As today's report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies made clear these are poor families, women and those with disabilities. In the last period of mass anti-cuts action in the 70s and 80s there were attempts to bring together workers and users of services to not only defend public services but also to agree ways that they could be improved. As public sector workers we have to be prepared to admit that public services as presently constituted are not perfect.

In the summer in which Jimmy Reid of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation died, occupations should again be considered as a way of fighting cuts. The UCS occupation inspired other occupations across the country. As a young teacher I was involved in a small occupation when Fulham Baths (both a swimming pool and a public baths for those who at the time lacked bathrooms at home).  The baths were occupied by workers from the baths, trades unionists and members of the local community. As a local teacher and NUT member I joined the occupation and slept in a sleeping bag at the side of the swimming pool overnight and then went in to teach the next day. Now I cannot imagine how I coped with a full teaching load! The occupation was fully supported by local people, especially children as the photograph shows, and I used to take my class to swim in the pool during the occupation. We were determined to keep a resource used and valued by the community. We didn't save that particular building but we did help ensure a new pool was built nearby.

Children marching in defence of Fulham Baths and swimming in the occupied pool.
Some of the occupiers outside the baths including a young Paul Kenny (last on right), then a local GMB organiser, and now leader of the GMB

Another occupation around the same time in which I was involved was that of Hounslow Hospital. Although the times were different and strategies need to be updated there is a useful Handbook on Hospital Occupations available based on lessons from that campaign: HERE  We should consider occupations for community buildings that belong to us but which may be closed down (Kilburn College), moth-balled (Children's Centres if funding is not secured after 2011), or sold off (Brent Town Hall?).
Other methods could include working but not charging the public (tubes, buses etc) and showing the public in advance how the cuts will hit services by having an open day and showing them how cuts will hit. I did this sucessfully in one school where we 'implemented' the cuts and showed parents the resulting increases in class sizes, crowded class rooms and sharing of resources. The result was parents with much more idea of what cuts would mean and increased support for the campaign - plus good local newspaper coverage.

We will also need to consider how to campaign on cuts which are not jobs but welfare benefits including disability and housing, and cuts of funding for future projects like the Building Schools for the Future and Playbuilder programmes, and those affecting voluntary organisations. 

A complicating factor is the impact creeping privatisation. In contrast the to the 70s there are private companies waiting like vultures for public services to crumble so that they can leap in as 'providers' and make a tidy profit. As services provided by Brent Council to schools for example, are cut as staff are not replaced or are made redundant, they become less efficient. Schools will then be tempted to 'buy in' services from the private sector and deprive the council department of revenue, leading to a further downward spiral and perhaps leading to the department closing completely as it will be 'uneconomic'. The private sector will then be free to charge schools higher fees. This is likely to happen with services such as Brent's supply teacher pool. At present teachers employed by schools via the pool get a higher rate than private supply staff because the private companies rake of a fat agency fee. As headteachers are involved in recruiting teachers to the supply pool they have some control over the quality of staff - this is much reduced with private agencies.

But perhaps the greatest contrast with the 70s and 80s were at the time we still did have some shipbuilding, iron works and coal mining. With most of that dismantled by Thatcher and her followers and the subsequent reliance on the financial sector, with the dire results that we are now grappling with, we need to look at alternative economic models. An anti-cuts campaign needs to be proactive as well as reactive and we need to be questioning the whole basis of the Coalition's policy of drastic cuts and paying off the debt within 4 years. This is like a family deciding to pay off a 25 year mortgage in 4 years by turning off the heating, living on bread and water, and not sending the kids to school to save money on clothes!

Instead we need to be putting forward the need for investment in green jobs, education and training as part of the transformation of the economy and press for cuts where it really matters - Trident, defence, bankers' bonuses.

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