I was out on the picket line in Chelmsford with the "Big Society Breakfast" yesterday, and I hope that direct action enables the wider anti-cuts movement to build more bridges with the trade unions. The ConDem government is clearly looking to use the economic crisis as an excuse for slashing public sector pay and remuneration while their financial backers - a small group of very rich and powerful people - take a larger and larger share of the national cake. Clearly, in these circumstances it would be criminal not to support the strikers.
However, I do wonder whether the public sector unions are in danger of falling into a trap set by the government, which wants to use the strike action to turn public opinion against the strikers - as happened often in the 1980s (with strikes by teachers, for example).
The problem for the unions in the short run is that it is very hard to see the government backing down on this issue - they have bet the complete reputation of the government on this insane deficit reduction strategy which they can't U-turn on without looking like a complete bunch of fools. So, they will most likely pursue their current economic policy - which includes vicious cuts in public sector pay and conditions - no matter what. That means that, short of a change of government - either through the ballot box or through some kind of revolution - attempts to change the govt's policy through industrial action are unlikely to work.
Therefore my conclusion on the strikes is that they are justified but strategically naive. With strike action unlikely to force a better deal by itself, what other options are open to the trade union movement to secure a better deal for public sector workers (and indeed, in the longer run, also for private sector workers?) There seem to be two options.
One is for union leaders to do a behind-the-scenes deal with Ed Miliband - who, despite not backing today's strikes, is surely still the most instinctively union-friendly leader Labour has had probably since Neil Kinnock, at least. The deal could essentially be an update of Labour's 1970s social contract policy - for a future Labour govt to make alterations to pensions, terms and conditions, and industrial relations legislation after the next election the ConDem settlement after the next election which are more favourable to public sector workers.
At the same time, the next Labour government should legislate for better working conditions for workers in the private sector - who have been hit much harder than the public sector workforce by the neoliberal assault on workplace rights and the virtual eradication of decent pensions from the private sector over the last 25 years. It's the decline in private sector pensions that allows the govt to present an attack on public sector pensions as "restoring fairness" when in fact the fair thing to do would be to ensure that private sector workers had access to decent pensions rather than an ever larger share of profits going to top earners and shareholders.
That's the reformist option. The second option is revolutionary - and would have seemed ludicrous 5 years ago, but now seems increasingly plausible and perhaps inevitable. A revolutionary approach involves the unions organising on the ground while waiting for the ConDem economic policies to fail spectacularly (as they probably will), with the negative impact of the cuts on growth producing a debt spiral which may well drag the UK into the same deflationary vortex which has enveloped Ireland and Greece over the last few years. The sheer volume and frequency of demonstrations in Greece makes it look to me as if they are now very close to a revolutionary situation, and this article by Matina Stevis in the Guardian concurs with my assessment. (as does, reading between the lines, Paul Mason.) If a crisis like this were to develop in the UK - a real possibility in the next few years - trade unions need to seize the opportunity to overthrow the current economic system and replace it with one that puts workers' interests first.
These two options - working for progressive political reform through the ballot box via the Labour party, and working for revolution should the conditions arise - are in theory completely opposed to one another, but pragmatically I'd argue they're two sides of the same coin. A priori it's impossible to know whether conditions in the UK will deteriorate to the point where the current economic system breaks down. And realistically, I don't think public sector unions can force that to happen. However, it's quite possible that it WILL happen, without much further need for intervention on their part. And so they need to be ready. Meanwhile, in case it doesn't happen, they also need to be pushing for reforms through the current system so as to avoid being left high and dry if the revolutionary moment passes.
Some might call this strategy "hedging their bets". I call it insurance against most (though not all) eventualities.