Lessons from France…..
One of things I have noticed about the response of British trade unions to the myriad of cutbacks that this government is proposing is that what I feel was the strongest and most hostile was reserved for proposed changes to public sector pensions. This, and events across the Channel in France, tell us something about what amounts to a shifting locus for class struggle. Sure, there are still the usual disputes over pay and conditions and the unions are, as to be expected, leading the charge in resistance to public spending cuts but the issue of age and provision for old age is becoming an increasingly central political question and therefore at the same time a battlefield.
We are all going to get old, well the vast majority of us will, and the shift in the age demographic is well documented. Also, there to my mind tends to be a greater expectation in older age that the state will do its part in providing for us. So, it’s not surprising on that level that this issue should be a lightening rod for discontent. Other issues tend to only afflict sectional interests or one social group in particular but this is a universal concern.
France has a somewhat more militant tradition and its unions have, frankly, not been broken the way British ones have but that is not to say the eye-watering levels of austerity this government intends on pushing through could not produce a similar reaction in time. Before that happens however, numerous things need to happen. The first thing is that the pain caused must become real and this is a process that will simply take time, and we are talking months and years here not days and weeks. Although there is much talk about cuts people when confronted with the deficit are likely to support their theoretical desirability. However, they are one of those that you can theoretically support until the precise point at which they cause you some pain at which time conviction will waver. Secondly, the opposition to them needs to gain some victories in small skirmishes to build its confidence and thirdly the people leading the movement need to find a ‘lightening rod’ issue.
Public sector pension reforms probably wont provide that because it only afflicts a section of the population. This is not to say the unions are wrong to take up the cudgels on this issue but they have to realise that to win that battle even they are going to have to broaden the struggle and draw in large sections of public support. We are all in this together, from suburbia to the slums, we are being made to pay by this government for a crisis that wasnt our fault. The government will make sure all sides feel the pain but bringing the disparate movements and interests into one cohesive whole is something that is down to us.