The New Working Class Movement: How We Can Beat The Cuts

Friern Barnet library was saved by the community, but jobs were still lost

This is the third post in a series setting out my perspective on the development of a new working class movement in the UK and worldwide. The first part focused on community organisation, and the second was an outline of renewed workplace struggle, while future blogs will look at the importance of intersectionality to class struggle, the place of the UK working class in the world struggle, creating a new world, full socialism, and full communism.

There’s no point explaining how bad the public sector cuts are. The evidence piles up before your eyes every day. Every social gain made by the working class over the last century is on the chopping block, and the money is being funnelled into the mouths of the sickeningly rich. The closure of your library means someone somewhere will be able to buy another piece of famous art for their private collection, another private yacht, another private island. The Tories do it laughing, Labour do it while blaming the Tories, but the effect on you, your loved ones, your community is exactly the same. You know this.

The corporate unions too, they tell you how bad it is. They bargain with national and local bosses to cut wages here, cut hours there, anything but sack workers/dues payers. When it’s convenient, the bosses listen. When it’s not, they sack workers anyway, because they have the measure of the union bureaucracy. They know it’s all talk. Come the closure day, the union bosses will post sad messages on Twitter, and it will all be forgotten

So far as I know, there have only been a handful of UK successes in terms of stopping public sector cuts since the era of austerity began. In most of these cases, there were significant protests, and the axe was moved to another service. However, Friern Barnet library is different. Following a 2012/13 occupation by members of the local community, Barnet council leader Richard Cornelius ‘found’ an extra £25,000, and so the council no longer ‘needed’ to sell the building. There were big losses even here though. As I wrote a year ago:

“[…] Friern Barnet cannot be described as a complete victory. The paid librarian jobs that went last April will not be replaced, so the library will be staffed by volunteers. Ironically, the new Friern Barnet library will fit the government’s ‘Big Society’ rhetoric very nicely. Not only is this a blow for the people who lost their jobs, but the medium and long term viability of the library must remain in some doubt. Unison – who claim to represent 24,000 library staff across the country – have not lifted a finger in practical terms, and much of the responsibility for closure after closure lies with the Unison bureaucracy.”

The Friern Barnet occupation began five months after the library had officially closed. Unison – but more importantly the library’s workers – knew about the closure for more than half a year before it happened.

It is possible to imagine a couple of different scenarios challenging this cycle of despair. In the first, workers find out that their library (to keep the example going) is set to close in a few months. Inspired by other struggles throughout the world, they use that time to reach out to the community and library users. Together they all declare their opposition to the closure, and announce that they will try to prevent it. At the end of the final day, the workers refuse to leave, and occupy the space. Shifts rotate as normal. People take books out and use the computers as normal.

In scenario two, a local anti-cuts group delegates a few people in the immediate area to go door knocking, and gauge neighbourhood opinion on the closure. If sufficient numbers are sufficiently opposed, an anti-closure group is formed, and they organise protests. Representatives from the group approach the staff directly, and discuss how they could help prevent the shutdown.

In either case, the specifics of resistance must necessarily vary dramatically between libraries, hospitals, schools and swimming pools. But in all cases, those most affected would surely have the most say about how to organise.

However, in all situations, authorities hellbent on enforcing cuts would likely go through three broad strategies:

  1. Repression – police would likely be used in an attempt to evict the occupation. Electricity and food supplies may be cut off. This is where community support might prove to be most important.
  2. Negotiation – if brute force failed, the chequebook might come out, and concessions might be offered. In all such cases, every offer would be a concrete gain, and it would be for the occupiers to decide how much win is worth their effort.
  3. Capitulation – if the face of enough resistance, the state would be compelled to give in. It’s just a matter of how much is ‘enough’. This has not really been tested for decades, so it’s difficult to know, but remember that even the long-prepared Thatcher government was worried they might lose the miners’ strike.

In short, those resisting closure will win to the extent that they make the cuts difficult (physically or politically) to implement. If they make closure impossible, it will not happen. As in Barnet, money would mysteriously be found.

Even if relatively small successes began to follow each other, it seems very likely that a certain amount of momentum would build up quite quickly. Councils up and down the nation would soon be fighting on more fronts than they could handle, and be forced into setting illegal budgets. National government might then suspend elected councils and try to impose cuts using auditors, but their task would be no easier than that facing council executives, especially when faced with an ever-growing anti-austerity movement. Workers in the private sector would be inspired to join in, and strike waves would shake an ungovernable country. Finally, a general strike would be called…

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