Expect the standard sound and fury at the TUC Congress next week. Union leaders’ rhetoric will be at fever pitch as they denounce the planned biggest cuts since 1945. Threats of another “spring of discontent” and co-ordinated strike action across the public sector will abound. But will it amount to little more than fierce words and a damp squib when it comes to the point?
True the TUC has started well, releasing well researched reports on the cuts already announced, and promising a lobby of Parliament next month and a march against the cuts next March. Individual unions are certain to draw up strike plans to protect jobs and there is embryonic co-ordination between unions representing civil servants, fire fighters, journalists and rail workers. But there is a real issue that the effect of any strike action will be to alienate the public and play into the hands of the coalition.
So hasn’t the time come for union leaders to raise their game and think outside the box.
There are two good reasons to do this. One is that they will be daft to think that the coalition will sit idly by while they organise. The recent release to the Guardian of all the secret Cabinet committee papers (both ministerial and officials)on the 1984-85 miner’s strike show s an extraordinary resolve by Margaret Thatcher, William Whitelaw, Leon Brittan, Norman Tebbit and Peter Walker to co-ordinate action against the miners, using the law, the courts, the police , media and pit and power station management. Often they could pre-empt and weaken the NUM’s action.
It’s not beyond the wit of the present Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, to follow his predecessor Lord Armstrong and set up a small Cabinet committee to co-ordinate action against protestors and unions should the opposition become really serious.
This is why the unions need to be savvy. 2010 is very different to 1984. We now have mobile phones, the internet, social networking sites and an alternative festival network. The scope for instant protest abounds and with the coalition planning a small state, the resources David Cameron and Nick Clegg have at their disposal to monitor and control protests can only diminish as they cut back.
Why can’t Bob Crow, the RMT leader and Gerry Doughty, the TSSA leader, organise a more popular free travel day as well as one day strike? If the unions asked all the members to deactivate the barriers at every tube and Overground station, will Transport for London want to prosecute thousands of its staff? The public would love them and Transport for London would lose as much revenue. Could Mark Serwotka, the PCS leader, decide to programme the VAT and Income Tax computers to refuse to send any demands out?
The mobile phone is also a brilliant for organising instant protests at any venue you might want. With Googlemaps pinpointing locations how about a “flash mob” protest when Nick Clegg publicly announces his next constitutency surgery? Or put some fun into protest by organising a “Rock against the Cuts” festival preferably applying to hold it in the grounds of the country estate of one of the millionaire Tory Cabinet ministers.
So how about it, Brendan Barber? You need a bit of imagination as well as fiery rhetoric. With luck and public support you really could turn the Big Society into the Big Protest.