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Trade unions: the big task ahead in 2012

It was the year that sticking it to the status quo re-entered the mainstream after an all-too-long long hiatus.

And yet 2011 showed just how far that resistance remains from mounting a serious challenge to the Tories, let alone giving capitalism much to worry about, four years into its worst crisis since the Great Depression. But the foundations have been laid – leaving 2012 all to play for.

A trade union movement that never recovered from the hammering of the 1980s apparently roared back into action. The marching, occupying students had set the example: as Unite’s Len McCluskey admitted, they put trade unionists “on the spot”. Long mocked for their irrelevance, the trade unions mobilised hundreds of thousands in the biggest show of force against the government yet on March 26 – and the largest workers’ demonstration in a generation.

As well as marches, the strike returned to the political scene after years of record low levels of industrial action. Technically, it was over government pension “reforms” (a term whose meaning long ago went from “progressive social reforms” to “rolling them back”). In reality, it was a deficit tax on public sector workers – with the extra contributions flowing straight into the Treasury’s coffers.

The first wave of resistance was on June 30 as teachers and civil servants walked out. But it proved a dress rehearsal for November 30, when public sector workers ranging from dinner ladies to senior civil servants abandoned their post in the biggest industrial action since a previous Tory government warned of “red revolution” in the 1926 General Strike. Inspiring stuff, but Unison’s leadership looked set to lead a capitulation to the government, despite no movement on any of the key grievances. 2011 ended with a looming union defeat.

With the political left still fragmented and weak, resistance manifested itself in unorthodox ways. Taking its cue from Occupy Wall Street, tents were erected outside St Paul’s Cathedral in protest at the injustices of the economic crisis. It was a reminder of who caused the crisis – and who is being made to pay for it.

Unrest wasn’t always orderly, however. Riots spread through London and other English communities in August, originally sparked by the police killing of 29-year-old Mark Duggan in Tottenham. There was much talk of a “feral underclass”, but little appetite for understanding the growing numbers of young people with no future to risk, resentment at a heavy-handed police force, and a toxic mixture of inequality and consumerism.

And perversely – although government austerity was driving hundreds of thousands out of their jobs and giving living standards their biggest hammering since the 1920s – David Cameron looked more secure than ever. Labour’s leadership failed to construct a coherent alternative to Tory cuts, leaving Ed Miliband looking weak and indecisive. With the left failing to build countervailing pressure to the diehard New Labour elements who are still calling the shots, this was hardly surprising.

2011 was a bumpy ride, and 2012 looks set to be tougher yet. The last year proved that growing numbers of people have an appetite to fight. But unless the left gets it act together and gives growing frustration a political direction, the coming year could be one of Tory triumphalism, even as working-class communities are hammered. After the hangovers have subsided on January 1, the labour movement has a big task ahead of it. At stake is its survival – and the futures of millions of people who depend on it.

This article first appeared at Union News.

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