The proposed cuts to public services threaten the welfare state at a fundamental level. If they go through, life for many working class people will be more like that in the 1930s, before it was established. The attacks on the welfare state cover every area, including health, education, welfare benefits, pensions, care for disabled and old people, and much more.
To try to force through the cuts, the Con-Dem government and its allies in the media and business have to sell a series of lies to enough of the population to prevent us uniting to mount sufficiently effective resistance to the cuts. Every union activist has a responsibility to challenge these lies to promote effective resistance. Let's look at a few:
LIE 1: We're All In This Together
The Con-Dems would have us believe that we all face a financial crisis and all have to tighten our belts. What a sick joke coming from a cabinet a majority of whom are millionaires. They aren't reliant on public services like the rest of us. Their vast wealth provides security for them should they fall ill, lose their jobs (let's hope!) or grow old. They can afford to buy the best care and support for their families too. Why should we start tightening our belts until theirs' reach the same circumference as ours?LIE 2: The Cuts Won't Really Affect Us in the Private Sector
In reality, there isn't much belt-tightening going on at the top at all. Friday's Guardian reported that the Chief Executive Officers of FTSE100 companies had seen their earnings rise by 55% in a year. Total pay for all the board members fo the top 350 listed companies went up 45%.
When they pretend not to be enjoying slashing public services, I can't help picturing Cameron & Clegg as prefects at some public school, beating some kid's backside and saying with a perverted grin "this is hurting me more than it's hurting you".
There's a clever bit of language being used to peddle this lie - referring to the cuts as in the "public sector" instead of "public services". The reality is that unless you are a millionaire, you rely on public services at key points in your life or that of your family. It is these services that are under threat.LIE 3: The Cuts Won't Really Affect Us, Only Work-Shy Scroungers
But there are other ways we in the private sector will be affected too.
Many of us work for companies who, directly or indirectly, sell products and services to the public sector. These contracts are already being slashed, impacting on our own employment prospects.
Many of us have family or friends working in the public sector, many of whose lives are about to be torn apart.
When the recession started, may profitable private companies used it as an excuse to attack jobs, pay and pensions and to push through changes they had always wanted. If the putlic sector gets away with slashing jobs, pay and pensions, and tearing up employment contracts, this will encourage private sector employers to come back for more.
Throwing hundreds of thousands of workers on the dole will dramatically reduce their spending power, reducing the market for the products and services that workers in the private sector produce, further depressing the economy.
The government has targetted the very poorest in society, those dependent on state benefits, for the biggest cuts. This will have a devastating impact on many of those who are out of work, old or seriously ill.LIE 4: The Debt Is So Big There Is No Alternative
Many people have heard a few stories about people on the fiddle, and the media ensures that everyone hears such stories (true or invented) second hand. Of course if the National Minimum Wage wasn't so pitifully low, decent childcare was readily available, and employers weren't so ready to sack people who are ill, fewer people would be tempted to fiddle.
But really the issue of "scroungers" is just a distraction, intended to get working class people squabbling over a few quid amongst ourselves. The real robbers are in the city. It was irresponsible gambling in the city that triggered this recession. Vodafone have just been let off paying about £6bn of unpaid tax.
The rise in unemployment was caused by employers throwing millions of people out of jobs, not by a pandemic of the laziness virus. The problem doesn't lie amongst the unemployed, but in the market economy that dictates that it is now more profitable to prevent people working and have fewer jobs.
The key argument though is about why the Con-Dems are so keen to target those not working. Cutting benefits to those out of work won't increase the number of jobs. What it will do is make people increasingly desperate to compete for the small number of jobs available, allowing employers to drive down wages for those of us in work, increasing the profits enjoyed in the boardrooms at our expense. That's the fundamental reason why people in work and out of work must unite against the cuts.
The debt is indeed big, thanks to the collossal bailout of the financial markets. After years of privatising profits, governments around the world nationalised the debts. We had a few months where there was serious discussion about how unfetterred markets had caused disaster, then the neo-liberals went back on the offensive and now they want more privatisation and deregulation as the "cure" for the debt.LIE 5: The Public Sector Had Grown Too Big and Greedy
But it's worth getting the debt in perspective. As these graphs show, UK national debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has gone up in 2009 and 2010 (when it exceeded 50%). But this is still low by historical standards, FAR lower than after World War II, the period when there was consensus between the main political parties that we had to invest in setting up the welfare state - health, education, benefits, housing etc - and grow the economy in order to pay off the debt.
It isn't the size of the debt that is driving the Con-Dems (and some other countries) to adopt harsh "austerity" policies. It is a continuation of the neoliberal economic madness that triggered the crash in the first place, combined with a knee-jerk desire to get out of the crisis by making working class people pay.
"There Is No Alternative" (TINA) is a line used by Thatcher to justify Tory assaults on working people in the 1980s, and by Blair to justify his wars in the 2000s. Even if they couldn't think of something positive to do instead, NOT wreaking dustruction on millions of people would have been a better alternative to what they did.
It wasn't teachers, nurses, refuse collectors and all the other public sector workers who caused the crisis. Financial institutions had succeeded in persuading governments that they didn't need to hold much capital, so when the US economy took a small dip and some people couldn't repay high-interest mortgages, they ran out of cash. As financial institutions had bundled up these debts with lots of others and sold them to each other all round the world, they all panicked about what bad debts they might hold, and stopped lending to each other - the Credit Crunch. This triggered a collapse in large sections of the "real" economy.LIE 6: The Cuts Are Essential To Protect the Economy
Throwing half a million public sector workers out of their jobs, along with half a million private sector workers who provide goods and services to the public sector, while cutting the incomes of many in the poorest areas, are measures likely to deflate the economy and increase the chances of a prolonged slump or double-dip recession. How on earth can the private sector "take up the slack" when the people who might buy their products and services are skint?LIE 7: There's Nothing You Can Do
There are many detailed alternative arguments, including UNITE's "Alternative Economic Programme", the TUC's "All Pain, No Gain: The Case Against the Cuts", "The Case Against The Cuts" from PCS, and "One Million Climate Jobs" from the Campaign Against Climate Change and various unions.
We have to make stronger links between workplaces and local campaigns in every town and city. There are thousands of group, protests and activities against the cuts springing up in every town and city (like Right To Work in Manchester where I live). Get involved. Use UNITE's Area Activist meetings and local Trades Councils to make links.
Whenever any group of us is in the firing line, whether that's in the public sector, local community or the private sector, we need to unite behind them. That must include backing the strikes to defend the fire service in London (FBU) and pensions at the BBC (NUJ).
And of course, don't neglect developing union strength in your own workplace. Without strong and effective workplace organisation, we are building on sand.