Millions of employees in Great Britain mounted the first General Strike in many years today, after the country's coalition government threatened to impose more cuts in retirement benefits and pay for public workers.
It was a smash success. As many as two million strikers proved that the public's patience with the unjust fiscal regime known as "austerity economics" has its limits. It highlighted the important role unions can and must play in the fight for a more just and stable economy.
And it raised an important question for the United States: Could it happen here?
We Have Ignition
The Cameron government struggled to find the right messaging. It claimed that the strike was an inconsequential event involving a mere 960,000 strikers (as if that were a small number), instead of the two million reported in the press.
The Prime Minister even described the strike as a "damp squib." If you're like me you don't know what that means. But a quick Google search revealed that the phrase refers to a firecracker that has failed to ignite, perhaps because it was left out in the rain.
So the strike fizzled, says Mr. Cameron. But his government also accused unions of sabotaging something it described without any apparent irony as an "economic recovery." So which was it: A dud, or sabotage? Apparently consistency is not this government's strong suit.
What was the strike's real impact? As the Globe and Mail reported today:
"58 per cent of public primary and secondary schools are closed completely and only 13 per cent are fully staffed. Hospitals are only taking emergency cases, as most nurses are on strike. In fact, the school where Mr. Cameron and one of his top cabinet ministers send their children ... was largely shut down, with only two classes open ... At Manchester Airport, only 26 of 176 scheduled international flights arrived today ... Garbage collectors, social workers, street cleaners, and some workers at museums and children’s centres also closed ."
Fizzled? As some New York workers of my youthful acquaintance might have said: I got yer "damp squib" right here, pal.
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines "austerity" as "enforced or extreme economy," or as an "ascetic practice" - you know, like those wandering monks who starved themselves or slept on a bed of nails. "Austerity economics" is the practice of forcing others to sleep on a proverbial bed of nails, to pay for the financial disasters caused by those who sleep on silk and satin.
Soundlike class-warfare hyperbole? Consider this: Even as the Cameron government was cutting benefits for teachers, nurses, airport workers, and other public employees, new efforts were underway to rescue British and European banks yet again for their unwise lending practices, this time to European governments.
Hypocrisy? Well, yeah.
As Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, observed: “This is a government that scrapped the tax on bankers’ bonuses.” While bankers revel in their government-subsidized riches, the poorest 10 percent of Great Britain's population saw their real income fall over the last decade, according to a recent report, while the "richest tenth of the population have seen much bigger proportional rises in their incomes than any other group."
You can't ask people to sacrifice their financial security without giving them an enemy to hate, so conservatives in the United States fingered public-sector union employees as the source of our economic misery. Millions of people actually believe that the country's financial problems were caused by bus drivers making $45,000 a year.
They're using the same playbook in the UK. While bailed-out bankers enjoying their usual round of bonuses and raises,public employees face a two-year pay freeze and a 3 percent increase in pension contributions. The end result could be net pay cuts of as much as 15 percent by 2014.
How does a government justify that? By using the well-oiled phrases of the parsimonious elite, honed by consultants and then echoed endlessly by politicians and journalists. In this case the phrase they've chosen is "gold-plated pensions." A Google search on that phrase comes up with nearly half a million results.
The Daily Mail, house organ of Britain's morally degraded wealthy, routinely runs stories like the one it ran today, which begins "Taxpayers cannot afford to fund the latest gold-plated pensions, business leaders say." Three days ago a Daily Mail headline screamed,"Union barons behind the strike that will cripple Britain enjoy gold-plated pensions."
The phrase "gold-plated pension" appears 9,500 times on the Daily Mail website.
The Daily Mail is owned by a gentleman named "Harold Jonathan Esmond Vere Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere," whose net worth exceeds one billion US dollars. By contrast, the average public employee's retirement income in the United Kingdom is $4,650 per year.
The only thing 'gold-plated' about British pensions is the gold-plated BS that's being spread about them by self-serving (but hardly self-made) billionaire heirs like ... well, like "Harold Jonathan Esmond Vere Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere."
This Economy Will Self-Destruct in 10 Seconds
These austerity measures are brutal and unfair, and they punish innocent people for the mistakes of others. But at least they're working, right?
Wrong. Austerity is devastating the British economy. There are 3.8 million "workless households" in Great Britain, and 1.8 million children live in them. As of last August, retail sales had fallen 2.5 percent and household income was projected to fall another 2 percent under Cameron's austerity plan. As Paul Krugman explains, the British government is even defying the advice of the typically austerity-minded International Monetary Fund, which really, really thinks they ought to fix the economy before doing more of the budget-cutting that's making things so much worse.