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.
There's more: An OECD analysis released this week concluded that Britain is slipping back into a full-blown recession. the British public's confidence in the economy is the lowest it's been since the height of the financial crisis. And just yesterday the Cameron government was forced to downgrade its own economic forecast. They're not even convincing lenders they're fiscally responsible, which is supposed to be conservatism's strength. Great Britain's credit rating has been downgraded at least five times under their austerity regime.
The austerity types have turned the British economy into a disaster of epic proportions, and now they're proposing more of the same. But then, if they did anything else they would risk incurring the displeasure of Harold Jonathan Esmond Vere Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere.
Somebody in this country is probably muttering, so what does this have to do with us? Here's what: Austerity economics is dominating our politics, too. We're being subjected to the same warped economic strategies that decimated Britain's economy, and our austerity crowd isn't any more deterred by reality than theirs is.
Why has the Occupy movement touched such a chord? Because misguided, premature debates about austerity - like the ones we've seen in the "Super Committee" and the Deficit Commission - are the ultimate expression of a broken political system that has stopped addressed the concerns of the 99 percent and is operating in a bubble of unreality.
Just today, as Washington looks for other ways to impose austerity after the Super Committee's collapse, the Federal Reserve announced new actions to save the world's banks one more time - this time from their bad investments in Europe.
People are fed up. They're searching for ways to change things, and they're willing to support a movement for real change. That's why so many governments trying so hard to shut Occupy down.
The New York City's Transport Workers Union was among the first, if not the first, to ally itself with Occupy Wall Street. If you've met many New York City Transport Workers, you know they're not usually the drum circle type. But the US labor movement sees a kindred spirit in Occupy, and vice versa. The two groups need each other. And they can work together brilliantly, as the Port of Oakland strike showed.
The 99 percent need independent thinkers like Occupy to reignite its imagination and frame new messages. And when unions stand to shoulder to shoulder with students and the other groups that make up Occupy, there's more of everything: more energy, more ideas, more human beings on the front lines.
Can a general strike happen here? Sure it can. The Oakland action must have been particularly disturbing in some quarters, because it nearly became a general strike - one that would have had broad public support.
Any movement should begin its efforts with persuasion and negotiation. But it's hard to negotiate without leverage. Strikes are the best tool working people have for restoring economic balance and fairness. And who organizes strikes? Unions.
The Occupy movement found a message that resonates. Unions can help them make sure the message gets delivered.
The People's Strike
Conservative rhetoric about "union barons" fell flat in Great Britain today. This general strike was the People's Strike. Despite all the 'gold-plated' propaganda, the public overwhelmingly backed the unions. Pollsters asked British citizens if they "support" the strikes and they said yes in striking numbers. 90 percent said "yes" to the Daily Mail's pollsters - which much have galled His Lordship, the Viscount - and 79 percent said "yes" to the Guardian's.
It was the biggest strike in Great Britain since 1926, possibly the biggest in a century. And union leaders warned that there would be more after the New Year if the government doesn't listen.
A "damp squib"? The Cameron government doesn't even know when it's raining. And those clouds could pass this way too, if things don't change. And they need to really change. Rhetorical flourishes from professional politicians won't be enough.
In Britain today, even those TV personalities they call "weathermen" went on strike. But as Bob Dylan once observed, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."