Reflections 2011: A year of extremes

— John Sharman is the Branch Secretary of Lincolnshire UNISON

Speaking from a personal and professional point of view, 2011 was probably the toughest year of my trade union life. The onslaught on public services and the welfare state by the coalition government, which had been rhetoric last autumn, was translated into reality. The cuts have bitten, and the bite is deep and painful.

I have watched my employer, Lincolnshire County Council, shed 1,000 jobs over the last twelve months. There have been redundancies in numbers beyond anything I have dealt with in 25 years as a trade union activist in this county.

To give some random examples: the budget for youth work has been cut by 70%; the staff in Trading Standards have been halved; Adult Social Care is “decommissioning” many of its services. Decommissioning is the latest euphemism for stopping public provision.

I’m well aware that my experience is not unique. All public sector employers have had to cope with spending reductions of varying degrees. Nor is the impact of the cuts confined to the public sector. Even before the year started, the Treasury predicted that the cuts it was going to impose would bring more private sector job losses than public.

Companies dependent on public sector contracts are finding themselves squeezed. And of course there is an obvious impact on the local economy of declining employees with reducing incomes.

And has all this enforced austerity had the desired effect? I fear not. But according to the Chancellor’s autumn statement, this is because we haven’t yet cut deeply enough. There needs to be more misery, and it needs to last longer. The consolation, we’re told, is that we’re all in it together.

Except that some of us are more in it than others. People losing their jobs are definitely in it. People having their benefits cut, people with frozen wages and reducing living standards – there’s no doubt they’re in it too.

But what about the bankers and the financiers? What about the sacrosanct City of London whose interests the Prime Minister walked out of Brussels to protect? What about millionaire cabinet ministers? Are we really expected to believe that they’re in it with us?

The fact is that the ordinary working people of this country, and the unemployed and those dependent on benefits, are being made to pay for the greed and incompetence of those who, having fouled up the economy for everyone else, continue to pay themselves bloated bonuses. And even beyond individuals, I believe that our economic organisation is built upon a premise that is fundamentally wrong. The market controls society – but it needn’t, and it shouldn’t. Society should control the market.

Well, grim stuff thus far. But I see 2011 as a year of extremes because although the attack was beyond anything I’d witnessed, the resistance was unprecedented too. I’ve got three particular memories which I shall not forget, and which illustrate the point.

The first was standing outside Lincoln train station at 6am on 26 March, as the coaches filled up to take people from Lincolnshire to the TUC demonstration in London. Sadly I wasn’t physically up to the march, but I was moved at the sight of hundreds of my colleagues setting off that day. For years I’ve tried to get people to London demos with spectacular lack of success. To see that reversed, and to share the feeling that morning that now is the time to fight back, made a wonderful moment.

Secondly, members of UNISON employed by Lincolnshire County Council voted to oppose their employer’s cuts by formally working to rule, following an industrial action ballot. It may sound bizarre that workers have to hold an official ballot to simply do what their contracts say they should, but it just demonstrates how much public services rely on employees’ goodwill.

The work to rule didn’t stop the cuts taking place, but it laid down a marker. We don’t have a reputation for industrial militancy in this county, so winning a local ballot, on a local dispute, sent a very clear message about what our members felt as their jobs and the services they provide were attacked.

And thirdly the pensions strike by 30 trade unions on 30 November, and the fantastic march that day through the centre of Lincoln. We estimated that 1,500 people took part in the protest, a figure beyond my wildest dreams. We’d booked the Drill Hall for a rally, and some of us were worried that we would be rattling around inside the 365-seater auditorium. In the event the number of people who had to be turned away far exceeded those for whom there was room inside. That demonstration of determination to protect pensions connected with the anger people felt about what the coalition government is doing to our country.

No-one can say that any of these actions will stop the threat to services, jobs and the welfare state. But the one absolute certainty is that if we do nothing, there is no chance of the threat being averted. I’ve cited three examples of actions and events that are beyond anything I’ve witnessed as a trade unionist in Lincolnshire. And that gives me hope for what lies ahead.