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Millions of British Public Sector Workers Take to the Streets in Historic General Strike

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In Britain, up to two million workers have marched in the streets during the largest mass protest in generations. Teachers, hospital staff, garbage collectors, firefighters and border guards are participating in a 24-hour strike organized by a coalition of 30 trade unions. About a thousand demonstrations and rallies are being held across the country. Public sector workers say proposed pension “reforms” will force them pay more and work for longer before they can retire. We go to London to speak with Richard Seymour, who writes one of Britain’s most popular blogs, “Lenin’s Tomb.” Seymour examines how the Murdoch-owned conservative press has shaped coverage of workers’ rights even as it faces fallout from the latest developments in the phone-hacking scandal. “Rupert Murdoch’s ideological power, his ability to project an image of these strikes as unnecessary, as militant, as aggressive and belligerent and so on and so forth, comes from his economic power. And he spent decades building that up in the U.K.,” Seymour notes. He also discusses how the U.K. has withdrawn diplomatic staff from Iran after protesters, upset over newly implemented sanctions, stormed the British embassy in Tehran, overrunning the diplomatic buildings, chanting “Death to Britain.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In Britain, two million workers are in the streets today participating in the largest mass protest in generations. Teachers, hospital staff, garbage collectors, firefighters and border guards are participating in the 24-hour strike. A coalition of 30 trade unions have organized approximately a thousand demonstrations and rallies across the country. Picket lines are anticipated to spring up around public buildings and hospitals throughout the day.

On Monday, airlines said they were were cutting flights into London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, because of fears of long delays and overcrowding due to the strike. The airport workers are part of the approximately two million public sector workers opposed to reforms that unions say will force them to pay more for their pensions and work for longer before they retire.

Paul Cottrell of the University and College Union explained why he supports the strike.

PAUL COTTRELL: Well, the fact is that the public sector workers have already made a big contribution. For example, at the moment, most of them have had a wage freeze for several years, while the cost of living has been increasing. Also, the government has already reduced the value of their pensions. So we feel that if there is an argument for the public sector making a contribution, as there is for the private sector and for the rich in society, we feel that our members have done their bit, and enough is enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron has condemned the strike as irresponsible and urged unions to continue talking as negotiations on pensions run until the end of the year. The Conservative-led coalition government also said reform is needed as people are living longer and public service pensions are unaffordable.

Yesterday, the British government announced another dose of austerity. Finance Minister George Osborne said pay raises for public sector workers, already under a two-year freeze, would be capped at 1 percent from 2013, while job losses would shoot up to 710,000 from an original estimate of 400,000.

For more, we go right now to London to speak with Richard Seymour, one of Britain’s most popular bloggers. His blog is called “Lenin’s Tomb.”

Richard, welcome to Democracy Now! This is the largest mass protest in generations. Talk about its significance.

RICHARD SEYMOUR: Right. Well, first of all, the important thing to recognize is that Britain is not like the continent. We don’t have strikes like this on a regular basis. France does. Greece does. Britain doesn’t. This is the largest strike in British history since 1926, which was a general strike. So, that is the significance of this, and it means that it will have a much greater political impact in the United Kingdom than it would have in its continental counterparts.

The other thing is that a year ago things looked very different. I mean, if you go back to the summer of 2010, you find a very somber mood among trade unionists. There was an invitation to David Cameron, even, to speak at the Trade Union Congress. There was no talk of mass strikes taking place. But the deal in which David Cameron was coming to speak at Congress was scuppered due to the anger of ordinary rank-and-file trade unionists. Subsequently, the Congress itself was a very angry affair in which trade union leaders felt pressured to actually organize some sort of response to the cuts. And in October, I think, they came up with the idea of having a march, a big trade union march, by March 26th. Now, at the time, it was seen as too little, too late. But in the interim, very importantly, there was the student movement, and the student movement just came out of nowhere. It flew up like the rocket, proverbially, and basically made a huge amount of difference in terms of the arguments that were going on within the trade union movement, because it cut away at some of the pessimism and despair that ordinary people felt, that they couldn’t challenge these cuts.

So, when the march actually happened, it was one of the largest trade union marches in British history. It was 500,000 strong. It represented every sector of the British working-class movement. And when trade union and leaders like Mark Serwotka of the PCS Union, Civil Service Union, stood up and said, “If we can march together, we can strike together,” people listened and applauded. In fact, I believe his speech was one of the most popular of the day. And that was the basis for the pressure to have this sort of strike action.

On June 30th, there was a large-scale strike held by some of the smaller, more militant unions that are not affiliated to the Labour Party. And that put—the success of that strike on that day put more pressure on the leaders of the larger unions, which are affiliated to the Labour Party and which have consequently been far more reluctant to call strike action. That’s how we got where we are today, and that’s the significance of this. The other thing, of course, is the fact that the government hasn’t really been negotiating. In fact, it seems to have been remarkably insouciant about the possibilities of provoking opposition.

You mentioned in your report the escalation of the austerity measures that are being proposed. In addition to the wage cuts, they’re actually talking about transforming wage bargaining fundamentally by making it responsible to regional wage market conditions. That means that, basically, if you’re a public sector worker in Manchester, you’ll probably find your wages much lower than they are in London. And the ostensible rationale for this is to make things easier for the private sector, because they say that, at the moment, high public sector wages crowds out the private sector. So this is a fairly drastic restructuring, all in all, of the whole British economy.

And I have to be honest, the last time this was done, it was by an administration, the Thatcher administration, which was far more aware of the possible dangers of tempting its opponents, of provoking its opponents. That government came to power and adopted a strategy of salami-slicing its opponents, starting by taking on the weaker unions, conceding to the larger unions at first, racking up a number of defeats inflicted on the weaker unions, and only then going after one of the stronger unions, known colloquially as the big battalions of the labor movement. And only then did they take on the miners and the print workers and defeat them. So, this government seems to be walking into this fight really without much of a sign of care. But it may be complacency.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Richard Seymour, can you say a little about how this strike has affected the position of the Labour Party? You mentioned earlier how they’ve been responding to unions. How have their positions changed, if at all, in response to the strike?

RICHARD SEYMOUR: Well, the first thing to say is that the Labour Party has never—at least the Labour leadership has never supported strikes. So, it would be a rare departure if they decided that they were going to support this one. However, very noticeably, they have changed their tone. At the conference, at the Labour Party conference, after Ed Miliband was elected as the leader, he made a very big show of saying that the public would not support these strikes, and he wouldn’t have any truck with them, either.

Now, recently, it’s been a very different story. You’ve started to see senior Labour figures, such as Alan Johnson, who is—used to be a minister. He’s a very prominent right-wing member of the Labour Party, in many ways a Blairite. But he said that the unions had every right to strike over this. If they couldn’t strike over an issue as important as this, then what could they strike over? Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, felt compelled to express his huge sympathy with the strikers in an interview with The Independent on Sunday. And Ed Miliband, although he adopted a fairly evasive tone, you know, typically saying that both sides should get around the table and saying that strikes are a sign of failure, and therefore he could never support one, nonetheless, he did say something different. He didn’t blame the strikers as such. He blamed the government. He mainly put the blame for the situation on the government.

Now, the problem for the Labour Party is this. They know that if they were in government, they would be doing many of the same policies, because they don’t have a coherent alternative growth strategy to the Tories. They believe essentially the same thing: you’ve got to cut the deficit in order to restore the confidence of the financial sector, you’ve got to privatize at a much more rapid rate, and you’ve got to gradually cut public spending in a quite a systematic and structural way. And because they believe those things, it’s very difficult for them to criticize the Tories on any issue of principle. For that reason, the only real criticism that they’ve been able to come out with is the fact that the Tories haven’t negotiated properly. And their argument is that if they were in power, they would negotiate better and secure an agreement, and we wouldn’t see all these strikes. But essentially, they’ve been negotiating to impose a version of what the Tories are actually proposing. So they’re in a weak position, because that means that they can’t capitalize on the quite widespread dissatisfaction with the government that exists at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk for a minute about the media that has covered this? And it goes to the issue of the phone-hacking scandal, as well, because there hasn’t been a lot in the news lately about the Murdoch empire. But in Britain, of course, it’s all over. The latest news, The Guardian reporting the London Metropolitan Police are investigating whether private detectives are working for News Corp., hacked into the computers of government officials responsible for Northern Ireland. The study alleges detectives working for News International, News Corp.'s U.K. publishing arm, hacked into the computer of Peter Hain, a military police officer and the former Northern Ireland secretary, and those of other Northern Ireland agents, containing—the computers containing sensitive intelligence information. And, of course, there's more revelations about this, as well, that came out in a British parliamentary inquiry on Tuesday. Paul McMullan, a former deputy features editor at the now-shuddered News of the World, admitted he and colleagues hacked into people’s phones, paid police officers for tips, also said he hid in unmarked vans outside people’s houses, stole confidential documents, went through celebrity garbage cans, lied about his identity, in pursuit of a story. Talk about all of the latest with this.

RICHARD SEYMOUR: Yeah. Well, it’s quite a list that’s building up. I mean, the Murdoch press represents a faction of hard-right political and economic power in the United Kingdom. And you can see the way in which this works. I mean, we’ve never really seen it laid out to this extent before. But you can see the way that this works on a cultural level, in terms of how they bully and bribe and cajole celebrities, at a political level, in terms of the way they form relationships with senior government ministers, but at the same time develop certain channels through which they can blackmail them or in some way threaten them with exposure. We’ve seen that they’ve developed relationships with the Metropolitan Police, and even with members of the judiciary. In fact, I think you would find that Lord Leveson, who’s running this inquiry, has himself been quite close to the Murdoch clan. So, there’s a network of class power there.

And what I would want to say about that is that this really was built up—I mean, Rupert Murdoch’s ideological power, his ability to project an image of these strikes as, you know, unnecessary, as militant, as aggressive and belligerent and so on and so forth, comes from his economic power. And he spent decades building that up in the U.K., started by buying up popular Social Democratic papers like The Sun, for example, had previously been a trade union paper called The Daily Herald, bought it up, kept it as a Labour-supporting paper for a while. And then, when he had turned it into a popular newspaper, he turned it also into a Thatcherite newspaper. I think you find the same pattern with his media acquisitions in the United States. For example, Fox. I mean, he started out by putting popular content out, such as The Simpsons, and then when he’d acquired the market, he started pushing, very hard, this hard-right news agenda. That’s how Murdoch does it. And what’s really happening now is that these revelations are dealing a quite devastating blow to his economic and commercial power, and thus potentially his ideological power in the United Kingdom.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That may well be true, Richard, what you say, but in terms of criminal prosecution or charges being pressed against Murdoch or any of the senior people who were involved in the phone-hacking scandal, it doesn’t seem that that’s happened.

RICHARD SEYMOUR: No, indeed. But then, I don’t think that that was planned or expected. That probably is a bit more likely on your side of the Atlantic. I mean, the fact of the matter is that inquiries, public inquiries, have a historic function as a kind of therapy for the ruling class in the United Kingdom. It’s to slow down the pace of revelations and bring it under a manageable process. At the end of it, they’ll propose some recommendations, policy recommendations, which may or may not be taken up by the government. But it’s not a process which is leading necessarily to prosecutions. Of course, that all depends on what comes out and, you know, how well the Murdochs can defend themselves. But, yes, you’re right, so far, no sign of very senior people, at least, being sent to jail.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, this latest news out of Iran, the British government withdrawing a portion of the diplomatic staff after Iranian protesters—not clear exactly who they were—stormed the British embassy in Tehran, overrunning the diplomatic buildings, chanting “Death to Britain.” Richard Seymour?

RICHARD SEYMOUR: Yeah, well, I think that we have to understand this in the context of the geopolitics. There are elements within the British government that really want a war with Iran. That’s come out recently with the connections between Liam Fox, who was the defense minister and a very hard-right, neoconservative Atlanticist, pro-Israel, and a fellow called Adam Werritty, who was a friend of his and who coordinated among all these Atlanticist and pro-Zionist organizations. And it seems that they were lobbying quite hard for an attack on Iran, and I think it’s quite clear that there are elements within the government who would like to escalate some sort of situation. The constant application of pressure, recently the application of harsher sanctions, is, I think, intended to provoke a certain sort of gestures from Iran. I’m not sure that these riots had anything to do with the Iranian government, but I’m saying that the British government is spoiling for a fight. And it does seem very strange that that would be the case, because it’s quite—you know, after Iraq, it would seem like a suicidal gamble. But they do seem to be urgently seeking to have a fight with somebody, and I think Iran is the candidate.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Seymour, we want to thank you for being with us, one of Britain’s most popular bloggers, based in London, blogs at “Lenin’s Tomb.” He is author of The Liberal Defence of Murder and The Meaning of David Cameron.

This is Democracy Now!. When we come back, we’re going to Occupy L.A. and Occupy Philadelphia. In L.A., more than a thousand riot police dismantled the encampment there. Stay with us.

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