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The fight of our lives

Frances O'Grady on backdoor privatisation and the action needed to stop Coalition cuts.

While some politicians may still struggle to define it, the current wave of protests against the cuts suggests that 'the squeezed middle' has already found its voice. In the past, a good education, a steady job and a secure pension provided some protection against the cold winds of globalisation. The unconditional trillion pound bail out of the banks, and the new government's ideological commitment to cut jobs, drive down wages and shrink the welfare state, have left millions more exposed.

Last month saw a UCU/NUS demonstration bring together 50,000 students and college staff to reject the coalition government's policy of tripling tuition fees and ending the £30 a week educational maintenance allowance that helps young people from lower income families stay on at school. This was followed by protests around the country, including one by hundreds of school students outside the local Conservative Party office in Finchley, perhaps nailing the myth of 'Thatcher's children' once and for all.

These demonstrations came hot on the heels of the first ever mass lobby of the Liberal Democrat conference and, on the eve of the CSR, the largest parliamentary lobby and rally organised by the TUC in two decades. The number of days lost through strikes remains historically low but union leaders warn that, without a change of direction, more action is inevitable.

Growing national anger, replicated in anti-cuts protests in towns and cities across Britain, reflects the beginning of a shift in public opinion. While the Right may retain the upper hand (for now) on unemployment 'scroungers', people are beginning to question the government's claim that public service cuts are in the 'national interest', let alone fair.

When the TUC launched its 'All Together' campaign at its Congress last September, we were determined to build a broad based alliance, rooted in workplaces and communities. We aimed to resist any attempt to drive a wedge between public service unions and communities by showing that savage cuts and regressive reforms would hurt us all. While the poor would suffer most, it was important to stress that ordinary working families - 'the squeezed middle'- would also bear a disproportionate share of the pain.

We also argued that government policy would slow economic recovery by hitting the private sector too. For example the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme would damage the already fragile construction industry, as well as parents and pupils. We began to build the case that the Government was acting through choice not necessity and that there is a better, fairer way.

Opinion polls suggest that those messages are beginning to resonate more widely. According to a recent Populus survey nearly 60 per cent of voters think the effect of the cuts announced in the CSR will be unfair and a majority believe that the coalition is cutting more than it needs to. Only a third think that the government has managed to protect the most vulnerable members of society.

Over the next few months we will step up our campaign at a local level - putting pressure on 150 of the most vulnerable coalition MP's. We want them to remember the lessons of the poll tax and understand that they will pay a heavy political price for supporting cuts in benefits, backdoor privatisation and the loss of 1m public and private sector jobs.

This local campaign activity is supported by a major new web-resource - www.falseeconomy.org - a collaborative tool developed by the TUC, unions and progressive bloggers, designed to track the impact of cuts in our communities, and - most importantly - to give activists the tools they need to organise local campaigns. Up and down the country we are running campaign workshops for activists, and giving our 200,000 union reps the tools and arguments they need to build community campaigns.

This local activity will help build for a major national demonstration on March 26th - one which we believe will be the largest organised by the TUC in living memory. 'March for an Alternative' will be a rallying point not just for trade union members, but for everyone worried about the impact of the government's reckless gamble with the British economy, our welfare state and our public services.

We want our members to be joined by service users, community groups, parents, school governors and health campaigners. Our message will be clear - there IS an alternative to £80bn of cuts. It is an alternative based on growing our economy; investing in jobs and new green industries; fair and progressive taxation - whether that's a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions or a crack down on super rich tax dodgers - making sure that those who caused the financial crisis are properly regulated and taxed to pay their fair share.

We are in the fight of our lives. The demonstration in March will be a milestone but not the climax of the campaign. We must defend against any division or sense of powerlessness by demonstrating that unity and collective action does work - and celebrate successes where we win them.

The next few years will determine the future of our public services for decades, and the quality of the society in which we live and work. The TUC and unions will have a key role to play in the months and years ahead. Our job will be to articulate the economic alternative; to organise in workplaces and communities, making sure our economic arguments are backed up with cutting-edge campaigning and to help build a progressive alliance with the political and industrial weight to make the government think again.