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No return to the 1980s

Paul Nowak explains how trade unions can lead a winning alliance against cuts

Opinions will vary about the root causes of the troubles in London and cities across England which have seen homes and businesses burned down and shops looted. For some the riots are simply a manifestation of 'criminality'. For others they are the 'reflection of a society run on greed'. For others still, they represent the human cost of the government's swingeing spending cuts. Many on the left have been quick to draw parallels with the riots that engulfed Toxteth and Brixton in 1981.

A right wing government presiding over savage public spending cuts, mass youth unemployment, communities often weakened by racial tensions, and whose response is to blame inadequate parenting and individual 'irresponsibility' . It goes without saying that David Cameron and his government have nothing to say about growing income inequality or the pressures which inevitably arise when some of the poorest boroughs in the country sit cheek by jowl with those boasting the highest household incomes. Nor a word on a generation forced to live with their parents or friends, forced into multiple occupancy by a chronic lack of social housing. Or on the insidious rise of a culture which celebrates wealth and celebrity no matter how it is obtained.

To the government and right wing commentators these are not, to paraphrase Lord Scarman, 'complex political, social and economic factors' to be considered and weighed, they are simply 'excuses'. Of course, Hackney in 2011 is not Toxteth in 1981, just as the coalition government is not simply Thatcherism redux. But a quick glance at the preliminary agenda for this year's TUC Congress suggests that many of the challenges facing unions and the people we represent today would be familiar to those who attended the Congress in 1981.

Attacks on pay and pensions; government proposals to worsen employment laws and de-regulate the labour market; the impact ofrising unemployment on women and the young; cuts to key public services; calls for the trade union movement to champion a new vision for the economy. These issues were debated by the 1981 Congress and these self-same issues will form the backbone of the TUC's debates some 30 years later.

One crucial difference between 1981 and 2011 of course is that the trade union movement of today is smaller and, by common consent, 'weaker' than that of 1981. When delegates assembled in the Opera House in Blackpool 30 years ago they represented over 11 ½ million working people today the figure is just over 6 million. Despite the decline in trade union membership precipitous during the 1980's and 1990's, much shallower but still concerning over the past decade the unions coming together for Congress 2011 can do so with relative optimism.

Less than six months ago, 500,000 people from communities across the UK, many of whom were not union members or who had never before been on a political demonstration, came together in London for the TUC's 'March for the Alternative'. The biggest ever mobilisation in the history of the UK trade union movement suggested that our message that there was an alternative to the governments programme of cuts and public sector 'reforms' resonated well beyond our existing membership. That suggestion is reinforced by the flowering of over 190 local anti-cuts campaigns over the last year. Plus, vigorous campaigns , some led by unions, some led by others, on issues as diverse as the government's NHS reforms, the proposed sell-off of Britain's forests and corporate tax dodging.

This campaigning activity has been accompanied by a clear industrial response to the government's slash and burn approach to public spending. In June up to 750,000 public sector workers took industrial action to defend their pensions. Up and down the country teaching unions are supporting local community campaigns and taking strike action to prevent their schools being hived off as Academies. In cities like Southampton , unions are working to develop new and innovative approaches to industrial action which put pressure on public sector employers, whilst retaining the support of the broader community.

At this year's Congress unions will be asked to agree a step change in the TUC's campaigning activity building and sustaining local campaigning and putting political pressure on MP's and councillors; creating a digital army of activists and campaign supporters; identifying new 'sectoral' pressure points; reaching out to build alliances with community groups and other potential allies; supporting and, where appropriate coordinating industrial action. Underpinning all this, setting out a clear economic alternative, and giving activists the tools to promote this alternative in workplaces and communities. None of this will be easy. The challenges ahead of us are immense. But we are clear that 2011 must be different to 1981 in one crucial respect.

Despite all the resolutions carried by the 1981 Congress and despite the best efforts of unions, the 1980's and 1990's proved to be dark decades for trade unionism. We took on the emerging neo-liberalism and came off second best. We cannot afford to do so again. United, our six million members are still a force to be reckoned with, and if we can use this massive resource to secure friends and allies in the wider community, even more so. Unions, working people, their families and their communities cannot afford to go back to the 1980's.