News this week that prominent trade union boss Len McCluskey (from Unite, a public sector union) had hinted at industrial strikes and walk-outs during the 2012 London Olympic Games has been received with disgust.
But “the greatest show on earth” should not be used as an excuse for Britain’s leaders to brush day-to-day issues under the carpet. Olympics or not, it is important we fight the radical socio-economic project the current government is attempting which has already seen attacks on the welfare state, public sector jobs and the planned “selling off” (privatization) of the National Health Service.
In spite of this, this week co-Chairman of the Conservative Party, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, said: “The London Olympics will be a great occasion for this country. It is disgraceful for a trade union boss to be calling for mass disruption when the eyes of the world will be on Britain.”
For what it’s worth, I do not think an Olympic strike will happen. McCluskey’s dramatic suggestion seems more like a threat to drive forward the government/union brokering talks over pensions, which have run aground since the #Nov30 day of action. But the prime minister will not want to call the unions’ bluff.
Since last year British trade unions have staged walkouts against the coalition’s plans to force public sector workers to contribute more to an (ultimately smaller) pension they would have to work longer for. Understandably, people are getting annoyed that their wages are footing the bill for the 2008 financial crash, while the banks responsible are allowed to continue, almost as if it had never happened.
Since winning the Olympic bid over Paris in 2005 (and bitterly losing the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, in slightly dubious circumstances), Britain has been full of talk of the myriad benefits of a Games hosted in our capital.
Unlike the multi-city World Cup, the Olympics will not really benefit other areas of Britain, certainly not economically – which includes “post-industrial” areas (southern Wales and north-east England) with higher percentages of public sector employment.
While I can exclusively reveal that the prevailing mood (at the moment) is cynical, come summer, the sort of British patriotism that only makes itself known on special occasions will have reared its ugly head with a silly hat on and plastic Union Jack flag in hand. Hooray!
But will our Games going to be something to be proud of? Major of London, Boris Johnson, has already introduced new byelaws specific to Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square, which limit powers of protest or union activity.
As well as putting a canoe in the Trafalgar fountain, it is now illegal to “exhibit any notice […] or any other written or pictorial banner” (e.g. placards), “make or give a public speech or address,” “organise or take part in any assembly,” use any “sleeping equipment” (e.g. tents, sleeping bags, tarpaulins) or “fail to comply with a reasonable direction given by any authorised person to leave the square.”
This immediately clears two traditional sites of assembly and demonstration in the capital. Johnson has wiped clean the mucky, uncomfortable truths of “Democracy Village” (a world-famous anti-war campsite opposite the Houses of Parliament, which had become one of of London’s most popular off-beat tourist attractions) and pervasive homelessness – which is significantly higher in Westminster than anywhere else in London.
All of this is not new. In preparation for the South Africa World Cup in 2010 slums were cleared to make way for new stadiums and facilities. There were question marks surrounding China’s human rights record as international athletes trained for the last Olympic Games. Britain should be making an example rather than a tightly-run public relations exercise.
This week Unite boss Len McCluskey said we should not use the Olympics “as though everything is nice and rosy in the garden.” Our garden is a right mess at the moment, and the Olympics are not going to change that.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons