As Britain mourns (or celebrates) the death of former PM Margaret Thatcher, it’s also finding itself on the verge of a whole new national battle between labour and employers. For the first time since 1982 when workers walked off the job en-mass to protest Thatcher’s cuts, and before that 1926, there is serious talk of a general strike amongst some of Britain’s largest unions.

Nothing is certain yet and there isn’t so much as a date announced, but Unite has now acknowledged that talks are underway. This confirms months of rumours that British unions had been considering escalating their battle against austerity and adopting a tactic now common in countries like Spain and Italy. The proposal still has a lot of opposition to overcome, it may not even be legal and certainly doesn’t have a consensus behind it (yet), but now that discussions are official, there’s no doubt that organizing efforts will begin.

With this return to more traditional and confrontational union politics, Unite and others are hoping to rejuvenate the beleaguered labour movement and reclaim its role in broader society. Whether one action could accomplish such ambitious goals is certainly up for debate, but after the colossal failure that has resulted from coalition politics, it’s hard to fault them for wanting a more direct approach.

For those who don’t follow British politics, a little background: among the European nations which implemented “austerity” policies in the wake of the EU’s debt crisis, Britain adopted some of the strongest measures of any wealthy nation. These are now widely acknowledged to have been a colossal failure and actually plunged the country back into recession. Like most, this hasn’t deterred the government which continues to pursue even more cuts in an attempt to dig their way out of the hole they’re in. In the wake of these cuts, British society is now more unequal than any point since the Second World War. The simmering rage over this state of affairs has already lead to massive and rowdy protests and viscious rioting and promises to continue even if a general strike doesn’t materialize.

The UK’s woes are only one part of the never-ending financial crisis which is gripping Europe. Even though austerity has been acknowledged for years now as failing to “stimulate the economy” or lower interest on national debts, it continues to be the only solution offered by Angela Merkel and the central bankers. These policies led back to recession in Britain, Spain and Italy and brought on full-blown disaster in Greece. With recent events in Cyprus, it’s clear that even personal bank accounts are no longer considered safe if the need to bail out banks arises.

Those of us in Canada should pay close attention to how this struggle unfolds. As our government pushes it’s own austerity agenda, we may soon find ourselves in a similar situation and considering similar measures. It’s only through such militant tactics that the labour movement was able to establish itself in either country, and as the use of wildcat and general strike dwindled, so did the movement’s influence. For decades now, we’ve witnessed a stagnation of real wages, the widespread growth of precarious employment and the devastation of our manufacturing sectors. If the experience of nations like Britain and Spain is any indication, austerity stands to make this much, much worse. “Playing nice”, making concessions and “not rocking the boat” have failed, completely and utterly, to stop these trends. It’s time to try something else.

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