If you were part of the 99 percent in the United Kingdom, you’d be forgiven for being somewhat befuddled at the moment. Deep spending cuts, austerity and privatization plans are the political agenda in Parliament, yet the country also is preparing full-blast for a little trifle called the Olympic Games. The games’ pricetag has exploded from $3.7 billion to more than $14.5 billion (US dollars). In addition, there will be at least 13,500 British troops in the UK for the Olympics, more than are stationed in Afghanistan. Beyond the numbers of official troops, there will be at least 10,000 private guards and contractors. The esteemed Royal Navy’s largest battleship will be docked in Greenwich, to safeguard the equestrian events. Bomb-disposal units, helicopters, fighter jets and ground-to-air missiles will also be on standby. Welcome to “conservative” governance in the twenty-first century: a militarized, budget busting, carnival of neoliberalism disguised as sport.
Len McCluskey, the leader of the country’s largest union, Unite, has looked at this state of affairs and raised the specter of strike-action during the Olympics. McCluskey, in an interview with the Guardian said that the attacks on public sector workers were “so deep and ideological” that they had every right to target the games. He said, “The idea the world should arrive in London and have these wonderful Olympic Games as though everything is nice and rosy in the garden is unthinkable. Our very way of life is being attacked. By then, this crazy health and social care bill may have been passed, so we are looking at the privatisation of our National Health Service. I believe the unions, and the general community, have got every right to be out protesting.”
McCluskey also urged the public to engage in “all forms of civil disobedience within the law.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband set a land-speed record for throwing the union under the bus,tweeting, “Any threat to the Olympics is totally unacceptable and wrong. This is a celebration for the whole country and must not be disrupted.”
Miliband’s response shouldn’t be shocking. It was Labour leaders Tony Blair and former London Mayor Ken Livingstone who secured the Olympics as part of their Cool Brittania initiative. Blair is now disgraced. Livingstone was voted out, yet the Games remain.
Following Miliband’s case of the shakes, all political parties are falling over themselves to condemn McCluskey’s remarks. Tory Prime Minister David Cameron twisted the knife.“Unite is the single biggest donor to the party opposite [Labour], providing around a third of their money, and had more role than anybody else in putting the right honourable gentleman [Miliband] in his place,” he said. “It’s not good enough for them just to put out a tweet. They need to condemn this utterly and start turning back the money.” A spokesman for Cameron further called the threats “unacceptable and unpatriotic.”
Conservative leaders aren’t just talking. They have been trying to pass anti-strike legislation, to fine and imprison workers involved in any work stoppages. Current London Mayor Boris Johnson wants a law that makes any strike action prohibited unless unions get a majority of every single member on the rolls to vote in favor walking out. McCluskey’s response to these threats has been to dig in. “If [ministers] make these attacks against us, trying to limit the type of strike action…. if they push us outside the law, they are going to have to live with the consequences of that,” he said. “Because if we need to break the law in order to defend what are our basic human rights—right of association—then we will do that.”
We will see if McCluskey can wrangle concessions on pay for UNITE workers during the Olympics or whether he and the 200,000 (including 28,000 transportation workers) walk out and cripple the Olympics.
If you listen closely, you can hear IOC officials wishing every Olympics could be held in China so dissenters like McCluskey can be rounded up and dealt with in efficient fashion. If the unions and British left aren’t vigilant, the IOC may get their wish.
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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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