Too Little Too Latte (or, The Triumphant Return of UK Uncut)

Angel branch of Starbucks during occupation, Saturday 8/12/2012 - Photo credit: Ben RobinsonChris Browne

Saturday saw a raft of actions take place inside, outside and against Starbucks in the UK. The day of action, called by UK Uncut, focused on ‘women’s services’ – a broad collective category united by its necessity and damningly predictable vulnerability.

Starbucks were picked as a target due to their legal – though morally reprehensible – tax avoidance in the UK. The high profile actions, which numbered over 40, combined to make this the largest UK Uncut day of action ever. It was a happy, almost nostalgic renaissance for the poster-child of 2011 direct action.

As with all UK Uncut occupations, they were shouted about in the run-up to the weekend. By Wednesday, the public pressure on Starbucks had built to a point where embarrassment tipped over into concession: the multi-national coffee giant offered a flippant £10 million tax contribution, in an effort to diffuse public anger before the occupations took place.

The strategy backfired. An offer of £10 million merely aroused the ire of activists rather than bedding it back down: tax is firstly not a voluntary contribution, and the flashy pretence of large numbers will not obscure the fact that this is around £10 million more than they paid last year. The repugnance of their audacity is two-fold.

As for the link between tax-dodging corporations and cuts to front-line women’s services, a look at the figures is as good a place to start as any. I was nominated by a meddlesome member of my affinity group to produce some nice info-graphics for the day of action. I said ‘yes’, and enlisted the help of the brilliant Calverts Co-operative to print it in A1. Our own occupation took place in Angel, where, for one hour, we converted the branch into a teach-in about rape crisis centres and women’s refuges. You can see some of the stats in the digital version below, but to highlight just a few:

HMRC estimate that £32bn was lost to tax avoidance in the UK in 2011. The average income of a rape crisis centre is just £81,500 a year, and despite a 17 percent  increase in reports of domestic violence since 2008, 95 percent of these organisations supporting women are facing cuts.

Infographic - created by Chris BrowneIf corporations like Starbucks paid anything like a fair amount of tax, then there might be some let-up in the crippling wave of austerity measures faced by ordinary people and the services they rely on. Of course, this presumes that the government’s cuts are economically, rather than ideologically motivated, and this is a presumption that is sadly without credibility. Nonetheless, removing the artificial conditions of our economic impoverishment must be the first step towards debunking the austerity myth. If Starbucks pay their tax then perhaps vital services might be saved.

It is difficult to comprehend the concrete reality which George Osborne laid the foundations for in his Autumn Statement last Wednesday. The announcement of a further £5 billion in cuts, and the rolling out of Austerity until at least 2018 will annihilate many of the crèches, homeless shelters and rape crisis centres which people fought to try and save this weekend. The return of a re-invigorated UK Uncut is much needed, and if sustained, could answer the implied question of what next after ‘Occupy’?

Saturday’s occupations were inspiring and emotional. Once again we saw the loose formation of Capitalism, the Police and the State close ranks in a telling visual display of public exclusion. Only the strength of our collective action from this point on will determine the extent of that exclusion. Many of us were locked outside of these 40 or so coffee shops on Saturday; there is a real and present danger that unless we demand it back, we will soon be excluded from a welfare system of transcendent value, that is already being quietly dismantled before our eyes.

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