The battle after 30 June: how to win

Submitted by Matthew on 29 June, 2011 - 12:33

Some recent disputes have, to great effect, employed the sorts of tactics and strategies that can turn an industrial dispute into a real weapon, used to force concessions from bosses rather than just to register a protest.

A dispute on London Underground to win the reinstatement of sacked union reps, strikes at Rawmarsh school in Rotherham against job cuts, and the Southampton council workers’ strikes, are proving that there is an alternative way of conceiving of and running industrial disputes . In the case of London Underground and Rawmarsh they have already won. What are they doing differently?

Rank-and-file democracy

Who runs a strike? The officials of the union, or the striking workers themselves? A union with sufficiently democratic structures for these two groups to be the same is rare indeed.

Often, strike strategy is cooked up behind closed doors by union leaders and then presented as a fait accompli to workers, they are pressurised to “support their union”. This is a recipe for a strike over which workers feel no ownership.

But in Southampton, at Rawmarsh and on London Underground, rank-and-file democracy has been crucial.

Although few unions have structures that give formal control of disputes to rank-and-file strike committees, socialists involved in each dispute have fought for as much control as possible to be given to democratic bodies representing the grassroots membership. Mike Tucker, the branch secretary of Southampton District Unison, told Solidarity last week:

“The effective sovereign body in the dispute is a joint Unison-Unite strike committee. It’s made up of branch officials and stewards and it meets weekly to take decision about the direction of the dispute and which sections will be called out next. No group of workers is called out without meetings involving reps and stewards from that section to make sure they’re on-board with the strategy. We’ve also been holding mass members’ meetings since November.”

Regular mass members meetings, which discussed and debated strike strategy, were also key at Rawmarsh. In both cases they represented channels by which workers could take ownership over their own strike rather than being used as foot-soldiers for union leaderships.

On London Underground, Workers’ Liberty member Janine Booth stood for election to the union’s executive promising to act as a voice for the rank-and-file; in the victimisation dispute she has fulfilled that promise. Strikes needs leadership, but that doesn’t mean unaccountable union officials telling “ordinary members” what to do.

Janine has consistently developed strategy based on discussions, debates and decisions taken by the rank-and-file Train Grades Committee. Janine and other AWL members working on the Tube have argued for particular approaches, but within the context of a debate amongst rank-and-file workers about the direction of the dispute, rather than with the old “the Executive knows best” attitude.

The experience shows how revolutionary socialists who stand for, and win, leading positions within a union can disrupt and subvert the bureaucracy’s traditional modes of functioning, and it also shows how much more effective a strike campaign can be when the workers involved take the lead in planning action.

For Workers’ Liberty, the 30 June strikes are an opportunity to make the case for how the whole labour movement can be transformed. Rank-and-file committees which have real control over the direction of disputes are integral to our vision of what a fighting, democratic workers’ movement looks like. In places like Nottingham, AWL members have led the fight to set up joint union committees and won official support and backing from the unions locally. But where unions won’t support rank-and-file strike committees, they should be organised independently, both within and across unions. Ultimately, we want permanent rank-and-file networks (again, both within and across unions) that can force union leaderships to act – and, when they won’t, organise action independently.

Organise

Even in a workplace like the London Underground combine, which has relatively high levels of union density and a history of militancy, strikes will not be solid automatically.

Every strike needs to be backed up by ongoing organisation, before and in between strike days, to make sure workers on the job – union and non-union – know what’s going on, know the arguments and know how to get involved.

On London Underground, RMT branches, the Train Grades Committee and the Regional Council worked hard to build the anti-victimisation campaign in workplaces. Reps consistently visited groups of workers, union activists collected petitions and flooded the job with stickers and badges. Branches and the region published regular newsletters that kept members up-to-date with the latest development and tackled management propaganda. RMT reps also sought support from the other unions in the workplace, particularly ASLEF.

If management can see that a strike is being backed up by this kind of ongoing workplace organisation and campaigning, and is therefore more likely to be solid, they’ll be more likely to feel under threat.

Real demands

Many recent strikes, even significant national disputes like the postal workers’ strike of 2009, have been based on no concrete demands. CWU officials would sound resolute in telling their members that the strike was “against what management is doing”, but the actual position of the union — its only demand — was that management negotiate with it.

This reflects a lack of strategy from union leaderships, and a means by which union bureaucracies can engineer sell-out deals. Once in negotiations, rank-and-file members have little control over what’s discussed. Striking workers become a stage army for the bureaucracy rather than a conscious agency acting in their own interests. It’s not that the bureaucrats are consciously trying to make life worse for their members; it’s more that they see their role as managing and mitigating practically-inevitable defeats rather than ever actually winning anything.

In the recent Tube workers dispute to win reinstatement for sacked reps Eamonn Lynch and Arwyn Thomas, the demand was singular and clear: reinstatement, and nothing less. The industrial campaign would continue until both men were back in London Underground employment. In the Rawmarsh strikes, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) made the demand for the withdrawal of all threatened redundancies central to the strike. Workers knew that they weren’t striking in general protest against what management was doing, but were active participants in a campaign aimed at winning specific concessions and forcing specific action from their bosses.

Take strategic action, escalate where necessary

At Rawmarsh, when sustained strike action had worn management down to the extent that only one worker now faced redundancy, received wisdom would have seen the strike de-escalated to “match” the de-escalated threat from management.

But the workers were fighting to stop all job cuts — no compromises — so they stepped up their action and began working a two-day week. Management soon caved.

On London Underground, the experience of the recent job cuts dispute — where the RMT and TSSA staged several 24-hour strikes — is still fresh in workers’ minds. They have very recent and painful experience that a one-day strike is not enough to win concessions. Activists worked out a strategy that involved 48-hours’ worth of strike action, but strategically spread across shifts to ensure an entire week’s worth of disruption.

It certainly had an impact; after the strikes were announced, the Evening Standard was shrieking, terrified, at the prospect of the “longest Tube strikes ever”. The lesson is clear: if you want to win, you have to be prepared to take the kind of action that will achieve victory — take action that has an impact.

Southampton also shows how strikes can be creatively planned to do the maximum damage to management plans. The council workers’ strike is indefinite — they will not go back to work until their demands are won. But it is also “rolling”; different sections of the workforce strike on different days, for a week at a time, ensuring the impact is spread as widely as possible across the council’s functioning. The walkouts are supplemented with ongoing campaigns of action short of strikes (such as work-to-rules and overtime bans), meaning that even when particular sections are not on strike, they are still having an impact.

The old labour movement saying “the longer the picket line, the shorter the strike” also rings true. Sometimes it’s not enough to strike longer; you have to strike bigger.

Strikes often lose when they become protracted and stagnate. Looking for ways to spread the dispute is better and almost always necessary. After two days of localised strike action on the Northern and Bakerloo lines (the lines on which Eamonn Lynch and Arwyn Thomas worked) failed to have any significant impact on management, the RMT stepped up the action and launched a ballot of all its driver members across the whole of London Underground. This was a risky step, but a necessary one. Management could ride out disruption on two lines. When threatened with disruption across the whole network, they had to move.

Strike pay

“I can’t afford to take strike action” is perhaps the most frequently heard reason for people to cross a picket line. Sometimes it’s a disingenuous excuse to scab, but it can represent a real financial concern.

It’s an issue that can be dealt with in one fell swoop if unions organise proper strike pay. “No benefit but strike benefit” was said to be a favourite slogan of GMB founder Will Thorne. It’s an important principle; unions should exist as means by which workers can take action against their bosses, not service-providers.

In both the Rawmarsh and LU disputes, workers knew strike pay was available. Unions in the Southampton council workers’ dispute are also paying strike pay, taken from branch funds but supplemented by financial support from the unions nationally.

Strike funds should be levied from members’ dues. That’s what your union dues should be paying for; not flashy new skyscraper offices or inflated salaries for union leaders. Hardship funds and strike pay should be paid out to those who need them most, so lower-paid workers can participate in disputes alongside better-paid ones.

100% strike pay is impractical; it would mean that strikes would collapse when the money ran out. The purpose of strike pay is to facilitate sustained action rather than one-day stoppages, and to soften the financial hit of striking so as to prevent management starving us into submission.

Almost all strikes will involve some level of financial sacrifice for workers, and every victory depends on convincing the bosses that the workers won’t blink first, but no strike should set out aiming to be long-drawn-out. Every strike — unless it is explicitly understood as a demonstration or protest — should aim to win, and win quickly.

Don’t call strikes off for empty promises

After the initial nine days of strike action at Rawmarsh, school management were looking shaky. They reduced the number of threatened redundancies, then announced there would be no job cuts until the following September.

Prevailing trade union culture would have led the National Union of Teachers (NUT) to calling off the strikes, but this time it didn’t. Although the announcement of the next set of strike dates was sometimes put on hold while talks were ongoing, the dispute was never called off, the ballot mandate was kept live and management went into negotiations knowing that the threat of further strike action was still hanging over them. The NUT negotiated from a position of strength.

The RMT remained similarly resolute. On the eve of a planned 48-hour strike (strategically spread across shift patterns over a week to maximise its impact), Arwyn Thomas’s Tribunal panel unexpectedly delivered an early verdict — ruling, as expected, that he was unfairly dismissed. Although LU bosses clamoured for the RMT to call off their action, the union refused; the demand of the strike was reinstatement, not a particular Tribunal verdict, and until Arwyn was re-employed the strikes remained on. It is unlikely that the Tribunal verdict in and of itself would have been enough to force management’s hand. The threat of a week’s worth of disruption to their profits did that.

Build a strike solidarity movement

Strikes need solidarity to win. In Southampton, action has been complemented and fed into by regular demonstrations, rallies and mass meetings that give supporters of the strike a chance to actively participate.

Unions have conducted an awareness-raising campaign across the city to make sure other workers in Southampton know what the dispute is about, building an understanding of the strike as not just a sectional squabble between employers and employees at the council but a class battle across the whole city. The NUT at Rawmarsh and the rail union RMT on London Underground also turned outwards, building campaigns of solidarity and inviting support from local and national labour movement bodies. The RMT held a public strike rally on the eve of the last planned strikes (the threat of which finally forced bosses to cave), and organised leafletting of the public to build support for the campaign. They also organised an email campaign through the LabourStart website, which saw London Mayor Boris Johnson and TfL management bombarded with thousands of emails supporting reinstatement for Eamonn and Arwyn.

No strike is guaranteed victory. But a strike based on these kind of steps has an better chance of victory than one which fits the pattern of after-the-fact protests led from above.

Hundreds of thousands of workers are about to participate in the first set-piece industrial confrontation with the government; if militants in workplaces and union branches can build strikes fought to win, based on rank-and-file democracy and solidarity, then action after 30 June will be more than a one-day set-piece.