After N30: build rank-and-file power. Fight to win!

Submitted by Matthew on 23 November, 2011 - 12:03

To orient the pensions battle after N30 around clear demands and to launch a programme of rolling, selective and escalating action that can win those demands, we have to create spaces where grassroots union members — the “rank-and-file” — can discuss, coordinate and organise together.

Those spaces can be levers of resistance against any attempt by union bureaucracies to derail or sell out the dispute.

At a workplace level that could be something as simple as having regular, cross-union workplace meetings. Without such forums, participation in a strike can become a passive experience. With regular opportunities to discuss the direction of the dispute, and to keep up to date with the latest developments, workers can develop our own strategies from the bottom-up.

Every town should have a strike committee — a cross-union body of elected delegates of striking unions that can coordinate direct action on strike days and act as a hub to facilitate solidarity. Strike committees (or Trades Councils or union branches where strike committees don’t exist) should organise strikers’ assemblies so workers can discuss their experiences of the strike and develop plans for pushing their unions into further action.

In the run up to N30, some Unison health branches in London provoked their members’ ire by effectively telling them to take symbolic action at lunchtime rather than a full day’s walkout. Teachers’ union NASUWT has seemed to equivocate over N30 itself, talking up its work-to-rule which begins on 1 December instead.

There is a battle to be had in every union to win the freedom to take the action that can win, rather than being given instructions to take the action that union leaders think will improve the chances of winning a few more crumbs from the government’s table.

In the long-term, permanent rank-and-file networks — linking up shop stewards, other reps and activists both within and between unions — are needed to act as counterweights to the bureaucracy and to challenge them for control of our unions.

If the embryos of rank-and-file power that have already been built up in some places around N30 can be grown, developed, and
proliferated, then the strike will have a lasting significance well beyond its immediate impact on a particular industrial issue.

Building the strike in the NHS

Preparations for 30 November in the NHS have been extremely mixed. In some places branches have risen to the challenge and organised. In other places, it has been like watching two old enemies preparing for war, after 30 years of peace in which both parties have forgotten the rules of combat.

After decades of social partnership (the delusional belief that bosses and workers have common interests), many health branches of the main NHS union Unison are run by old blokes who think, act and live like management. They have been forced into this industrial action by forces of history beyond their ken and are now trying to apply their old collaborationist methods to the problem of organising a strike.

Everyone agrees that healthworkers should not aim for total, all-out strike action that would leave patients at risk. Non-emergency services should shut down despite the fact that this would cause patients some discomfort. Acute inpatient units or emergency services should run at bank holiday staffing levels. In some branches, these old blokes have signed a partnership agreement exempting all union members who usually work on bank holidays. This means that large numbers of union members will go to work as usual on 30 November, alongside the strike-breakers, doctors and management. In many ways it will be a normal day at the office.

If the union was well organised, had 100% density and could ensure that it had total control over the strike day, then it would organise the emergency cover under union control. Shorter shifts (e.g. 4 hours at a time) could be shared out among striking workers allowing the maximum number of people to take part in the action. All sorts of inessential duties could be avoided for the duration of the strike days, and we would aim at maximum workers’ control, rather than disruption to patient care.

However, we do not have 100% density and the level of organisation among union members is extremely low. For 30 November, the goal of the strike is to take out as many workers as possible and create a staffing vacuum in the wards so that non-union members, management and doctors have to act down and fill these posts. In most hospitals, management intend to break the strike. Our role is to make sure they cannot spend the day in their office. If we manage to get senior managers to work night shifts as nursing assistants on the acute wards, then the strike would have been successful.

Where we have higher density and can take out the majority of the life and limb staff, then management may have a problem in covering all the shifts. In this case, they should approach the union and request that some members are exempted from the action. These members should go into work but under union control and should donate their wages to the strike fund.

We are in favour of strike action because it allows workers to feel increasingly confident about their industrial power and their abilities to organise independently of management dictats. Taking strike action allows us to imagine another world where we don't always have to do what our bosses tell us to do but can organise collectively and in our own interests. If we can achieve this kind of rebellion then it will make the government feel very uncomfortable.

In branches where all inpatient staff have been exempted, it is likely that management wrote the policy and some tired old lay official rubber stamped it. Inpatient staff should ignore the exemption and organise for the maximum level of strike action. There is a legal right to strike, and nurses and midwives are covered by the NMC code of conduct to take part in industrial action.

Through the process of defying both management and their collaborators within the union movement, we can rebuild the trade unions with a new layer of activists schooled in the experience of organising effective class struggle.