On picket lines on N30 and in meetings on the day and after, strikers should be developing plans of action for extending and escalating the dispute, and deepening it beyond isolated single days of strike action.
The pensions dispute will be won if, and only if, the government is convinced that the unions will escalate action and will hold out longer than the government will. Workers should not be left to wait until union leaders decide it’s time for another one-off “day of action”.
As well as all-out days of action, we need rolling and selective action across different sectors — teachers striking, then local government workers, then civil servants and so on. Rolling action should also focus on mobilising those workers whose action will cause the most disruption to normal economic functioning — school workers, whose action impacts across communities if schools are forced to close, and workers like tax collectors and parking attendants who can hit local and national government revenue streams.
School workers can take as a model the campaign by state school teachers in Victoria, Australia, in 2008. The teachers staged three state-wide strikes to punctuate five weeks of region-by-region rolling strikes. The rolling strikes were not passive, stay-at-home affairs, but linked to large protests at the electorate offices of state MPs in each area. Union members took part in regular, large members’ meetings, discussing and debating strategy. The state government finally backed down, giving large pay rises and some concessions on conditions, after teachers set walk-outs to disrupt Australia’s equivalent of SATs.
Unions should campaign for private sector workers forced to stay at home to look after children unable to attend school to be paid, in order to short-circuit media hysteria about the inconvenience caused by the strikes.
The action needs to escalate. National days of cross-union strike action should extend from one day to two, then three, and so on, and rolling and selective action should be planned on an escalating schedule.
National unions, and local trade union branches, should set up strike levies to build up war-chests that can finance prolonged action. The knowledge that our unions can ease some of the financial burden of striking can help give workers the confidence for prolonged action.
This programme of action needs to be discussed and developed now, and we need to begin building for it immediately. We cannot allow the dispute to develop into a Duke of York scenario, with 3,000,000 trade union members reduced to the role of a stage army marched out for a day and then marched back to work again to await further orders.
A single day of mass strike action will not be enough to make the government back down. Brian Strutton of the general union GMB has spoken publicly of a dispute stretching well into 2012, and at the “Unite The Resistance” rally on Saturday 19 November, Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) leader Mark Serwotka said that his union would be “lobbying the TUC” for another “day of action” early in 2012.
But trade union leaders are leading and organising little democratic debate about forms of action.
Ever since preparations for the 26 March “March for the Alternative” began, labour movement officialdom has been operating on the basis of “big days out”, first 26 March, then 30 June, then the 2 October demonstration at Tory Party conference and now N30, each one followed by advice to wait for the word from on high about future action. There has been no sustained action in between, and no coherent campaign to tie the set-piece actions together.
The far left in the labour movement has largely gone along with this approach, with groups like the SWP typically seeking to position themselves as the most enthusiastic builders of each event rather than also offering an alternative strategy.
This battle is too important to be treated as a sectarian cash-cow for left groups to harvest recruits from by attempting to outdo each other in the talking-up stakes.
The duty of the revolutionary left in this dispute is to catalyse a discussion about strategy and perspective, and help rank-and-file workers organise together to gain control of the dispute.