Teachers, civil servants, and other workers are set to strike on 30 June against the coalition government’s increases in pension contributions, cuts in pension provision, and raising of the pension age.
At Easter (22-26 April) the National Union of Teachers conference voted to ballot union members for a series of strikes. Other big public service union conferences are coming up soon. The civil service union PCS meets in Brighton on 16-20 May. Its Executive has already decided to ballot members on strike action, soon enough for them to join NUT on 30 June.
The lecturers’ union UCU, which meets in Harrogate on 28-30 May, is also expect to join in on 30 June. Unison, the biggest union in local government and health, meets in Manchester on 19-24 June. Its health sector conference was on 4-6 April.
GMB, a general union with a lot of members in the public sector, meets in Brighton on 5-9 June. Unite, the other big general union, has no policy conference this year, only a rules-revision conference.
Activists will seek to use the union conferences to put pressure on the leaders and to rally members who are pushing for a fight.
They will demand support for the 30 June action, which Unison leaders have already shown they don’t want to give. They will press for 30 June to be followed up quickly by further strikes, including rolling and selective strikes, on a rising tempo — rather than being a sporadic protest, to be followed only by possible further sporadic protest days many months later.
In PCS, they will argue against the union leaders tucking away the huge job cuts in the civil service as a side-issue figuring on the prospectus of the 30 June strike, as an add-on to the protest on pensions, but not as something on which the union has definite plans for action to win even limited concessions.
Though the 26 March anti-cuts demonstration was big, it didn’t show a large body of workers, yet, confidently and insistently pressing the union leaders to organise rapid and coordinated action against the cuts.
That is no surprise given the defeats of recent decades, the corrosive impact of the New Labour regime of 1997-2010, and the training that union leaders (including avowedly-left ones) have given to the working class in seeing industrial action as chiefly a means of occasional protest.
It means that anti-cuts action is more likely, for now, to take the form of gradually-brewing, and fluctuating, ferment. It weighs against the possibility of a rapid explosion, but does not exclude it. Confidence will grow in action.
The contradiction between, on the one hand, the scale of the cuts and the threat they pose to the very fabric of the labour movement, and, on the other, the stance of the union leaders, sharpens the case for a rank-and-file movement in the unions. The cumulative impact of years of union setbacks creates difficulties for building new rank and file networks; but activists will look for openings.
The local anti-cuts committees are for now the main place where we can build the necessary cross-union rank-and-file links.
They must support and promote all the rearguard action that will take place in local government services as the cuts work through, but also reach out to agitate on the welfare benefit cuts and join the gradually-swelling protest over the cuts and marketisation in health. We must resist any drift for the anti-cuts committees, after council budget-setting, to shrivel into caucuses of left-group activists.