On 18 June, Dave Prentis, general secretary of the public service workers’ union Unison, told the Guardian that in the autumn the union, with others, will start a campaign of industrial action, “the biggest since the general strike”.
“It won’t be the miners’ strike [of 1984-5, which shook the country for a year but eventually was defeated]. We are going to win.”
He promised more than one-day strikes.
“I strongly believe that one day of industrial action will not change anyone’s mind in government... We are prepared for rolling action over an indefinite period”.
And he demanded support for the union campaign from Labour Party leaders. “If the Labour Party stays quiet that will be an issue. This isn’t a kneejerk reaction, this will be a long programme of action and we will expect the Labour Party to support that”.
Prentis is not to be trusted. But what Prentis said — with an eye to his union’s local government and national conferences, running from 19 to 24 June — is right.
Against the coalition government’s plan to reduce Britain to a condition where pensions mean poverty, where public services mean finding some charity that will help you, where unemployment or disability mean being hounded into becoming cheap marginal labour, where unions have been crushed even in their public-sector bastions, where inequality blooms, and where life is mean and “competitive” — against all that, the labour movement cannot just protest and complain. We must fight to win.
Here are five proposals.
ONE: DISCUSS, FORMULATE A RANK-AND-FILE PLAN
When Dave Prentis, at the Unison conference on 21 June, repeated his promise of “a campaign of strike action without precedent”, he told the delegates: “Our preparations are well advanced...”
Prentis did not tell the delegates what the plans are, or let them in to a serious debate about what the plans should be.
The people who are going to strike should decide the plans, and not the top union officials whose own jobs, salaries, and pensions are not at risk. Workers should not be a stage army, called onto the scene by union leaders just to strengthen their hand in negotiations.
Trade unions striking on 30 June should organise joint mass meetings on that day, and make them real meetings, with time for debate from the floor, motions, and amendments.
Those meetings cannot decide the unions’ policy. But well-circulated information about what mass meetings across the country decide can give activists in every union a common agenda to refine and campaign for.
After 30 June, joint union committees, or anti-cuts committees drawing in delegates from all the unions, must continue in every city, enabling the discussion to continue.
In each union, activists should demand the convocation of regular assemblies of delegates from across the country, with the meetings and the proposals to be put to them well publicised in advance and open to debate and amendment from the floor.
TWO: ORGANISE FOLLOW-UP ACTION NOW
Prentis is right that the unions must prepare for indefinite action. Industrial battles should move forward with as rapid a tempo as possible. No boss will be pushed back by scattered protest actions with long waits in between. But unions win them only when they convince the boss, or the government, that the unions can carry on longer but the boss, or the government, can’t afford to.
The unions nationally should learn from Unison and Unite council workers in Southampton, who are fighting cuts in their pay and conditions by a programme of selective action, one section after another, by groups chosen so as to hit the council’s finances, which they pledge to continue until the council gives in.
When workers return to work on 1 July, they should know what they’re planning for next, rather than being left to wait. The Government should know what it faces next, rather than have the pressure taken off it for a few months.
All the main union leaders are now talking about a bigger one-day strike in the autumn. Set the date now!
PCS should organise selective action in areas where action will hit government revenue. Teachers should plan rolling strikes like those used by teachers in Victoria, Australia, in their successful battle of 2008 — strikes in one region after another, each one accompanied by mass demonstrations at MPs’ offices in the area.
To sustain this selective action, unions should start collecting strike levies now.
THREE: CAMPAIGN AGAINST ANTI-UNION LAWS
The unions are already hobbled by laws which Tony Blair proudly, and with only slight exaggeration, called “the most restrictive on trade unions in the western world” (Daily Mail, 31 March 1997). The Tories passed those laws. Blair and Brown kept them on the books, and without any determined campaign from union leaders like Prentis to budge them on the issue.
As we saw in the BA dispute, those existing laws can be used to ban or at least postpone any large strike, just by the employer raising a complaint about the minor errors in the balloting procedures which are inevitable in a large ballot of a varied workforce.
The Tories and Lib-Dems are talking about new laws. One option is a requirement that all (or almost all) non-voters in strike ballots be deemed to have voted against a strike, i.e. that 50%, or at least 40%, of all those entitled to vote must back strikes, as well as a majority of those voting. Another option is a law to empower the government to ban or curb strikes in “essential services” (meaning not, for example, hospitals, where trade-unionists always organise emergency cover when they strike, but areas like public transport).
On paper, all the unions are committed to fighting for the restoration of full rights to strike, to picket, to take solidarity action, and to organise. Only, for almost two decades now, they have done almost nothing about it.
A high-profile public campaign is urgent now. The unions should also get themselves organised to prepare to defy the law if necessary.
Union funds should be moved overseas. Union buildings should be sold off and leased back. Strike-levy funds should be held by bodies legally separate from the unions. The unions should set themselves up so that they can continue operating, and continue organising industrial action, even if their (accessible) funds are seized by the courts.
FOUR: FORMULATE PRECISE DEMANDS
30 June is much more a strike “about” pension cuts and job cuts than an action focused on precise demands. Prentis talks of “a campaign of strike action without precedent”, but for what exactly?
In his speech at Unison conference on 21 June, Prentis said: “We will defend our NHS. We will defeat this [Health Services] Bill. And we will win”. But he also suggested that “the campaign of strike action” was to win only on pensions.
Leaving the issues vague can seem “left-wing”, because formulating precise demands means a discussion among workers about what is winnable now, which may not be all we want.
But you can’t fight to win unless you know what you’re going for. The postal workers’ dispute of 2009, which was always just “about” jobs and conditions, without formulating precise demands, is an object lesson.
FIVE: CAMPAIGN FOR A WORKERS’ GOVERNMENT
Prentis said: “If the Labour Party stays quiet that will be an issue”.
The Labour leaders are “staying quiet”, or worse. On 18 June Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls said on BBC TV that “The trade unions must not walk into the trap of giving George Osborne the confrontation he wants to divert attention from a failing economy”. So workers should let the Government do what it wants, without resistance, so that they can better attend to their own poverty, misery, and “failing economy” once Osborne has done his work!
Prentis and the other Labour-affiliated union leaders should use their unions’ clout within the Labour Party now. They should demand, in the review of Labour Party structure now underway, that Labour conferences should become open, democratic events, with real debate, and with decisions binding on the leaders.
They should publicly demand that Ed Miliband commit himself to reverse the Coalition’s cuts when Labour returns to office.
If the union leaders won’t do that, activists within the unions should organise to make them do it. We should fight for the labour movement to rouse and reorganise itself so that we can replace the Coalition by a workers’ government, a government based on and accountable to the labour movement and serving workers’ interests.