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, and how can railworkers learn from them?
In Southampton, at Rawmarsh and on London Underground, rank-and-file democracy has been crucial. Socialists involved in each dispute have fought for as much control as possible to be given to democratic bodies representing the grassroots membership.
Strikes need leadership, but that doesn’t mean unaccountable union officials telling ordinary members what to do.
Rail workers should initiate a national union reps’ committee to make sure there is a way for grassroots activists to have a say over the direction of the battle against McNulty.
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 automatically be solid.
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.
RMT’s rank-and-file Train Grades Committee organised very effectively. Meeting as regularly as necessary, it fixed up a tour of workplaces, so that every depot was visited by activists, some several times. It ensured that newsletters were produced, and that updates were circulated and management and media propaganda countered promptly.
This has happened in Southampton and Rawmarsh. In Southampton, mass meetings on picket lines have helped keep members informed and involved.
In the recent Tube workers’ dispute to win reinstatement for sacked RMT reps Peter Hartshorn, 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, instead of de-escalating they stepped up their and began working a two-day week. Management soon caved.
On London Underground, 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.
Southampton also shows how strikes can be creatively planned to do the maximum damage to management plans. The council workers’ strike is indefinite and ‘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.
Rolling and selective action could be used to great effect on the railway by bringing out different grades of workers at different times to maximise impact.
“I can’t afford to take strike action” is perhaps the most often-heard reason for people to cross a picket line. Sometimes it is a disingenuous excuse to scab, but it can represent a real financial concern.
In both the Rawmarsh and London Underground disputes, workers knew that 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.
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.
The NUT at Rawmarsh and RMT on London Underground also turned outwards, building campaigns of solidarity and inviting support from local and national labour movement bodies. The anti-victimisation campaign used the internet effectively, including the LabourStart website.
The result? Peter, Eamonn and Arwyn are all back at work. It has been a victory that has bucked the trent of recent defeats and boosted morale.
Strikes based on these tactics have a much better chance of winning than one-day protest strikes. If railworkers can fight for tactics like these to be used in the upcoming battles against McNulty, as well as in our local and company-specific battles, we have a chance of defeating the Tories’ and employers’ plans.