30 November: the biggest strike since 1926

Submitted by Matthew on 12 October, 2011 - 11:48

Not since the General Strike of 1926 has there been any comparable move by so many unions to strike together on the same day. 30 November is shaping up to be one of the biggest strikes in the history of the British labour movement, drawing in many workers who have never struck before.

The big local government and health union Unison will send out ballot papers from 11 October, to be returned by 3 November.

The teachers’ union EIS and the head teachers’ organisation NAHT have already sent out ballot papers for strike action against pension cuts on 30 November. Six other unions hold live ballot mandates from action on or since 30 June: NUT, UCU, ATL, PCS, Unison in Northern Ireland, and the Welsh teachers’ union UCAC.

The teachers’ union NASUWT and the Northern Ireland public service union NIPSA are balloting for action short of strikes as well as for strike action. The NASUWT ballot opens on 4 November and closes on 17 November. The NIPSA ballot opens on 10 October.

The historically right-wing union Prospect, which has not balloted for 27 years, has a ballot opening on 24 October and closing on 14 November. NAHT has never struck before in its 114-year history, but sent out ballot papers on 29 September.

Other unions have announced their intention to strike over pensions but have not yet fixed a ballot schedule.

Those are: the Royal College of Nursing, the First Division Association, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, the Fire Brigades Union, and (for their members in public sector pension schemes) two other giant unions, Unite and GMB.

Workers’ Liberty members have produced a model motion (see below) for activists to use in their union branches or trades council. It makes the case for a creative, ongoing strategy for the pensions fight that builds mechanisms of grassroots control so union members can take ownership over their own dispute.

It is only with such a strategy — a strategy of mass participation, rank-and-file democracy and industrial action designed to apply maximum pressure and force concessions — that the potential of 30 November can be maximised.

Thought should also be given to how the public sector pensions battle can intersect with ongoing fights in the private sector, such as the electricians’ campaign against pay cuts and the Fujitsu IT workers’ struggle. Delegates from those disputes should also participate in strike committees set up to build for 30 November. There is no particular industrial reason why construction contractors will be put under more pressure if electricians strike on 30 November than if they strike on any other day, so a fetish should not be made out of simply striking on the same day, but public-private solidarity should be built and, wherever coordination makes industrial sense, it should be sought.

Already, Trades Councils in Cambridge, Nottingham and Brighton are building for the strike day on the basis of building mass participation and rank-and-file control. Other labour movement bodies should do the same.

That rank-and-file organising will be a necessary addition to what the union head offices do. GMB, a general union with over 300,000 members in public sector pensions schemes, did not participate in the 30 June strike, but its leaders have made explicit statements about the need for sustained action.

Brian Strutton, the GMB’s national public services secretary, speaks of a “long, hard and dirty dispute” that runs “for a long time” — “rolling into next summer”.

The GMB has made it clear that its ballot will give the union a mandate to take action beyond 30 November. It is right to seek that mandate. A strategy that sees 30 November as an isolated, single day of protest action has no chance of forcing concessions from the government.

Unfortunately, the union’s press office says that the timetable for a ballot is yet to be released and the union is still undertaking the “huge job” of getting its membership records in sufficient order to comply with the anti-union laws. The GMB’s Southern region has offered members a £30 stipend to staff phone-banks for checking membership records.

The “all hands on deck” spirit is admirable, but you wonder what the union’s paid functionaries (many of them much better paid than the workers they are supposed to represent) have been doing in the 17 months since the Coalition took office and quickly made its plans clear. You also wonder how far the officials can be trusted to run the dispute adequately.

Unite, the other large general union with members in the public sector which did not strike on 30 June, announced on 14 September that it would ballot its 250,000 public sector members. A union source told Solidarity that a timetable for the ballot was “imminent”, but that there was no public information about what kind of action Unite would be balloting for (one-day strike, “discontinuous” action, “action short of strike” as well as strikes?).

At Labour Party conference, Unite leader Len McCluskey told a caucus of Unite delegates that he was still open to the possibility of not taking action if progress is made in negotiations. Since negotiations have been going on for months without progress, McCluskey’s statement gives signals of uncertainty.

More scandalously, Unison’s head of health Christina McAnea appeared at the recent Tory party conference to announce that “as a union, it’s not our job to fight against every single [hospital] closure.”

When union leaders display such a cavalier attitude to the potential closure of workplaces, trade union members can hardly be expected to trust those leaders to protect their pensions.

Activists must fight for democratic reform in their unions to make sure people like McAnea and McCluskey are reined in and made accountable to union members.

Unlike some of the other unions, Unite and GMB have balloted for strikes before, and recently. But never on this scale, and across such a number and variety of workplaces.

The logistics are difficult. Union officials are worried that bosses will pick on small irregularities in the balloting procedure (such as ballot papers sent to workers who have retired or moved to different jobs). On the precedent of the BA dispute and other cases, the bosses could use very small errors of that sort to get a court injunction against the strike.

But the essential defence against that is political and industrial. No amount of record-checking will eliminate all errors in ballots of this size.

The employers will use their laws and their courts to block the strike if they think they can easily get away with it, and not use them if they think that the outrageous unfairness of using the courts will provoke such an angry response from workers as to make the court gambit counterproductive from the point of view of the employers and the government.

The answer to the threat is an energetic, visible public campaign for “fair pensions for all”, maximising workers’ confidence in themselves and in the justice of their case.

For union officials instead to be closeted in record-checking, and stressing to activists the shakiness of the union’s position, risks deflating momentum and morale and leaving most union members in the dark about what their leaders are doing.

Trade union activists need to fight inside their unions for strategies that can win. That means making sure ballots give the union mandates for escalating action beyond 30 November.

No tactic should go unconsidered; the Southampton council dispute has shown the potential for rolling and selective action to mobilise workers. Workers whose action could have the biggest impact on employers’ revenue streams struck selectively to put maximum pressure on council bosses. A similar approach should be considered in public sector workplaces across the country following on from 30 November.

Rapid escalation should also be considered, giving workers the potential to strike for a greater length of time each week or fortnight in quick succession.

And other tactics, such as sit-down strikes (occupations) and wildcat actions, should not be ruled out either. Len McCluskey and GMB leader Paul Kenny have spoken of the need for campaigns of direct action and “civil disobedience”; they should be held to their words and called on to support workers taking that kind of action.

Some union leaders will need to be pushed just to go half as far. NASUWT leaders, for example, have put the emphasis on the “action short of a strike” section of its ballot, making activists fear that the leaders are angling for a resounding vote for action short and only a narrow majority for strikes, and a get-out clause from striking.

Even union leaders considered left-wing have been slack about agitating to build the action. In the National Union of Teachers, local reps in some areas, like Nottingham, have produced materials for activists to use in schools, but it’s had to be organised and driven locally, and the national union leaders should be doing more.

Few unions have spelled out exactly what their demands are in the dispute. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, when speaking about the dispute over the University Superannuation Scheme, has posed things simply in terms of getting bosses back around the negotiating table. Others are vague. None has organised a thorough and democratic discussion among union members about what the precise demands should be.

The announcement from Trades Union Congress on 14 September of the proposed mass strike action on 30 November had the potential to dazzle. It was right to respond enthusiastically, and stress demands for the union leaders to deliver on their militant promises, rather than sourly muttering that it could all come to little; but wrong to imagine the train towards a “big bang” showdown with the government was set irreversibly in motion by that mere announcement.

Union activists should seize on the union leaders’ moves towards action, and demand they follow them through; but also organise independently and democratically at rank-and-file level.

Pass this motion in your branch!

AWL members have produced the following model motion for use in trade union branches, Trades Councils and other labour movement bodies. It sets out a rank-and-file strategy for the run-up to the 30 November strike, and beyond. To download the motion in PDF format, see tinyurl.com/strikemodelmotion

This branch believes:

1. To win the pensions battle, the labour movement will need to mobilise on a scale not seen for a generation.

2. It will take more than isolated, one-day protest strikes to beat the government. Sustained strike action as well as rolling and selective strikes will be needed.

3. For workers to feel confident to take the sustained industrial action necessary, they must have ownership over their own struggle. A successful strike movement cannot be built without mass, active participation.

This branch further believes:

1. The labour movement must articulate a political alternative to the Coalition, on pensions and other questions, based on taxation of the rich, public ownership, democratic control and, ultimately, a fight for a workers’ government — a government based on, accountable to and governing in the interests of the working class, in the same way that the current government governs in the interests of the rich.

This branch resolves:

1. To work with other union branches and the Trades Council to set up a cross-union strike committee, open to delegates from all striking unions, to build for 30 November and action beyond.

2. To use such a strike committee to organise effective picketing on 30 November and a local strikers’ assembly, which will discuss strategy, in addition to any rallies/marches on the strike day itself.

3. To set up a local strike levy to supplement and add to any national hardship fund.

4. To demand that our union leaders immediately name a timetable of escalating action after 30 November into the New Year.

5. To demand that our union’s national negotiators keep the membership informed as to the content of all ongoing negotiations.

6. To support others taking action against the cuts, including the student demonstrations against fees and cuts in London on 9 November.

Future issues of Solidarity will report on branches and Trades Councils that have passed this motion, a version of it, or other motions advocating similar strategies.

Building a strike movement in Brighton

A GMB activist in Brighton reports on how workers there have been organising for the strike.

Our strike committee has met twice so far. We have extended it to other unions; we did not want to be divided along public/private lines.

It has worked well; the bus workers’ branch of Unite turned up and told how they had already passed a motion in that any bus routes that are expected to cross picket lines on the 30th will not be run.

We have already designed and are printing joint union literature. People identified workplaces that may get a low turnout or yes vote, and we have split these workplaces up between us all to do shifts of leafleting. We all pledged to hold workplace meetings once a week, to discuss what has been happening, answer questions, get feedback and share information.

My GMB branch and the Unison Local Government branch are holding two joint open meetings for all members to discuss further our plans for the day. We have invited Southampton Council workers to come and speak at the meeting about how their action is going, how they are organising themselves, and how we can help. We are putting on two public meetings in town so residents can hear from workers why they are striking.

For the day, we’ve identified isolated workplaces where there will only be a few strikers, so we are going to share our members out everywhere, to ensure strong and active picket lines and to ensure those isolated workplaces feel supported.

There are then going to be feeder marches — we are all going to leave our workplaces at the same time and pick up others on the way, to all converge at the Level (a big open playing field in the middle of town). Here, a strikers’ assembly will take place as we wait for everyone to finally arrive.

We have agreed to have no big-name speakers at the rally (although apparently Caroline Lucas [Green Party] wants to come and speak, which we are going to vote on this week). We will have various different workers explaining what the dispute means to them. We are trying to get a cross-section of speakers.

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