Junior doctors with their supporters LP FBU PA campaigning at Haymarket Norwich Junior doctors with their supporters LP FBU PA campaigning at Haymarket Norwich. Source: Roger Blackwell - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY 2.0

Public-sector union leaders should not call off strikes because of a vague offer of improved pay, argues John Westmoreland

The wave of public-sector strikes across one sector after another points to the fact that neoliberal economic policies have all but wrecked the welfare state to the detriment of public-sector workers and service users alike.

The narrative offered to teachers, nurses, and other workers by managers on bloated salaries and equally inflated egos is that there is no money to spare; and the cuts, the ever-increasing workload, and the wholesale rejection of any democratic accountability have been tough but necessary decisions.

At the heart of the problem is the business model of provision. Each hospital, university, and school has been invented as a unique business struggling to compete in a concocted marketplace where competition (to cut wages and bully staff) has provided self-serving managements with their raison d’être. Yet, despite government success in driving down wages and increasing soul-destroying workloads, the neoliberal bird has come home to roost.

The series of successful ballots that swept aside the shackles of the anti-trade-union laws have brought about the Tories’ worse nightmare. Instead of a fractured trade-union movement and a cowed workforce, there is general anger about the callous neoliberal destruction of our services, and that anger is threatening the continuation of business-model provision.

Public support for the strikes is still strong and the will of the strikers has held up so far for one simple reason: we all know that the system is broken and requires massive change away from the market and towards public need. Government ministers and trade-union leaders have both been challenged by the general fightback.

Workers on the 1 February strike rallies found themselves standing together, confronting exactly the same issues, but above all the cost-of-living crisis. The scale of the anger and the determination of the strikers has prompted union leaders and government ministers to renew their efforts for a negotiated solution. This threatens to fracture the public-sector strikes and hand victory to a Tory government that is reeling and needs to be finished off.

Wolf at the door: don’t let him in!

The problems of the trade-union leaders and the government mirror each other. Thousands of public-sector workers are making demands on pay, public-sector funding, and workload. If their demands were met, the government would be admitting that the whole financialisation and marketisation of our public services has been a disaster. Our trade-union leaders, no matter how radical their speeches are, are dedicated to joint negotiation and compromise, not to the overthrow of the funding regime. Both the union leaders and the government are perplexed by an enraged workforce, and both are desperate for ‘meaningful negotiations’.

It goes without saying that the latest proposals from the government are aimed at stopping the strikes and saving as much face as they can, while not conceding anything that will suggest workers have the right to a say in public-service funding.

The wolf at the door is holding a bag of money. And, of course, the money has only just become available because it is ‘an unexpected £30 billion tax windfall’. Some cynical pundits are of the opinion that the money was always there, and next year, if there are no strikes, there will be ‘an unexpected £30 billion tax shortfall’. In reality, Sunak and the Tories have come up with a very shrewd plan to divide the strikers and deal with their claims one at a time, and some unions seem to be walking right into the trap. And this trap is a very shrewd and sophisticated means of defeating the strikes.

For example, UCU and the RCN are suspending strike action so that so-called meaningful negotiations can start. But what’s on offer? There are a number of elements to the Tories’ proposals. The main one being a one-off 5% wage increase, which gives little ground on the intransigence the government has shown so far, but some union leaders appear willing to accept it. Sunak aims to divide the unions against each other, and is exploiting the fact that some unions have passed ballot thresholds and others have not. This means that some union leaders will have their seat at the table while others are left out.

By attaching this offer to an alleged ‘windfall’, the offer is for this year only. The funding issues blighting the NHS and education will be left out of the equation based on the tried and tested mantra of ‘only being able to pay what we can afford’. This means that services will continue to decline as workloads go through the roof and more professionals drop out. Right on cue, a Sheffield school hit the headlines for advertising a managerial post that would mean the lucky candidate would have to ‘be married to the job’ and ‘work ridiculously hard’. The manager in question will no doubt expect the same commitment from their staff.

Without funding increases, any pay rises will have to come from increased productivity, a term that sends a shiver down the spine of any education or health professional who does not share such a market vision for themselves or their patients and learners. Let’s be clear, if the union leaders let this go, they deserve the unbridled wrath of their members, whose energy and commitment have driven events thus far.

The suspension of strikes will allow the government to appear reasonable and fair when they are extreme right-wing ideologues. One-off payments are not worth considering when the government is in retreat, and will only allow them to get away with a pay deal that avoids the demand for increased consolidated pay levels that the strikers are demanding. This is an exercise in lowering expectations for next year, and it lets the government keep its minimum-service-level targets to undermine future action. On top of this, the Tories are cranking up their anti-trade-union laws, making their ‘offer’ look like what it is: a cynical attempt to wrong-foot the unions.

Organise the rank and file

The strikes in the public sector have brought out the best in rank-and-file trade unionists, who are discussing politics with their members and the public on picket lines and at rallies. There is a mood of optimism about the role trade unions can play in making the world a better place. To waste this energy on the cynical proposals of the Tories could be disastrous in setting back the gains made so far.

Rank and file are the key to keeping the movement on track to win. It is the rank and file that understand the reality of marketised public services, and they are the ones that offer a better vision for the future. Without an activist base in the unions, the ballot thresholds can’t be met, and to demoralise that base spells disaster. The rank and file need to insist on coordinated strikes and develop joint actions on picket lines.

The UCU leadership is currently facing huge anger for their weak-kneed leadership and willingness to abandon the strikes. Rank-and-file activists need to organise across the entire trade-union movement to keep the leaders in check and, if necessary, move ahead despite them. That is why Counterfire is organising a rank-and-file trade-union conference on 10 June in London. This will be a forum for discussing the strikes and the way ahead as well as the wider political issues that impinge on workers’ lives.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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