Whether ballot results are in, or unions still await them, it is becoming clear that Thursday 30 June will be a nationally co-ordinated day of strikes opposing public sector cuts. It is shaping up to be a decisive test for the movement argues Alex Snowdon.
The planned public sector strikes are expected to be the third major landmark in the development of the anti-cuts movement. Somewhere between half a million and a million teachers, lecturers and civil servants could be on strike together.
The first landmark was the wave of student protests last November-December, which brought a new generation of activists to the fore and inspired the idea that mass resistance to cuts is possible.
The second was the demonstration of at least half a million people on 26 March, which marked the emergence of a genuine mass movement and indicated that the trade unions - though slower than students and school students to act - could play a central role in mobilising opposition to austerity.
30 June looks set to involve several unions, mainly in education but also involving the PCS civil service union, in a co-ordinated day of strike action. The co-ordination across unions is a strength. It's also important that action is nationwide - 26 March demonstrated the force of operating at the national level, rather than relying merely on separate local actions and groups.
The core issue at stake is pensions, with many public sector workers facing an increase in pension contributions - effectively a pay cut - and the prospect of a reduced pension on retirement. But it also brings in wider issues concerning jobs, conditions and quality of public services. The strikes are therefore a challenge for the whole movement, not just a sectoral dispute.
Limits and difficulties
There are two significant difficulties in the background here.
Firstly, there's the absence of national strike action from the biggest unions with public sector members - most importantly Unison, but also GMB, Unite and NASUWT (which includes a high proportion of the country's secondary school teachers).
Secondly, the unions are starting from a poor base, following years of historically low levels of industrial action and slowly falling membership.
The first problem is partly political. The leaders of a number of major Labour-affiliated unions are reluctant to rock Ed Miliband's boat. Labour leaders are hostile to industrial action, parliamentary opposition to cuts is lukewarm and confused, and Ed Miliband is especially keen to distance his party from anything the right wing media can dub 'union power'.
There is no particular evidence of attitudes changing among Labour leaders, though the picture is more complex among moderate union leaders like Dave Prentis of Unison. In this new missive from Unison the emphasis is on supporting those unions that are striking on 30 June, suggesting they represent a 'first wave' which will be followed by even larger-scale strike action including hundreds of thousands of Unison members.
The second difficulty is equally important. In the last 20-30 years there has been a steep fall in strike levels, accompanied by a strengthening of the bureaucracy in relation to the rank and file (assisted by anti-union legislation, which undermines grassroots organisation and encourages a safe and cautious approach).
Strikes on 30 June will, like others in recent years, be one-day affairs with no clear sense of what is to follow. The established pattern is big one-day strikes designed to exert pressure and thus negotiate a better deal, rather than score an outright victory, where the union bureaucracy is firmly in control.
The legacy of defeats for the organised working class, restructuring of the workforce and anti-union legislation is not only fewer strikes, but also a tendency for strikes to be short-lived, strictly legal and resulting in a compromise negotiated by the union officials.
Nobody is expecting wildcat walkouts in support of the official action on 30 June - it will probably all be conducted in safe channels. A one-day strike certainly won't win the unions' demands, so the question of 'what next?' will come to the fore. It's not clear what answer union leaders have to that question.
It's also worth noting the ideological and political context here. A major strength for our side is that the tide has turned in public attitudes to cuts, since the coalition government's early days. This can help harness broad public support for strikes. We can also see the coalition is under strain, with growing tensions between Tories and Lib Dems and an ongoing crisis over NHS 'reforms'.
However, the Tories and their media allies - and even, in more muted ways, some in Labour and the TUC - will characterise strikers as self-interested. They will try to divide the issue of pensions for some public sector workers from the larger cuts agenda and its impact on workers and service users alike. We can expect them to have some success with this argument, as concepts like 'gold-plated pensions' and a 'public-private divide', while thoroughly contested, have a fair amount of currency in society.
Challenges for the movement
With the emergence of significant strike action, it can be tempting to think there's an automatic upward curve of industrial militancy and that the unions will solve most of our problems. The weaknesses I've referred to should make it plain this would be naive.
The workplaces still lag behind the streets as sites of resistance to cuts. We have the legacy of defeats and passivity, of curtailed union rights and bureaucratic domination of the unions, to reckon with.
A vital part of our response is therefore political, for example by countering Tory arguments about the supposed 'profligacy' of spending on public sector pensions. This is part of articulating the case against all cuts and privatisation, while outlining alternatives.
The political situation presents plenty of opportunities for this, from the wrangling over the NHS to the newly-announced New College for the Humanities. It isn't about abstract propaganda, but intervening in the numerous issues and debates that keep emerging. The battle of ideas is constant.
In this context left-wing activists also need to articulate a clear strategy for victory over pensions. This has to involve three things: further nationally co-ordinated strikes, the participation of a wider range of unions in strike action, and a mass campaign using a range of means (including a national demonstration in the autumn) to complement strikes.
The impact of public sector strikes is primarily political. 30 June's action, however large-scale, won't directly disrupt the workings of the economy or cut anyone's profits. The anti-cuts movement's aim has to be to combine strikes with other methods to make life impossible for the government.
This draws attention to the urgent and universal need for maximum unity, not just across unions but between trade unionists and other groups. Politically, the government can only be defeated if the pensions issue is generalised, if it is continually seen as part of a fight also waged by benefits claimants, pensioners, students and everyone else.
Concretely this means that 30 June itself has to be more than picket lines. I'm pleased to see the striking unions in my area, Tyneside, are organising a strike rally on 30 June to promote broader support and solidarity. The same should happen everywhere - and every anti-cuts and trade union activist in the country should support such events.
Our Coalition of Resistance group is also organising a major public meeting on the preceding evening, which has trade union speakers but also representatives of Keep Our NHS Public, mental health services facing cuts and Save Legal Aid. The purpose is to connect the different issues and improve co-ordination, uniting the resistance to cuts. The Coalition of Resistance conference on 9 July can assist that process at national level.
Striking unions are stronger when they have a mass movement behind them. The whole movement gains from trade unions deploying the most powerful weapon they have: strikes. Only a mass movement - united, political and combative - can defeat the cuts.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.
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