Saturday, 10 September 2011

Looking towards autumn strike action

The National Executive Committee of PCS has unanimously agreed to call a further one-day strike in the autumn. This comes as the NASUWT announces its intention to ballot for a strike, and even the civil service management unions FDA and Prospect are considering a ballot. But after June 30, the question still remains of if and how we can push beyond the limitations of a one-day strike.

It's tempting, in this circumstance, to be extremely cynical. In the wake of J30, the bottom all-but fell out of the pensions struggle. Class anger exploded in a completely different direction with the riots, and both the reaction to that and the escalating war in Libya wrenched our attention away from domestic affairs for a while. Once we were back at home, we were greeted by the truly pathetic sight of the TUC beseeching us to light candles and mourn the NHS rather than do anything effective to fight for it.

But these latest announcements do mark a progression. On June 30, there were four unions involved - PCS, UCU, NUT, and ATL. Their strike mandates remain. With the addition of NASUWT, the FDA, Prospect, and even the FBU, we have the possibility of eight unions and a significant cross-section of the public sector coming out on strike at the same time. It will not be the "public sector general strike" that the National Shop Stewards Network are lobbying the TUC for this Sunday - and indeed the point remains that the TUC itself will not "call" any such thing, on the basis of legality alone - but it is a marked escalation from where we were heading into July.

Of course, it's still far from enough to win this fight. If discussions on it come to anything, strikes in the health sector will perhaps add enough weight to force some concessions that can be labelled a victory, but we're still not talking about defeating the government. Certainly not beyond the issue of pensions into the wider realm of cuts which many (the unions included) are using these strikes as a proxy for.

The lines the unions are coming out with say it all in this instance. It is that the government is not negotiating seriously that is the issue. If they did - and an argument in favour of this is that agreements a couple of years back have already rendered a two-tier pension system and made public sector pensions affordable - then there would be no need for strikes. It is very clear that if the Government would "take a step back on some of the changes," they would see strikes off the table and the entire anti-cuts movement left floundering without even symbolic public sector industrial action in its armoury.

Efforts to "generalise the strike" need to be redoubled this time around. On 2nd October, the Occupy Manchester initiative has a lot of promise. With the party conference protests at the end of this month and beginning of the next, another national day of action against Atos Origin on 30 September, successive demos over youth unemployment and the privatisation of education in early November, there are plenty of opportunities to mobilise huge numbers of people and build momentum. Not to mention the "other" coordinated strike action - between PCS and Unite members at Fujitsu, who are connecting two separate disputes in order to strike together on 19 September.

In the midst of which, the point I've made previously still stands;
One key idea, recently presented as a motion to Liverpool Against The Cuts by Women Against The Cuts, is the establishment of local strike committees. Simply, this would mean assembling people on the basis of workplace and/or geographical area in order to decide how the dispute will play out. A lot of this is practical and logistical, such as picket lines, strike propaganda, local demonstrations, etc. But it can also be an opportunity to start rebuilding the culture of mass meetings and direct democracy that once defined class struggle.

For example, having the discussions openly about how the dispute and the struggle ought to progress emphasises to the workforce that they have a direct stake in what comes next. Even if we aren't in a position for such votes to pass federally and be implemented as the democratic will of the workers, we can still encourage people to have their say, impress demands upon the unions involved in the struggles, and even (depending on numbers and militancy) implement such measures themselves despise what comes from the centre. This last is highly unlikely at present, of course, but that doesn't mean it will always be so, and we should be actively building to that point.
The Sparks group, which I have cited a number of times already, is the most prominent current example of such rank-and-file organisation put into practice in opposition to the lukewarm tactics of the official leadership. This is beyond the public sector struggle, but it certainly ties into an atmosphere of heightened class conflict - and offers important lessons on mobilising workers to take action for themselves rather than at the behest of officials.

We need to be honest about where the workers' movement stands now, rather than being over-optimistic about what is at the end of it a one-day strike. But likewise it does no good to drown in cynicism either. The failures of officialdom will not be swept away by pissing and moaning, but only by a rank-and-file strong enough to seize control of its own struggles.