Monday, 2 January 2012

We can fight and win - if the struggle is in our control

PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka, writing in the Guardian, tells us that "we have the opportunity to fight and win on pensions." A fine sentiment, and one that I hope turns out to be true, for sure. But it's missing one crucial detail - any discussion whatsoever on how we might win.

The headline and the conclusion of Serwotka's article make the same point. In between, however, there is no indication of exactly how we might win or why we have the chance to do that in 2012. He tells us that the changes are unfair, that there has been no meaningful negotiation on key issues and that PCS are being wilfully excluded from talks - all of which most people following this dispute will be well aware of. But any idea of what we must do to win or acknowledgement of any question or debate on that issue is notable by its absence.

Liverpool Solidarity Federation on the N30 strike march in Liverpool
We might expect that, of course, seeing as Serwotka is a salaried union leader and not a shop floor militant agitating for action. But it serves as a useful reminder that - even without the capitulation of several big unions - public sector workers are not on the verge of even significant concessions in the pension dispute. Let alone victory.

November 30 saw the biggest strike in a generation, with more workers out than during the 1926 General Strike. But once the day was over, the disruption ceased and business as normal resumed. As it was after the June 30 strikes. PCS and the left have talked tough on resisting sell-outs by the most moderate union tops, but there is no indication that any - with the notable exception of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty - have any wish to go beyond this limited strategy of periodic, set-piece actions.

John McInally, Vice President of PCS writes in the Socialist newspaper that "action must be escalated" - but the only escalation he offers is an appeal tothe Public Sector Liason Group to "name the day" of the next single-day action. Albeit perhaps with "more unions on board including private sector workers like those in Unilever."

Now, it's certainly true that this dispute needs to be generalised beyond the public sector - and Unilever workers, having recently had their own pension strike, are one key example of this. But it also needs to go beyond periodic one day strikes. The PCS Independent Left faction - in which the AWL has influence - are suggesting that "selective and targeted action, levies for strike funds, and sustained action short of a strike" should all be on the agenda, and I'd agree. I'd also second their call for workers to have democratic control of the dispute, through strike committees and mass meetings.

Where we disagree, perhaps, is on the notion that a conference called in London - where those present will be representative of the various "left" groupings in PCS and of the left more broadly, but not necessarily of the rank-and-file of the union - can bring this about. Such control needs to be built from the ground up, however shaky progress on that front may be - as I've found out first hand organising ahead of N30.

A strike meeting held during PCS walkouts in Bootle in early June
Nonetheless, it is useful in that it forces a debate amongst PCS and other union activists that - in some quarters - isn't being had at all. There is a considerable appetite for the idea of greater rank-and-file control and of pushing beyond one day strikes - as I've witnessed first hand within my own union branch. But in a lot of places that simply isn't being tapped into. If the idea is dragged into the open, it offers more space for those already arguing for and trying to push such a strategy locally, gives more confidence to those who might agree but be more hesitant about doing anything, and means that any individuals or groups who might wish to derail rank-and-file control have to take a step back and appear to endorse it for fear of being outflanked from below.

Not that any of this needs the "permission" of the union tops, of course. To be truly effective, such initiatives should be as independent of them as possible. There will still come a point (including with PCS) where we either push beyond them and take control of our own struggles or accept some form of managed defeat.

Returning to the main point, Mark Serwotka is right when he says "we have the opportunity to fight and win on pensions." But that will only be the case if workers are prepared to respond with the simple question of "how?" Not so that he or the other bureaucrats can tell us what they want us to do, but so that it opens up that space for debate in the unions where the rank-and-file can take control of the struggle.