Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Cynical reflections ahead of the next public sector strike

After the non-starter that was 28 March, it now looks like we will see two big strikes in the next two months. The teachers unions NUT and NASUWT have started the ball rolling for an as-yet-unspecified date in June, whilst more immediately a number of unions are set to strike on 10 May.

The Unite health sector was the first to announce the 10 May date. As ever, the rhetoric is far more charged and bellicose than the actual fight. Despite the headline, this doesn't "step up" the dispute except with the proviso that doing nothing since November 30 was a step down and so they are returning to where they were. Workers are clearly itching for a fight, with a 94% vote for action, but despite talking tough this is just the second day of action for Unite members in over a year since pension attacks were announced.

PCS members at a rally in Bootle during industrial action last June
My own union, PCS, is little different. Again, the press release speaks of a "programme of ongoing action," but it remains to be seen what form this will take. Especially as the same rhetoric has been bandied about in a year where all we've had are two one day strikes, months apart. If the "co-ordinated, targeted industrial action in employer groups and sectors" does emerge, then it remains to be seen how effective this will be - especially as the previous reticence of the ruling Left Unity faction to adopt such tactics boils down to their botching them previously. I personally remain to be convinced until something other than another single day protest strike actually happens.

It goes without saying that I'm more than a little cynical on what can now be achieved in the pensions fight. As I've said on innumerable occasions, periodic one day strikes will not make the government budge. It is pressing ahead with austerity so rapidly and viciously quite simply because it feels strong enough to get away with it. To convince them otherwise, workers need to exercise serious disruptive power as a class. What we've seen so far simply isn't that.

Of course, a number of factors have led to us seeing far more militancy than we might have. In the main, this has been rank-and-file pressure - workers realising the scale of the attacks they are facing and, quite rightly, demanding something be done against that. This has been helped considerably by the strength of the grassroots movements outside of the trade unions - from the students movement and UK Uncut to the ongoing workfare campaign - creating a climate where the working class was regaining confidence in itself. The IWW's Cleaners Branch and Solfed's victory against Office Angels demonstrated what impact such forms of organisation could have industrially.

However, this has been tempered by the fact that within the mainstream unions there has been no similar rank-and-file empowerment. The Sparks are a vital exception, and to be sure there are those of us trying to kick start similar initiatives. But as a general rule, though there is certainly discontent with how the unions are plodding along, there is no real organisation to give it tangible form.

That is the long-running task of militants in the workplace, to build the networks and committees that get such rank-and-file organisation off the ground. However, for most shop stewards and lay activists, it'll mainly be a case of overcoming a general sense of defeatism and making the case for the next one day strike rather than drawing people into a rank-and-file group empowered to push beyond those limitations. Such is the benefit to union officials of managed defeat; not only does it ensure their position at the top table selling industrial peace, it makes it that much harder for control of the struggle to be wrested from their grasp.

I'll still be on the picket line when strike day comes, and I'll still be arguing passionately for workers to lead our own fight. But, ultimately, real militancy against austerity will come from outside the unions and - short of something bloody spectacular - the pensions dispute will end in defeat at the hands of our class enemies. Those in government and those at the top of the unions.