'Changing the game': how 30 November can transform the unions

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In the build-up to the planned strikes across the public sector on 30 November
Mark L Thomas and Estelle Cooch spoke to socialists in different unions about the mood in the working class and how we can beat back the Tories and rebuild union organisation

"For many years we were told the working class is dead, but we're going to have the biggest strike in generations. We were told that you won't have revolutions, but the 21st century is becoming a century of revolutions," says Brett Davies, the Unite convenor at a Ministry of Defence (MoD) company in Telford.

The prospect of up to three million workers taking strike action on 30 November can reshape the trade union movement, argues Mark Campbell, chair of the UCU lecturers' union at London Metropolitan University: "30 November will be a watershed for our movement. There's a real sense of momentum building up. We can take on a government pushing through austerity and say that the 99 percent shouldn't pay for the greed of the 1 percent. We can put the working class back on the agenda as the agent of change in society."

Brett agrees: "For so long unions have been about doing a deal, and often not a very good one. There's a whole layer in the unions who only know about sitting down with management and negotiating the next retreat over terms and conditions. Now we have to shift the balance of power back in our favour. The economic climate means that there aren't the crumbs from the table to buy us off but it also means that there is a huge groundswell of anger building up. The job of socialists is to focus that anger and make sure it isn't dissipated. 30 November can be game-changing."

Karen Reissmann is a Unison steward at a hospital in Greater Manchester. She says, "There is a real sense among people that you can't just sit back and do nothing." Karen describes how many people had thought that working in the public services was different to the private sector. "There are people who come from manufacturing backgrounds who remember the 1980s and who talk about the devastation of one company or industry. They joined the health service to be free from that sort of worry, albeit on lower wages, and suddenly find that it's all happening again. They had some sense of at least this is secure, and now nothing is secure."

Steven Ellis, a Unison member in Ealing council, points to a hardening of the mood among many workers towards the Tories over the last few months as the cuts have started to bite: "People want to get rid of this government. There is a lot of anger where I work because we are experiencing a 20 percent cut in staff, so it doesn't take much for people to link their local anger to what's going on nationally. People are so angry they just want to express themselves in some way. The strikes will finally be a way for people to vent that anger."

Sally Kincaid is the secretary of the NUT in Wakefield. The NUT together with the ATL teachers' union struck with the PCS and UCU unions on 30 June. Sally describes the impact of other unions in the public sector, including the other big teachers' union the NASUWT and the head teachers' union the NAHT announcing plans to ballot to strike on 30 November: "There was a sigh of relief amongst a lot of the teachers in smaller schools who hadn't managed to close their schools on 30 June because they knew they wouldn't be as isolated this time. We've recently met with reps from the head teachers' union and the ATL and it felt like we were pushing at an open door. They were very receptive. There will be a lot of people who didn't strike in June but who now feel confident to strike on 30 November."

Alex Paterson works at a civil service workplace in west London and is a member of the PCS union. "The call by the TUC gave people a sense of confidence and made them feel like it wasn't just 'them being greedy' as the papers said, but that everyone felt the same way about the attacks."

The moves to coordinate strikes have opened up possibilities for trade unionists in different unions and workplaces to come together to plan the most effective action, as Claire Lyall, a member of Unison in Glasgow council explains: "We are working with a number of public sector unions and Glasgow Trades Council has also been organising a meeting of different unions to start coordinating campaigns. On the ground in the majority of workplaces it is just Unison members but where there are GMB members we have had joint meetings. This is the first time that I can remember this happening. I don't know what's going on at the top of the bureaucracy but at a grassroots level it has really brought union activists together."

The focus is on organising the most effective action on 30 November. "In Wakefield," says Sally Kincaid, "we are trying to get local pickets and rallies in the morning and then bigger regional ones at lunchtime with other unions. 30 June has been a model for us about how to organise. It also means the bigger unions that have joined the strikes this time round are turning to us for advice. This means some of the tensions between the much bigger and more hierarchical unions have been reduced because they are in a position of needing to work with us and gain from our past experiences."

The fact that the unions are finally starting to talk about a serious fightback also provides an opportunity to rebuild union organisation. "It's been a gradual process," says Brett Davis. "There's been a voluntary release scheme at work and we've lost members but getting involved in building protests and demos and solidarity for 30 June has helped. We have also recruited some young members. They know there's going to be a big strike and are joining because they want to take part. I think they've seen the students have a go and they want to have a go themselves."

Steven Ellis agrees: "Where I work in the libraries we have doubled the number of stewards. One of our new stewards is a young man who works part-time on Saturdays, like a lot of library workers. He has enabled us to connect up with those workers. As a result more and more people are joining the union." Workers can also start to become much more active members of the union, as Sally Kincaid observes: "There has been a change in how people view themselves and the union. People are a lot prouder of being part of the union and the union is no longer just something people go to when they have got into trouble with their employer. People have gone from asking 'What can the union do for me?' to 'What can I do for my union?' The union is moving back to being something more about collective organising and campaigning."

Claire Lyall points to weaknesses that socialists have to fight to overcome: "There is still a problem about the branch being predominantly male, but there has been an increase in female stewards in the last few years." Claire also points out that there are too few young people involved the unions: "On 30 November there will be a large number of young people who have never been on strike before. So while we are fighting to win the ballots and to get everyone out we also have to meet young people face to face and convince them to turn their anger into action and start by joining the union."

What about after 30 November? Is there already a debate in workplace and stewards' committees about whether more action than a one-day strike will be necessary? Alex Paterson reflects, "Most people don't think 30 November will be enough but the contradictions are also interesting. Some people are extremely pessimistic and while they will strike, they also think that one day won't be enough. Others are really optimistic and think that everyone coming together might have an impact. As socialists we have to be the ones fighting to combine both these ideas. One day probably won't be enough but future strike action must also include everyone again, rather than splitting off into sectional action."

It's possible to start to win the argument for staying out on strike after 30 November, as Mark Campbell explains: "We had a discussion at the London region of UCU about the fact that one-day strikes every five months aren't ultimately going to bring the government down or force them to change their plans. Coming out and then staying out is the sort of action we need. We unanimously passed a motion that said that we should raise this argument in our union and across the wider movement. The argument about 'all out, stay out' isn't saying that everyone has to be strong and militant. The reason why 30 November is popular is that we are all doing it together. Some people might feel unconfident as an individual, or as an individual union branch or even as an individual union, but the fact that all the unions are pulling together gives you strength. Following that through means extended strike action."

Turning that into reality requires organisation. The Unite the Resistance conference on 19 November will be an important part of developing networks that can push the struggle forward, as Mark Campbell outlines: "I thought the first Unite the Resistance meeting in London a few days before the 30 June strike was highly significant. There was a layer of the leadership in union branches across the unions there. It gave some ballast to a layer of the leadership to push out more, which is important as there are always slight wobbles just before action.

The Unite the Resistance conference on 19 November can play a similar role but on a much bigger scale, with a whole layer of branch rank and file leaderships coming together, together with those union officials who want to fight, to say 'How do we keep this going?' It's a place where the whole debate about what's next after 30 November can start. At some point parts of the trade union bureaucracy may try to put the breaks on. The point of Unite the Resistance is to build up our side for the arguments to come so that we don't just stop at 30 November but go forward to victory."

Brett Davies also argues that it isn't enough to simply be a trade union activist: "It's about building the militancy but also about raising political arguments. So as we go round building support for the ballot, I try to politicise it, 'Where's the money going?' - pointing out that the extra money they take from you won't be going to the civil service pension pot, it'll be going to bail out the banks - out of £50 a month they take extra, it'll be £10 for Barclays, £10 for Lloyds and so on - basic anti-capitalist arguments, and Socialist Worker is a very useful tool for such propaganda. I plagiarise it massively! And if workers start feeling their strength, then socialist arguments that working class people can change the world can seem less bizarre and much more real. These are interesting times for socialists - there needs to be more of us!"


Confusion and anger over Ed Miliband

What impact did Ed Miliband's refusal to back the strikes at the TUC conference have? Alex Paterson describes the response as "very contradictory": "Some people side with Ed Miliband because they assume that the Labour Party is the voice of opposition to the Tories so they think whatever the Labour Party says it must be well thought out. But when people have weighed up all their options about striking, when they've squared it and explained it to their family and friends and when it's been a hard to choice to make, they don't like being told that they're wrong."

Sally Kincaid agrees: "A lot of young teachers joined the Labour Party after Ed Miliband's election and they were quite shocked when he spoke at the TUC conference against the strikes. This allowed us to put an argument that the Labour Party has never supported strikes." But Sally also adds, "We have to be open and able to work with people who don't necessarily agree with all our politics but who are up for the fight. At the moment this might mean a lot of Labour Party activists who are confused and angry about what Ed Miliband is saying about the strikes."


Karen Reissmann, 'Trade unionism has been politicised'

Union organisation among health workers has been weakened in some areas by years of deals between the major unions, especially Unison, and the government. The call for action has given new opportunities to rebuild.

"I think if you asked the overwhelming majority of stewards committees in hospitals, 'Are you ready for a strike?', they would say 'Oh my god no, never in a million years' - and that's what we would have said in the hospital I work in," says Karen Reissmann. "But having been put in a position that there is a date and a ballot, they got stuck in and started organising.

"Union meetings have been very big and very serious. There has been a serious attempt by the stewards' committee to talk to loads of people. Unison is at the heart of the joint stewards' committee but there are also the physios, dietitians, radiographers and chiropodists. They are a layer of people who come from a background of 'professional trade unionism', people who have never been on strike before, but because it's not possible to be a good professional at the moment, because they are knocking that out of what you are trying to do, it has politicised trade unionism.

"But Unison is very, very serious about winning the ballot and they are putting pressure on people to deliver, 'when are your mass meetings, when are your members' meetings, you've got to set them up, when are the dates" - which is good because it makes branches that are nervous about doing it move. Lots of branches haven't had members' meetings in a long time, so there isn't a pattern of how to do it, or even when to do it.

"I think the union officials could use the bigger political context more. They worry about the anti-union laws and they are overcautious. The officials drip feed us, so we are on the vote yes bit at the moment, and only after that will they tell us what the next stage is. They ought to be more open in sharing what their whole strategy is.

"But they've run things like that for a long time and they are scared of letting a thousand flowers bloom but they want to win the ballot. That creates opportunities for us as well as being frustrating."