Fighting Spirit

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Julie Sherry draws out the wider lessons of the spate of local disputes.

There is a frustrating contrast between the intensifying assault on workers by the government and employers and the lack of coordinated national resistance led by the unions. Yet in recent months we have seen a spate of militant and determined local strikes - some of which have won serious victories - that point to the potential for a wider fightback.

The successful strike by Hovis workers in Wigan last September, which defeated an attempt by bosses to introduce zero hours contracts, has not been an isolated example.

At Edinburgh College, as Donny Gluckstein shows, lecturers not only fought off an attacks on workloads, but made real gains over pay and conditions after a three-day strike.

In Glasgow there have been three important strikes over the past few months. Among Glasgow social care workers the issue of spiralling workload due to cuts sparked an unofficial walkout after one worker was suspended for refusing to cover a vacant post. The dispute spread quickly across the city and soon won reinstatement for the victimised worker and boosted confidence.

Concession

This was followed by pupil support assistants who took escalating action in a battle against changes to their job roles. They won a climbdown by bosses on almost every angle of the attack. Residential care workers in the city were next. They held two 48-hour strikes and threatened nine more strike days. This approach won major advances including a £1,495 payment in their fight over shift pattern changes and pay cuts.

Each of these examples - and the successful strike at the STEM6 Free School in Islington that won union recognition - all show that when workers call the bosses' bluff and make clear plans for escalating strikes, management are suddenly not so intransigent as they would like workers to believe. Or as one Edinburgh College striker put it, "Bullies turn out to be cowards."

In recent weeks alone we have also seen important disputes in Doncaster, SOAS in central London and Ealing hospital in west London that highlight another aspect of this wave of action - they are led by the lowest paid, often largely women or migrant workers, in outsourced and privatised sections of the public sector.

In Doncaster, Unison members at Care UK, a private healthcare firm, have so far struck for two seven-day periods. The workers, who care for adults with learning difficulties, are fighting cuts to evening and weekend wage rates.

The mood among the predominantly female strikers, who have turned out in huge numbers on picket lines and at strike rallies, has combined bitter class anger with dogged determination.

It's evident that the savage nature of the attacks on the lowest paid tipped the mood from one of fear to one of anger. The strikers are also quick to emphasise that their fight is not just about opposing an attack on their pay, but also about the whole issue of privatisation in the NHS and the need to defend the service users they care for.

Strikers describe how proud they had been when they worked for the NHS and how embarrassed they feel when they now tell people they work for Care UK, one of the biggest vultures circling the NHS.

At Ealing hospital GMB members working as catering staff, cleaners, porters and on help desks followed up a four-day strike for the London Living Wage, sick pay and holiday pay, with seven days of action and look set to escalate further.

The picket lines have been crowded from early each day and have run into the afternoon. They have featured a high level of creative and collective organisation with strikers bringing homemade pakoras, popcorn, chai tea and, by day two of the strike, blankets spread across the grassy area in front of the hospital.

The most noticeable feature of the picket line has been the constant clamour of noisy chanting. Many of the strikers, who are paid just £6.31 an hour despite Medirest bosses paying better rates at other London hospitals, are part of the local Asian community and were on the 5,000-strong march to defend the hospital's A&E in 2012.

There has been a similar dynamic on the picket lines of outsourced cleaners at SOAS university, where Unison members have struck for three days so far and plan more action in their fight for equality with staff who are "in-house".

Chanting

Arriving to support their strike at the crack of dawn, it was a pleasant surprise to see 40 plus strikers already there, with blaring music, salsa dancing, people playing football and with three gazebos and a serious supply of food and drinks. Several of the seasoned trade unionists arriving throughout the morning with donations remarked, "Yes, this is how to picket!"

As well as brilliant picket lines, these disputes have been marked by floods of solidarity from other trade unionists. Though nationally the overall level of strikes remains low, the inspiring nature of these local actions and the huge levels of solidarity they have generated show two things of importance - people want to fight and do so with incredible courage and imagination when a lead is given, and, as the strikes in Edinburgh, Glasgow and at the STEM6 Free School show, strikes can win.

In addition it is obvious that the best way to generate solidarity is to combine hard hitting action with a political appeal based upon the defence of public services and opposition to austerity. We saw the potential power of this during the London Underground dispute.

Alongside the real importance of building solidarity with each local strike, two other arguments need to be put forward. Firstly, while it is clear that some unions are willing to sanction ballots for local strikes, demands also need to be raised for the national unions to develop strategies that can deliver real results. Unison's Dave Prentis and the GMB's Paul Kenny should be down on the Care UK, SOAS and Ealing picket lines and addressing strike rallies.

Unison and the GMB should also be organising to get strikers around other union branches in order to raise support. None of these local disputes should face the problem of a lack of strike funds. And the lesson of Edinburgh is clear - the threat of escalating action that constantly ratchets up the pressure on employers is a vital weapon.

But secondly, the attacks we face are not just restricted to individual hospitals, colleges or isolated outsourced firms. We face a national onslaught and we need a national response.

There is the potential for further action by teachers after the NUT struck across England and Wales on 26 March. In health and local government below inflation pay offers - and in the NHS the 1 percent "rise" isn't even extended to almost half of the workforce - have left Unite, Unison and the GMB each considering how to respond. This creates an important opportunity for socialists and activists in the workplaces to fight to generate pressure in each union to get ballots for national strikes.

National action would also be most effective if it was coordinated. Alongside solidarity with every local fight, this is an argument that needs to be raised across the unions.

Julie Sherry is the SWP industrial organiser.