After 10 July: escalate the strikes

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10 July is set to see a second round of public sector mass strikes under the Conservative- Liberal coalition government following the pension strikes of June and November 2011.

As such the strike by around 1.4 million workers across schools, councils, fire stations and civil service workplaces breaks an unwritten rule among most of the trade union leadership: that in the run-up to a general election (now less than ten months away) big official strikes that raise the spectre of “union power” in the Tory press are to be avoided in the drive to get Labour into government.

Why is this happening?

There are a number of elements that are coming together and interacting.

First is the issue of pay. Pressure on pay has built up and become a lightning rod for a wider bitterness at years of austerity. David Cameron and George Osborne’s boasts of an economic recovery, invisible to most workers, have only aggravated that mood.

Unison estimates that the local government employers’ offer of 1 percent would leave most of the workforce facing a 20 percent pay cut in real terms since the coalition came to office and imposed successive annual pay freezes.

And local government workers are already low paid. Over a million, two thirds, earn less than £21,000 a year. And of those, over half a million earn less than the living wage of £7.65 an hour.

In fact, those on the lowest local government pay band are struggling to keep ahead of the statutory minimum. The current employers’ offer would leave such workers earning just 25 pence an hour more than the minimum wage even after its next rise in October.

According to payment specialists VocaLink, who analyse bank transactions to measure wages, monthly wages for public sector workers fell by £127.31 between the end of March 2008 and March this year.

Note that this points to the fact that public sector pay restraint began under the preceding Labour government, not with the coalition.

In fact under Labour a pay revolt was gathering pace in 2008 when the NUT, PCS and UCU unions struck together in April, followed by local government workers coming out for two days in the summer.

The combination of the financial crisis that broke that September, after the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers, and the recession killed off the momentum building up over pay.

The impact of the economic crisis and austerity was to create a mood of fear among workers about the consequences of unemployment.

But among millions of workers it also created a deepening bitterness about being forced to shoulder the cost a crisis they hadn’t created. Now, as the economy “recovers”, pay has returned to centre stage.

The succession of militant and inspiring local strikes at Hovis in Wigan, Edinburgh College, Ealing hospital, Care UK in Doncaster, and Lambeth College and elsewhere has also helped sharpen the mood. If workers can fight locally, why can’t the union leaders call national action? The People’s Assembly meetings and demonstration in London have been another sign of a desire among layers of workers for a more serious fightback.

Secondly, there has been a shift among a section of the union leaderships. The decision by the National Union of Teachers to strike on 26 March helped break the logjam.

The leadership’s argument that it was only possible to strike if the other big teachers’ union, the NASUWT, joined in was eventually overcome after hard and protracted debates inside the union.

The success of the March strike shifted the debate in the NUT from whether it was possible to strike at all, to debate about when to strike next and how to escalate action.

The other crucial link in the chain was Unison’s backing for action in local government and, in principle, in the NHS (though health workers were not balloted for 10 July).

Dave Prentis, who played a key role in the abandonment of the pensions fight, has clearly decided to give some expression to the mood among his members over pay and austerity.

There were reports that Prentis told a meeting of all the public sector trade unions at the TUC that they should all be looking to coordinate strikes. Revealingly, Prentis also talked about the need to “send a shot across Labour’s bows”.

Prentis is evidently bitter at Ed Miliband’s reforms to Labour’s link with the unions which were voted through at a Special Conference in March. (Prentis told Unison reps in Newcastle that the Collins Review into the Labour-union link was “six months of time wasting that no one else cared about, that did nothing for the people they are supposed to represent”.)

Prentis wants to remind Miliband that the union leaders remain a significant social force as part of the battle over the shape of Labour’s manifesto for the 2015 election and how far it will offer any alternative, however limited, to austerity.

The trade union bureaucracy established the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century to represent its interests in parliament.

Union officials needed to offer an alternative to militancy from below which can run the risk of escaping their control.

This remains true a century later. But Labour’s credibility has been eroded by the years of New Labour in office, and Miliband and Ed Balls’s acceptance of Tory spending plans.

Prentis wants to see Labour make a better offer to the unions that he can in turn defend in front of his members. The question of Labour and political representation is feeding into a shift on the industrial front, for the moment at least.

This underlines the importance of an analysis of the trade union bureaucracy as a contradictory force that mediates between the two main classes in capitalist society, workers and capital.

Trade union officials are a conservative layer. But they are not, unless they want to eventually be bypassed by either their members or the employers, simply a permanently immovable block.

At points they will seek to initiate action, just as at other points they will seek to contain and derail it.

The sell-out of the 2011 pension strikes by the leaders of the big three unions (Unison, GMB and Unite) a few days before Christmas has cast a long shadow.

It produced an understandable cynicism among layers of activists about the union leaders. This mood contained a progressive element of awareness of the gap between the interests of the rank and file.

But against a backdrop of low levels of confidence it also fed a mood of passivity and frustration that risked dismissing any move by the union leaders as simply presaging a sell-out.

Instead the challenge for activists is to seize on any moves towards action by the leadership as an opportunity to rebuild confidence and to raise arguments for further action that can go beyond protest strikes to a serious fightback.

That will involve hard arguments. Unison is already talking about two days of further action, probably in September. The dates should be named and Unison activists in health should campaign to be balloted in time to join local government workers on the picket lines.

At some point there is every likelihood that Prentis will also want to curtail any further action and focus on getting Labour elected, whatever his criticisms. Indeed, Len McCluskey’s speech to Unite’s conference in Liverpool marked a major shift towards subordinating everything to returning Labour to office next year.

So McCluskey insisted that “the most important challenge Unite will face over the next 11 months is winning next year’s general election… We have a clear and vital choice before us. It’s whether we can evict the present ruinous Conservative coalition from office and get a Labour prime minister into Downing Street. There is no third option.”

In April the Daily Mirror could report that McCluskey had told journalists that Unite might consider a break from Labour if it failed to offer an alternative to austerity and lost the next election. And Unite cut the affiliation fees it pays to Labour by £1.5 million after the special conference.

But McCluskey now seems to have declared such debates over, at least this side of the election: “There is a time to have heated arguments within the Labour Party about policy. There is even a time to discuss the future of the party itself”, but “that time is not now.”

And McCluskey made it clear that Unite would ensure Labour’s general election campaign would be well funded. The combination of deepening class bitterness with a lack of rank and file confidence has repeatedly created a momentum for officially called coordinated mass strikes.

We saw this in 2008, 2011 and now in 2014. In 2008 and on an even bigger scale in 2011 the strikes were marked by real enthusiasm from below but which was ultimately unable to prevent the union leaders retreating after a period.

The aim has to be to use each mass strike to push the process of rebuilding union organisation and confidence further along and to create local networks around initiatives such as Unite the Resistance that can embody these lessons and help argue for escalation rather than retreat.