Bureaucratic mass strikes: A response to Mark O’Brien

Issue: 146

Dave Lyddon

The mass strike of 30 November 2011 (N30) was the broadest and biggest ever British public sector strike and involved the largest number of women workers in any British strike. It has been discussed several times in this journal, with Mark O’Brien giving a particularly useful account of local organisation around N30,1 but my response will comment on some of his other points.

The first section challenges his use of the term “bureaucratic mass strike”, by which he characterises N30 (and the earlier pensions strikes in 2011).2 Such usage would lead us to label all large national official (balloted) one-day strikes as bureaucratic mass strikes and the term would lose any analytical value. To illustrate his argument, O’Brien gives several of Tony Cliff’s examples of mass strikes.3 In the second section I take issue with his version of Cliff’s discussion of the 1972 miners’ strike and its background—namely the 1971 strikes against the Industrial Relations Bill and the events leading to the iconic closure of the Saltley coke depot. O’Brien’s account understates how important official action was to workers’ confidence even during the period of widespread unofficial action in the 1968-74 strike wave.

The final section questions the narrative around N30—namely “no J30, no N30”—shared also by Sean Vernell and Charlie Kimber.4 This ignores what happened in the 2005-6 round of public sector pension “reforms”. Successful ballots for coordinated strike action in 2005 led to a partial retreat by the Labour government on three pension schemes (NHS, teachers and civil service). Then a large coordinated strike forced a compromise on the local government scheme in 2006. The unions’ perceived relative success, along with the Labour government’s flexibility on deadlines, coloured the larger unions’ attitude to negotiating with the Coalition government in 2011. The overall changes to public service pensions agreed or imposed in 2011-12 did represent a historic defeat for the trade union movement, but our analysis of N30 needs revisiting in the light of the 2005-6 dispute.

The bureaucratic mass strike and the demonstration strike

What is the “bureaucratic mass strike”? The term seems to have first appeared in print when Chris Harman and Cliff started using it in the mid-1980s. Harman, in 1984, noted a “kind of mass strike that we have seen lately”: “It is not that there is never an element of pressure from below in it, but what happens is that the offensive of the ruling class touches a chord of resistance in the working class and the trade union leaderships move very very rapidly to generalise it in order to control it”.5 He was referring to strikes in Belgium and Holland and in Quebec and British Columbia in Canada. A year later he could add to the list of such bureaucratic mass strikes “the metal workers’ strike in West Germany, the near general strike in Denmark, the selective public sector strike in Sweden”.6

Harman argued that the bureaucratic mass strike “creates real potentialities for workers. They are mobilised as a class by order from above—but then begin to see their own strength and what it could achieve. An outlet for their anger appears which they never thought existed” (added emphasis).7 This is illustrated by Pete Clark’s account of the Danish general strike of 1985:

Just one week before, workers went on strike without enthusiasm because they had been told to by their union leaders. It was a mass strike called by the bureaucracy and controlled by them. No one was asked to vote. But now, just seven days later, the workers had to choose for themselves. Their leaders had surrendered. The government was determined to extract every advantage from the failure of the LO [the main union federation]. Across Denmark, in the largest factories and the smallest offices, the argument took place. And in their hundreds of thousands Danish workers voted to carry on with the strike. The bureaucratic mass strike passed over into a strike organised by the workers.8

Harman extended the “bureaucratic mass strike” label to actions of only one day, such as the one-day general strike (an “archetypal bureaucratic mass strike”) called in France by the CGT and CFDT union federations for 13 May 1968: “The workers were to be marched through the centre of Paris and then put back on the coaches and sent home”.9 This example caused Geoff Brown to write: “What is this ‘bureaucratic mass strike’ he has discovered?” He pointed out that “union leaders call what Rosa Luxemburg describes as ‘political demonstration strikes’—or one-day strikes as we usually refer to them”.10

Brown’s point is well taken. Luxemburg distinguished between the demonstration strike (Demonstrationsstreik) and the fighting strike (Kampfstreik), as variants of the mass strike.11 This distinction applies more generally to strikes of any size, where the short “demonstration stoppage” can be counterposed to the “trial of strength”,12 and the time-limited strike to the indefinite one. The term “token strike” was regularly used in Britain a few decades ago to describe strikes called for a defined (rather than indefinite) period and it could apply to both official and unofficial action. Cliff, for example, argued that the two national one-day political strikes against the Industrial Relations Bill in March 1971 were “token actions”.13

It should be clear from the above examples that bureaucratic mass strikes are called from above, without the strikers generally having a vote, and then controlled from above. For example, Cliff wrote of the 1926 British General Strike that it had been “bureaucratically-called”14 and that it was “bureaucratically-administered”.15 To understand the role of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in strikes, it is important to stress that neither the annual TUC nor its General Council has ever had the power to call strikes or to order individual unions to strike. The rule, since the TUC’s ­reorganisation in 1920,16 has been: “The General Council…shall keep a watch on all industrial movements, and shall, where possible, coordinate industrial action”.17 The 1926 General Strike could not have been called by the TUC or its General Council. It was called by a conference of the executive committees of the unions affiliated to the TUC, though this conference handed over the running of the strike to the General Council.18

It was not until the 1970s that the TUC, representing most trade union members, was to ask (but not order) unions to take action again—on five occasions this took the form of political demonstration strikes aimed at the government. When five London dockers were incarcerated in Pentonville prison in July 1972 the General Council, under pressure from a growing unofficial strike movement, agreed (on 26 July) to “call on all affiliated unions to organise a one-day stoppage of work and demonstrations on Monday next July 31”.19 Individual unions were left to make their own arrangements (which were not necessary as the dockers were released). In 1973 a Special Congress called on the General Council “to organise…a day of national protest and stoppage” against incomes policy; the General Council then invited unions to join such a day on 1 May.20

In the early 1980s TUC initiatives gave space for unions to organise strikes. A “Day of Action” was called against the Tories’ policies and their first employment bill on 14 May 1980.21 The 1982 TUC conference agreed a General Council statement calling for support for the 24-hour health workers’ strike on 22 September: “We…expect all TUC unions to give maximum support…including work stoppages of an hour or more”.22 After the decision on 25 January 1984 to ban unions at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) from 1 March, the TUC general secretary said that “it was not for him to call a strike. That was a matter for individual unions. The TUC was simply urging unions to get together in…a ‘common cause’ with Civil Service colleagues” who had called a “Protest Day” for 28 February 1984.23

The Conservative government’s Trade Union Act of 198424 required ballots before unions could call official strikes and not risk a court case against them. From 30 August 1993 those ballots had to be postal, and each union had to provide employers with notice of the ballot question, of the ballot result, and seven days notice before each round of action.25 These restrictions made it impossible for national unions to call members out at short notice without the likelihood of employers applying for court injunctions to stop them (and disobedience of any injunction could and did lead to hefty fines). As a result of this and the unlawfulness of “political” strikes, not connected with terms and conditions of employment, the TUC has not recently been involved in organising the days of action that we saw in the early 1970s and early 1980s. In the last few years, though, unions have looked to the TUC to “coordinate” industrial action, which is lawful and within its rules.

Individual unions can choose to coordinate strike dates with other unions, and such arrangements are more common when unions face the same employer(s), but only the TUC has the authority to coordinate large-scale action that straddles several industries, as with N30. Yet the TUC did not call N30, as has been suggested;26 instead it “coordinated” action that unions themselves had decided to take. On the last morning of the 2011 annual congress, a resolution was agreed, which called on the General Council to “give full support to industrial action against pensions cuts, including action planned for this autumn, and maximise its coordination”. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber wound up the debate by announcing that all TUC unions with members in the public services would meet after the close of congress to decide their next steps; N30 was agreed at this meeting.27

The final section of this article will examine the protracted build-up to N30, with the process involving union conferences and executive committees discussing action throughout the year. The strikes were called “from above” (but only after ballots) just as all official strikes have to be; there is now no lawful mechanism for unions to make unofficial strikes official, as happened many times before 1984.28

Mark O’Brien argued that “if the 1926 General Strike was a bureaucratic mass strike, then N30 certainly was”,29 yet they were completely different. N30 was a one-day demonstration strike, as part of a negotiating process with government that had been going on all year; at some point all unions involved would engage in talks on one or more of the four pension schemes—whether or not individual unions eventually agreed the changes. By contrast, the General Strike was called for an indefinite period; the TUC General Council had control over which unions came out and when and the terms of any settlement or surrender. It was a sympathy strike with the miners, and individual unions and their members had no say in the process once the conference of union executive committees had handed over the running of the strike to the General Council.

Cliff was concerned with the circumstances in which a ­bureaucratic mass strike could be transformed into a (revolutionary) mass strike. Regarding the 1926 General Strike he made the significant point that “the shortness of the strike—nine days—prevented it from having a life of its own”.30 Given the measured build-up to N30, and the limited ambitions of most unions taking part in it, it is extremely unlikely that it would have developed “a life of its own”. The widespread marches and rallies across the length and breadth of the UK showed its popularity but it was still only a demonstration strike on a mass scale. Notwithstanding its magnitude and the coordination required, both nationally and locally, it fits within a long tradition of one-day official token strikes, particularly in the public sector since the early 2000s. The bureaucratic mass strike is a very useful concept (particularly for countries where union federations can call general strikes) but does not fit the current British experience where all official strikes are subject to a majority vote in a ballot.

Official and unofficial action in the 1972 miners’ strike

In his 1985 article on mass strikes Cliff described the 1972 miners’ strike as “in effect a rank-and-file strike”31 and he explored its main features and the build-up to it. Mark O’Brien’s brief sketch of this strike inadvertently understates the importance of official union involvement in providing space for rank and file initiative.32 In so doing he constructs a picture that does not reflect what actually happened or the complexity of the interaction between official and unofficial action. In the situation today where unofficial strike action is relatively rare, we do ourselves no favours if we exaggerate how easy ground-breaking unofficial action was even during the last great strike wave of 1968-74.

O’Brien highlights two particular features of Cliff’s account: the political strikes against the Industrial Relations Bill in 1971 and the solidarity strike leading to the closure of Saltley Gates in 1972. Regarding the first, he states: “In February 1971 something approaching 2 million workers came out on strike—mostly unofficially—against the Industrial Relations Bill”.33 But this is not what happened or what Cliff wrote.

There was a series of strikes against the bill. That of 8 December 1970, involving somewhere between 350,000 (the government figure) and 600,000, had been organised unofficially by the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, a body led by the Communist Party.34 Even on this day some officially-backed action took place.35 As part of its own campaign against the bill, the TUC General Council organised a huge national demonstration on Sunday 21 February 1971. But to defuse the growing demand for action,36 the TUC agreed that unions should “organise local meetings…during meal breaks and after working hours” on 12 January.37

Circulars from the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) legitimised demonstrations during working hours38 and there were some stoppages, particularly in Birmingham car factories and by Birmingham lorry drivers, on 1 January 197139 (not yet a bank holiday) while about 170,000 to 180,000 took strike action on 12 January, along with 20,000 the previous day.40 The national conference of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW)41 then took the lead in calling national strikes against the bill.42 On both 1 March and 18 March an estimated 1.25 million workers struck against the bill.43 The second of these two strikes was held on the day of a special TUC conference to agree policy on the Industrial Relations Bill. The AUEW, the Boilermakers and the Sheet Metal Workers were the largest unions to call out all their members for both these strikes, with nine unions backing the second strike.44

Cliff’s 1985 account (repeated by Mark O’Brien) of the closure of the Saltley coke depot used Arthur Scargill’s figures, which are significantly higher than other records of the event. Scargill claimed: “100,000 were out on strike” and “it was estimated that there were 20,000” in the area around the coke depot.45 Cliff had not used these figures in earlier comments; for example, he indicated in 1973 that there had been 50,000 strikers of whom 10,000 came to Saltley.46 A recent Bookmarks pamphlet suggests 30,000 strikers with 10,000 to 15,000 of them going to Saltley—and this seems, from available evidence, to be about right.47 The police themselves admitted to “upwards of 15,000 demonstrators”,48 of whom perhaps 2,000 were miners.49 The Morning Star cited estimates of 6,000 to 10,000, the lower figure also being given in other newspapers.50

By what process did workers agree to strike and then march to Saltley? Seeking an explanation for their willingness, Cliff gave figures on large strikes in Birmingham engineering and car factories in 1970 and 1971, which Mark O’Brien repeats.51 The problem with these is that most of the “prominent” stoppages (leading to more than 5,000 “working days lost”) in the car industry were a result of tens or low hundreds of strikers taking sectional action, leading to thousands of other workers being laid off in the same plant. Such laid-off workers were counted as being “indirectly” involved in the strike, increasing the number of “days lost” significantly. There were many other very short sectional strikes but at this stage a limited tradition of plant-wide strikes in most of the car industry, due to fragmented collective bargaining. In any case, in 1971 almost all the “prominent” stoppages in the Birmingham car industry were at the Longbridge plant (situated in the AUEW’s Birmingham West district), which was not even involved in the Saltley picket (which was in the heart of the Birmingham East district).52

Mark O’Brien claims, though not based on what Cliff actually wrote, that “industrial action on pay had been led for many years” by the unofficial British Motor Corporation (BMC) Combine Committee and that this committee had played “the role of coordinating industrial action…magnificently in 1972” at Saltley.53 But the combine committee had never led any industrial action on pay. This was impossible given the patchwork quilt of piecework rates for production workers and differing grading structures for the non-production workers in most of the plants up to the early 1970s. Its role, as Cliff suggested, was to disseminate knowledge of wage rates.54 The unofficial combine committee also had no role at Saltley; instead it was official union committees, as detailed below, that gave the lead.

What happened has been recounted several times55 but usually without the detail given in interviews conducted less than two years later.56 Scargill approached the AUEW Birmingham East district committee at its Tuesday evening meeting, which agreed to support his request to come to the picket line. The district committee, an important part of the union’s official government, did not have the power to call district-wide strikes without a ballot57 but summoned a special district shop stewards’ quarterly meeting during working hours the next afternoon and recommended that members join the picket. About 300 attended the meeting.58 The local evening newspaper reported “Engineers call for sympathy strike”.59 That night Scargill met the National Union of Vehicle Builders (NUVB) district shop stewards’ council meeting. News of this body’s support for the miners’ picket was broadcast on local radio on the Thursday morning (10 February) and NUVB members at (British Leyland) Rover Solihull assembled in the canteen before the stewards had had time to call a meeting. Even the senior steward called it a “spontaneous response”.60 As the Birmingham NUVB district organiser remarked: “if the people didn’t support the miners then…whatever kind of organisation we had it couldn’t have brought about the demonstration we had at Saltley”.61

The local morning paper also covered both the AUEW’s and NUVB’s support62 but this did not automatically translate into workers coming out. At the (British Leyland) Tractors and Transmissions factory, a couple of miles from Saltley Gates, a leading steward felt that the presence of a union official was needed to help secure a walkout; so the AUEW Birmingham East district secretary, Norman Cartwright, carried a banner with Arthur Harper, the district president and factory convenor.63 It was reported afterwards that a number of factories were “closed or totally disrupted”.64 While large contingents from at least eight factories came to the picket, there were smaller turnouts from many others.65 The local Communist Party network, particularly in the engineering and car industries, played a crucial role.66

Overall, both at Saltley and in the earlier strikes against the Industrial Relations Bill, it was official bodies within unions that gave the lead or created an atmosphere in which some shop stewards or shop stewards’ committees could persuade workers to take action. Traditions of striking (usually unofficially) were important background factors but official union bodies gave a legitimacy for action (solidarity strikes for the Saltley pickets or political strikes against the bill) that would otherwise have been difficult to win.

Refining the N30 narrative

There was no meaningful interplay between official and unofficial action in the 2011 pensions dispute; it was conducted almost entirely through official union channels. The narrative of “No 30 June, no 30 November”67—that without left-led unions making the running and holding a strike on 30 June 2011 (J30), there would not have been a mass strike in November 2011—emphasises the role of left activists (including SWP members) on union executive committees. Sean Vernell, for example, has argued that three of the four unions that took strike action on J30—PCS, NUT and UCU—had been pioneers in taking coordinated strike action in 2008 because “they were the most left wing sections of the trade union movement”. He went further: “Right wing trade union leaders’ natural instincts are to oppose…coordinated action. They do so out of fear that this kind of action will start to move from a ‘trade dispute’ into a more political one that seeks to bring down governments”.68 Such an interpretation is not substantiated by what happened in 2005-6 when right wing leaders arranged two ballots for coordinated action, involving one strike, over public service pensions, and created a template for their behaviour in 2011. To understand the dynamics of 2011 better we have to examine the earlier pensions dispute first.

The 2005–6 pensions dispute

The Labour government’s attack on public service pensions included—for the NHS, teachers and civil service schemes—raising the pension age from 60 to 65, to be implemented in 2006 for new entrants and in 2013 for existing workers.69 The proposed changes for each of these three groups were made public between September 2004 and January 2005. The government also announced the abolition of the local government’s “Rule of 85” scheme—where workers could retire on an unreduced pension if the sum of their age added to their years of service totalled 85 or over; otherwise the normal retirement age was already 65. This would be implemented by regulations laid before parliament on 22 December 2004, to come into effect on 6 April 2005.70 As a result, local government unions were first in the firing line.

A coordinated strike was called for 23 March 2005 after successful ballots by Unison, TGWU, Amicus and UCATT in local government, along with PCS and FDA in the civil service, and the Northern Ireland Public Services Alliance (NIPSA). In this case, the left-led PCS decided to ballot after the (more right wing) local government unions had done.71 By the time the results of these seven ballots were announced, several more unions had decided to ballot,72 and others were considering it.73 The strike was scheduled for a few weeks before the expected general election in May, presenting a potential embarrassment for Labour.74 It was called off on 21 March only after the government had withdrawn its plans on 18 March and promised further talks.75

But with the government refusing to back down on increasing the pension age, 13 unions—Unison, GMB, TGWU and Amicus, covering mainly local government and health; the FBU, with its own separate fire service pension scheme; PCS, FDA, Prospect and POA in the civil service; and NUT, NASUWT, ATL and NATFHE in education—met while at the TUC during September and agreed to join forces to strike on the issue, though no date was named.76 This even bigger strike threat was sufficient for a Public Services Forum agreement to be made with the Labour government on 18 October 2005 for the NHS, civil service and teachers’ pension schemes, with any changes now starting later, in 2007 or 2008.77 New entrants in these schemes would have to work to age 65 but existing members could continue to retire on an unreduced pension at 60.78 Accrual rates and contributions changed in the NHS and teachers’ schemes, while new entrants in the civil service were put on a career average scheme.79 Despite the significant concessions made to the employers, left winger Mark Serwotka of PCS called it a “fantastic achievement, illustrating what trade unions could achieve by working and campaigning together”.80 Such a sentiment indicates the limitations of trade unionism and perhaps should have served as a warning to us in 2011.

The (fully-funded) local government pension scheme was not part of the October 2005 deal and so 11 affected unions—Unison, GMB, TGWU and Amicus (the last two later merged to form Unite), UCATT, NAPO, CYWU (later joined Unite), NIPSA, AEP, education professionals in the NUT, and the NUJ81—struck together on 28 March 2006, at that time the largest strike of women workers ever in the UK.82 Further strike days proposed for 25, 26 and 27 April were to see regional action, with the possibility of a 48-hour national stoppage on 3 and 4 May, the latter being the day of the local elections.83 These proposed strikes were suspended on 12 April after the TUC general secretary had brokered a deal to get negotiations started.84 But talks with the local government employers foundered again and, at a joint union lobby of parliament in November, renewed strike action had to be threatened to force a resolution.85

A key issue for the local government unions was protecting the “Rule of 85”. After the deal in October 2005 to allow existing members of the other three public service pension schemes to continue to retire at 60, the local government unions argued that their members were being discriminated against. The strike in March 2006 forced the government to issue new regulations, giving transitional protection to those satisfying the Rule of 85 if their 60th birthday was before March 2013. In July 2006 this protection was extended to March 2016.86

The position of the public service unions seemed to be to protect their existing members’ age of retirement—which was successful for three schemes but only delayed for local government—and limit any other changes as far as possible (though important concessions were made that would weaken the unions’ negotiating position in 2011). The unions’ tactics in 2011 were shaped by their experience in 2005-6. The coalition government’s even more swingeing attack on public service pensions, starting in 2010, was seen by the unions mainly as a continuation of what Labour had started (to be fought by the same tactics), though this time it was accompanied by the much wider austerity agenda.

The 2010-12 pensions dispute

The coalition government, formed in May 2010, appointed Lord (John) Hutton, prominent Blairite and former Labour cabinet minister, to head a commission on public service pensions. He had to deliver an interim report before the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review in the autumn and the full report before the budget in March 2011.87 But on 22 June 2010 chancellor George Osborne presented an emergency budget, changing the pensions landscape dramatically. The increase in the state pension age to 66 would be brought forward from 2026; and from April 2011 public sector pension payments would be uprated by the (generally lower) Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rather than the Retail Prices Index, resulting in the value of pension payments falling significantly over time.88 Neither change was up for consultation or negotiation though several unions mounted an unsuccessful legal challenge on the latter.

Hutton’s interim report recommended changing public service pensions from final salary schemes, increasing employee contributions (with some protection for the lower paid), and that the “normal pension age” should reflect increases in longevity. Worryingly, it also noted “evidence” that “current pension structures, combined with the requirement to provide comparable pensions (‘Fair Deal’),89 are a barrier to non-public service providers, potentially reducing the efficiencies and innovation in public service delivery that could be achieved”.90 In the spending review on 20 October 2010 Osborne announced that the equalisation of state pension age for women was to be accelerated from April 2016 so that women’s state pension age reached 65 in November 2018. It would then increase to 66 for both men and women during the period from December 2018 to April 2020.91 Employee contributions to unfunded public service pensions (ie excluding local government) would rise by over 3 percent on average, over a three-year period from April 2012.92 A Treasury consultation on scrapping the “Fair Deal” protection for the pensions of workers transferred out of the public sector was launched on 3 March 2011.93 During his budget speech on 23 March 2011 Osborne told MPs: “The government accepts Hutton’s recommendations as a basis for consultation with public sector workers, unions and others”;94 full proposals would be set out in the autumn.95 Many union leaders must have felt that the sum total of the changes to pensions was like a tsunami heading towards them.

The UCU was the first union to take strike action. It was already in dispute (since July 2010) over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), a fully-funded “private” scheme covering its members in “old” (pre-1992) universities. An overwhelming rejection in a UCU referendum in December opened up the likelihood of industrial action before April 2011 when the scheduled changes to USS were due to start.96 The union’s national executive committee took the opportunity also to ballot its members in the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS)—in FE colleges and “new” (post-1992) universities—to enable “a common date for industrial action in the week beginning 21 March (the week of the budget and the 26 March TUC demonstration)”.97 UCU action against USS changes saw one-day strikes in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—on different days—culminating in a UK-wide strike on 24 March, the same day that all other UCU members had their own separate strikes over pay and the proposed TPS contribution increases.

The teaching unions generally were to react more quickly than other sectors as they had been led to believe that the Department for Education was setting a deadline of mid-February to agree tiered pension contribution increases. Most of them held emergency meetings in mid-January.98 An ATL committee, for example, started to prepare for a ballot.99 The NUT held back until a TUC meeting of public sector union leaders on 28 January. By then Osborne had extended until the end of June the period of discussion on how to implement the increases in pension contributions; this would be followed by consultation.100 This removed the immediate need for unions to ballot but many education unions had by now started discussing it seriously. For example, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), a union that had never taken strike action, reported in February that 64 percent of its members would do so to protect their pensions. A month later even the Association of School and College Leaders was said to be prepared to take action, though only a minority supported strikes.101 The ATL, NAHT and ASCL could by no stretch of the imagination be seen as left wing. Their early involvement was indicative of the significant groundswell of opposition to government policy on pensions.

At its April conference the ATL agreed, with only four delegates against, to ballot for its first ever national strike (its only other national action—in 1979—consisted of an afternoon of union branch meetings).102 A few days later the NUT conference followed suit.103 At the NAHT conference at the end of April 99.6 percent wanted a ballot; the rest abstained. Its national executive agreed in June to hold one.104 The PCS national executive voted for a strike ballot, subject to conference approval in May, over pensions, jobs and pay.105 PCS, NUT and UCU, all seen as “left” unions, came out on 30 June along with the right wing ATL (whose involvement was an important milestone in that year’s unfolding events).106 Meanwhile the biggest unions—Unite, Unison and GMB—were “awaiting the outcome of talks”, due to finish at the end of June.107 These dragged on and the TUC’s public service unions agreed in mid-July to extend the TUC’s negotiations with government, thus deferring any wider action until at least the autumn.108

The Financial Times had suggested as early as May 2011 that some unions were holding back because of “concern not to lead members into an unwinnable battle”.109 In late June, though, it was reported that Dave Prentis of Unison had “drawn up a detailed war plan and grid for months of industrial action starting in the autumn. Another 27 unions are involved.” Prentis said: “We are working as a coordinated unit… Because of the numbers involved, and the different groups, we can have rolling programmes; we can bring out cities at one time, regions at another. We can bring out different groups on different days”.110 A one-day strike in October would be followed by “rolling stoppages by smaller groups in a strategy aimed at limiting members’ loss of pay”.111 Yet, at the same time, the Financial Times reported that while union leaders thought a one-day strike across public services was “probably achievable”, “a subsequent ‘war of attrition’ of smaller stoppages” would be “harder to sustain”. Maintaining unity among the TUC’s public service unions would be “difficult”.112

The question of “unity” has bedevilled many multi-union strike movements in the past, because if one or more unions were not prepared to go beyond limited action then their view would tend to prevail in order to maintain unity.113 This was complicated in autumn 2011 by the involvement of many unions that might not have been used to working together or in joint union forums. The very breadth of the coalition of unions involved was, ironically, its potential weakness. A one-day demonstration strike was the lowest common denominator in late 2011.

Mark O’Brien states that 29 TUC affiliates struck.114 Charlie Kimber is closer when saying that 23 TUC affiliates and seven non-affiliates came out on N30.115 Yet the CWU strike that day was part of a separate ongoing pay dispute (of TV licence workers employed by Capita), unconnected with pensions. By contrast, the Prison Officers’ Association, POA, which only had members on strike at three high-security psychiatric hospitals, held branch meetings at 7.30 am at each prison—over the health and safety implications of limited emergency services that day—because prison officers cannot lawfully strike.116 Unison’s ballot included members of the British Association of Occupational Therapists (BAOT), on whose behalf it carries out trade union functions; the BAOT Council urged members to vote yes.117 Similarly, members of the health trade union Managers in Partnership (MiP) were included in the Unison ballot and many members struck.118 The only affected TUC affiliates that did not strike seem to have been the FBU (which has since had its own strikes over pensions), and three health service unions, the British Dietetic Association, the HCSA and the orthoptists (BOSTU), none of which balloted.

The non-affiliates that struck were three Irish unions (NIPSA, INTO and SIPTU), all members of the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions; two Scottish teaching unions (SSTA,119 a member of the Scottish TUC; and AHDS, not an STUC-affiliate); and two others, the ISU (a “non-political” union), and the NAHT. Another small union, the National Society for Education in Art and Design, won a ballot for strike action on N30,120 while the Ulster Teachers’ Union voted 59.3 percent for strike action but did not meet its own two thirds majority rule, so embarked on action short of a strike, for which it did have a mandate.121 This gives a possibly unprecedentedly high post-war total of 21 TUC unions and 11 others (including the two that Unison acts for) striking on pensions and one taking action short of a strike.122

Several unions were taking action in a service-wide dispute either for the first time (such as the SCP) or for the first time in decades (such as the EIS). Some of the unions (such as the FDA) had successfully balloted but not needed to strike in 2005; most local government unions had taken strike action in 2006. Not all unions were likely to come out a second time after N30, with some probably viewing a one-day demonstration strike as sufficient to make their protest. In that sense, N30 was going to be the peak of the movement. Most union leaders would have seen a second, smaller strike as damaging their credibility and therefore their bargaining position, something even Serwotka, PCS general secretary, alluded to in January 2012: “If it is the case that there’s fewer unions left standing, that the next industrial action looks like being hundreds of thousands not millions, any union worth its salt will analyse the situation that leaves it in.” He added: “We think further industrial action is absolutely essential. But if the coalition is a lot smaller, you have to review your tactics”.123 Although N30 had been announced as “a first day of action”,124 the 11-week delay up to this strike made further action before Christmas extremely unlikely (especially as seven days notice would be required by each union).

The looming strike forced the government, on 2 November, to make concessions (including protection for those within ten years of retirement from April 2012) as a way of heading it off. When these failed to stop the strike, on 12 November it withdrew its threat to scrap the “Fair Deal” on pensions for workers whose jobs are privatised in the future—given the scale of outsourcing likely in some services, the importance of this for some unions cannot be underestimated. The government had boxed the unions into a corner by making it clear on 2 November that unions had to sign up to “heads of agreement” on a scheme by scheme basis by the end of the year (in practical terms this meant during the last week before Christmas) or its “concessions” would be withdrawn. This behaviour was in stark contrast to the Labour government’s relaxing of deadlines during the 2005-6 pensions dispute. Not surprisingly, fearful of losing those concessions that had been forced out of government, some unions within each of the four schemes (with their slightly different offers) signed up to the heads of agreement on 20 December 2011. That did not mean that they (or the rejectionists) had agreed a deal, but it did mean that the unity of N30 was irrevocably fractured. As many union leaders, immediately after N30, felt they had to discuss the detail of the pensions schemes for their own sectors, strikes were in practice off the agenda before Christmas. With the first changes due to kick in on 1 April 2012 (apart from the local government scheme which had to be agreed by that date) any further strikes would have most effect if they took place before then. The only such action was limited to the NUT and UCU in London on 28 March (though more unions struck after 1 April).

Mark O’Brien argues that “the official leaderships walked away from what millions of workers believed was a victory there for the taking”.125 Sean Vernell claims that: “The leaderships, in particular of Unison and the GMB, fearful of not being able to get the genie of the working class back into the bottle again, agreed to suspend any further strikes” after N30.126 Both views present a somewhat one-dimensional view of the trade union bureaucracy, holding the workers back. Perhaps union leaders were only doing what they normally do—negotiating—while using strikes, and the threat of them, as leverage. They could make “either a worse or a better bargain”, as G D H Cole put it.127 A sufficient number of full-time union leaders (and their lay-member executive committees) were not prepared to call the government’s bluff regarding its threat to withdraw the November concessions—and there was not enough pressure from below to make them change their minds.

The 1984-5 miners’ strike clearly still casts a long shadow, as shown by the remarks of an unnamed “moderate” union general secretary in mid-2011: “The more the stakes are ratcheted up, the more the state…feels it has to be seen to win in the end”.128 Such a sentiment draws attention powerfully to the limitations of trade unionism. Because we understand those limitations, our analysis of both official and unofficial strike action, today and in the past, should also be prepared to face up to sometimes uncomfortable truths.

To conclude, the early 1970s show that the division between official and unofficial action is often not clear cut (even if currently complicated by legislation). Working in, and linking where possible, official and unofficial movements remains as important as ever. N30 was a one-day “demonstration strike”, announced 11 weeks in advance, and based on postal ballots, quite distinct from a “bureaucratic mass strike”. It was a strike about ­pensions—not austerity generally—and this dictated the tactics, with the 2005-6 experience providing a model, but against a more intransigent opponent than the earlier dispute. J30 was important but the movement leading to N30 was much broader and more deeply rooted than the “no J30, no N30” narrative would suggest. Simon Joyce, in the previous issue of this journal, has challenged us to rethink our analysis of the continuing low level of class struggle.129 The above discussion will hopefully contribute to this.


1: O’Brien, 2014.

2: O’Brien, 2014, pp149-150.

3: Cliff, 1985.

4: Vernell, 2013; Kimber, 2012.

5: Harman, 1984, p9.

6: Harman, 1985, p122.

7: Harman, 1985, p122.

8: Clark, 1985, pp10-11; emphasis added.

9: Harman, 1984, p10.

10: Brown, 1984, p34.

11: Luxemburg, 1986, pp47-48.

12: Hyman, 1989, pp19-25.

13: Cliff, 1979, p36.

14: Cliff, 1985, p11.

15: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p189.

16: Roberts, 1958, p385.

17: TUC, 2011, rule 8.

18: Phillips, 1976, pp114-116.

19: Quoted in Darlington and Lyddon, 2001, p173.

20: TUC Annual Report, 1973, p281.

21: TUC Annual Report, 1980, pp236-237.

22: TUC Annual Report, 1982, p681.

23: Reported in the Guardian, 25 February 1984; TUC Annual Report 1984, p49. Also see PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union), 2009.

24: Operative from 26 September 1984 and therefore not applicable to the great miners’ strike starting in March 1984.

25: Under part 1 of the 1993 Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act, which, as with all subsequent statute law affecting industrial action, amends the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act of 1992.

26: Kimber, 2012, p27.

27: Composite 5 and debate, in TUC, Congress Report 2011, www.tuc.org.uk/about-tuc/congress-2011/congress-report-2011; TUC statement on pensions, 14 September 2011.

28: A famous case was the Ford “penalty clauses” strike in 1969.

29: O’Brien, 2014, p167.

30: Cliff, 1985, p12.

31: Cliff, 1985, p40.

32: See Darlington and Lyddon, 2001, chapter 2, for an account that stresses this.

33: O’Brien, 2014, p158.

34: McIlroy and Campbell, 1999, p15.

35: Financial Times, 9 December 1970.

36: McIlroy and Campbell, 1999, p15.

37: TUC, Annual Report, 1971, p97.

38: McIlroy and Campbell, 1999, p15.

39: The Times, 1 and 2 January 1971.

40: Department of Employment Gazette, 1972, p438; Financial Times, 12 and 13 January 1971.

41: The AUEW had four sections (engineering, foundry, construction engineering and TASS, the former draughtsmen’s union). References to the AUEW in connection with Saltley refer only to the (dominant) engineering section.

42: The Times, 5 February 1971. The joint national conference of the four sections of the AUEW presumably had the same power as the union’s engineering section’s national committee: “The National Committee shall be empowered to call or terminate a general strike when in their opinion time would not allow for members to be balloted”: Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), 1970, Rulebook, rule 14, clause 15.

43: Department of Employment Gazette, 1972, p438.

44: Guardian, 2, 12 and 19 March 1971.

45: Scargill, 1975, p19.

46: Cliff, 1973.

47: Jackson, 2012, p21.

48: House of Commons Employment Committee, 1980, p36, paragraph 8b; also see p41, evidence of Sir Philip Knights, who said there were “something like 15,000 people at the gate”.

49: Allen, 1981, p199.

50: Morning Star, 11 February 1972; Guardian, 11 February 1972; The Times, 11 February 1972.

51: Cliff, 1985, p46.

52: Department of Employment Gazette, 1971, pp434-435, and 1972, pp443-444.

53: O’Brien, 2014, pp158 and 170.

54: Cliff, 1985, pp45-46.

55: For example, in Darlington and Lyddon, 2001, pp56-62, relying heavily on the testimony of Birmingham Communist Party full-time secretary Frank Watters.

56: From interviews conducted in the winter of 1973-4, Charles Parker Archive, MS 1611/B/9, some of which appear in Jackson, 2012.

57: AEU, 1970, Rulebook, rule 13, clause 18. The AEU became the engineering section of the AUEW in 1971.

58: Charles Parker Archive, MS 1611/B/9/15.

59: Birmingham Evening Mail, 9 February 1972.

60: Charles Parker Archive, MS 1611/B/9/2.

61: Charles Parker Archive, MS 1611/B/9/14.

62: Birmingham Post, 10 February 1972.

63: Charles Parker Archive, MS 1611/B/9/12.

64: Birmingham Evening Mail, 10 February 1972.

65: Financial Times, 11 February 1972; Darlington and Lyddon, 2001, pp59–60.

66: Jackson, 2012, p16.

67: Kimber, 2012, p27.

68: Vernell, 2013.

69: See Thurley, 2013, pp11-13, for details of the different plans for the NHS, teachers’ and civil servants’ pension schemes.

70: Thurley, 2013, pp13-14. A set of regulations is a “statutory instrument”, a form of legislation laid before parliament by the government but not debated.

71: Unison’s ballot was announced first, followed by the TGWU, then PCS and then the FDA: Financial Times, 28 January, 2 February, 5 February, and 23 February 2005. The 5 February report quoted a Unison official: “Coordinated action on the same day was ‘a possibility’ that ‘makes sense’.”

72: NATFHE announced that it would ballot for a one-day strike in April, followed by the NUT, while some GMB regions wanted to ballot. Socialist Worker reported that the Welsh teachers’ union, UCAC, and the CYWU were balloting, while the NUT had suggested 26 April for a “second wave” of action—Ovenden, 2005. See also Financial Times, 14 February, 12 March 2005.

73: The (Glasgow) Herald, 19 March 2005, reported that the EIS and SSTA, Scottish education unions, had held successful consultative ballots. The ATL conference agreed to ballot if the government persevered with retirement at 65—Morning Star, 24 March 2005.

74: The widely anticipated date of the general election, 5 May 2005, was announced on
5 April.

75: TUC, press release, 21 March 2005; Financial Times, 19 and 22 March 2005.

76: The Times, 15 September 2005, listed these unions as “ready for action”.

77: The Times reported “Ministers cave in” (Sherman, 2005), and the Financial Times, 19 October 2005, “Abject surrender”.

78: The new “normal pension age” of 65 would start for new entrants in education in January 2007, the civil service in July 2007 and the NHS in April 2008—Thurley, 2013.

79: For details on changes to all four main schemes, see Pensions Policy Institute, 2008, Table 1.

80: Sherman, 2005.

81: These 11 unions appear on a joint strike poster.

82: Unison even temporarily withdrew “all funding and other support routinely provided to the Labour Party at election time”—Mulholland, 2006.

83: Guardian, 29 March 2006; The Times, 31 March 2006. The Times, 29 March 2006, reported that a strike on 3 May would cause chaos in processing postal votes.

84: Financial Times, 13 April 2006.

85: Morning Star, 23 November 2006; also see 25 November 2006.

86: There was limited protection for those satisfying the rule between March 2016 and March 2020—Thurley, 2009.

87: The Times, 21 June 2010.

89: Occupational pensions were not covered by the original (1981) TUPE Regulations. “Fair Deal” was a non-statutory policy introduced in 1999 to give staff transferred from the public sector “broadly comparable” pensions to their public service pensions—see Thurley, 2014, for changing policy on Fair Deal.

90: Independent Public Service Pensions Commission, 2010, p13.

91: HM Treasury, 2010a, p69.

92: HM Treasury, 2010b, p18. This was confirmed in June 2011 and that contribution increases would be skewed to favour the lower paid—Financial Times, 17 June 2011.

93: The Times, 24 February 2011; HM Treasury, 2011a.

94: House of Commons Debates, 23 March 2011, column 961 (Hutton’s final report was published on 10 March).

95: HM Treasury, 2011b, p36, paragraph 1.132.

96: UCU news, 14 December 2010, www.ucu.org.uk/?articleid=5166

97: UCU Left report on 17 December 2010 NEC decisions.

98: Times Educational Supplement, 14 January 2011.

99: Daily Telegraph, 25 January 2011.

100: Times Educational Supplement, 28 January, 4 February 2011; Financial Times, 15 and 29 January 2011.

101: Times Educational Supplement, 11 February, 4 March 2011.

102: Morning Star, 20 April, 20 May 2011.

103: NUT press release, 23 April 2011.

104: Guardian, 1 May 2011; NAHT press release, 17 June 2011.

105: Financial Times, 13 April, 19 May 2011.

106: The only UCU members involved were those in the TPS but the stoppage in new universities was limited because most teaching had finished by this date.

107: Groom, 2011a.

108: TUC press release, 19 July 2011.

109: Groom, 2011a.

110: The Times, 25 June 2011.

111: Groom, 2011c.

112: Groom, 2011b.

113: As, for example, in the national disputes in the civil service in 1981 and the NHS in 1982—Lyddon, 1998, pp143-144 and 146-147.

114: O’Brien, 2014, p159, based on the table of 29 unions in Kimber, 2012, pp28-29.

115: Kimber, 2012, p27. GP members of the Medical Practitioners’ Union (in Unite’s health sector) did not strike, as the correct strike notices had not been issued: www.gponline.com/union-says-illegal-call-gps-strike-30-november/article/1106544

116: POA circular 166, 29 November 2011; Morning Star, 30 November 2011.

118: Go to www.miphealth.org.uk/nmsruntime/saveasdialog.aspx?lID=2734. The BAOT and MiP (a joint venture between Unison and the FDA) were also involved in the 2014 NHS pay strikes.

119: Not in the table in Kimber, 2012, pp28-29.

122: The national engineering strikes in the 1950s and 1960s (certainly the coordinated engineering and shipbuilding strikes of 1957) probably had more unions involved but these were already affiliated together in the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions.

123: Walker, 2012.

124: TUC, statement on pensions, 14 September 2011—go to www.tuc.org.uk/economic-issues/tuc-statement-pensions

125: O’Brien, 2014, p161.

126: Vernell, 2013.

127: Cole, 1939, p538.

128: Groom, 2011c.

129: Joyce, 2015.


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