The mass strike of 30 November 2011 has opened a new chapter in British working class history. Around 2.5 million people joined what was the biggest strike in Britain since 1926.1 In every town and city large parts of the public sector virtually ground to a halt. Teachers, nurses, cleaners, civil service workers, teaching assistants, school meals staff and lecturers were just some of the vast number of workers who took part in what was a public sector general strike.2 Hundreds of thousands of people—probably half a million or more—then joined marches and rallies. The anger against the bankers, the revolt of the 99 percent, at last found a powerful national focus through workers’ struggle. It was a strike about the assault on pensions, but many strikers also recognised this it was confronting a much wider strategy to savage workers’ living standards and to reshape British society in the interests of capital and profit. The strike was important in trade union terms and economically, but also politically.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis told his members it was “a great day for Unison and my proudest day as your general secretary”. A typical reaction from the rank and file came from union rep James Marsh, who was picketing from 7am and helped organise a march in Basingstoke, Hampshire. He told the local paper, “I was beside myself with joy at the final numbers. I was so pleased—it exceeded all my expectations.”3
This was the day when organised workers showed they still had power, and that the unions were far from dead. The picket line is back on a wide scale, as is solidarity. Of course in some places people did cross picket lines. But in lots they didn’t. For the first time for many years the division in workplaces across Britain was between those who had struck and those who had scabbed. And the word “scab” was used.
For a quarter of a century after the defeat of the miners in 1984-5 it has become fashionable to write off the idea of mass strikes in Britain. It might be true, said pampered pundits, that the excitable French, Greeks or Spanish might strike in vast numbers. But not the stoical British. Even some union leaders accepted this myth of British powerlessness. In August last year, responding to a question of whether we would see mass strikes here when the cuts hit home, the then Unite leader Derek Simpson said, “I don’t think that’s the nature of the British public. We don’t have the volatile nature of the French or the Greeks.”4 He got his answer on N30.
Whatever the outcome of the particular dispute, the strike will leave a permanent mark. Struggle is how workers’ organisations become real. A victory could see a surge in confidence and a generalised recovery in working class resistance. It would also deepen the political radicalisation taking place among wide layers of people as capitalism delivers poverty and war. A sell-out or defeat could leave workers seething but bitter. A messy compromise might lead to elements or both. And there will be a sharp debate throughout the working class movement now over whether the strikes should be repeated or escalated. But in any case nobody can now argue that British workers are apathetic or won’t support strikes or won’t be active when they do go on strike.
It’s also important that something like 70 percent of those on strike were women.5 It crushes the notion that unions (and strikes) are “macho” hangovers from some bygone era. The typical striker was a low-paid woman. The soul-searching in some of the press and by political commentators about why women don’t like the Tories has a simple answer: the Conservatives are not just arrogant toffs; they are robbing women at work and closing down the services they rely upon.
The effectiveness of the N30 action was hotly debated. The Sun dubbed it “The not very general strike”. During prime minister’s questions on 30 November David Cameron claimed 40 percent of England’s 21,700 state schools were open. He described the strike as “something of a damp squib”. But Cameron’s figures were at odds even with those of the government’s own Department for Education. It said that just 16 percent of English schools were open and a further 14 percent partly open. The department counts a school as “partly open” if a single class is taught or a single teacher supervises a group of children in the school hall. Cameron’s patently wrong figures baffled even the Downing Street spokesperson who could only explain: “The prime minister said what he said.”
In Wales, according to official figures, more than 1,500 out of 1,776 schools closed their doors. In Scotland, figures from the local authority body Cosla suggest just 33 of the 2,700 state schools were open.6
Hospitals cancelled thousands of non-urgent operations as the biggest strike for more than 20 years hit the NHS. Nearly 7,000 out of just over 30,000 operations were affected, while tens of thousands of appointments and tests were also postponed.
Some commentators pointed to the lack of the anticipated queues at airport border controls as evidence of the strike’s failings. In fact the government pressed Whitehall senior civil servants, including the prime minister’s press secretary, into working at arrivals. In addition many airlines cancelled half their flights and 20,000 passengers rebooked their seats for another day! That was why there were no queues.
Another desperate smear from the press used to rubbish the strike was that strikers had “gone shopping”. Such a charge fails in three ways. Firstly, even if they had all “gone shopping” it would not have indicated the mass scabbing that the Sun and others had urged. Secondly, the size of the marches shows that many strikers had “gone raging” rather than shopping. And thirdly the rise in people going to the shops was actually an indication of how effective the strike had been—many workers outside the sectors on strike did not go to work because their children’s schools were closed.
N30 was also part of the global wave of workers’ resistance and in the spirit of the Occupy movement. Slogans about the 99 percent who are suffering while the gilded elite of the 1 percent wrecks our lives were well received on the day. In many cities those taking part in the Occupy events joined strike rallies. London occupiers marched to join construction workers who were touring picket lines to show support. Occupy London put out a statement declaring, “The banks need to be punished, not pensions.”
In a wonderful show of international solidarity US nurses and other workers demonstrated outside the British Embassy in Washington and at British consulates in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Orlando, and San Francisco. Bangladeshi garment workers marched in Dhaka to show their solidarity with the British strikers.
Anger on the streets
The demonstrations on the day were huge. They included 10,000 in Brighton, Leeds and Newcastle, around 20,000 in Bristol, Liverpool and Birmingham, around 25,000 in Glasgow and Manchester and about 50,000 in London. There were also 3,000 in Truro! Big marches can have a lasting effect. If you are in Dundee (a city of just over 150,000 people) and you joined the 10,000-strong demonstration there on N30 then you feel part of a working class movement on the rise. The next day everyone returns to their separate jobs, colleges—or the dole. But you will remember for a long time the day when people were all together. And the potential exists to develop networks among those who picketed and marched which can shape the future. This is what the Unite the Resistance initiative is trying to do.
The TUC had estimated that up to 1,000 rallies, demonstrations and other protests would take place. Even if this was a gross overestimate and “only” 500 took place and they had an average of 1,000 people on each then half a million people demonstrated!
And the average may well have been in excess of 1,000. A survey by the Socialist Workers Party’s industrial department of 60 demonstrations showed 300,000 marching (average 5,000). This survey included the largest areas, but it still suggests that the total figure might well have been three quarters of a million. Other workers, students and unemployed people joined the protests, but the core was the strikers themselves. So maybe one in seven or more of those on strike took to the streets. The size of the marches also shows an upward trend, both from the marches on 30 June during the earlier pensions strike by 750,000 people, and from the public sector pay strikes of April 2008. The N30 marches highlighted below are in total more than twice the size of the June ones, and nearly eight times bigger than those in 2008. When a million or more local government workers struck over pay in 2002 and over pensions in 2006 the strikes were solid—but there were hardly any large marches. The willingness to take to the streets reflects the level of involvement, anger and confidence.
Table 1: Number of protesters on strike-day marches
Source: Socialist Worker
In many areas activists reported that people believed they were taking part in the biggest protests for a quarter of a century, or in their lifetimes—or even since the birth of capitalism in Britain! Examples include: “Great day! Biggest demonstration in Exeter since 1832!”, “The main demo in Leicester today was over 6,000 strong. People said they’d never seen anything like it in the city before.” “The most easterly town in Britain, Lowestoft, also saw its biggest ever demonstration today.” “It was the biggest trade union event in Chesterfield since the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5.” “People are saying this has been the biggest demo in Lancaster’s history”.7 The numbers were all the more impressive given that hostile local councils (such as in Birmingham) tried to block the marches, and some local TUC leaders sought to limit them.
The strike was popular, tapping a much wider sense of solidarity with people who were standing up for all of us when they took on the Tories. The government’s attempt to divide public sector workers from private sector ones largely failed. As the truth about the low level of public sector pensions came out the Tories lies about “gold plated” provision fell away. Several polls showed “only” 40 percent or so supporting the strikes, but others pointed to a clear majority backing the action. A poll by ComRes for the BBC reported 61 percent thinking the strikes were justified, with that number rising to 67 percent among women and 79 percent among 18-24 year olds.8
It’s interesting to compare these figures to, for example, opinion polls during the 1984-5 Great Miners’ Strike. When asked in a Gallup poll in July 1984 whether their sympathies lay mainly with the employers or the miners, 40 percent said employers, 33 percent were for the miners. When asked the same question during December 1984, 51 percent had most sympathy for the employers, just 26 percent for the miners.
Public opinion on its own does not win class battles. But the sense of widespread support from the broader working class and the community where you live is a big boost in giving workers the confidence to take action. The numbers backing the strikes are even more remarkable given that no mainstream political figure supported them.
People not only marched, they made political connections. You might expect Socialist Worker journalists or even union websites to root out quotations that show political generalisation and a thirst for more action. But you can find plenty of it in local papers across Britain.
For example, in Aylesbury Liz Medhurst, of the National Association of Probation Officers, told the Thame Gazette: “We are here today to protest for all public services. This is more than just pensions, it is a blatant attack by the government on all public services and our pensions are going to pay off the deficit caused by the bankers and not go anywhere near out pension pots.”
Steve Bennett, Northamptonshire Unison branch secretary and Northamptonshire County Council worker, told the Northampton Chronicle, “From what happened this week many people were expecting there to be further strike action in Northampton. The rich are getting richer and the working class getting poorer.”
There were even glimpses of workers’ control of services during the strike:
At the Homerton ambulance station the brazier was roaring and homemade placards and banners were displayed all over the building. Kath Jennings, a paramedic there, told Socialist Worker, “The first shift stopped work at midnight. I wasn’t sure if they would but this will be a solid 24-hour strike.” She explained that they are covering only “life and limb” cover. “The emergency calls are coming straight to the picket line and the picket line dispatches the job. We decide who goes where.9
The Tories are encouraging the process of political generalisation and radicalisation by their relentless attack on workers. Indeed chancellor George Osborne decided to intensify this assault the day before N30 in his autumn statement. Osborne announced that, following two years of pay freeze, public sector workers would then face two years of a maximum increase of 1 percent. Taken over four years this means a pay cut of between 16 and 20 percent for millions of public sector workers, depending on how high inflation goes. And, to reinforce an earlier point, research from the Commons library found that 4.6 million women and 2.6 million men would be affected by the latest pay curbs.10
Not content with slashing pay, Osbone also announced a further £15 billion of public spending cuts, and moves towards regional pay (which means less pay). To top it off, Osborne said that the earliest age at which someone can claim the state pension will rise from 66 to 67 from 2026—a decade earlier than planned. Because the government wants to link the pension age for public sector schemes to the state pension age, this represented a worsening of the public sector offer on the eve of the strike itself. It was almost as if Osborne wanted to whip up the hatred: if so he certainly succeeded. On the N30 picket lines and demonstrations strikers vented their deep anger at what Osborne had done. At some points an avalanche of brutality can demoralise workers and make them feel powerless. This is what Margaret Thatcher was able to do at times in the 1980s. But at the moment in Britain it is making people furious—and they are fighting back.
There is also a growing feeling among public sector workers that this isn’t only or primarily a struggle about their own pensions but also about the future of younger workers. That was summed up by a Scottish TUC leaflet for the strikes which shows a woman worker with a child and the slogan, “It’s no just for me, it’s for the wean.”
Many of those who took part in N30 were striking for the first time. And for several unions it was very unusual to find themselves out. For such bodies N30 represents a moment of truth, when a union really becomes a union—and its leaders knew their members backed them. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy proudly noted, “The industrial action is just the second in the CSP’s 117-year history and the first since 1980. It follows a ballot in which 86 percent of members working in the NHS voted in favour of striking, on a turnout of 66 percent.”
N30 has already boosted the unions, and can be the basis for much more. Workers were joining unions well in advance of the strike. On 14 October Unison announced, “The concern of public sector workers for the future of their pensions—and their recognition of the role Unison is playing in protecting them—has led to a surge of new members in the West Midlands. The region has recruited more than 640 new members in the past ten days, as a direct result of the pensions dispute”.11
Five days later Unison’s London regional secretary said, “Since the ballot was announced, we have seen unprecedented levels of activity at branch and workplace level. As a result, recruitment has increased by 35 percent on our average monthly figures for this year”.12
Unison South West reported, “Comparison of monthly figures show that applications to join have jumped a massive 126 percent since the result of the union’s ballot for strike action was announced. An overwhelming 81 percent of these applications have come from women”.13
In the immediate aftermath of N30 Scottish Unison trumpeted:
During the month of November 4,466 new members joined Unison in Scotland. Within the last week alone 1,408 have joined. This clearly underlines the fact that the campaign has been a great success and our message is getting through.14
For years the unions have commissioned studies and launched campaigns in order to build union density, particularly among women. The answer has always been clear: such campaigns can be useful, but the best way to build a union is to prepare action and hold strikes. The task now is to make sure that the recent growth is not a passing phase. Recruitment should go hand in hand with new and escalated strikes. More stewards in the workplaces should be combined with more participation by members in the direction of the union, greater rank and file democracy and a final end to witch hunts of the left. And the unions now have a chance to launch sweeping recruitment campaigns among the unorganised.
Where did it come from?
The broad background to N30 is the attempt by ruling classes across the world to make ordinary people pay for the crisis of capitalism, a crisis caused by bosses and bankers. In specific it is a response to the Conservative-Liberal coalition’s determination to ram through life-changing cuts. But all too often in the past the chance to fight has been thrown away. Why was N30 different? As John Molyneux wrote in issue 68 of this journal
The relationship between economic conditions and workers’ struggle is mediated by numerous factors: the level and quality of trade union organisation, the level and quality of political organisation, the level of general political consciousness, the level of anger, the behaviour of trade union and political leadership, and the strength, confidence, cleverness and so on, of the capitalist class all of which are conditioned not only by the current situation but also by the past, and all of which are involved in a complex interaction.15
N30 came from the pressure applied by the crisis and the coalition, the inspiring effect of other struggles, the willingness of some union leaders to head up a battle and—very importantly—pressure from below. The battle over pensions began in June 2010. Fresh from taking office, the Tories unveiled a budget which, as well as massive cuts, included commissioning the former Labour cabinet minister John Hutton (Lord Hutton of Furness) to review public sector pensions. The review, using a Labour figure doing the Tories’ dirty work, was perhaps deemed necessary to give cover for such a huge confrontation. The numbers affected are vast. Public service pension schemes have around 7.3 million pensioners (retired people receiving a pension) and approximately 5.4 million active members (people in work who are building up a pension). Including dependants, 20 million people are involved.
Governments—Tory and Labour—have long hankered after the huge cuts possible if they can smash up these schemes. They want to replicate the destruction of pension schemes that has torn through the private sector. Capitalists and capitalist governments have been forced into paying pensions at various points by workers’ organisation or the need to ensure a stable workforce. But the cost is always resented. For the bosses, workers who are too old to labour should help cuts costs and lift profits by dying as swiftly as possible once they have had their retirement party, not hang around grabbing money that could much better be used for chief executives’ bonuses. At least, think the rich, money spent on education and health directly produces a workforce to be exploited. Pensions are for those who are on the scrapheap! So a succession of plans for public sector pensions have been based on a simple message: workers must pay more, work longer and get less.
In 2005 the Labour government persuaded union leaders to accept a two-tier system where many of those in post at the time could still retire at 60, but new workers would retire at 65. The Labour government claimed this deal would cut £13 billion from pensions over a long time period. A further “revision” in 2008 meant (according to Unison) that scheme costs and benefits fell by 25 percent.
Labour would have returned to the attack if it had won the election in 2010. Today many Labour MPs still parrot the line that the present system is unsustainable. In fact both the local government pension scheme and NHS pension scheme are currently cash rich with income far exceeding outgoings—by some £2 billion in the case of the NHS scheme. But whatever Labour planned, the Tories want to go further, with looting on a grand scale. Broadly the government wants to increase contributions from workers (a pay cut) by £2.8 billion a year, to cut £4 billion a year by moving from the Retail Price Index to the Consumer Price Index measure of inflation for future pension increases, and eventually to save £1.7 billion a year by increasing the age at which workers receive their pension. That is a total of £8.5 billion a year, a massive transfer from workers to the government—in truth to the banks and corporations who have received so much from the state.
This is a class battle over whether workers will give up their pensions (their deferred wages) to keep the rich in their opulence and power. One of the most effective lines used by the unions to win their members to action is precisely to point out that the extra contributions won’t be used for pensions but to pay the bankers’ bills.
As we know all too painfully, however vicious the attacks they don’t often lead to mass strikes. Other factors have been needed to reach N30. The union leaders faced two pressures. Their members were angry about the scale of the assault, and about the cuts more generally which are hitting jobs, pay and services. At the same time the government was giving not an inch in negotiations. It is a sign of their inexperience that ministers keep changing their strategy. The Tories of 1979 remembered only too well that taking on workers can be dangerous: it can end up with you being driven from office, as Conservative prime minister Ted Heath had been in 1974. They therefore planned meticulously for their offensive, not going into full-scale battle with the miners until five years after Thatcher was first elected. When they then stupidly took on everyone at once over the poll tax they were beaten.
Cameron’s cabinet of millionaires seem to believe that the unions either will not fight or can safely be relied upon to crack after early skirmishes. So they laid out proposals for a savage pensions assault against everyone at once. Occasionally they have seemed to have a slightly more sophisticated strategy of divide and rule. At one point ministers indicated the local government scheme might not have to suffer any contribution increase because of the savings through cutting administrative costs. And ministers have said they will exempt those earning less than £15,000 from the rise. Handled carefully this might have taken large sections of the biggest unions, Unison, Unite and the GMB, out of the battle. But then ministers switched back to bashing everyone and insulting the union negotiators who would have to sign up to divide and rule.
In both June and July this year ministers brusquely announced sweeping proposals to change the pensions systems that they were supposed to be negotiating with the unions. It was enough to enrage even the most timid union leader. Sometimes the class enemy can look redoubtable and skilful. Anyone watching David Cameron, Danny Alexander and Francis Maude knows you are not up against the cream of the international ruling class. But it isn’t just that many ministers are not sophisticated class fighters. The scale of the crisis shapes their tactics. They have very little room for manoeuvre. Major concessions to the unions would now be seen as devastating weakness. The bond markets might well wonder whether the coalition is capable of implementing its austerity programme. And if that’s so, why should not the British borrowing rate rise to that of Spain or Greece or Italy? George Osborne’s autumn statement was stark evidence of his economic failure. The Tories must feel on the edge of a precipice and therefore it will take an immense push to make them back off.
The result is that even if the union hierarchies wanted to do a deal, the Tories haven’t let them. And at the same time the arc of struggle, the pressure from the bottom, has been upwards. As early as the TUC conference of September 2010, it was clear the union leaders were facing strong calls for action against the Tory rampage. Delegates passed a motion calling for the TUC’s general council to “support and co-ordinate campaigning and joint union industrial action, nationally and locally, in opposition to attacks on jobs, pensions, pay or public services”. That was a far cry from the mood earlier in the year when TUC leaders (and almost all the unions represented on its general council) voted to ask David Cameron to address the conference.
In November 2010 the student revolt burst on to the streets, inspiring sections of workers to believe that they could fight. And in March 2011 UCU, the lecturers’ union, held a series of strikes culminating in a national strike of 120,000 workers—the first national strike against the coalition. Allied to the scale of the cuts, and the calls from below for action, the student protests were part of the pressure that saw the TUC call a “March for the Alternative” on 26 March against the cuts. Some 500,000 joined it, the largest trade union demonstration in British history. This demonstration, and the anti-cuts groups that sprang up in dozens of towns and cities, undoubtedly increased the feeling for action.
After 26 March the SWP argued that the main focus of resistance to the Tories had moved to the unions and the workplace. This did not mean that other issues and other elements of the fightback were unimportant. But the most central task was to follow 26 March with mass strikes. We were right to do so. While others scorned the idea of a general strike and argued that the organised working class had had its day, we got on with building industrial action.
There was a key question after that demo: would it be the end of a process or a launchpad for strikes. While some union leaders urged marchers only to take their anger to the polls for the council election a month later, PCS union leader Mark Serwotka said: “Look around you in this park. Imagine what it would be if we didn’t only march together but took strike action together.” The PCS was one of three unions that followed the march with strike ballots so they could take action alongside the UCU. They rejected the argument that no action was possible “while talks are proceeding”. Instead they rightly insisted that the talks were a farce and that the unions need to start the fightback immediately. Union conferences were also reflecting pressure from below. Motions demanding that the TUC calls a general strike were passed at the NUT, PCS, UCU, CWU and NUJ conferences. Of course there is always a big gap between resolution and action. But when did five unions last pass such motions? And it’s significant that three of them headed up the 30 June strikes.
On that day the PCS civil service workers’ union and three education unions—the UCU, NUT and ATL—struck together. That action by 750,000 opened the gates for the N30 strikes. No 30 June, no 30 November. The success in mobilising broad support on 30 June stepped up the pressure on the leaders of the big three unions—Unison, Unite and the GMB. Already in the run up to 30 June Unison’s Dave Prentis told his union conference of his willingness to push for the most sustained action “since the General Strike” of 1926. Workers expected those words to be turned into action.
And the British struggle has been lifted by the struggle internationally. The general strikes in Greece and Spain and Portugal, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and the Occupy movement all strengthen people. The idea that we should “strike like an Egyptian” or take to the streets like the Greeks is immensely popular among important sections of activists—the ones who are the key to mobilising many more.
On 14 September at the TUC conference, unions voted to call for a collective day of strikes involving millions on 30 November. For decades the slogan “TUC call a general strike” had seemed wildly hopeful when not foolishly misplaced. But now the TUC had called, if not a total general strike, at least one involving almost all the public sector. In the run up to the day of action, 23 TUC-affiliated unions and seven non-affiliates balloted their members. In every case there was majority for strikes, a huge achievement. The ballots were won because people went round their workmates, held meetings, called joint reps’ forums across unions, handed out leaflets, distributed stickers and badges and all the other things that create a mood of defiance.
Table 2: How the unions voted in N30 strike ballots16
|Vote for strike (%)
|Local government and health workers
|Civil service workers
|Local government workers
|Local government and health workers
|Northern Ireland public sector workers
|Specialist civil servants
|Senior civil servants
|Northern Ireland teachers
|Chiropodists and podiatrists
|UCAC [ C]
|Secure hospital staff
|Scottish head teachers
|Royal Fleet Auxiliary, Tyne and Wear Metro and Orkney Ferries
|Northern Ireland public sector workers
|TV Licensing workers
|Northern Ireland transport workers
The Tories rubbished some of the results on the grounds of a low turnout. They even threatened to bring in new laws which would outlaw strikes unless 40 or 50 percent of those eligible to vote backed strikes. The lowest turnout was in Unison, at 29 percent. Everyone would like a higher turnout. The low figure represents the weakness of local union organisation after a long period of low struggle. But the result still represents well over a quarter of a million people voting for strikes—and the enthusiastic support on N30 suggests that the large majority of those who did not vote would have voted yes had they taken part. The Tories are on shaky ground if they want to outlaw such union votes. In the 2010 general election they received only 23 percent of all eligible votes. General elections do not take into account the estimated 3.5 million people who aren’t even on the register, with those included Tory support at the last election falls to 21 percent.
The ballot results are one example of the way the union leaders and the rank and file have interacted. Whatever the moves at the top of the unions, they would have meant very little without organisation at the base, or at key points without the active intervention of socialists—with SWP members to the fore. The first union to hold national strikes against the Tories’ pension attacks was the UCU college and university lecturers in March, just before the big London demonstration. Socialists played a key role in pushing for action and winning the ballots. The first coordinated strikes against the Tory cuts came just days after the 26 March demonstration in Camden and Tower Hamlets in London. Socialists in local leaderships pushed for this action as a concrete show of resistance. Other council strikes in Nottingham, Doncaster and Birmingham also saw a key role played by socialists. Leadership, rooted in wider layers of workers, matters.
The 30 June strikes were crucial and they would not have happened without some union leaders, the left on the executives and rank and file activists pushing for action. The ballots for 30 November would not have been won without a huge campaign by activists at every level, plus pressure on the union leaders to campaign for a fight. We have reached N30 by a combination of some union leaders backing a fight, and rank and file activists heading it up.
We should not trust the union leaders to bring victory. One sign of their hesitations came in the run up to N30 when the Fire Brigades Union unexpectedly decided not to ballot for action. The FBU, led by left winger Matt Wrack, had been on course to play an important role in the strikes. But its leaders decided in October not to ballot because the union had been offered talks over the cost ceiling for its scheme. Such an attitude might be arguable if just the FBU were involved. But something much more important is at stake—a class response to a class attack. In such circumstances the FBU should have continued with its strike, strengthening its own hand in negotiations and the whole class by the mass presence of firefighters on the picket lines and rallies.
A far worse example comes from the top of the TUC whose leaders took part in a series of secret talks with the Tories in the months leading up to the strikes. During the Tory conference in October TUC leader Brendan Barber privately met a group of coalition ministers including chancellor George Osborne and cabinet office minister Francis Maude. The Independent reported, “He is understood to have told them that, to resolve the dispute, they need to reassure the unions they are not trying to dismantle their pension schemes.” But of course this is precisely what the Tories are doing! Barber’s talks were not, so far as we know, cleared with any of the trade union leaders whose members will be affected by whatever deal he might float.
Barber then went on to hold further talks with the Tories. At the beginning of November the government made a “new offer” which did nothing to change the fundamental assaults on the pensions schemes. Barber’s response was to “welcome” the move and to urge the unions not to reject it outright but to take some time for reflection. Fortunately the great majority of union leaders rejected Barber’s approach and roundly condemned the vacuous “compromise”.
But Barber’s determination to do a deal continues, even if he is nervous about people knowing of his talks with the Tories. Francis Maude confirmed this on 30 November itself when he told the Commons. “We conduct many of the negotiations in private—at the request of the TUC. If Labour members want to know when the meetings took place, I shall give them the TUC’s telephone number… I shall not disclose what the contacts are—at the express request of the TUC”.17
Leaders of Labour-affiliated unions have not just the normal bureaucratic pressures but also the question of “their” party to consider. Of course many of those striking are Labour voters, and a small minority of Labour MPs has openly backed the strikes. But leader Ed Miliband has been terrified to be seen as a red who supports strikes—even though he would not be leader without the support of trade unionists’ votes. During the 30 June strikes he appeared on the BBC robotically to distance himself from the action. The New Statesman reported:
No matter what question the interviewer asked, Miliband began his answer with: “These strikes are wrong.” He doesn’t seem to have just learnt his brief, he appears to have swallowed it whole. His first answer is delivered with all the spontaneity of a six-year-old in a school play. Had he been asked his favourite colour or whether he is enjoying married life, his response would have been a monotonous: “These strikes are wrong”.18
At the TUC conference in September he repeated: “I do believe it was a mistake for strikes to happen. I continue to believe that.” This led to shouts of “Shame” and further heckling from the audience—an extraordinary thing to happen among the generally loyalist ranks of TUC delegates when a Labour leader is addressing them.19
By the time of N30 Miliband was clearly facing pressure. On the day of the strikes he said he would refuse to “demonise the dinner lady, the cleaner or the nurse” and later that “I am proud that millions of hard-working people in this country support the Labour Party—better that than millions from Lord Ashcroft.” But he still did not support the strikes—indeed he crossed a picket line on his way into Parliament. Yet the unions continue to finance Labour. This year alone Unite gave £3.5 million to the party, while Unison gave £1.6 million and GMB almost £1.3 million. Such handouts without any return will become increasingly controversial if strikes continue and Miliband refuses to back them.
We should also note that the “ever so radical” Scottish National Party took Miliband’s line. On N30 finance minister John Swinnney told BBC Radio Scotland: “I don’t support the strike action—and I’ve already crossed a picket line.”20 Plaid Cymru was better. Party leader Ieuan Wyn Jones joined the strikers’ march in Cardiff and said, “There is nothing fair in these changes, and it is important that we support these workers today as they try to make that clear to the UK Tory and Lib Dem government.” The Green Party also said it “strongly supports the unions’ strike”.
Any analysis of the future development of the strikes and dispute written just days after 30 November, must be highly speculative. Partly it depends on whether the government makes concessions. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka told the BBC on the day of the strike that he did not believe government ministers were interested in negotiating: “They last met us on 2 November and what they’ve said to us is, ‘That’s our final offer…and now we want our officials to just talk to you about how you share out the pain’. We’re saying, ‘We’re not interested in sharing out the pain—you need to make concessions’.”21 That’s an excellent response. But we also know from Maude’s comments in the Commons that behind the scenes negotiations have continued with Brendan Barber.
What strategy is needed to win? There are some clear features: escalation, further strikes by millions, and pushing to develop the rank and file confidence to strike for more than a day—best of all indefinitely. One powerful example comes from France in 1995 where workers confronted prime minister Alain Juppé’s plan to savage pensions and welfare services.
Six months previously a Tory government had come to power confident that it could smash union resistance. The fightback began among students in Rouen and then spread to other cities. They won significant victories and this spread to other areas. Pressure grew on the trade union leaders to fight, and they called a day of action on 10 October that saw impressive strikes in the public sector and around half a million people take to the streets.
The union leaders were hesitant about calling further action. Many thought workers had had their day of resistance and that was it. However, renewed student protests kept the sense of fightback going and there were further workers’ demonstrations, although nothing like on the same scale as 10 October.
The unions were eventually pushed to call more strikes and protests on 24 November. The response was massive. Not only did 800,000 join marches, but crucially activists among the rail workers (who were facing a particularly severe attack) were strong enough to call an all-out strike. A few days later the rail strike spread to the Paris bus and Metro workers, and then to a minority of post, gas, electricity and telecom workers. Daily mass meetings in the striking industries kept the battle going, and different groups of strikers began to meet in district-wide assemblies.
By the beginning of December the government was in retreat. It made major concessions to students, but this just fuelled the fightback. The post, gas, electricity and telecom strikes spread. On 5 December, despite snow, 160,000 people joined an angry demonstration in Paris. The government tried to organise an anti-strike demonstration—which attracted 1,500! At this point 60 percent of the public backed the strikes.
On 7 December 1.3 million marched across France. Many cities saw their biggest protest since the great strikes of 1936. And all the while the indefinite strikes continued on the rail, buses, Metro, the post and elsewhere. The government made concessions first to the rail workers, then others—and then finally withdrew key parts of the entire programme to attack pensions and welfare.
Had the strike continued then Juppé would have been forced to leave office. But the union leaders called off the strikes. Workers won a big victory, but less than was possible. The combination of huge days of united strikes and sections that fought for “all out and stay out” was what beat the Tories.
Last year saw another series of mass strikes and demonstrations in France against attacks on pensions—this time from Nicolas Sarkozy. The key moment came when, after a series of one day strikes and demonstrations involving millions, groups of workers began all out and indefinite strikes. In this case it was the oil refinery workers, whose strikes and occupations swiftly led to petrol shortages. Sarkozy, perhaps remembering 1995, sent in the riot police to smash the refinery picket lines. And he was successful because the union leaders utterly failed to call wider solidarity strikes – let alone the general strike that was possible and would have won. A movement that could have emboldened resistance across Europe went down to a wholly unnecessary defeat.22
France in 1995 is a good example to follow. But there are also good British examples. The miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 showed how to destabilise and then bring down a Tory government. But there is also the example of the local government dispute over pay in 1989. Some 500,000 members of Nalgo (one of the unions that later merged to become Unison) held a one day strike, a two day strike and then a three day strike. This was followed by a very serious level of selective action that built up so that eventually 25,000 workers were on indefinite strike. Such action was not without its problems: it was sometimes hard to maintain the sense of broad momentum and involvement of everyone, and councils could sometimes move staff (and managers) around to cover for strikers. But the combination of repeated big strikes and indefinite selective action forced victory. The employers had said their “final offer” was a 7 percent rise with damaging strings. The settlement was 8.8 percent without strings. It was less than was possible, but a big step forward.
Today, Socialist Workers Party members have pushed for another strike at least as big as N30 in January 2012. We would like it to be larger, drawing in more public sector workers and coordinating with private sector struggles such as the construction workers’ battles and the pensions strikes at Unilever. But it’s not enough to simply wait for the next big strike. More limited strikes could also escalate the dispute. Selective and rolling strikes could maintain the momentum and build towards the next strike by millions. But we also know they could be used as an inadequate substitute for a big strike. That’s why activists have to thrown themselves into winning these arguments.
One of the key tasks after N30 is to keep together the networks that have been forged in the run-up to the strike and on the day itself. The Unite the Resistance (UTR) initiative is an important attempt to do that. Based on the unions, and bringing together those union leaders most prepared to fight and rank and file activists, it held an important meeting of 800 people on 22 June in London in the run-up to the 30 June strikes.23 On 19 November 1,200 met at a UTR conference that brought together those who had built the strikes at local and national level, union leaders such as Mark Serwotka, and speakers who reflected the verve and energy of the Occupy movement and the strikes in Greece.24
In some ways our approach to UTR is informed by the experience of the early years of the Minority Movement of the 1920s. It emerged in a situation quite different to today—the defeat of workers in key battles in the mines and in engineering that brought to an end a period of extremely combative class struggle. Union membership slumped. The Communist Party, formed in 1921, had to relate to this situation. Based on a “Back to the Unions” drive and the Miners’ Minority Movement which brought together left wing lodge (branch) officials and rank and file activists, the national Minority Movement was formed in 1924 at the initiative of the Communist Party. The movement was effective in drawing together high-profile left wing union leaders such as A J Cook and Tom Mann together with workers at the base of the unions who wanted to fight, achieving the affiliation of organisations that claimed to represent almost one million workers.
The experience of the 1920s highlights both the possibilities and the dangers of such an approach. The positive side was its impact in restoring union membership and militancy in a range of industries, and strengthening the Communist Party’s base inside the working class. It took the first steps towards building bodies such as “councils of action” that could unite activists across the unions at a local level and which could have formed the basis for a renewed rank and file. However, by 1926 the combination of pressure from the Stalin-led Communist Party in Moscow and the confusion and disorientation of many of the Communist Party’s leadership led to it being pulled in a different direction, famously calling for “All power to the general council [of the TUC]” during the General Strike.
We have to learn from both the positive aspects of this movement and avoid falling into the trap of reliance on trade union officials, left or right. We do not have the luxury of simply declaring that our task is to bring together pre-existing rank and file groups. One of the contradictions of the present situation is that we have just seen the biggest strike since 1926, and yet earlier this year the Office for National Statistics reported: “In the twelve months to March 2011 there were 145,000 working days lost from labour disputes, the joint lowest cumulative twelve month total since comparable records began in the twelve months to December 1931”.25 As workers’ organisation recovers the support and encouragement of left wing general secretaries and union executives can be important in building workers’ confidence. UTR seeks to tap this, while being more than a support group for union officials. Our key task remains to develop rank and file strength and the capacity of workers to fight independently of any section of the trade union bureaucracy.
UTR plans further activity in 2012, and this will be a vital element in strengthening the rank and file. One of the lasting gains that has to come out of this great strike is the beginning of a rank and file which can pressure the union leaders and, if possible, act independently of them. We saw a foretaste of this during the construction dispute that began in August 2011, with electricians and then others holding lively pickets and demonstrations in London, Teesside, Glasgow, Edinburgh and elsewhere. They won support from students and the Occupy movement and offered them their support in return. And they generated enough pressure to force union leaders to call a strike ballot.26
Building after N30 requires intense agitation in the workplaces but it also requires a broader political approach. The Tory propaganda is grounded in the lie that cuts are inevitable and that “we are all in it together”. The more we develop the arguments that this is class warfare, and strongly put forward an alternative to austerity, the more confident workers will be to challenge the pensions attack.
As the troika of the EU Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund destroy key democratic rights across Europe, it is clear that our struggle against austerity has to be linked to a battle against rule by the elite. And success in both partial struggles and the bigger confrontation to bring down the government will also involve building a much stronger socialist presence at the heart of the struggle.
After this great strike we are in a new era. Now we have to seize the time.
1: There have been some claims that the 22 January 1979 strike over pay as part of the “Winter of Discontent” was larger. That involved 1.5 million workers (Socialist Worker, 27 January 1979). The 30 November strike was certainly bigger than that. There have been other extended strikes which saw far more strike days (the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 is one obvious example). But none had so many strikers out on a single day.
2: Who struck? Those out certainly included occupational therapists, radiographers, nurses, library assistants, librarians, job centre staff, courts staff, Tyne and Wear Metro staff, chiropodists, podiatrists, social workers, care assistants, home helps, refuse collectors, midwives, physiotherapists, nursery nurses, special needs assistants, road sweepers, cleaners, school meals staff, paramedics, housing officers, environmental health officers, school crossing patrol attendants, teachers, head teachers, teaching assistants, lecturers, educational psychologists, civil servants, border agency staff, probation officers, museum curators/gallery assistants, archivists, tax inspectors, customs officers, passport office staff, health and safety inspectors, police community support officers, police civilian staff, driving test examiners, waste water network performance technicians, ambulance staff, marine surveyors, patent officers, and health and safety inspectors.
5: Various figures are available such as at www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/30/pensions-offer-women-workers-public-sector and www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/nov/24/pensions-action-womens-strike-unison I have tried to do my own calculation, although this has been hampered by some unions not knowing how many women members they have. The consensus seems to be that 66-70 percent of the strikers were women.
7: I am indebted to the excellent “as it happened” coverage by Socialist Worker. It included the superbly laconic sentence “Despite floods, more than 300 people rallied in Dumfries” – www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=26874
10: Financial Times, 2 December 2011.
14: Email from John Keggie, Unison Regional Manager, Organising and Recruitment.
15: Molyneux, 1995.
16: A) Ballot held in order to strike on 30 June and still valid for 30 November; B) The UCU held two ballots-one for some universities for strikes in March, one later in the year for other universities; C) UCAC held a ballot and struck on 5 October. The ballot was still valid for 30 November.
22: For a fine account of the 1995 strikes see Harman, 1996.
26: Which saw an 82 percent vote for action-and then the strike was called off because, said Unite officials, they had received “legal threats”.
Harman, Chris, 1996, “France’s Hot December”, International Socialism 70 (spring), www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1996/03/france.htm
Molyneux, John, 1995, “Is Marxism Deterministic?”, International Socialism 68 (autumn), http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj68/molyneux.htm