Civil servants (PCS) and teachers (NUT) are set to strike in November against the Government’s two-and-a-bit per cent limit on pay rises — but on different days.
How the foul-up happened is a mystery. Both unions now have avowedly left-wing Executive majorities and top full-time officials. Both union leaderships make a big deal of wanting united action by public sector workers against the Government's wage-cut plans.
Both unions have had plenty of leeway to select their time to ballot. NUT is following up on a one-day strike in April; PCS, on a national pay campaign which theoretically began years ago.
The NUT’s ballot runs from 6 October to 3 November; the PCS’s, from 24 September to 17 October. Under the current laws, a ballot mandate for industrial action has to be activated within 28 days, or it lapses. There is also a minimum time (seven days’ notice to the employer) between a union getting a ballot mandate and organising a strike.
The NUT leadership says that it cannot convene its Executive and get notices out to the employers in time for a strike any earlier than the 19th. The PCS could time its strike after the 19th by activating the ballot mandate through an overtime ban or work-to-rule before the 19th, but does not plan to do so; therefore its strike will be before 15 November.
At a recent PCS meeting, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka presented the lack of coordination as positively a good thing. Having the strikes one a week after the other would, he said, “keep up the momentum”.
But dispersed sectional strikes do not build up momentum. Joint strike action, joint rallies, might.
Mark Serwotka also defended the PCS leadership’s presentation of the action to follow its ballot as limited to a strike in November, a strike in January, and “rolling” action in between. To talk of action after January would, he said, “discourage” PCS members.
Scattered one-day strikes will not win. Some members may feel “discouraged” by the Government’s evident hard-faced attitude. But to try to get round that by proposing action without even raising the question of how to win will, in the medium term, “discourage” workers much more.
The NUT Executive met recently and discussed the problem, but got no further than a promise by acting General Secretary Christine Blower to “talk to the PCS again”.
For activists in the unions, the task remains to get the maximum “yes” vote in the ballots; to coordinate at local level as much as possible; and to start the discussion on strategies that can win.