Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the civil service union PCS, announced his “April Thesis” in an article in the Guardian on 30 December and an interview with the Times the same day.
His plan is that “by March 26, the date of the big TUC march with a million people on the streets... unions [will] have balloted or [be] balloting for industrial action... followed by mass industrial action” around the time of the royal wedding at the end of April.
Although “a general strike is illegal”, said Serwotka, there is no legal ban on unions coordinating action for the same day.
The train drivers’ union ASLEF (on the London Underground) and BA cabin crew have also talked about striking at the end of April.
The talk about industrial action, and united industrial action, against the Tory/Lib-Dem cuts, is good. But there is a telling difference between Serwotka’s “April Thesis” and the famous “April Theses” of the Russian socialist leader Lenin, in 1917.
Lenin’s “April Theses” were about what the Russian socialists should do there and then, in April. Serwotka’s “April Thesis” is about what he may do in the future if the conditions are right, in particular if other unions concur.
Joint strike action in April will be good. But workers who conclude that we don’t need snacks of industrial action now because we will get a banquet in April could go hungry.
One of the two unions which Serwotka names as likely to join his April scenario — the National Union of Teachers — is already reported likely to postpone its ballot. A joint New Year’s statement from the leaders of the biggest unions, Unite, GMB and Unison, geared to “making the spring elections [local government, Welsh Assembly, and Scottish Parliament polls on 5 May 2011] the first referendum on the government’s austerity programme”, rather than industrial action.
Serwotka’s call for an April perspective may serve more to “expose” the leaders of the big unions — who will be reluctant to focus strikes just before polling day — than to produce the promised banquet.
Serwotka’s “April Thesis” is a bit like the call for a general strike to bring down the government made in 1973 by Joe Gormley, right-wing leader of the then-mighty National Union of Mineworkers. Gormley said only a general strike would meet the case — in order to head off the miners from striking about pay.
As Gormley’s 1973 call implied sidelining the immediate issue of pay, so Serwotka’s 2011 call, focused on joint strikes against the government’s cuts in public sector pensions, implies sidelining the immediate issues of cuts in jobs and services.
In fact, big cuts in local government jobs and services, and civil service jobs too, are already going ahead with the unions still focused on “write-to-your-MP” type opposition and negotiations to alleviate the impact.
Serwotka’s union PCS is now balloting members on whether they are opposed in any way at all to the government’s plans to cut civil service severance pay, although PCS was already striking against milder cuts in March 2010.
The problem with Serwotka’s line is not that union members are pulling at the reins to strike tomorrow, or that the general secretaries could or should decree united strike action straightaway.
There are areas where workers, even with the best union leadership, prefer to go for alleviation (voluntary redundancies, redeployment, and so on) rather than resist.
But there are areas where they will resist. Indeed, in some areas more assertive workers have already made councils back down on some cuts.
The best way for the more combative unions, like PCS, to push the more sluggish unions into action, and make possible big united strikes in the coming months, is to encourage, nourish, publicise, cross-fertilise, and build on resistance now, everywhere that workers are up for it. That is what the unions are not doing.
The rail union RMT did the right thing by calling on all its London members to join the student demonstration on 9 December. It did the wrong thing by calling a “pause” in its industrial action over job cuts at the same time that the student mobilisations exploded.
Plan for united strikes in April? Good. But it is not a substitute for mobilising now.