The immediate impact of the mass public sector strike on 30 November was to demonstrate the potential social power of the working class to a generation of workers who had not experienced it before. It gave a glimpse of the mass labour movement as a vital social force.
But if the strike is to play a role in actually defeating the government, rank-and-file trade unionists need to fight for a different strategy from the one on offer from their leaders.
In meetings and conversations on 30 November, strikers were clear that one day is not enough, and that they want further action and a faster-paced campaign. But no union leader has indicated any hard plans for follow-up.
Mark Serwotka, leader of the PCS civil service union (in a speech at the “Unite the Resistance” event on Saturday 19 November), stated that his union executive wants a cross-union meeting “within two weeks” of N30, and another one-day strike “as early in 2012 as we can have it”.
The Executive of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) will “consider a programme of rolling strikes and other possible action, including at least one further national day of action in the Spring term” at its December and January meetings. It expects not to have plans defined or ready to announce until, at earliest, a meeting of the TUC’s Public Sector Liaison Group (PSLG) in January 2012.
It is positive that the NUT will discuss rolling strikes. Many on the left refuse even to consider anything but all-out “spectaculars”.
If we were ready for a continuous, all-out strike, that refusal might make sense; in real life the refusal is a recipe for a campaign made up of long lulls and scattered one-offs scheduled from above.
The point of rolling and selective strikes is to make the campaign continuous, permanent and self-controlling. A decision to consider rolling strikes only at Executive level, and only after a fairly long gap, cuts against that.
NUT and PCS are the most avowedly left-wing and militant of the unions involved, and other union leaders are liable to be slower-moving. Union leaders will see the 15 December meetings of the TUC public sector group as a staging-post for discussion of further action. But in all likelihood that meeting will not definitively set a programme of ongoing joint action that N30 unions can begin building for.
Much of the far-left doesn’t have much more of a clue: a Socialist Workers’ Party leaflet on N30 itself proclaimed: “Now we need a strategy” (Now? What about before? And what kind of strategy?). The Socialist Party focused on calling on the TUC (Brendan Barber?) to name the next big date.
Crucial to taking the strike is forward is anchoring it to clear, political demands. The bottom-line negotiating position for all unions must be opposition to any worsening whatsoever (that is, a defence of the existing pension schemes), tied to wider political campaigning for fair pensions for all. That bottom-line demand would give the strike a more obvious sense of purpose and give rank-and-file union members something against which to hold their leaders to account.
How can we force the Tories to back down? Workers’ Liberty believes union members should fight for:
• local “where next?” meetings where strikers can discuss the next steps in genuine political discussions, not stage-managed affairs with an endless litany of top-table speakers
• a programme of action to be announced and built for now, not in the new year
• a strategy that includes rolling and selective action (bringing out different sections of the public sector workforce at different times) and escalating action (striking for more than one day at a time)
• strike funds, levied from union dues, to finance sustained action
• the establishment of cross-union strike committees, made up of rank-and-file delegates, in every town
• open up the negotiations: regularly inform union members about the content of ongoing negotiations and subject them to democratic scrutiny.
This strategy is based on two key ideas — rank-and-file power, and fighting to win.
Rank-and-file power, because we believe striking workers should be in control of their own strikes (not unelected and unaccountable union officials), and fighting to win because we think that strikes should not merely be expressions of discontent but strategic actions designed to exercise sufficient pressure on bosses or government to force concessions.
We cannot afford to wait until some indefinite time in 2012 for the next set of action. Agreed, workers are not currently confident enough to take all-out strike action for an indefinite period of time. But the effect of gearing up for scattered crescendos and then told to stand down and wait until the union leaders announce the next “big day” can only be demoralising in the long run.
Apart from the odd bit of soundbite rhetoric, no union leader has attempted to situate N30 within an ongoing strategy.
From the platform of the central London rally, there was much talk of further action — “if the government doesn’t negotiate with us, we’ll be back in the new year” one speaker announced. It’s hardly inspiring stuff; is the only aim, the only demand, for further negotiations (which are ongoing anyway)? And as for “we’ll be back in the new year” — when in the new year? And “back” for what — another single day of strike action, or something more?
As well as the risk that the dispute will continue to lurch from one “big day” to the other, there is a further risk of the entire campaign being limited to the pace of the slowest, most conservative unions.
The unity that has been developed is vitally important, but that does not mean unions should not act alone — or in small groups — if they are more ready to do so.
Union members should fight for their leaders to take a concrete proposal for ongoing action to the TUC public sector group meeting and fight to win as much support for it as possible. In the meantime, local cross-union strike committees should organise assemblies to discuss what action might be possible on a local level. The essential task is to maintain constant pressure on the government rather than relying on a disconnected series of single days of action. With even the more left-wing leaders of the PCS tied to the “big day” perspective, rank-and-file organisation is absolutely crucial.
The battle cannot be fought on the industrial front alone. A cross-union political campaign for decent pensions for all, which presents a vision of society run for need rather than profit, is essential.
Unions affiliated to the Labour Party should use that affiliation to force the Labour Party to throw its political weight behind union campaigning.
The fight is not just about pensions, but about the austerity programme of a government determined to massacre public services and strengthen the supreme rule of the markets, so shaken by the economic crisis. Resisting that programme requires not just a defensive struggle against each new attack, but a fight for a different kind of government; a government by, of and for the working-class majority, based on and accountable to our organisations.
Posed as “socialism-is-the-answer” jargon, that perspective can seem alien — and alienating — to most workers. But posed as the simple reality that, to fight a millionaire government attempting to entrench the rule of millionaires, we need an equivalent fight to remake society and make it work for us, for working-class people, the perspective is less abstract.
Working-class social power — a workers’ government — is not a “demand” to be fought for in the same way that a wage increase or the defence of a pensions scheme is; it is a perspective that can link those kind of demand-centred fights into an overall political struggle for a different kind of society.
It is not one that can be won or even catalysed overnight. But after 30 November, a day when a generation of working-class people saw their own class take mass action for the first time, it is a struggle that seems a little less distant.
By taking steps to build rank-and-file power to reorganise and reinvigorate our movement, revolutionary socialists and other working-class militants can bring it closer still.