The government has dramatically raised the stakes in its class war assault against public sector trade unions.
George Osborne wants to see national pay rates for public sector workers abolished, and has written to the heads of pay review boards for teachers, nurses, civil servants and prison officers giving them until April 2013 to find ways of cutting workers’ pay.
The government claims it will achieve the cuts by slowing down pay increases rather than directly cutting wages, but the plans amount to a massive attack on workers in poorer areas as Osborne wants localised pay reviews to be tied to the cost of living. Workers in areas where the cost of living is lower could see their pay reduced by up to 10%.
It confirms what we already know government plans have nothing to do with cutting costs or getting Britain out of its deficit, and everything to do with their ideological project to smash the last significant bastion of organised labour in Britain.
The government has raised its game. We need to raise ours in response.
Some national figures are making very militant noises indeed.
In a speech at the 1 December Equalities Conference of the Southern region of his union, GMB leader Paul Kenny told delegates he was committed to a strategy of rolling, selective and escalating action that took out key groups of workers and levied strike funds to keep them out for as long as possible. He said that defending the existing pension schemes was an absolute bottom line and that he would fight for whatever strategy was necessary to win.
But he was clear that these were his personal views. The GMB’s right wing national secretary for public services, Brian Strutton, who is leading the negotiations for the union, has privately expressed his eagerness to secure a deal as soon as possible.
The University and College Union (UCU) has passed policy saying “the next day of nationally coordinated action [should] be called as early as possible in the spring term” and should be “immediately followed by coordinated regional action” with “a Mexican wave effect acting as a bridge to the next day of nationally coordinated strike action.” UCU’s commitment is positive; rolling action is more likely to apply consistent pressure to government than one-day “spectaculars”.
But there is no fixed timetable for UCU’s plan, nor indeed for Paul Kenny’s militant posturing.
A National Union of Teachers (NUT) Executive decision of Thursday 8 December also wants another national day of action “early in the new year”, and proposes to survey its members to assess their preparedness to take rolling and selective action as well as action short of a strike.
Importantly, the NUT will also investigating levying a national strike fund to help finance sustained action.
Iy will approach other unions and the National Pensioners’ Convention to turn the “Fair Pensions for All” campaign (which currently exists only on paper) into a high-profile national campaign with a public face. This would give the dispute a real political dimension.
The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) wants action in January. Interestingly, a motion to the conference of the Left Unity grouping (which effectively runs the union in a permanent alliance with the soft-right) advocates selective action, and is backed by the Socialist Party (dominant in LU), making it likely to pass.
That would be a minor step forwards in terms of leverage to win wider support for such action.
The Executive of public sector union Unison also met on Thursday 8 December and discussed the prospects for rolling and selective action, which some activists — particularly in the NHS — feel may be difficult to organise. Again, its pace is slow; it is unlikely to make any firm decision about the way forward until the 11 January 2012 meeting of its Service Group Liaison Committee.
The different union positions indicate a clear consensus for another national action in early 2012.
But the line to union members is still: well done on 30 November, now wait for a new plan for one-off action will descend from on high.
As most union leaders want to postpone a firm decision to meetings in early 2012 it could be February or March before we have any further movement.
Individual unions should pass policy that allows them to coordinate locally with any other unions that are prepared to take action immediately. This is essential if the dispute is not to be shackled to the pace of the slowest.
There is also an ongoing debate about what form the next national action should take. Some, including the UCU , believe it should be a 48-hour strike. It is certainly true that an indefinite series of one-day actions will have increasingly diminishing returns and ultimately a demoralising effect. But a 48-hour national strike costs members twice as much as a 24-hour one, yet fails to have twice the impact. Action should escalate, but there’s no principle that states this escalation must take place on a mechanical basis. Those who propose 48 hours do not really have an ongoing plan to for escalation beyond that.
A two-day, three-day, or four-day strike by school caretakers, or by key revenue staff in the civil service, would probably have more impact and exert more pressure than a 48-hour national strike. The guiding principle should be to create the strongest self-controlling momentum and apply the greatest pressure.
Workers’ Liberty has produced a model motion for trade unionists to submit to their branches and Trades Councils setting out what we think the next steps need to involve. In summary, these are:
• local cross-union strike committees to discuss and plan action
• nationally-levied strike funds to finance sustained action
• rolling and selective action coordinated with any and all unions ready to take part, to start as soon as possible
• escalating action in the new year, with groups of workers capable of applying the most pressure taking sustained action
• a high-profile, cross-union and community political campaign for decent pension provision for all
A strategy based on these ideas was proposed at the 8 December NUT Executive by AWL member Patrick Murphy, and some of the idea were incorporated into the NUT’s policy.
With the government on a renewed offensive, there is no time to lose in developing the labour-movement counter-offensive. We must enter 2012 on a war footing.