October and November 2013 saw and will see a flurry of strikes in a variety of sectors.
Higher Education workers will strike on 31 October, postal workers will strike on 4 November. School teachers struck regionally on 27 June, 1 October, and 17 October.
Members of Unite, UCU and Unison on university campuses will be striking on 31 October in a dispute over pay, following an offer of just 1% from management and a real-terms pay cut of 13% over the past four years.
The following day, members of UCU — lecturers and higher-grade admin, library and professional staff — will begin a work-to-contract. If management still fail to budge, there’ll be further strikes in November and plans are in place to escalate the action after the Christmas break.
This is a vast step forward from isolated one-day strikes that simply lose members a day’s pay and leave them demoralised when no concessions are forthcoming from management.
It raises the possibility of co-ordinated action with other unions – most obviously with the other education unions, who also have a live dispute.
The strategy, however, needs to be matched by local action to build the strike and ensure members feel able to get involved. Regular open members’ meetings, and joint meetings between members of the different campus unions, are essential.
University managers will be aiming to pick off weaker branches. They may try intimidation, and may try to buy them off with local pay deals.
There’s already some evidence of this at Exeter, where management have unilaterally abolished the bottom points on the pay scale in order to pay the living wage, meeting one demand of the dispute. Holding out against local offers, however tempting, is essential. Pay is already unequal enough thanks to the individualised salaries received by professors. Local offers will make that situation worse.
With management sure to try and play off students and lecturers, student activists have a vital role to play in building solidarity. This might be picket line visits and stunts on strike days, but talking to classmates and convincing them of the reasons for the strike is just as important.
Success in this dispute will give university workers a great deal more confidence in tackling the wider issues of marketisation in education – and that’s in students’ interests too.
Staff across universities will be going on strike over pay on 31 October. There is a significance to the fact that academic staff (UCU) and non-academic staff (Unite, Unison) are coming out on the same day.
It brings us closer to the idea that we are all workers, and that we have the capacity and duty to support one another.
Cue the calls from the left for co-ordinated strike action, the idea that we should link up with other workers who are coming out — posties and teachers, now that the firefighters’ strike seems to be on hold — as part of their own disputes.
I'd love to go on a strike demo with people from other sectors. But that in itself won’t help any of us win our respective disputes, just as “more people going on strike” won’t in itself topple the Coalition government. Sometimes the call for co-ordinated action seems just like a repackaged version of the “24 hour general strike” slogan. As with that slogan, it raises the question – where should the co-ordination come from?
The problem, and we should learn this from the pensions dispute in 2011, is that each of these disputes could be called off tomorrow at the whim of the leadership, with no counterbalancing force in the unions to stop that happening.
We need to be tactically imaginative enough to recognise that “co-ordinated” action doesn’t just mean everyone striking on the same day. It means cross-union committees bringing activists into close and lasting contact with one another. Perhaps trades councils could be do this, or perhaps we need something new. For example, cross-union committees are meeting in many universities before the 31st, also opening themselves out to student activists.
Should we be aiming to make such committees more permanent?
On Thursday 17 October, thousands of teachers in London, the South East, the South West, and the North East struck in the latest of a series of one-day regional strikes over pay, pensions, and conditions.
More than half the schools in London were shut, with 3,500 schools closed across the country.
12,000 teachers demonstrated in London. The mood was militant and the demonstrators diverse. The vibrant presence of young teachers was particularly noticeable. Unlike on previous demonstrations and rallies, anger and energy was palpable. Homemade placards, bagpipes, and waves of cheers added to the atmosphere.
This is the third well-supported strike that NUT and NASUWT have organised since June. The members are clearly ready for a proper fight, but it would seem the leadership are not so sure. Despite the industrial action, no actual concessions have been won.
The unions’ official demand is singly for “serious talks” with education minister Michael Gove. That is no demand at all. It is signalling to Gove that we are willing to concede on our demands at the first opportunity: “Please talk to us so we can compromise”. It shows that the leadership’s militant-sounding slogan “Gove must go” is just hot air.
Members want a reinstatement of the national pay scale, a repeal of their pension cuts, and changes to conditions which will make their workload manageable. If we can also do some damage to Michael Gove’s political career then so much the better. None of these things have been won, or even partially won. We won’t win with hollow slogans and occasional protest strikes.
A national strike was promised before Christmas, but it looks as if it may not happen until next term. To allow the momentum of the regional strikes to dissipate without the next steps being clearly and concretely outlined is a waste.
We must raise slogans about the substantive issues of the dispute and explain how Gove’s attacks will damage children’s education. Putting our actual demands front and centre will also allow the rank-and-file some control over negotiations.
The left needs to step beyond incremental arguments about nudging the NUT and NASUWT leaders into a slightly quicker sequence of “one-day-strike-and-then-we’ll-see” action, though we should make those arguments too.
The left should organise, and press the unions to organise, to build up organisation and confidence in school-by-school disputes on workload and local pay policy.
On paper, the unions’ workload campaign continues from last year, and the current ballot mandate will also cover local strikes on workload and pay policy. It should be relaunched as a campaign in which the union publicises, benchmarks, builds, and spreads disputes, developing the capacity for ongoing and rolling action.
Instead of decisions being made, effectively, by negotiations between small groups of top NUT and NASUWT officials, we should demand a full joint meeting of the unions’ executives.