Teachers struck on 17 October in a well-supported action
On Wednesday 16 October, the Royal Mail workers’ ballot for strikes over pay and conditions, in the context of postal service privatisation, will be returned. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) strongly expects that it will return a yes vote; any strike would be the first national postal workers’ strike since 2009. The CWU are expected to begin with an all-out national strike, followed by rolling action in the run up to Christmas.
On Saturday 19 October, firefighters in England and Wales were due to strike again, following a strike on 3 October. That strike had now been cancelled, but their dispute is not over. They are fighting pension reform that will force firefighters to work longer, and their recent strike was the first national firefighters’ strike since 2003.
On Thursday 17 October, teachers in London, the North East, South East and South West struck in a dispute over a range of issues, following strikes in the North West on 27 June and the east of England, the Midlands, and Yorkshire and the Humber on 1 October. A national strike is expected before Christmas.
Higher Education workers in three unions — Unison, UCU, and Unite — have all voted for strikes against a 1% pay offer, with a strike planned for 31 October.
Probation officers in the NAPO union have voted by an 84.4% majority for strikes against the privatisation of their service.
And, although a planned walkout for 20-21 October was called off on the morning of 16 October, oil workers at the Grangemouth refinery in Scotland could still strike in a dispute over the victimisation of a shop steward.
Although the level of strikes spiked in 2011 due to the public sector pensions dispute, it plummeted in 2012, with just 250,000 days lost to industrial action, of which only 24% lasted more than a single day. The current flurry does not represent a revival to 2011 levels, but it could help to rebuild workers’ confidence in their ability to act.
At the time of writing, the dates for the CWU strike (presuming a yes vote), the national HE workers’ strike, the national teachers’ strike, and the next FBU strike after 19 October have not been set. The unions involved in the strikes should coordinate with each other. This could involve striking simultaneously, or (and perhaps more effectively) striking consecutively to ensure a constant programme of action. Unions should organise joint and demonstrations, and provide mutual support for picket lines.
Having firefighters striking at the same time as teachers won’t increase the industrial pressure on their respective employers, but it will help a generation of workers unused to seeing organised labour move as a social force that striking is possible, and not something they must undertake alone.
In a period of weakness for organised labour, painting up small flurries as big revivals that could toppled the government if they were just given an extra push (or if the TUC declared the magical “24-hour general strike” much wished for by some left groups) does the movement no service. Socialists involved in each dispute, either as workers in the industry or as supportive activists outside, should be arguing for the maximum possible rank-and-file independence, democracy, and control so that the strikes, which often lack strategy at a national level, do not simply become ritualistic exercises in letting off steam but provide a real opportunity for workers to discover their own power and strength. A higher degree of coordination will help that.