Posted on Thu 16th February 2012 by admin2
Was that it? Well, maybe. While France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain have been rocked by numerous general and public sector-wide strikes over the past few years, in Britain we have had just the two one-day strikes over pensions reform, on 30 June and 30 November last year.
Apart from these, large-scale resistance to job losses, pay freezes and cuts in services has been notable by its absence. Slogans such as ‘We won’t pay for their crisis’ ring hollow; the reality is that ‘we’ are paying for their crisis and ‘they’ are getting away with it.
Punching above its weight
All of this may be true, but it is also the case that N30 packed a punch well in excess of its weight as a one-day strike. In this sense, it was far more of a protest than an orthodox strike – and not just because it was only a day long. Any strike in the public sector is necessarily more of a political action because the government is the ultimate employer and it responds to political pressure, as opposed to the pressure of a strike as an economic action against a profit-seeking organisation in the private sector.
In the run-up to N30, especially once the ballot results came in, the media was dominated by the prospect of the day itself. This cleverly built up pressure on the government as the first truly mass and coordinated strike in decades loomed large. Indeed, all the significant concessions – in terms of the raised threshold for paying more in contributions and the moratorium on changes affecting those retiring within ten years – came as a result of the threat of the strike.
The concessions were a validation of the unions’ recognition that the best way to strengthen one’s hand at the bargaining table is to threaten action – even if that came late in the day, given that negotiations began in March 2011. But it was also government ineptitude that helped 30 unions to not only sing from the same hymn sheet but coordinate their action on the same day.
Even after the concessions, however, most public sector workers will pay more, work longer and get less when they retire. Moreover, the stomach for further action looks to have been severely weakened and inter-union unity fractured as it becomes clear what different unions are prepared to settle for.
Strengths and weaknesses
The logic of the bargaining process so far is that the only way to get more concessions is to threaten to strike again (and do so if necessary). Yet the strike’s central dynamic is most clearly revealed in Unison and the GMB where – despite grassroots activist pressure – the action was instigated and controlled by the national leaderships.
This may have been less true in other unions, such as PCS or Unite, and there may have been cases where national leaders and activists worked more closely and on an equal basis. Nonetheless, N30 was in essence a mass bureaucratic strike (I use the term sociologically). This is most clearly shown in that the date was set by national leaders and made only a one?day affair without any subsequent other days lined up. The only discussion on subsequent action concerned ‘smart striking’, which ran counter to the demands expressed by many in the organised grassroots.
The bureaucratic nature of the strike produced particular strengths and weaknesses. Its primary strength was that, in the context of the widespread atrophy of active workplace unionism, N30 was driven and controlled by national leaderships. For example, many Unison branches have poor steward organisation and have been unable even to get quorate meetings recently, but the majority of their members struck on the day. In many cases, the national leaderships – along with their full-time officers – made up (temporarily) for much of this atrophy.
Yet a major weakness is that because some national leaderships now seem to be willing to accept insufficient concessions and disregard their previous statements of not allowing members to ‘pay for a crisis not of their making’, grassroots activists are unable to enforce their will – or the leaders’ earlier statements.
The unravelling of the N30 unity and action also reveals a number of strategic weaknesses, concerning both national leaderships and the grassroots.
First, it is questionable whether the unions in the public sector (or the economy as whole) do constitute a ‘movement’ as such. It is common to talk about the union ‘movement’ but there is little sense of the unions pulling together in terms of policy and action. This was evident before the autumn, with the ATL, NUT, PCS and UCU striking on their own on 30 June, and Unison saying striking then was premature as negotiation had not been exhausted.
It is better to see the union ‘movement’ as a spectrum, ranging between the ‘militant’ PCS and the ‘moderate’ Unison, GMB and many small professional unions. What they have in common is currently outweighed by their differences, which are being highlighted now that the government is effectively practicing ‘divide and rule’ tactics. While there are material differences between the pension schemes, the idea of fair pensions for all is being lost.
Indeed, Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, has lambasted what he sees as ‘fatalism’ on the part of many other unions in this fight. By this, he means leaders of the GMB and Unison in particular do not seem to think they can win because they have become so psychologically inured to years of defeat since the 1980s.
Second, the ballot results for N30 raise the question of how much appetite there is for continued action. This would mean either upping the ante with more national one-day strikes or continuing the action in some form of ‘smart’ strike – selective (regional, sectoral) rolling action.
But of the 30-plus union ballots, only three secured the backing for action of more than half of those entitled to vote. With so many members either not voting or voting against, along with the large numbers of non-members, it would be a major challenge to transform any further strike from a one-off protest into an ongoing action that shuts down public services. Yet this is an important way to exert more pressure on the government and is what the unions must face up to.
The third strategic weakness is public opinion. Polls showed strike support climbed from being evenly split in late October to clear support (60 to 40 per cent) as N30 approached. This resulted from a combination of effective union campaigning and government ineptitude. But it was only a case of ‘so far so good’, because while public support is critical to not undermining a strike (especially in the public sector), it is not sufficient to winning one.
Despite occasional strikes in the private sector over pensions (such as the one at Unilever), there is a lack of any widespread organic connection between private and public sector workers, with many private sector workers believing public sector pensions are ‘gold-plated’ or seeing nothing wrong with public sector pensions being brought down to the level of their own.
This chasm between public and private has been reinforced by the union movement not taking the necessary steps to create widespread and deep-seated alliances of users and producers of public services, where the interests of both are cemented in the common interest of more jobs with better rewarded staff providing a better service.
The union movement in Britain is far behind its counterparts in, for example, Australia and the US in this regard. Union movements in these countries approximate much more to social movement unionism, whereas in Britain the sole locus of the workplace remains much more dominant.
Just how telling the disconnection will be depends on whether there is more action and to what extent the general public feels inconvenienced by it. The longer any action goes on, the more likely public feeling will move towards the government.
Thus, quick, sharp action is needed to win and keep the public on side. The unions could blunt any public hostility by mobilising citizens again in a show of generalised anger against cuts – with pensions as part of it – as they did on 26 March 2011.
Finally, if unions really do wish to stop workers working longer and paying more but getting less, then they must address the issue of where and when to knock out public services. In Greece last September, civil servants occupied their workplaces so that the audit team could not do its work of assessing revenues and liabilities for another bailout. Would UK unions be willing to target the tax system itself, which will be responsible for implementing the increased pension contributions come 1 April 2012?
This necessity of creating strategic levers of power also faces the other major ongoing battle of the moment. Electricians at seven major companies face a ‘sign or be sacked’ ultimatum. Their campaign since August last year has highlighted that they need to stop the construction sites, rather than just protest outside them.
It looks as if 2011 was just a warm up as these struggles are yet to be concluded. Unions face crunch time. Their actions so far could point the way to victory but that is very far from assured. To gain those victories, they must address their shortfalls in terms of acting strategically, as a movement and in alliance with the wider citizenship.
Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire.