The vote by UNISON, Britain’s biggest union, to take strike action on November 30 in defence of pension rights, with 245,358 in favour and 70,253 against, put the strike on course to be the most important such action for a generation. It is now by far the most significant initiative in the fight against the coalition cuts. It means that around three million workers will be taking action on that day.
The strike is the product of several key actions taken over the past year which have pushed the movement forward. The first was the student revolt a year ago which electrified the struggle and exposed the lethargy of the trade union movement, which, despite conference speeches had still to take any form of action.
Then in March half a million turned out for the TUC London demonstration, making it far bigger and more militant than the organisers had anticipated. Around the same time UK Uncut emerged as an important and innovative direct action group.
This was followed In June by the highly successful strike by the teaching and civil service unions. This brought large numbers of young teachers and civil servants into strike action and onto the streets for the first time making it a game changer for the unions. The strike was a tribute to those in the teaching and civil service unions – not least Mark Serwotka of the PCS and left-wingers on the NUT Executive, who fought long and hard to deliver the action and make it a big success.
Now we have the November 30 strike which is a big step forward over previous actions. Most of the teaching and civil service unions already have live ballot results which allow them to take action on November 30. These include: the PCS, the NUT, the UCU, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the Welsh teachers union the UCAC. The EIS Scottish teachers union has already voted in favour.
Those currently balloting for strike action with results out shortly are: Unite, the GMB, the NASUWT teaching union, the NAHT head teachers’ union, the FDA civil service union, Prospect, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, and NIPSA the Northern Ireland civil service union. Most if not all of these unions are expected to vote for strike action. Such united action has not been seen in Britain for a very long time.
Nor are the strikes just in defence of pensions – important as that issue is. It is widely seen as a strike against the whole of the coalition’s cuts agenda. People feel that it has been organised in this way to avoid the draconian anti-union laws which outlaw solidarity action.
The decision of the Government to offer some marginal concessions – a slightly better accrual rate and some protection for workers close to retirement – was an attempt to split the strike. The unions, to their credit, rejected them and decided that the strike would go ahead. It was also a sign of weakness. It was not a part of the plan. The plan was to face the unions down hard line and enforce their full terms. The offer was a clear sign that the coalition is losing confidence in its ability to see the struggle though.
The reasons for this are not difficult to see. They are shocked that they are facing a strike of three million workers at this stage and they are faced with the spectacular failure of their economic perspective, which, by whatever measure used, is falling apart in front of their eyes. They are facing the slide towards a double-dip recession no chance of the reversing it in time for the next election – which was the plan behind the coalition agreement. If they did not face a weak and compromised opposition, and did not have the media wholeheartedly on their side in the debate over the debt and the cuts, they would have been lucky to survive until now.
The coalition’s problems are compounded by the economic and political tsunami taking place in the Euro Zone, which threatens to overshadow and derail anything the coalition might do in Britain. This is exemplified by the catastrophe facing Greece, the contagion overtaking Italy, the imminent break-up of the Euro Zone, and the paralysis of the G20.
The crisis in the European Union has also triggered a remarkable revolt of Tory Eurosceptics, who are taking the chance to vent their nationalistic and xenophobic spleen. In fact Cameron is facing a bigger and more vociferous revolt than that faced by John Major in the 90s – the ones he called ‘the bastards’.
All this underlines the extent to which Cameron has swung the Tory party back to the days of Thatcherism and the rabid rightwing nature of recent Tory MP intakes. It is also politically divisive within the coalition with the hapless ultra-pro-EU Lib Dems caught in the middle of this mayhem disingenuously defending a coalition which continues to use them as convenient shields for Tory policies.
The lesson from all this for the trade unions and the anti-cuts movement is clear. This is exactly the time to pile on the pressure and build the fight back to its full potential. It is the time not only to maximise opposition to the cuts but is a real opportunity to put the trade unions back centre stage where they have not been for a very long time. The education unions were boosted by the strike in June. This strike can do the same right across the public sector.
The unions, therefore, have two important tasks for November 30. The first is to make the strike as solid and effective as possible. The second is the call for and encourage the widest possible solidarity action with it. This means calling on the whole of the labour movement and the anti-cuts movement to back the strike in any and every way possible. This means trade union demonstrations, student demonstrations, occupations, and protests of every kind in towns and cities right across the country.
An important new factor in this is the inspirational Occupy Movement with its highly successful tented presence at St Pauls in London and in other parts of the country. It brings to the struggle the spirit of Tahrir Square, the powerful example of the Arab Spring, and the image of mass popular movements bringing down brutal dictatorships which had been there for years – practical demonstrations of how such power can be successfully challenged.
But a big success on November 30, however, is still only a stage in the struggle, if a very important one. It is crucial that the dynamic and momentum of the strike is continued and the pressure maintained. This mean not only consolidating the gains of this action but preparing for the next. This is the best opportunity get to strike a serious blow against this government and it is important that the movement takes full advantage of it.