The pensions action set for next Wednesday has been described as the biggest strike since 1926. Kevin Ovenden reports on the revolt
Over one and a quarter million workers are set to strike on Wednesday next week in the biggest industrial revolt to hit New Labour during its eight years in government.
At the beginning of this week those who were set to strike over the government’s attack on pension rights ranged from council street cleaners to job centre staff, from social workers to top civil servants.
Unions representing almost all central and local government workers have returned big votes for action—75 percent in Unison, 67 percent (on a strong turnout) in the PCS, 84 percent in the T&G and Ucatt, 87 percent in Amicus, 67 percent in Nipsa (representing public sector workers in Northern Ireland), and 68 percent in the FDA (representing senior civil servants).
“It’s an unprecedented display of unity across unions,” says Rahul Patel, secretary of Unison in Westminster council, central London.
“There were talks between local authority unions and the government last week, and more were expected this week.
“One thing is clear—if we want to stop this attempt to make us work until we drop, then everyone in the unions that have voted for action needs to build now for strikes and demonstrations next week.”
In addition, the executive of the largest teachers’ union in England and Wales, the NUT, voted unanimously last week to ballot for a strike over the pensions attack.
That followed a 77 percent vote in favour of action in an indicative ballot.
The NUT is seeking joint action with other teachers’ unions and is suggesting Tuesday 26 April as a possible date for a “second wave” of action. The lecturers’ union Natfhe is balloting, as is the main teaching union in Scotland, EIS.
Welsh teachers’ union Ucac and the youth workers’ CYWU union are also balloting.
Four regions of the GMB general workers’ union have also asked to ballot.
Action next week and in April would put huge pressure on the government in the run-up to the general election, expected on 5 May.
New Labour already faces the prospect of an election campaign where the question of war dominates debate in large swathes of Britain.
Despite government ministers trying to derail the momentum of the pensions revolt by offering strung-out talks, there is enthusiasm among hundreds of thousands of public sector workers for taking joint action.
Tony Barnsley, joint assistant branch secretary of Unison in Sandwell council, West Midlands, says:
“As the ballot results were announced last Friday, around 40 stewards from across all the trade unions inside Sandwell council met to discuss and co-ordinate action on 23 March.
“The emerging trade union co-operation is matched by the mood of members who clearly want everyone to fight together.
“There was a clear confidence that despite some workers not yet getting the message about the attack on our pensions, the majority will support the action on 23 March.
“It is expected that all major workplaces will be shut and that there will be pickets outside all of them.
“It was also agreed to hold a joint trade union rally outside Sandwell Council House on the day so we can show our strength with all the pickets coming together.
“We’ve set up a pensions action committee. It will meet again after the 23 March to plan for further action.
“Hopefully our national leaders will not accept any shoddy deal, and joint action with Natfhe and the NUT will take place next month.”
Activists in other towns and cities are also organising joint demonstrations and rallies for the strike day.
And the message for all areas is that the prospect of taking action together is hardening the mood in all unions.
Ryan McKinney, the chairperson of the Nipsa union’s largest branch in Northern Ireland, says:
“Some 66 percent of Nipsa members voted in favour of strike action on 23 March. We balloted 35,000 members altogether — we’re the biggest union in Northern Ireland.
“Obviously the result represents a huge endorsement for the public sector campaign against pensions reform.”
For many years trade union members have been asking why they don’t take action together over big attacks from the government. Next week is a chance to do just that.
London demonstration Wednesday 23 March. Assemble 11am, Lincoln’s Inn Fields (near Holborn tube)
Set to strike:
Balloting for action: