Socialist Worker

Now battle to turn votes into strikes

by Kevin Ovenden
Issue No. 1789

The mood for strikes is back. One group of workers after another are voting for action over pay, the impact of privatisation, aggressive managers and New Labour's insults. But they also face pressure from many of their own union leaders to hold back from battle. Rail workers on Arriva Northern were set to strike over pay for 48 hours on Friday and Saturday of this week.

It is the third 48-hour strike by guards in the RMT union on Arriva. This time they were to be joined by RMT members in other grades after they too voted by nine to one for strikes. Members of the TSSA union, which includes supervisors, on Arriva also voted to strike on the same days by seven to one.

It is the first strike by members of the TSSA for 30 years. Drivers on ScotRail, mainly in the Aslef union, were also set to strike on Friday over pay following a 94 percent strike vote. Tube drivers in London in the Aslef and RMT unions have voted by eight to one for 48-hour strikes after management reneged on a pay deal from last October.

The first strike was set for Tuesday and Wednesday of next week. However, the wider mood to take action is also in danger of being frittered away. A strike by tens of thousands of members of the civil servants' PCS union in Benefits Agency and Employment Service offices has been delayed until April at the earliest.

Union leaders have also put off a strike of over 150,000 post workers in the CWU union over pay until next month. That is despite a two to one vote for action and the imminent threat of privatisation. The delay is dangerous, giving management time to prepare and leaving post workers feeling there is no serious strategy to win.

It also spells a warning for other workers who are prepared to take action. Over 3,000 members of the Unison union in Tower Hamlets council, east London, voted to strike on Thursday of this week. Hundreds of medical secretaries in two hospitals in the north east of England have voted to strike for three days in the middle of next week over pay. They were overwhelming votes-94 percent on a 93 percent turnout, and 88 percent on an 86 percent turnout.

The same group of workers in other hospitals in the region are also voting for action following victorious strikes by medical secretaries in Scotland at the end of last year. There are other strike votes taking place. They include 40,000 members of the National Union of Teachers in London and car workers at MG Rover's Longbridge` plant in Birmingham, both over pay. No one can seriously claim that this surge in votes for strikes is the work of a few trade union activists.

The ballot results listed above-seven to one, eight to one and nine to one, with high turnouts-reflect a deep mood among rank and file union members. It is bubbling up even though most union leaders have done their level best to avoid confrontation with the employers and the government, and are still trying to limit action.

Sir Ken Jackson's Amicus union, for example, recently got workers at Caterpillar in the north east of England to return to work on management's terms under the threat of a lockout rather than call hard-hitting action. But even Jackson has had to echo the mood among his members at the Longbridge plant after workers in the TGWU union there started balloting for action. He remains, however, determined to prevent the mood shown from spreading.

So do the majority of the national executive of the PCS union who are undermining general secretary Mark Serwotka's support for strikes. CWU union leaders say they are to the left of pro-Blair Ken Jackson, but they are dragging their heels over confronting the government. New Labour is scared of an explosion of the discontent that has built up over the last five years.

It is openly attacking strikers and trying to manoeuvre behind the scenes to stop action. Everyone should be clear about what is at stake. Pay is a central theme of almost all these disputes. A victory for any one of them will be a boost for low paid workers everywhere. Tube and post workers face privatisation.

If they win their battles it will be easier to stop the privateers in those industries and elsewhere. Defeat and unnecessary delay will only encourage privatisation. The postal regulator has proposed that private firms should be allowed to grab half the mail in Britain from April. Postal bosses have also made clear their intention to slash 30,000 jobs in the next 18 months.

Every group of workers that has voted to strike faces management bullying. Successful strikes in the face of that can encourage others to stand up for themselves. There is a growing sense that workers in different industries are facing similar problems and need to support one another.

For all those reasons, everyone should back these strikes, and encourage the mood to resist where they work and live. Every union leader should be doing that. Union members should demand that they do.

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Sat 2 Mar 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1789
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