Just the announcement of coordinated strikes for 30 June transformed the political landscape in Britain.
Since then all the talk in the media has been of mass strikes, coordinated strikes and general strikes—even the 1926 General Strike.
More importantly, 30 June has had an electrifying effect on workers and activists that goes well beyond the confines of the trade union movement.
The big debate taking place in countless union meetings and anti-cuts groups across the country now is: where do we go after 30 June?
Many of us hoped that the coordinated action would put pressure on the three big unions—Unison, Unite and the GMB—to call strikes for the autumn.
We have been vindicated.
It was Lib Dem minister Danny Alexander’s intervention that pushed some leaders of the movement over the edge.
Alexander bragged that the government was going to carry on cutting public sector workers’ pensions regardless of the negotiations taking place.
If Alexander’s intervention was designed to put the fear of god into the union leaders, it backfired spectacularly.
Unison leader Dave Prentis threw down the gauntlet. At a speech given at his union’s conference, he put the case for long-term, targeted industrial action, which would “break the pay freeze, stop the jobs cull and send the coalition packing”.
Strong words indeed, which, according to an unnamed Tory backbencher, sent a shiver down the spines of several government ministers.
The government was forced to recalibrate its tactics. It resorted to the simple, but historically effective, tactic of trying to divide “moderate” unions from “militant” unions, and drive a wedge between private and public sector workers.
It also threw a few crumbs to the unions.
But the government’s plans to slash public workers’ wages by up to 35 percent over three years, and the raw anger felt by millions, means there is little space to manoeuvre for either side.
The union movement, or at least sizeable sections of it, are on a collision course with the government.
Resistance to the government’s austerity plans has gone through three phases.
First, the local anti-cuts protests mushroomed across the country as the government launched its first wave of attacks starting in autumn last year.
Then the explosive student protest movement erupted at the end of the year. The latest phase began with the TUC demonstration on 26 March.
Mark Serwotka summed up the change in the situation when he said, “We have marched against austerity, now let’s strike against austerity.”
We are witnessing the movement progress from being of the streets to of the workplace.
That does not mean street protests are redundant—far from it. In fact, anti-cuts protests can be strengthened by the industrial struggle, and the industrial struggles can be enriched by the street protests.
The idea of Greek-style protests and strikes no longer seems like a distant dream.
But in all likelihood the attempts to get further strikes in the autumn are going to dominate much of the debate.
Prentis is clear what kind of action he wants to see. He argued in Manchester, “To those who say name the day, I say a day is not enough… We will strike to defend our pensions. A campaign of strike action without precedent.”
Of course a one day general strike is not enough, but it would be a very good start!
The central task facing socialists and trade unionists is to turn Prentis’s words into action.
That will require a systematic campaign inside every union branch. Over the coming weeks trade unionists will need to ramp up pressure on the union leaders.
We need to demand they name a day in the autumn when everyone can strike together. But it is also vital that a debate begins about the most effective forms of action we can take.
The leadership of both Unite and Unison have argued against one day general strikes, and instead are pushing the tactic of calling out key groups for extended strikes.
Rolling and selective strike action can play an important part in resisting the government’s attacks. But they do not play to our side’s strength. It would be like going into a fight with one hand tied behind your back.
How can a few “powerful” sections of workers beat a government with all the resources it has at its disposal?
We will need an all-out economic and political offensive to push Cameron back.
One of the features of the present period is the lack of confidence of workers to fight. Coordinated action helps overcome this.
If we’re going to defeat the government our demand to the union leaders should be “name the day”—and our slogan should be “all out and stay out”.