Some 1.4 million workers shut down workplaces across Britain on Thursday of last week. The action, by Unison, FBU, Unite, GMB, NUT, PCS and Nipsa union members, was over Tory attacks on public sector pay.
It had a big impact and won support from other workers and campaigners.
But one question dominated every picket line, protest and rally—what should happen next? The answer from many was escalation.
Even very low paid workers, who acutely feel the pain of losing money by striking, supported more action.
Refuse collector Elson Mason was picketing in south London. “A one-day strike isn’t good enough for these people,” he said, referring to the bosses.
“It’s hard to afford to be here. But the power and the unity among us is more important.”
Learning support assistant Sarah had a similar message. “It wouldn’t be easy for me to strike for more than one day,” she said.
“But rolling action is still the way to go—it’s more effective.”
Activists reported that being able to stress that last week’s walkout was part of a bigger campaign was key to persuading people to take part.
People don’t want to lose pay for nothing. They want union leaders to push a strategy that can win.
Teacher Chris Ayton was on strike in Manchester. “Among teachers the main issue is escalation,” he told Socialist Worker. “I was on one picket line with up to 20 people on it. Everyone said that one day won’t be enough.”
Anne Lemon is a teacher in Bristol and a member of the NUT’s national executive committee. “The strike was absolutely fantastic,” she told Socialist Worker. “We now need to keep up the momentum.
“That means getting more workers out across the board in the autumn.”
The Tories claimed that many union members didn’t support the action because not all of them voted for it. But strikers said that even many workers who weren’t sure “voted with their feet” and respected the action.
And more people have joined unions because they are fighting back. In Wakefield, west Yorkshire, Unison was running out of membership forms as people kept joining on the picket line.
Some 2,500 people joined Unison in the north west of England in the week leading up to the strike.
Strikes are popular and they can beat the Tories.
The potential is there for escalating strikes, involving bigger numbers of workers, including the private sector, in the autumn.
Some 500,000 Unison members working in the health service are set to ballot over the summer for strikes.
But there is a danger that union leaders throw away the momentum. Union activists must use the confidence 10 July gave people to organise among rank and file workers to keep the pressure on their leaders.
The stakes are high. If the Tories get their way they will gut public services and make life unbearable for everyone who works in or relies upon them.
Let’s seize the chance to stop them.
‘It was solid, everyone walked out’
The mass public sector strike on Thursday of last week was a big success. From early morning strikers took to picket lines. Towns and cities across Britain were dotted with groups of strikers waving flags and union banners.
Thousands joined marches and rallies on the day (see below) as did their supporters.
The strike brought together workers across several unions—including Unison, Unite, GMB, PCS, NUT and Nipsa. All were united in their fury at the Tories’ determination to hold down their pay. Firefighters across England and Wales also joined the walkout on the day as part of their pensions dispute.
Julie is head cook and a Unison member at a school in Tower Hamlets, east London. “We’re really annoyed about pay,” she told Socialist Worker. “I used to go to Sainsburys—now I have to buy Tesco value. And I haven’t had a holiday in four years.”
Refuse collector and Unison member Derrick Ellis was part of a big group of pickets at a Veolia site in Southwark, south London. He told Socialist Worker, “At the end of the day everything is rising—clothes, food, things for the kids.
“You’re meant to put something away for holidays, but we just put money aside to pay backdated bills.”
Other strikers were angry at job cuts and attacks on job security. PCS members protested outside the gates of the Houses of Parliament against plans to privatise services and outsource workers.
Michelle Wilson is a security worker there. She told Socialist Worker, “After 15 years of working I could end up losing my job. I’m a single parent. How will I bring up my family?”
The Tories claimed the strike made no difference and had no support. Anyone involved in the action on the day knows that isn’t true.
Jane Aitchison, a PCS member and job centre worker in Leeds, told Socialist Worker, “We’ve got about 90 percent out today. A lot of workers are skint—and are really pleased to see a fightback.
“We can’t go on like this anymore.”
Birmingham strikers said more people were taking part than in previous walkouts. Teacher and NUT member Doug said, “We had a picket line at my school for the first time ever. The school was closed.”
In Hackney, east London, pickets gathered outside the town hall. One Unite steward told Socialist Worker, “Around 30 percent of workers here are agency staff, but support for the strike has been high.”
Many strikers succeeded in convincing other workers not to cross picket lines. Pickets at Cardiff County Hall turned back two post and parcel vans.
Peter, a PCS member in the shipping registry, was picketing in the city. “This is the first time I’ve been on strike,” he told Socialist Worker. “The picket lines were solid. Our action definitely had an impact.”
Cleaners in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, picketed at council offices from 5am and turned people back. Most schools in the town were closed and strikers said in many workplaces the action was stronger than the pension strike in November 2011.
The story was the same in Portsmouth. Unison branch chair Jon Woods told Socialist Worker, “This is more solid than the pensions strike in 2011. The library is shut, the main cleaners’ and gardeners’ depot is all out, and the ferry port is almost closed.”
Most unions were only striking in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But civil service workers in the PCS were out in Scotland too.
At Edinburgh city job centre managers put up a sign reading, “Due to exceptional circumstances, you may experience some delays in service.” Around 90 percent of staff there joined the walkout.
Strikers applauded news that the strike had closed the National Museum of Scotland.
Many of those picketing in South Gloucester were doing so for the first time. Two people joined the union on one Unison picket line in Bristol—then promptly started picketing.
Strikers reported strong picket lines in Crewe with a lot of public support for strikers.
Groups of “rolling pickets” toured workplaces on strike in Lancaster and Tower Hamlets, east London, gathering more workers as they went.
Manchester strikers held up messages for any scabs who tried to ignore them and sneak into work. “Headphones won’t save your job,” one read while another said, “Give us your name so we can add you to the scab list.”
Cleaners and call centre workers joined office workers outside the city’s town hall.
PCS pickets gathered outside the Independent Police Complaints Commission in Sale. “The crisis is supposed to be over, but everything is going up and our pay isn’t,” said one worker. “We should keep coming out with other unions. It makes us more effective.”
Low paid strikers, such as school support staff, cleaners, library workers and kitchen assistants, reported strong support for the action.
Library worker and Unison member Giorgio told Socialist Worker, “The public love the service we provide. We do an important job and should be properly paid for it.”
Pauline is a learning support assistant in the GMB in Kingston, south west London. She told Socialist Worker, “We’ve had a lot of support from parents. When they find out the wages we are on, they know we are undervalued.”
“We don’t live—we survive,” added a GMB striker from a special
needs school in Lambeth, south London.
Many strikers were angry at Tory plans to make it harder to strike. Some Tories have said that 50 percent or more of eligible union members must vote for strikes for them to be legal, instead of a simple majority.
NUT rep Kevin told Socialist Worker, “I don’t agree with that. If they want to play that game, let’s have a 50 percent threshold for politicians and MPs.”
Time and again, workers said that one day wouldn’t be enough to beat the Tories.
In Liverpool pickets at the tax office were determined that the strike was just the start.
Some argued that workers should build towards an all-out strike.
GMB striker Sarah told Socialist Worker, “The government wants to rubbish our strike because people power is frightening to them.”
The reality is that the strike showed the enormous potential power that workers have.
More action can force the Tories back—whatever ministers like to pretend.
Thousands took to the streets
Tens of thousands of strikers and supporters took to the streets of towns and cities across Britain for joint union marches and rallies.
Up to 20,000 marched through central London, despite a downpour. Thousands gathering in Liverpool at the Pier Head completely filled out the waterfront before marching to their rally at St George’s Hall.
About 300 people marched in Chelmsford, Essex, with Unison, NUT, FBU and PCS union contingents.
Hundreds more striking workers joined angry marches from Portsmouth to Preston and Barnsley to Belfast.
Here are just some of the reports Socialist Worker received: Barnsley—200, Belfast—200, Birmingham—4,000, Bolton—250, Brighton and Hove—up to 3,000, Bristol—4,500, Cambridge—400, Cardiff—300, Chelmsford—300, Derry—200, Exeter—1,000, Huddersfield—1,500, Hull—2,000, Ipswich—350, Leeds—up to 5,000, Liverpool—7,000, London—up to 20,000, Newcastle—up to 5,000, Nottingham—2,000, Peterborough—100, Portsmouth—600, Preston—500, Swansea—250, Torbay—100, Wigan—200, York—500