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Strikes and union leaders—how can we make the most of 1 Feb strikes?

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United strikes on Wednesday are a chance for workers  to show their strength. Nick Clark shows why union leaders can be a barrier to more action—and how workers can begin to take more control of strikes
Issue 2840
strikes 1 Febuary workers

At a UCU rally at King’s Cross Station in December (pic: Guy Smallman)

The big, united strike ­taking place this week feels as if it’s been a long time coming. Since David Cameron resigned as prime minister in 2016, Tory ­governments have lurched from one ­scandal‑driven crisis to the next. And they’ve still ­managed to cling on and give us all a kicking.

But finally it feels like we might be able to kick back. It’s no longer a collection of individual wage disputes. It’s now a collective fight to decide who’s going to pay for this crisis of rocketing inflation—us or the firms that caused it and the government that backs them. 

But getting here wasn’t easy. Not everyone agrees that that’s what this united strike should do. And in truth, it took several months of fierce arguments to even get one at all. Even now, the groups of workers at the core of this week’s strike are those who have only recently joined the fight.

Two groups who were at one point at the forefront of the pay fight—most rail workers in the RMT union, and Royal Mail workers—aren’t part of the action. Wednesday’s strike would have been even better if they had been. But the leaders of their unions are currently embroiled in negotiations with bosses.

All strikes eventually have to end with some sort of ­agreement. And to get an ­agreement, you need talks. But these talks aren’t going so well. The rail companies have yet to improve their pay offer or dropped some of their major attacks on jobs. 

And Royal Mail’s executives are adamant that workers have to accept a gig-economy future. For union leaders, talking, not action, is key. This is not simply just about adopting a certain approach to resolving disputes—one that says industrial “peace” is better than fighting.

It’s about the very nature of their job—their position as mediators between their members at the bottom of an industry and the bosses at the top. Some union ­leaders are more left wing and pro-strikes than others. And the differences matter. But whatever their individual politics, union leaders play the social role of balancing between ­workers and bosses. 

Clearly, a union leader or official has to defend their members’ jobs, pay and conditions and maybe even if they can deliver some improvements.  But union leaders are not in the same positions as their members. Instead, their role as negotiators depends on also having some sort of ­working relationship with the ­employers—a harmonious one if possible.

So it’s common to hear a union leader talk about trying to find a solution in the ­interests of both the company and its workers. Sometimes that can seem even more important to union leaders than the issues at the heart of the dispute itself. 

They might call a strike off for talks, or say that action has been successful because it’s got the managers “back round the table”. But for employers a good solution is to make us pay the cost for rising inflation with pay cuts. A good solution for us is to get them to stump up pay rises at least in line with inflation, using the money we earned for them. 

In practice, most union ­leaders are seeking some sort of compromise. Some will openly say that they’d settle for a ­below‑inflation pay increase or some worsening of working conditions as long as it happens with union officials’ oversight and approval.

Employers might not be completely satisfied and not grab everything they wanted. But we’d still take a hit so that they could keep our money. Yet with negotiation and compromise in mind, union leaders have run all of the last few months’ strikes in a very similar way. 

There’ll be one, maybe two days out at a time, and then weeks where nothing happens that they leave open for talks. We say this isn’t good enough, and what would put real pressure on the bosses is workers going out and ­staying out until their demands are met. 

Union leaders see the role of strikes in this sort of strategy as giving them “leverage” over bosses in negotiations. They might also say it means not having to ask their members to sacrifice too much of their wages. But this method has failed to produce results. 

Disputes in Royal Mail and the rail have dragged on for months, with very little to show for it. This focus on resolving their own individual disputes through talks is also why union leaders have, until now, been quite reluctant to bring strikes together into something bigger.

Even on days when strikers have been out together, there weren’t many big joint rallies of the sort we’ll see this week. Very similar arguments are going on in the unions that are out on strike this week. Teachers in the NEU and EIS unions might now have a wait of several weeks before walking out again on regional strikes.

The leaders of the civil servants’ PCS union plan to keep their focus on “targeted” action, where smaller groups of workers in only some departments and regions take action. And in the university ­workers’ UCU there have been quite bitter arguments between activists who support going “all out”—indefinitely—and their leadership that ignores their demands.

All the leaders of these unions might be quite happy to have this day of united strikes—and maybe another one in a month and a half’s time. But for them, it’s just a day of protest. And they hope that having it means they won’t have to talk about stepping up the action in their own disputes. 

Instead of token days of joint action, we need sustained days of action that pull in wider layers of workers. And this can’t happen in six months’ time. It needs to happen as soon as possible. 

These sorts of arguments aren’t just going on in Britain. It’s true of union leaders everywhere. We often look to France as an example of what we wish our strikes could be like. In the past few weeks, workers there have also had big, united strikes in defence of their pensions. But importantly, in their wake groups of workers striking for longer—refinery, energy and port workers—have called on others to join them.

What’s more, energy ­workers have even begun using their position to supply free gas or electricity to schools, hospitals, public services and poorer households. These sorts of initiatives ­re-centre the dynamics of the dispute on the activity of ordinary union members. They also broaden the issues in the fight beyond that of pensions. 

It might feel like most of us in Britain are a long way from being able to organise anything like that. But in every strike there are opportunities to ­organise things among ourselves.When BT workers struck last year, it was their first time out in some 35 years. 

But, some union activists quickly became frustrated that their leaders were too focused on talks and returning to a good relationship with BT bosses.  Union leaders, for ­example, never followed through on promises of a big demonstration. Some workers began to talk of organising one themselves. 

In South and West Wales, they pulled one off—independently of their union leaders. We saw the beginning of ­similar rank and file initiatives in the networks created by North Sea rig workers when they struck unofficially last year.

Any sort of on the ground organisation is a good start—it gives you more control and influence over how your strike runs. You could talk to ­workmates who joined picket lines and rallies about setting up a strike committee to organise ­picketing lines, solidarity visits and joint activity between you and other strikers. 

You could link up to ­support other campaigners—over the climate, racism, or LGBT+ rights—who might have come to support your rally or picket lines. You might also use these to raise concrete demands—things that you won’t sacrifice in any deal.

Stronger networks between strikers can put pressure on union leaders and are the best way to win disputes. But also workers’ organising for ­themselves can transform the way we see ourselves.  It can make us realise that it’s not the bosses or the politicians that keep the system ­running. It’s us.

So this week we all must seize the moment to build a much more militant and confrontational workers’ movement. We’ve been waiting a long time for a day like this. Let’s make the most of it.

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