By Sophie Squire
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Activists discuss how to stop union leaders calling off strikes

The online meeting came as the UCU and RCN unions 'paused' university and nurses' strikes for talks
Issue 2843
A big UCU university picket line outside Imperial College in London illustrates an article slamming union leaders for calling off university strikes.  Strikers are wearing pink UCU union hats or red Unite union vests.

UCU union members strike at Imperial College London last month (Picture: Imperial UCU/Twitter)

Activists slammed union leaders calling off strikes at a meeting on Tuesday night—and discussed what sort of action is needed to beat the Tories and bosses. 

Around 180 activists from several unions joined the online meeting organised by the UCU Solidarity Movement. It came after UCU union leader Jo Grady “paused” university strikes without any consultation of members. And, on the night of the meeting, RCN nurses’ union leaders had pulled action without even an offer on the table. 

University of Liverpool UCU president Peta Bulmer opened the meeting. “The Friday decision to cancel the strikes was absolutely outrageous,” she said. “It wasn’t just an abuse of democratic processes. It was an insult to every member who stood on the picket line freezing their feet off for the last couple of weeks. 

“We’ve been solid but to get the rug pulled from under our feet was outrageous. Will this give a period of calm to negotiations? Absolutely not. We’re giving the employers breathing space. We should be putting our boot in. Instead we’ve taken the boot off their necks. I think our general secretary thinks deals are made in the negotiating room, I think they are won on the picket lines.” 

Oxford UCU activist John Parrington said that anger with the union leaders’ decision to pause strikes “runs deep.” “Our branch voted by 66 percent to criticise the general secretary and also to strike together on 15 March,” he said. 

Other trade unionists also argued that union leaders should escalate strikes. Sarah Ensor from the PCS civil service workers’ union said, “Our strikes on the 15 March will be only the second day of national strikes in four months. And at the moment, we just have a lot of selective action. It’s just not enough and isn’t going to threaten the employer.”

Replying to UCU activists, NEU union teacher Paul McGarr said, “The issues you are facing are important to everyone. This is not the first time strikes have been called off for talks. The secretary of state for education, Gillian Keegan, has told the NEU that she’d talk with us, but only if we call off the strikes.

“I hope our union leaders reject this offer. Strikes should only stop when workers are satisfied with the settlement.” 

Phil Rowen from the RMT rail union said workers had to take democratic control of the strikes. He told the meeting, “The stumbling block for us to win are the union bureaucrats. The leaders of the RMT called off strikes for London Poppy Day, when the queen died, and for talks. 

“I didn’t get a say in any of this. The people who strike should be the ones who get to decide when and for how long they strike.” 

Other activists talked about what workers need to do to take control of their union. Bee Hughes, a UCU activist from Liverpool John Moores university, told the meeting how workers in Liverpool are organising strike committees. And workers in the NEU and PCS from Wakefield and Manchester also said they’d organised strikes committees. 

Jess Edwards from the NEU union told the meeting that building workers’ confidence is vital. “The trade union movement has been in bed ill for a long time,” she said. “Now we need to build it back up. The best thing for workers’ confidence is to do things together. 

“It’s a disgrace that union leaders aren’t talking enough about coordination. So to do this, we need to take control of these disputes at a lower level.”

As rank and file activists discussed the future of the strikes, Grady released a video to announce the new ballot. UCU leaders described it as the “biggest ever live event.” In the video, Grady said that she believed the dispute was moving towards “sector defining agreements.” But she gave little detail on what was happening in negotiations or why she had decided to pause the strikes. 

When several workers criticised the bureaucracy underneath the video, they were blocked or placed “on time out” by the union officials. One worker tweeted that he was blocked for writing the word “pay” on the chat.  

Yet again, Grady has rode roughshod over union democracy in an attempt to scupper strikes and push through inadequate deals. But the problems aren’t just in the UCU. Union leaders have called off strikes for talks, failed to escalate or coordinate, and said they could settle for inadequate deals—whether it’s the RMT, the CWU, Unison or the RCN. 

Activists in every union need to push their leaders to escalate and coordinate the strikes. And they have to set up strike committees at the base that can organise strikes and solidarity, discuss the way forward—and challenge the union leaders. 

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