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‘Build the strikes, link the fights, reject bad deals,’ say rank and file trade unionists

The next—and urgent—step is to press for more coordination and consciously organise against union leaders who sell strikes short
Issue 2853
NEU education strikes

Striking NEU education union members march in London in February (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Rank and file workers are demanding more combative strategies to unify strikes—and some are organising to stop rotten deals. Around 400 workers and activists joined an online meeting on Tuesday called, “Build the strikes, link the fights, reject bad deals.”

It was supported by about 15 union branches, the NHS Workers Say No campaign group, and Strike Map. The meeting gave a voice to those who want to push the present strike wave to victory—not see it end in poor deals.

It came after activists defeated attempts by the RCN nurses’ union and UCU university union leaders to ram through below-inflation pay offers or strangle the fightback.

Carly Slingsby from the NEU education union said it was vital for unions to “coordinate, strike together and march together”. And to “push trade union leaders to move forward with this partnership”.

She said that the government was worried and that was why it was coming forward with offers. But she said that in the RCN and NEU trade unionists had “made the right decision to reject crappy offers”.

Peta Bulmer, a UCU member from Liverpool, highlighted the need to confront the union leaders. She said  that university workers had repeatedly voted for strikes and marking boycotts to win over pay, equality and other issues. But Peta said they have been forced to “battle with our own union leaders, who want to wrap it up and get back to ‘normal’.” 

“They want to pause for talks even when there are brilliant ballot results for action,” she said. “They ask members repeatedly if we are sure. We’ve had to vote twice this year to say we don’t want the pay offer.”

Peta said the UCU Solidarity Movement had shown its worth by holding “massive meetings” and giving a focus for those who want a fightback and  keep the boycott on.” She added, “We need to fight the bosses. But we also shouldn’t trust union leaders always to make the right decisions, however lefty their credentials are. There are loads of times we have to challenge them, and we can do that if we get organised.”

Harry Eccles is an RCN member and from NHS Workers Say No. He said the group was set up in 2020 when there was an “empty space” where voices of frontline staff should have been. He said the networks it had created were important in developing “pressure from beneath” that had fueled grassroots activism—including to reject the “completely sub-standard” recent offer. He said “what makes the difference is the rank and file” and “empowering frontline workers”.

Paul McGarr, an NEU school rep, said there must be no rotten deals. He said it was hardly a “revolutionary demand” to call for a pay rise that matches inflation. He called for people to “organise against deals that effectively cut our pay”. 

Paul said he was fed up with “special case ideas” that keep workers divided and separate. And as well as coordination, escalation was necessary. “We need to go beyond one day now and then and talk about sustained action.” He said the best form “was going out and not going back until you win but in any case there had to be discussion about how to achieve victories, because victories change things”. 

Royal Mail workers Alex Rowley said the recent offer gave an example of how “things can start to go wrong”. He said a colleague had highlighted that the CWU union leaders were now accepting what the strike had been called against. He said the union was “trying to drag it down”. “We can’t accept the deal. It’s just shit,” he said. 

Alex said he was fighting to spread the resistance and quoted recently-deceased singer Harry Belafonte that, “You can cage the singer, you can’t cage the song.”

Holly Turner is a nurse and member of the Strike Map steering group. She said the site had mapped “over 90,000 workers’ actions”—a sign of the resurgence of strikes—and had pushed the “Visit a picket” initiative. She introduced a model motion that called on leading bodies of the NEU, RCN and BMA to: 

  1. Plan and coordinate future strike dates together, so unions are taking action together for health and education on the same days.
  2. To facilitate joint union meetings at every level of our union structures- to share experience, to enable cross union collaboration, and build the strongest campaigns possible to win.
  3. To develop co-working during re-ballot periods, to encourage members to renew strike mandates to win future ballots together.
  4. To build dynamic, engaged and joint campaigns across health and education to utilise the support from the public and force action from the Government.

Lou Whitton is a BMA junior doctors’ union rep and member of its London regional council. She said the organisation was moving through the struggle to become a real trade union and there were “new networks for doctors to speak to each other”.

Health worker Jordan Rivera from east London said the government’s NHS pay offer was an insult and criticised leaders of both the Unison and RCN unions for pushing it. 

She said recent months had shown the importance of “organising in networks in addition to your own union”. She explained this “includes cross-union support, activists from different unions leafleting and organising for each others’ rallies and pickets”. As a Unison member, she said it was crucial to support the RCN and the BMA fighting back.

It was excellent to see activists come together from different unions. The next—and urgent—step is both to press for more coordination but also to consciously organise against union bureaucrats who sell strikes short. And to act independently of them.

And as workers fight over pay, conditions and other key issues, it’s also necessary to fight racism and all the other oppressions that are used to divide us. 

  • All speakers were in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of their union
  • For a list of RCN strike sites and picket times go to 
  • Lobby the High Court when the Tories try to outlaw the RCN strike. Thu 27 April, 9.30am, Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London WC2A 2LL. Called by the RCN 

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