On picket lines and in union discussions there are increasing calls for coordinated strikes. And that’s having an echo at the level most removed from the immediate struggle—the Trade Union Congress (TUC) that is set to meet in Brighton from 11-14 September.
It will see leaders of the major trade unions, and delegations representing some six million workers, discuss a response to the cost of living crisis. This comes after the revival of big strikes. Britain’s two largest unions, Unison and Unite, submitted motions that call for coordinated strikes “where possible.”
Unison’s motion called for the TUC to support “coordinated action where possible with all TUC unions, including further demonstrations, national and regional rallies, and coordinated industrial action where possible.” And Unite added that the TUC must “facilitate and encourage industrial coordination between unions so workers in dispute can most effectively harness their union power to win”.
None of this is likely to push the TUC into militant action. So far it has only called a lobby of parliament in October to push workers’ interests. The RMT’s motion goes further. It says TUC leaders must “where possible, plan and encourage coordinated strike action between affiliates to maximise its impact and effectiveness”.
But “where possible” gives plenty of loopholes. The PCS civil service workers’ union motion wants the TUC to “actively organise and support a united campaign of coordinated industrial action including convening a working group of unions in the public and private sectors to plan and coordinate action on pay and jobs.”
None of these motions gave a date for when coordinated action should happen or state clearly that every worker with a mandate to strike should walk out simultaneously. Unite general secretary Sharon Graham told the Observer newspaper last week that Felixstowe and Liverpool docks had both voted for strikes.
“If it helps them both to be on strike together, why wouldn’t you?” she asked. “You want to make sure we give as much support as possible. Now, that’s the role of the TUC to see you do that.” Unfortunately Unite has not proved effective at coordinating strikes, for example, on Arriva buses.
A string of disputes against the same employer has seen one group fight and settle before the next begins. In 2012, as the Tories imposed brutal austerity to pay for the bankers’ bailout, the TUC backed a motion calling for coordinated action and “far reaching” campaigns. This included supporting the “consideration and practicalities” of a general strike.
But it led nowhere. There is a chance to build on the mood for broader and united action. The fact the TUC is even talking about this shows change, and the debates will highlight differences in union leaders’ approaches. But the real push for unity and escalation must come from the base of the unions and build on the real struggles.
There was a chance for 8 and 9 September to see a strike on the same day by 115,000 Royal Mail workers, 50,000 rail workers and many others who have voted for strikes. But that won’t happen because leaders of the RMT, Aslef and TSSA rail unions have not notified employers of any strikes on those dates.
The strikes have a pattern of enthusiastic and highly effective action followed by a long lull before a follow-up. This relieves the pressure on the companies and breaks the momentum. More frequent strikes would mean workers lose more money. But there is huge potential to collect millions of pounds from strike supporters, other unions and through campaigns such as Enough is Enough.
But it’s only a change of language
Leeds students have occupied too