By Charlie Kimber
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Strike committees—what are they and what can they do?

The NEU education union asked its local officers to 'convene a strike committee in your district or branch'
Issue 2842
A crowd shot of NEU union members illustrating an article about strike committees

NEU school workers’ union strikers on the march on 1 February (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Hundreds of thousands of workers in Britain are fighting back. It’s a new era of resistance on a sustained level we haven’t seen for more than 30 years. But the Tories and bosses are ­standing firm against strikes—and union leaders are holding back the escalation we need to win. Workers need to seize more control of strikes and challenge their present direction.

And there are new opportunities—but also a pressing urgency about doing so. The opportunities are shown, for example, by the size of the strikes and demonstrations on 1 Feb and the support for the NHS walkouts on 6 and 7 February.

The urgency comes from the ­deadlock in many disputes and union leaders’ willingness to call off strikes and push deals that would deliver much of what bosses and the government want.

Workers need to take charge of the direction of their disputes. Strike committees, alongside regular mass meetings, are an important way to do that. A strike committee involves people beyond the existing union structure discussing, running and taking forward a strike. 

It can be just a way to spread the decisions of the union leaders. But it can also be an opportunity to push for militant action and to be able to organise independently of the union leaders. It’s about doing, not just another forum to speak and exchange ideas.

They are often at their best when they emerge from struggles such as the unofficial strikes in the North Sea rigs. The absence of official support meant workers had to organise themselves.

Strike committees already exist in some UCU university union branches. That’s partly because workers have been involved in four years of hard-fought action and have challenged the general secretary’s control. Workers are building more to sustain, boost and extend the 18-day strike programme that’s scheduled. 

After the enthusiastic response to the 1 February strikes, the NEU asked its local officers to “convene a strike committee in your district or branch.” It said this would “harness the energies of workplace reps, strike volunteers and the rank and file members who made their own placards and led their own chants at pickets and demos”.

What, in practice, should a strike committee do? There are three tasks that activists should be able to win every strike committee to adopt:

1. Give a democratic voice to people newly involved in the strikes. On 1 February there were lots of new activists involved and generally there are younger people, more women and more black workers involved. A report from Chesterfield about an excellent PCS union picket line said, “The retired PCS trades council delegate who has held things together for decades was blown away. I’ve never seen him with such a big smile on his face. ‘It’s the new generation taking over,’ he said.” That new generation of enthusiastic strikers needs to be involved immediately—however good the existing branch structures are.

2. Organise the strikes—in a new way. Spreading beyond the existing reps and officers makes it possible to reach a wider group of strikers and seek to involve them actively. Bigger and stronger picketing, lively picket lines.

The PCS official report on 1 February records, “More picket lines than ever before and in areas that have previously not had organised pickets.” It quotes its members saying, “Strongest picket line we’ve had in branch history,” “We had fun picketing and getting car drivers to toot to support us.”

And, “Lots of new members. Diverse all ages and keen to get active,” “Really good turnout, fantastic energy on the picket line, dancing, two members dressed as suffragettes on the picket line!” Determined picketing can mean more examples of  workers who have not been called out refusing to go into work—as happened at some schools on 1 February.

3. Coordination with other strikers, other workers and campaigners. This could mean organising joint demos on strike days, solidarity collections at work, sending out speakers to unions and campaigns, putting out joint appeals for support and funds.

There are also issues that revolutionaries argue for inside strike committees:

4. Debate and raise criticism of the lead from the top when it’s lacking a strategy to win. A strike committee saying a strike should not have been called off—such as the ambulance and nurses’ strikes in Wales—is more powerful than an individual complaint. And discussion in a strike committee is often freer than in the usual branch structures.

5. Highlight and popularise unofficial action. Decades without sustained workers’ struggle in Britain have eradicated the memory of how workers can act outside the anti-union laws or without the direct agreement of union headquarters. But there is a long history of unofficial strikes—and everyone was lifted when Amazon workers walked out last year without a ballot or even being in a union. Strike committees can talk about multiplying such examples.

6. Push for escalation. Strike committees can debate what would be needed to win and put pressure on the union leaders. In Cambridge on 1 February after a big demonstration and rally, the local UCU branch held an open strike committee. UCU member Anne Alexander reported, “The local PCS rep came with three striking PCS members, plus some NEU comrades plus a core of largely new UCU activists.

“There was serious discussion and a list of follow-up actions. They included getting speakers from unions with strike dates around meetings with unions that have mandates but no dates. We are working hard on using the energy from the UCU rank and file to help accelerate rebuilding the NEU rank and file.”

Such moves can drive the pressure for strike escalation. For example, as well as coordination of leaflets, twinning workplaces and fundraising, the notes of the meeting say, “Bring up general strike at branch and local TUC level.”

7. Organise independent action at a local level. The high point of a strike committee would be its ability to hold walkouts, marches and strikes. In a modest way, the aim is to follow in the tradition of the Clyde Workers Committee a century ago. It said, “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately if they misrepresent them.”

8. Organise independent action alongside others at a national level. In the 1970s this was possible through such bodies as the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions. Although tied to left union leaders and resistant to real rank and file action, it could call political strikes involving hundreds of thousands of workers on its own initiative.

9. Take politics into the heart of the strikes. Strike committees can kick off discussion about climate change or anti-racism or trans rights or what causes inflation for strikers. Often official union structures are slow or resistant to such “outside” discussion. But there’s no reason for strike committees to have such barriers.

10. Be the basis to launch a rank and file movement. This happened during and after the First World War and in the 1970s. The International Socialists, the forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party, worked with others to build a national rank and file movement by calling a delegate conference in March 1974.

Around 500 delegates representing 270 trade union bodies attended, and set up the National Rank and File Organising Committee. A second conference in November of the same year attracted delegates from a larger number of bodies, including 49 shop stewards’ committees. Unfortunately it was born just as the election of a Labour government saw the union leaders clamp down hard on any such initiative—and many activists went along with them. 

Organising independent action on a broad scale will involve a much higher level of action than at the moment. But everyone involved in a strike can launch a strike committee, beginning with a conversation among pickets and activists, or on a strikers’ WhatsApp group or after a strike rally.

And this list isn’t a set of stages workers have to go through. Proper democracy and involvement can lead swiftly to independent action. New opportunities are opening up, and it’s time to test the strength of the argument for more systematic resistance.

How we began our strike committee at Imperial College

UCU member Roddy Slorach spoke about how workers set up a strike committee in their union and why they are important.

‘We urgently need to create strike committees. And on our picket lines, we agreed to form one on Thursday of last week. I know some groups of workers have already done it, but I just wanted to say that this is a big step forward.  

It was easy to get agreement, particularly as our first concern was how we get more people picketing.  We’ve shared our roles and responsibilities—for ring rounds, publicity, social media, arranging themed strike days, updating the website, writing up strike questions and answers.  

We also discussed solidarity and delegation work. We’ll meet after picket lines on every strike day from now on. We now have a dedicated group of the most enthusiastic members who see it as their job to help strengthen our actions.

Most of these members are young, and most are not reps.  Meetings will, of course, be open to anyone else who wants to help.  If you still need to form a strike committee in your branch, I strongly recommend doing so. 

Members badly need to gain control of this dispute— locally and nationally.’

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