Suddenly the logjam could be broken. The announcement that Unison members in health and local government in England will be balloted over pay, plus a decision by the National Union of Teachers’ (NUT) conference to call a further one-day strike in the summer term and the move for a new round of strikes by firefighters in early May mark a step change on the industrial front.
Add to this the potential for Unite and the GMB to strike alongside Unison and the resumption of the dispute on London Underground, then it’s likely that the next few months will see the return of major set-piece strikes.
The potential for coordinated strikes also exists with the NUT executive expressing its willingness to come out on the same day if Unison calls a local government strike in early July. That could see nearly a million workers taking action. A strike by Unison across the NHS – potentially in the autumn if the ballot wins – would add 400,000 to the scale (and Unite has another 100,000 in health).
In addition, the flurry of militant local strikes – and victories – that Socialist Review reported on last month continues. Outsourced workers at Ealing hospital and the School of African and Oriental Studies in central London have made significant gains to their pay, holidays and other terms after sustained action.
A spate of action has also taken place on construction sites over attempts by employers to shift the costs of new rules governing self-employment onto agency workers. Strikers at Care UK – another outsourcing health employer – in Doncaster plan to strike for 14 days in a major escalation of their action while Lambeth College lecturers have announced an all-out strike.
There is a real sense that the movement is recovering from the doldrums that followed the abandonment by union leaders of the fight over public sector pensions after 2.5 million struck in November 2011.
What lies behind this change of gear? Firstly, pressure inside the unions has continued to build up about the sustained assault on workers’ living standards and working conditions.
Pay is one flashpoint. Unison estimates that its members in local government have seen their pay fall by 18 percent in real terms since 2010 after a succession of pay freezes and below inflation increases.
George Osborne’s boast that the cost of living crisis is now over will jar with workers facing a pay offer that would give the vast majority just 1 percent with inflation running at 1.6 percent on the government’s preferred CPI measure, but at 2.5 percent on the RPI index which includes housing costs. No wonder 70 percent rejected the offer in a consultative ballot.
Unison’s head of local government, Heather Wakefield, was right to note that the latest pay offer “is the straw that breaks the camel’s back”. But pay is also acting as a lightning rod for wider anger at all the attacks workers have faced.
A section of the union leaderships are putting themselves at the head of this feeling from below. Dave Prentis, Unison’s general secretary, pushed the move to ballot in both health and local government.
In the NUT, where the argument for months was whether it was possible to strike without the other main teaching union the NASUWT, the success of the 26 March strike shifted the debate to one about the tempo and scale of strikes that will be needed.
Prentis no doubt also wants to send a signal to Ed Miliband that the union leaders cannot be ignored and that the Labour manifesto for the general election needs to reflect some of their concerns. He told Unison health conference, “Our job isn’t just to get the coalition out. Our job is to make the Labour Party stand up for ordinary people. Millions hate this government but will still believe there is no alternative if they don’t hear an alternative from our party.”
Any strikes will be highly political – the questions of workers’ pay, pensions and conditions are inextricably tied up with the neoliberal free market reforms that the coalition has driven even further into the public sector.
A strike on the London tube is a major challenge to the authority of London Mayor Boris Johnson that could put paid to his Tory leadership ambitions. Socialists have to campaign to draw out these ideological questions and to mobilise wider forces behind the strikes, boosting strikers’ confidence and isolating the government.
The question that will also be posed at some point will be whether the strikes are simply protests before attention shifts back to getting Labour elected in 2015 or a serious fight to make real gains.
The union leaderships both give expression to the mood at the bottom and seek to contain it. The retreat by the UCU leadership in the higher education dispute, where a rotten deal on pay has been put out to ballot without any recommendation to reject, serves as a warning.
Confident political strikes combined with an argument for escalating action can throw the government onto the defensive and break the consensus on austerity that has come from the top of society, and which Labour has accepted. Major strikes will also be a welcome alternative to the divisions peddled by Ukip.