The immediate issue at stake was a response to Gordon Brown’s pay curbs in the public sector. The NUT executive decided that a 52 percent vote for action was not enough. Within hours, the government had authorised talks with the PCS over the pay issues which led to a strike planned for 10 November. Again, the executive decided to suspend action.
In both cases Socialist Workers Party members on the executives voted for strikes, against the majority.
Despite forecasts of falling inflation, pay rightly remains a key issue. And there are many issues specific to these unions which mean it was wrong to call off action. The NUT has signalled to the government that it does not trust its ability to galvanise, unite and lead its members forward unless it has a decisive vote for action. The PCS demobilised thousands of activists who had worked tirelessly to prepare for the strike. It may not prove easy to resurrect the same mood if talks do not provide the desired result.
But there are also bigger questions. The working class desperately needs a serious fightback. It needs some group to demonstrate clearly through serious resistance that workers will not just meekly pay for the crisis.
Strikes by the PCS and NUT would have seen around half a million people out. In the atmosphere such struggles create, it is far more likely that BT workers would refuse to accept attacks on pensions and mass job cuts from a company which is still making profits and whose pension fund is in surplus. It is far more likely that workers in GlaxoSmithKline in Dartford, or Hoover in Merthyr Tydfil, might consider occupying rather than accepting closure.
Precisely because the crisis is so severe, the question of political leadership becomes very important. It is noticeable how close many ballot results are at the moment – 55 percent for action in Unison local government in England and Wales, 54 percent in the PCS, 52 percent in the NUT, and so on.
It is the job of the left to fight hard to win such ballots by as big a majority as possible and then to turn them into action when they win. The struggle over pay has suffered a blow. Over 1.5 million workers are now on multi-year deals which will be hard to reopen.
Important struggles over pay are still taking place – Unite in the NHS, perhaps in Scottish Water, perhaps in the PCS. But the focus now also shifts to battles over jobs, and to smaller groups of workers as well as national strikes. As we go to press, the CWU is balloting 17 mail centres over the plans to close offices and threaten thousands of jobs. This could easily escalate into a battle across Britain.
Despite the setbacks in the NUT and PCS, we can be sure that resistance will continue at some level. There remains a potential for a serious attack, or an example of successful resistance, to ignite explosively the undoubted mood of bitterness and anger that exists in large sections of the working class. It is very unlikely that a million more people will be thrown on the dole in the next year without serious resistance – whatever the union leaders say.
That is why it is important to redouble our efforts to build networks of rank and file activists who can urge a fightback and support others in struggle. The past few weeks have shown how pressure on the trade union bureaucracies at crucial moments can make them crumble, and how important it is to have as large as possible a group of militants who can act independently of the union leaders.
We need the broadest unity against the attempts to make workers pay for the crisis, and honest discussion about the way forward. We may disagree about the votes in the NUT and PCS, but will unite as much as possible to defend jobs and pensions, oppose the Nazi BNP, campaign against war, stand up for abortion rights and so on.
We need to rediscover the tradition of solidarity, and to build initiatives like the People Before Profit Charter.
For more on the charter go to peoplebeforeprofit.wordpress.com
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