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Seize the chance to build on 1 February strikes

Workers showed their power last Wednesday. But now what are the next steps and how we ensure that strikes win?
Issue 2841
strikes NHS NEU 1 Febuary

Strikes and protests marked 1 February as a day to remember (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Now there is new hope. The 1 February strikes and protests were a great day of resistance. The scale and spirit of the strikes exceeded most activists’ expectations and underlined that workers’ action matters. Workers can strike in huge numbers—and, when they do, they can’t be ignored.

Strikes by around half a million teachers, university workers, civil service workers, train drivers and others dominated the news all day. One BBC correspondent admitted, “Walkout Wednesday? A new winter of discontent? Whatever you call it, this is the biggest day of industrial action in decades.”

And the NHS strikes this week underlined the potential for a movement that can break the bosses’ and Tory attacks.

The marches and rallies last Wednesday were big. There were around 40,000 in London, 6,000 in Sheffield, 5,000 in Liverpool, a similar number in Bristol and Manchester and 2,000 in Nottingham. That means there were well over one in ten strikers joining a march—a real pool of activists.

And on many demonstrations it was very positive to hear clear calls for anti-racist mobilisations on 18 March, support for refugees, and a welcome for those who raised trans rights.

The biggest section of strikers, teachers in the NEU union, were particularly visible on the picket lines and rallies.  Lots of young teachers who haven’t struck before took part and found new confidence in walking out. Reports from some NEU and PCS picket lines suggest new, young people are becoming reps.

Everywhere there was bitter anger against a government that wrecks lives, mixed with pleasure at doing something about it. Even the most right wing media outlets could find no sign of scabbing, no indication of public anger at the strikers.

There was only a smattering of examples of workers who struck unofficially or refused to cross picket lines. This is because union leaders are narrowly focused on their own sectors and disputes. So well done to those rank and file activists who did—and we need more next time.

Different groups of workers are at different stages of discussing how to win. It was the first strike day for teachers so there are so far fewer questions about strategy or escalation. Most are still enjoying the thrill of resistance.

UCU university strikers, who have struck for over 50 days in the last four years, are far more aware that only hard-hitting action has a chance of success. And many want to move beyond the union’s plan for 18 strike days to an indefinite strike.

Train drivers in Aslef have been out for eight days in seven months—and bosses have offered nothing. Simon Weller, assistant general secretary of the union, said earlier last week,  “Unfortunately things have gone backwards by some measure.” He added, “We did a webinar last week with 1,000 members. The questions were ‘when are we going to up the ante?’ They are really angry.” And they are right to be angry—with the bosses, the Tories, and with union leaders’ foot-dragging.

For the civil service workers, it was—at last—a day of national action and much more uplifting than the sectional strikes.  Hardly noticed by most, Abellio bus strikers in south London were also on strike, having rightly rejected a deal pushed by their Unite union leaders.

But the different stages in the strikes can’t mean that everyone moves at the pace of the slowest or the most reluctant to escalate. The undeniable fact—whether it’s rail workers or Royal Mail workers or NHS workers or teachers—is that the Tories and bosses haven’t retreated.

The strikes have to be longer and bigger. Repeating 1 February on a bigger scale is important, but the central question is extending the individual strikes.

Activists have to demand further united strikes, but not make their own sector’s strike strategy dependent on what everyone else does. There’s a danger otherwise that, for some union leaders, “all out together” becomes an excuse to call only token and partial action.

General secretaries can play with calls for “general strikes” while strangling their own disputes. At the rally, RMT leader Mick Lynch declared “we are united”. But why hadn’t he called out all 40,000 rail workers?  And the RMT is taking time to consider wholly inadequate offers rather than rejecting them and calling escalating strikes.

Last Wednesday was formerly the TUC union federation’s day of action over anti-union laws.  That didn’t cut through much because most people know there isn’t a TUC plan to confront the laws or defy them. The TUC places its hope in the House of Lords, not insurgent strikes.

TUC general secretary Paul Nowak didn’t link the anti-union laws to the 40,000 marching in London. Instead he meekly presented a petition to 10 Downing Street flanked by two workers who, however important, were not on strike on the day. 

There is a chance that there will be another day of united strikes on 15 March, when the government sets its budget. Already the NEU has said this will be the date of the next teachers’ strike across England and Wales—for two days this time.

That can’t be a substitute for escalation. Activists have to push union leaders to seize the chance to win. And if they won’t, then they have to push for action themselves. 

This is a government without a coherent strategy. It rams through ruthless and repressive anti-strike and anti-protest laws. But that might detonate a social explosion. Ministers say they won’t make concessions over this year’s pay round, but claim they are always open to talks.

The obvious ruling class strategy is to agree with union leaders to end, for example, the very popular NHS strikes through minor improvements. But they fear this might just encourage more fightbacks.

The government makes windy promises about growth and better economic days ahead. But chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s “big” speech last week had hardly a policy in it or even the pretence of a serious shift.

The 1 February strikes marked another hugely welcome shift in the scale of resistance. They have to be a spur to action that can win.

Now let’s win—and here are five ways we can do it…
1. Fight to escalate all the strikes. Step up solidarity
2. All out when the government sets its budget, 15 March
3. Reject pay deals less than inflation. Don’t let union leaders stop the struggle
4. Organise strike committees in your area 
5.  Don’t let Tory scapegoating divide us

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