About half a million workers took strike action across Britain on February 1, in the biggest wave of strikes for over a decade.
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This not only involved people withdrawing their labour and mounting picket lines at their own place of work, but often participating in vibrant demonstrations and rallies in city centres.
The action had two targets: on the one hand, further disputes about pay and working conditions with their own employers; and on the other, opposition to the even harsher anti-trade union laws the Tory [Conservative] government is rushing through the Westminster parliament.
Six unions took action on February 1. The civil service union, PCS, was the first to call out over 100,000 members across 124 departments. Workers in many of the employing departments had previously met the ridiculously high turnout threshold in a postal ballot for strike action under the existing reactionary anti-union laws. PCS members in those departments have been involved in rolling action since late December. The union is reballoting members in other departments where workers had voted for action but missed the turnout threshold by a small amount.
The University and College Union (teachers in further and higher education), UCU, called out 70,000 members in the university sector on this day as part of 18 days of action to take place across the next two months, following the failure of the latest discussions with the 150 employers to come up with an offer that would in any way restore the decimation of pay over the past 12 years of Tory rule. The increasing casualisation of the sector is also driving militancy.
The train drivers’ union, ASLEF, brought out the majority of its 21,000 members on February 1. ASLEF will hold further action after failing to reach agreement with the employers on pay and conditions; this will be its seventh day of strike action. The transport union RMT also brought out their driver members on February 1. This seems like a lost opportunity for the RMT, which in many ways has been the backbone of the strike movement since last summer as the majority of its members are not drivers but carry out other roles. The RMT is balloting members on a new offer, but rejection is expected.
For these transport unions — and their passengers — what is at stake in these disputes, which for the RMT have involved strike action over nine months, also includes major job losses. The proposal that many trains will be driver-only has huge safety implications and will also make trains even less accessible for disabled people, many of whom are dependent on assistance to access and leave the services.
The other union that took major strike action in England and Wales on February 1 is the NEU, the main teachers’ union, which demanded a fair and fully funded pay increase.
The second-largest teachers’ union in England and Wales, the NASUWT, had overwhelmingly voted for strike action but failed to meet the turnout threshold. Some NASUWT members have joined the NEU in order to strike, and over 40,000 new members have joined the NEU since they announced their ballot results and program of strike action.
Schooling in Scotland is separate from that in England and Wales, and the school teachers’ union there, EIS, is involved in a different pattern of industrial action, with one-day national strikes in January followed by a rolling program of one-day actions during January and February covering two council areas at a time. This will be followed by two days of all-out strikes across the whole of Scotland on February 28 and March 1.
The EIS is the major union in Scottish schools, particularly primary schools, but three smaller teacher unions have also voted for strike action. Picket lines at schools and attendance at local rallies have grown significantly during the action, and the predominantly female membership of EIS is becoming increasingly combative — a complete two-day shutdown of Scotland’s schools is very likely.
Despite the fact that the mainstream media has attacked the strikers for months, often in collaboration with the government, and has desperately tried to find supposedly “ordinary members of the public” who will rail against them, the strikes remain hugely popular.
There are many reports of parents and pupils joining picket lines outside schools in support of those who work there. University students in support of UCU’s strike action also joined pickets and demonstrations at campuses across Britain, and student strike solidarity groups are beginning to become a feature of campus life and also starting to raise the issue of the impact of the cost of living on a million students, which is largely invisible presently.
Marches on February 1 were greeted with bus and car horns tooting in support and people coming out of workplaces and houses and cheering and clapping. Increasing numbers of working class people recognise that the cost of living crisis is an attack on all of us, in work and out of work, and across generations.
The turnout at the demonstrations was reported to be impressive. Forty thousand in London, 9000 in Oxford, 7000 in Bristol, 1000 in Cardiff, 500 in Swansea, 2000 in Leeds, 4000 in Manchester, 1000 in Glasgow, 700 in Nottingham at the indoor rally, and many more marching, including 2000 in Leeds and smaller numbers in other places. For many other protests, reports just say thousands marched.
What was as important as turnout was the mood — certainty that the pay claims put forward by the unions are completely justified and that the services that the workers provide as well as their wages have been devastated by more than a decade of austerity.
People are clear that the “minimum service bill” — the formal name of the anti-trade union bill — is a very sick joke in a country where understaffing and overwork mean services are failing, especially in the NHS, and existing laws are so draconian. Unions face very restrictive laws that hamper strikes: they must hold postal ballots, not electronic ones; large numbers of members have to vote; disputes can only be against individual employers, not the controlling body like governments; and 14 days’ notice has to be given of strikes. Defiance would lead to courts seizing union funds and prosecuting officers and members.
The mainstream media in Britain are making a great deal of the fact that more than twice as many workers took strike action against attacks on public sector pensions in 2011. But the situations aren’t comparable. Most workers knew at the time that the action in 2011 was no more than a token protest. February 1 is part of a wave of action that has stretched over seven long months for some unions — and one that may well not have crested.
In Scotland and Wales, the devolved governments of the SNP (with Green support) and Labour (with Plaid Cymru support) have tried to make better pay offers than the Tory British government, so some strikes have been avoided in one or both of those countries.
Formally, all four of these predominantly social-democratic-influenced parties are sympathetic to union demands and the right to strike. However, they do not have the legal or fiscal powers of the British government, and the social democratic parties are trapped within the constraints of British devolution. Unless they can break free from that constraint, they will ultimately be part of the problem rather than the solution.
Action to come
While six unions struck on February 1, that doesn’t include all those currently engaged in industrial action. No health unions were on strike that day, but the four main ones will be taking action in England between February 6‒10.
The nurses’ union, the Royal College of Nursing, RCN, will strike on February 6‒7. For most of its 100-year history, the RCN had a ban on strikes, so the current action marks a significant change. Ambulance workers from the GMB and Unite unions will also strike in England on February 6, while the third union, Unison, is calling out its ambulance workers on February 10 in England.
The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy is striking on February 9. Junior doctors in England in the BMA union are also balloting on strike action over pay, and strikes could follow in March. In Wales, the GMB has suspended their action in order to put forth a new offer from the Welsh government to its members.
Over a million workers currently have mandates for strike action, but February 1 was the first coordinated day across Britain; many are looking to a greater level of coordination in the future.
[Abridged from anticapitalistresistance.org.]