The two day strike by hundreds of thousands of local government workers [on 16/17 July 2008] has demonstrated that there is a real mood to defeat the government’s imposed pay cut.
The two days saw some wonderful examples of the power workers have — closing many facilities, council offices and schools. In many places strong picket lines effectively stopped other workers, particularly GMB members, going to work and further heightened the impact of the action.
Public support was generally in evidence as other workers recognise pay as a general issue and gave their support to some of the lowest paid. Unison reports that some 500,000 workers took part. Figures, as you would expect, challenged by the employers. Whilst we hold no truck with their attempts to downgrade and demoralise striking workers a sober assessment must conclude that there were weaknesses and participation in some areas was not as strong as could be expected.
But it was a strong start to the action — a start that has now been put on hold. Unison has announced a suspension of action after local government employers offered to “talk”. The Tory led Local Government Association continued to refuse any better offer and there is still no sign of offers to come.
The action must be continued and escalated. What Unison needs now is a clear plan of action, not a suspension. This plan would develop the strengths and overcome the weaknesses of the two days of action, drawing more workers into action.
One particular worry about the union's argument is the focus on council’s reserves being a source for more money in the short term. The difficulty is that it would only be in the short term and the central problems of local government finance need to be addressed. Wages, jobs and decent services have been jeopardised by the steady withdrawal of central government funding for councils. Meanwhile capping of council tax rises’ and the demands of New Labour for councils to continue to privatise local services’ have led to cuts in services as well as wages.
The unions need to link these issues clearly in their publicity, demonstrating that the fight for pay is the fight for decent services. That means raising the demand for more funding through taxation and focusing on the rich who have got richer under New Labour as the wealth gap has widened.
Lobbies of councils and public rallies can help build support and efforts should be made to coordinate action with other public sector unions such as the NUT, but we also need a clear plan for escalating the industrial action. The possibility of other unions striking along side us should be seen as enhancing our action but we can’t be dependent on the actions of others. The NUT realistically will not be able to take further action until November and that is too long to wait. A long wait also risks our campaign running down, leaving little left to contribute to a common effort.
There is need to continue action over the summer and Workers’ Liberty supporters in Unison have argued for a selective action over the summer and into the autumn. That means taking out key groups of workers for longer periods with strike pay to maintain pressure on the bosses and provide an ongoing focus for solidarity and support. It’s an opportunity to start a levy of members to build a war chest for future prolonged action and Unison should be prioritising this now. Where local branches had a strike fund or councils had made a deal on taking strike pay only when the dispute has finished, turnout was much higher as the financial risk of ongoing action is a deterrent to many.
The union leadership won’t like this idea as it depends on giving local branches and strike committees control over the dispute. Selective action has had mixed results in the past when used as a way of avoiding escalating struggles. But in the short term it provides a bridge to longer all out strikes in the future.
GMB support was important in some areas but their willingness to cross picket lines elsewhere undermined the action. Where they were supportive we should encourage them to press their own union to re-ballot on action so they can formally join the dispute.
Within Unison there will be opportunities at TUC and Labour Conferences to force the government to change its policy removing the cap on the low paid and reel in the rich through demands for taxation.
An ongoing programme of selective, an approach to funding that also defends services and a solid plan for escalating action of more days of strikes up to and including all out indefinite strike has to be discussed and agreed. Anything less is not serious about winning and will lead to demoralising and a further weakening of our union. That the Unison bureaucracy has suspended action to talk to a body that simply refuses to listen is not a good sign. Unison stewards and branches should voice their opposition to this move and continue to fight for action in the autumn.