Strikes: ideas to win, mistakes to avoid

Submitted by Janine on 20 July, 2005 - 9:45

Anti-social hours, poor safety, low pay, job cuts, victimisation, attacks on condtions ... Over and again, we have to fight, and when the talking fails, we have to strike.

Our strongest weapon is our power to withdraw our labour. The media often make out that ultra-militant union leaders force unwilling members to strike. But we know that often, the opposite is true. We have to put pressure on our leaders to organise action.

There have been several strikes in our industry over the last few years. All have been justified, but not all have gone well. Here, Off The Rails looks at how to organise strikes.

When rail workers win, we get stronger. But if we lose, we may lose the confidence to fight again. That's why we have to assess this, and be critical of how the unions handle disputes. Because if they keep going wrong, then workers may give up on striking at all.

Don't give up before you've started. TSSA thinks that it just needs to talk to employers. But talking wins nothing without the threat of action. The TSSA approach will keep workers downtrodden forever.

ASLEF, and especially RMT, are more willing to take action. But even they can get the collywobbles - for example, in Network Rail this year, when RMT accepted a not-very-good pay settlement after only nominal 'consultation' and no vote by members.

Workers must get the chance to decide for ourselves whether we want to fight for more than the bosses are offering.

Don't be afraid of the anti-union laws. Britain has some of the most repressive anti-strike legislation in Europe. But when we are strong enough, we can make it a dead letter.

In 2001, the high court banned RMT's strike against Tube PPP. But members went out anyway, alongside ASLEF's legal strike.

ASLEF now seems to get jittery once a dispute has run for eight weeks. Bosses can legally sack strikers after this time, but what rail company is going to sack all its drivers?!

Faith in the system? By all means take legal action. But it can be a grave mistake to call off strikes and rely on getting justice.

In 2003, Metronet sacked five P-way workers after finding beer cans in the mess room that they (and others) used. RMT members voted to strike, but the union lifted the action when Metronet agreed to abide by a Tribunal. The fight lost momentum, and the Tribunal backed management.

Even if we win at Tribunal, we may not get justice. Driver Chris Barrett won an 'unfair dismissal' case, but did not get his job back.

It is similar with mediation. After a solid day's strike, ASLEF and RMT's pay fight on LUL in 2002 seemed to change its demand from Decent Pay Now! to Mediation Now! It was settled on a promise of mediation. The result came a year later, and was only 0.75% higher than LUL's previous offer.

Tribunals and mediation may temper the actions of the worst employers. But they uphold the basic system that the boss is in charge. Workers' action is a far more potent weapon than even the cleverest lawyer.

"We've started so we'll finish". When the union goes into a struggle, it must be prepared to see it through.

Sometimes, just the threat of a strike is enough to win. A string of unfair sackings on London Underground over recent years eg. Leon Paul, Andy Whitecross, Joanne White, have been reversed like this.

But that is not always enough. Faced with a more determined employer - such as in recent disputes with Arriva, Merseyrail, C2C or EWS - the union can not pin its hopes on one day out bringing the bosses to heel.

Strategic thinking. Any army needs a battle plan. But too often, strikes feel like a one-off gesture: we get to let off steam, then the negotiators go back into closed rooms.

Instead, we should get reps together from all the grades and locations involved, look at the issues and plan effective action.

We might want to call strikes, overtime bans, revenue strikes or other action. We might all refuse to work on safety grounds. We need to discuss developments, assess the action so far, decide strike dates, and look at any new offer from the employer.

Keep members informed. Members often complain that the union only contacts us when it want us to vote in a ballot, go on strike, or agree to a deal.

We are not a stage army! Our campaigns are stronger if ordinary workers understand the issues, can counter management's lies, and know what’s going on in different areas.

The union - local branches and reps as well as head office - should put out regular newsletters. Workers can make our own bulletins too. Tubeworker does this on LUL.

Reps and activists need to get round to all staff, convincing them about the action and signing up non-members. The more people involved from the start, the more activists there will be - and the fewer waverers.

Seek maximum unity across the unions. It's an old saying, but it's true: unity is strength. It would be better if all rail workers were in one union. Until we are, we should fight together whenever possible.

On Merseyrail, RMT guards have been taking action for a 35-hour week without strings. ASLEF wrote to its members on the company urging them to respect picket lines.

Picket effectively. A picket line helps prevent scabbing. It enables solidarity action - members of other unions can refuse to cross. It can be an opportunity to leaflet the public and attract media coverage.

Picket lines also help build morale and camaraderie, and are good places to discuss ideas. Striking is a positive action - not just a passive stay-at-home.

Spread the action. Your issue might start local, or grade-specific, but the wider you spread the action, the stronger you are.

In 1998, electricians on the Jubilee Line Extension walked out when the contractor transferred 12 sparks who had raised safety issues. They picketed other sites. Ten days into the action, 650 sparks and 75 plumbers were out. The employer backed down.

If one member is victimised, highlight the wider issue. If someone has been unfairly sacked under the Attendance Policy, turn the fight to save their job into a fight against the Policy itself. Spread the action from his/her workplace throughout the company.

Hold negotiators to account. Union negotiators represent us. They must include rank-and-file members directly affected by the issue - you are much less likely to agree to crap working conditions if you are going to be working under them yourself!

RMT's recent dispute with EWS began to lose momentum when the company refused to release workplace reps to attend talks.

Talks should be as open as possible. In Poland's Gdansk shipyards in the 1980s, the union Solidarnosc broadcast its meetings with management over the tannoy. Today, new technology creates new opportunities.

Our representatives should report back after every round of talks. And members should be able to replace negotiators who we do not think are doing the business.

Get support. Appeal for solidarity, and for public support. Print messages of support in your strike bulletins.

If passengers support us, there is more pressure on the employer, and a morale-boost for strikers. In several campaigns over recent years - including the re-privatisation of South East Trains, and the London Underground PPP - the unions have dished out thousands of leaflets to passengers.

Public campaigns should be part and parcel of our industrial struggle. But the unions often only do this sort of campaigning when they don't feel up to striking.

Don't sell us short. Beware of union leaders brandishing the latest offer from management telling you it is the best thing since sliced bread. It probably isn't.

Sometimes it is clear-cut, eg. the company may cave in and reinstate the person they sacked. But other times, the proposed deal will be less than your demands.

Management may tell you that it is their 'final offer', but it is amazing how many final offers are revised upwards when workers stick to our guns! Union HQ may say that you can’t win any more than this, especially if mistakes have been made along the way. But rank-and-file rail workers need to make our own judgement about what is on the table, and whether to fight for more.

The best people to decide the right strategy are the workers involved. The key issue, that underpins everything we have said in this article, is that rank-and-file union members must run the dispute.

We should end the current situation where decisions are taken by National Executives, most of whom are not directly accountable to the strikers and have no personal stake in the outcome. Too often, they want to "wrap it up" as soon as possible, even when the members want to fight for more.

There should be meetings of all workers, which agree a strategy and elect a Strike Committee. The structure may vary, as the dispute may be in a single workplace, or a nationwide company, or scattered gangs.

Whatever the exact mechanism, there must be a structure where elected rank-and-file reps hold negotiators to account, get information out to members, organise picketing, send speakers to other union branches - and make the decisions.

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