The case for joint coordinated industrial action
By John McInally, national vice-president of the PCS civil servants’ union (personal capacity)
In light of recent setbacks for the working class, does the trade union movement need to reconsider how it uses industrial action?
Since the 1970s the capitalist class has conducted a relentless war to seize back all the gains won by workers internationally in the post-war period. Austerity is the latest manifestation of a neoliberal agenda that is little more than naked class war to ensure that working people pay for the capitalist crisis.
The ruling elite aims to establish an unchallenge-able hegemony of the market and to buy off, neutralise, or crush any opposition. With the fall of the USSR, Stalinism, in which the planned economy – albeit in a distorted, bureaucratic form – demonstrated there was an alternative to the market, collapsed. This was greeted by corporate apologist ‘intellectuals’ such as Francis Fukuyama as the “end of history”.
The inclination of so-called social democratic leaders in the Labour Party to cosy up to big business rather than support the interests of the working class that the party was formed to represent propelled them further to the right. They embraced the idea that there was no alternative to capitalism, and the race to the bottom. Margaret Thatcher said her ‘greatest achievement’ was New Labour. New Labour represented a historic defeat for the British working class.
Some in the labour movement, even those nominally on the left, appear to remain in a state of open-mouthed denial that ‘their’ party is now firmly in the hands of corporate interests. But big business isn’t giving it back. These events have triggered a crisis of political representation for working people. It is still unfolding and will do so for quite some time until a new party is formed, capable of representing the interests of working people against the pro-market political consensus.
The current assault on the rights, conditions and living standards of the working class is unprecedented in its scope and scale. There has also been a major assault on civil liberties, including the criminalisation of protest itself. On an international scale, disastrous imperialist adventures have led to instability in the Middle East and sickening slaughter in Iraq and elsewhere. The accompanying ideological offensive has sought to instil in the minds of working people the idea that the market reigns supreme and there is no alternative to the profit system.
All these factors have led to a pushing back of working class consciousness and confidence. This is exacerbated by the failure of leadership in the trade union movement where the tendency toward conciliationism among right-wing union leaders has been strengthened. They see their ‘pragmatic’ role as negotiating the pace and depth of the race to the bottom, not fighting it.
In fact, attempting to fight back was described as “daft and delusional” by one ‘leader’. This was in response to unions including the RMT transport union, the prison officers’ POA union and the PCS arguing for the TUC to “consider the practicalities” of building for a general strike at the 2012 TUC conference. Another argued that a general strike was attempted in 1926 and “didn’t go too well”. Of course he didn’t mention that the very threat of a general strike in 1972 saw the Tory government of the day capitulate and release the imprisoned Pentonville dockers.
Labour laid the path
During the Blair and Brown governments, right-wing union leaders and even some on the left almost entirely vacated the field of industrial struggle. This allowed New Labour to cut and privatise public services and lay down the structure that has subsequently been used by the Tories to drive their own privatisation agenda. More privatisation took place in the NHS, schools and civil service under New Labour than under the Thatcher and Major governments. Mass privatisation is a major strategic aim of the capitalist agenda. Unfortunately it has not faced a generalised response from the trade union movement yet.
There have, however, been some fierce and inspiring individual battles and in some cases, victories. Under Labour, PCS consistently opposed cuts and privatisation. There could be no excuse for the silence around the reactionary legislation introduced by Labour, particularly so-called welfare reform. Hate speech – from Gordon Brown’s “the deserving poor”, to former work and pensions minister James Purnell’s “there’s more to life than moving from the bedroom to the sofa” – provided the ideological basis for dismantling the welfare state. It prepared the way for the ferocious assault of the current coalition government that is intent on destroying the very concept of social security in our society. When Brown announced that he intended to cut 100,000 civil service jobs in 2003, Labour MPs infamously cheered and waved their order papers.
PCS campaigned hard during that period, including taking industrial action which won concessions on pensions and a jobs protocol that allayed the impact of staff cuts by avoiding compulsory redundancies. PCS campaigned both politically and industrially, proving in the process that concessions were possible and that campaigning worked and action got results. The union repeatedly took action at departmental group and national level that stopped the worst excesses of Labour’s cuts programme.
PCS responded to the concern of members and activists that no mainstream political party represented their interests or values, ie, supported public servants and the vital services they deliver into the communities in which they live and work. The union’s Make Your Vote Count campaign was designed to question and put pressure on politicians to support union policies but it became apparent this was not enough.
So PCS launched a major debate that reached branch level about the issue of political representation. It spanned two national conferences, regional briefings, countless branch meetings and finally a ballot, that gave the union the option to stand candidates in ‘exceptional’ circumstances, for example, where no candidates represented the interests of our members and the public sector and the conditions on the ground were right for such an electoral campaign.
PCS’s left leadership took the view then, as it does now, that to fight on the industrial front alone was tantamount to fighting with one hand tied behind your back because if any gains won through industrial struggle were not underwritten politically the employers would simply return again and again until they achieved their aim. This is the lesson of over 200 years of trade union struggle in Britain.
Countering the Con-Dems
After the 2010 general election the coalition government launched its austerity programme in earnest. PCS rejected the lie that austerity was meant to clear the deficit and produced its Economic Alternative which argued there was an alternative to the cuts, based on job creation, climate jobs, investment and tax justice. This programme has been key to PCS members’ confidence to fight the austerity measures.
It drew accusations from opponents of ‘deficit denial’ and so on, demonstrating how far to the right the political establishment, including many trade union leaders, had moved. While these demands fall short of a complete alternative to capitalist crisis, Socialist Party members in PCS have been to the fore in fighting for them while also putting forward a more comprehensive socialist programme.
PCS policy is clear. No cuts. No privatisation. Anything less means the road to division and defeat. PCS argued that the way to prevent the coming attacks, particularly on pensions, was to build for joint, coordinated industrial action across the public sector.
In 2011 PCS argued that the attack on pensions was an attack on the whole public sector and should be met with the full strength of our movement. PCS also sought to actively build the emerging anti-cuts alliances, a policy and process that intended to put the trade union movement at the centre of the resistance and to build maximum unity in action between the struggles in the workplaces and communities.
Posing an alternative to the austerity programme riled the coalition government and indeed all the political establishment. This great lie – there was no alternative – was central to their strategy. Why else would people put up with cuts, the sell-off of the NHS, food banks, the bedroom tax etc, if there was indeed an alternative?
PCS’s bold insistence on an alternative was also deeply uncomfortable for the TUC under the leadership of Brendan Barber and other right-wing union leaders. Their strategy was to simply put their heads down and wait for the return of a Labour government. In essence they agreed with the cuts programme, having bought into the cynical analysis propounded by Ed Miliband that there was ‘not enough money around’ and cuts to the public sector were ‘inevitable’.
Austerity is just a fancy word for unremitting class war. It is ideologically driven and a political choice, not an inevitability. This is why PCS was determined to raise and popularise the issue of tax justice, expose the myths behind so-called welfare reform, and call for an economic alternative, as well as posing an industrial action strategy to defeat it.
Trade union strength
Austerity is an attack on our whole class and there must be a class-wide response. The role of the trade union movement, over six million strong and organised under the banner of the TUC, offered the best, most effective way of defeating the race to the bottom – but only if armed with the correct strategy and a committed leadership with the political will and determination to fight for our class in the way the coalition government was fighting for theirs.
PCS posed from the very beginning the question of joint coordinated industrial action across the public sector and in the private sector too if possible as the best and most effective way to achieve our collective demands and defend terms and conditions.
Right-wing union leaders have operated de facto no-strike agreements for some time now. Their rationale is that you can’t take action against a Labour government because it is ‘our government’ and you can’t take action against the coalition government because it is ‘too strong’ and anyway, if you did, it would only hurt the chances of Labour being elected.
Some of these leaders would say it is nonsense to talk of a no-strike agreement. While it is true that isolated struggles resulting from the pressure of members on reluctant leaderships have been tolerated, every attempt at generalised action has been blocked or thwarted. Future generations will be puzzled how it was possible for a tiny unrepresentative ruling clique to carry out the systematic destruction of the NHS without one single day of industrial action to prevent it.
PCS took industrial action on its own against the Tories’ attacks on the Civil Service Compensation Scheme and secured what could be won in such an isolated struggle but never accepted the imposed deal. PCS members understood that such setbacks would have been substantially worse had the union not fought back and taken action.
It was the pressure applied by PCS, not least the persistent work by general secretary Mark Serwotka and president Janice Godrich at the TUC general council, the pressure from members below, the strike by PCS, NUT and ATL on 30 June 2011, and the campaigning and lobbying by the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), that left Barber and the TUC bureaucracy diminishing room for manoeuvre.
They therefore called a public-sector-wide strike on pensions for 30 November that year. Over two million workers took action that day: strikers were applauded by the general public as they marched through the centres of towns and cities throughout the country. The huge potential strength of our movement was revealed for all to see. If that tremendous day had been followed up with further similar days of action and joint coordinated industrial action major concessions on pensions would certainly have been won. It is also possible that the entire cuts and privatisation programme would have been derailed and the government even driven from power.
As workers awaited the next stage in the campaign the TUC leadership and key right-wing union leaders divided our movement with a carefully planned and choreographed surrender to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude around a shameful ‘Heads of Agreement’. This, in effect, handed over to the government all the concessions they demanded. At the TUC meeting intended to rubber stamp this sell-out Mark Serwotka spoke for PCS members and millions more across Britain when he rejected the agreement and said our union would fight on.
In January 2012 PCS Left Unity organised a conference that attracted over 600 activists from all unions dedicated to keeping the fight going. Industrial action with PCS, Unite, NUT and UCU did take place – but given its isolated nature did not achieve the type of leverage required to win concessions. To this day, however, PCS has not signed up to the pension changes.
The pension betrayal was significant for our movement. Many people understandably were demoralised. It sent out a message to the government and working people alike. It told the Tories they had a green light to ramp up their attacks and that is precisely what they did. It sought to tell workers there was no alternative but to accept cuts in conditions because the TUC would do nothing about it. It sent out the message to millions that the Tories may come for you with all the viciousness of their class but we will not organise to stop them. Most unforgivable was the message to youth – if you want to fight back don’t bother coming to us.
Despite the fact that joint coordinated industrial action was the best way to fight the cuts, the pensions dispute, which could have delivered much, saw a retreat into individual sector-based struggles, or to be more accurate in the case of most unions, inaction and resignation.
PCS organised a three-month programme of action from March to June this year based on fighting the on-going attacks on the civil service but also including the wider public sector issues of pay and pensions in our demands.
The government is happy to allow negotiations at departmental group level, all the better to put through its centrally driven programme by picking off weaker areas before seeking to isolate the stronger ones. That is why our aim of nationally-binding settlements is so important. The action had a considerable impact but not enough to bring the employer to national negotiations.
The union then carried out a major consultation, rare in our movement, which involved talking to branches representing over 80% of members. After analysing the results the national executive committee honed its strategy on defending jobs, pay, pensions, conditions and services.
PCS is still absolutely correct in its assessment that joint coordinated industrial action is the best way to win on common issues like pay and pensions. The union is urgently making contact with those unions currently taking action to investigate the possibility of coordinated action in the short term. And PCS will continue to build for coordinated action more widely to break the public sector pay freeze and pensions policy.
The question now needs to be put bluntly to trade union leaders – are you in favour of coordinated industrial action to break the pay freeze and pensions policy? If you are, good – let’s work out the details of the campaign. If not – then why not? This is the question every union member and activist must ask.
There is no contradiction in trying to resolve sectoral disputes and organising joint coordinated action on the issues affecting us all, such as pay. If concessions are won by one group then that can only provide impetus for the whole campaign. It is TUC policy to coordinate action on pay and general secretary Frances O’Grady has convened meetings of the ‘willing’. This is far from adequate but does represent a step forward. But the question must be posed to those not participating – why are you not prepared to discuss joint coordinated action in order to defend your members’ interests?
PCS will also pursue targeted, departmentally group-based and national action in order to build pressure on the Cabinet Office to come to the negotiating table, including setting up a levy to provide a strike fund to support members taking action over and above that taken by the membership generally. Targeted action will be aimed at specific identified areas to cause maximise disruption.
Departmental group disputes are not a supplement to but a core part of a strategy aimed at building pressure for a settlement. And most importantly, time and again, determined industrial action in the groups has brought concessions from the employer, defending conditions, stopping compulsory redundancies and, in the Home Office, winning more money for low-paid members.
PCS will pursue this strategy and will continue to raise in the most serious manner the critical need for joint coordinated action across the public sector and the private sector too where there are disputes that can be coordinated there – this is, and always was, the best and most effective way to defeat the attacks on us all.
Industrial action crucial
Reasserting the unique, critical importance of industrial action in this period is important. We know the employers, the Tories and right-wing union leaders seek to plant the lie that striking doesn’t work. There’s nothing new there. But there is an identifiable trend among some on the left who are falling into this trap too, either by accident or design.
For example, PCS supports the People’s Assembly but it was disappointing that none of the principal speakers at its launch in the summer called for joint coordinated industrial action to defeat the cuts, with the sole exception of PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka. His call received the loudest response of the day from an audience plainly becoming a little weary of hearing how bad things are, but with no strategy being put forward. In the climate change session the union’s assistant general secretary Chris Baugh got a warm response when raising the need for a 24-hour general strike, as did Rob Williams, chair of the NSSN, when he raised it from the floor.
Failure to articulate the fundamental truth that coordinated action is the most effective way to win is a deliberate choice. The case for industrial action is misrepresented by saying both civil disobedience and industrial action are required and it is not a case of one or the other. This suave deceit is intended to undermine the case for the central importance of industrial action in fighting the cuts and cynically distract from the argument for industrial action. No one has ever contrasted civil disobedience and industrial action in the way alleged – it is a straw man argument wrapped in the language of fake militancy.
PCS was one of the first unions to call for direct action to be used alongside industrial action because we understood the sheer scale of the attack on our workplaces and communities required action from both the organised and non-organised working class. But we never set out to establish some kind of phoney equivalence between both of those strategies – nor that direct action should ever be posed as a substitute for industrial action.
Direct action on a scale required to get rid of this government would need to be part of an unprecedented campaign of civil disobedience comparable to the poll tax victory against Thatcher. Re-writers of history should note that this marvellous victory was not won by riots but by an on-going, organised campaign of mass non-payment involving millions which rendered collection unmanageable.
Moreover it is an incontestable fact that mobilising the enormous power of the trade union movement through joint coordinated action, including building for a 24-hour general strike, would fundamentally shift the balance of power in favour of our class and is the best and most effective way of defeating the government.
Those calling for civil disobedience without also calling for joint coordinated action and a general strike are effectively telling people, ‘Hey, there’s an easy way to get what we want but, you know what, let’s do it the really hard way’. This is especially so when the type of civil disobedience being called for is actually fairly modest and in itself has no real chance of applying the type of pressure required to make the government change course. So, let’s be clear – there is no more effective form of civil disobedience than workers taking strike action and especially joint coordinated industrial action.
The effectiveness of strikes
A myth relentlessly repeated by employers and governments is that striking is never justified, that unions ‘rush’ into action and, of course, that it doesn’t work. They are particularly anxious to drive home this latter point. Industrial action is never taken lightly by any group of workers; it is never a first reaction but almost always the final resort when an employer refuses to negotiate.
There are many reasons strike action is hated by the bosses and government. Yes, it stops or mitigates attacks on conditions, wrings concessions and sometimes significant gains and more. But it also does something our class enemies are terrified of: it shows the real strength of working people and what their collective power is capable of achieving.
Industrial action, especially general strike action, also gives a glimpse of something more fundamental – it poses the questions of who runs things, in whose interests are they being run and why should it be that way? It asks why are relations between employers and workers the way they are, and why do they have to be that way?
General strike action engenders the revolutionary thought: ‘can we change things and run society in our interests rather than the bosses?’ In other words industrial action, even the most minor strike, poses the question of power in the most basic sense. That is why Lenin, one of the leaders of the 1917 Russian revolution, said that behind every strike the capitalists see the “hydra of the revolution”.
In this period of austerity when we are under relentless attack, our movement must get back to fundamentals. The job of a union is not to negotiate cuts in pay and conditions but to fight to defend and improve what we have. It is not the role of unions to selfishly protect their own backyard but to show solidarity with all working people under attack. That is why the whole movement must oppose and organise to defeat the destruction of the welfare state and the NHS.
Strike action is our main weapon so we need to develop the strategy and tactics to ensure we use it effectively in our collective interest. That is why PCS is now posing the question straight – we are in favour of joint coordinated industrial action to defeat the cuts – will you join us?