In a shock move, following three days of strikes by workers at every university across Britain and Northern Ireland, the University and College Union (UCU) called off a further seven days of strikes. Other higher education unions followed suit, just hours before tens of thousands of university staff were due to take action alongside workers in health & education.
This strike was called off unilaterally by UCU leader Jo Grady, seemingly without receiving any concrete offer on pay, pensions or conditions, and without any consultation with the members who have stood on picket lines for nine days already in this dispute.
This was soon followed by the announcement by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) that they would suspend their planned 48-hour strike across England in early-March to pursue “intensive talks” with the government.
Bosses’ feet to the fire – don’t back down
These retreats come as both unions had the upper hand in their fights, with members preparing to escalate and push their employers’ feet further into the fire for a win. This would have been strengthened by the beginning of further coordination of strikes across the public sector in March demanded by strikers and the huge public support behind workers in health and education in particular.
Outrageously, Grady and UCU headquarters have tried to portray the undemocratic “pause” in strike action as some sort of victory. It is obvious to most across our movement, never mind leading union negotiators that unilaterally calling off action is a mistake and weakens, rather than strengthens a dispute.
This has been demonstrated, most recently amongst BT/Openreach workers in the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) who were left disappointed following the suspension of their action for which the CWU leadership recommended a sub-standard deal negotiated with little input from members. The membership reluctantly accepted this deal seeing no alternative.
Workers across the private sector have seen that many bosses will only be brought to heel with the threat of significant disruption, this has been the experience in many manufacturing workplaces across the North with above inflationary pay deals only being agreed after workers take strike action.
Democracy prevents sell-outs, Escalation secures wins
As union leaders crumble under pressure from bosses and we face further attacks on the right to strike by the government. It is up to members to ensure there are no capitulations to bosses’ attempts to disrupt the momentum behind the growing number of pay disputes and that our strikes are not sold out.
No decisions should be made without the full consultation of members, that is a given. However, the past weeks have demonstrated that we must go much further than this. Socialist Party members in the unions fight for all full time officials and reps to be elected and subject to recall, that disputes are locally controlled by elected strike committees and in the case of large, national disputes that members are not simply consulted with but are involved in decision-making from the bottom up with mass local workplace meetings which feed directly back to their chosen negotiators. Members are the union. Members should control it. Where union leaderships engage in bad strategies or sell out deals, we can organise to stop it.
Further planned coordinated strike action on 16th March must be the start of a serious strategy of escalation in strikes across the public and private sector. But this cannot be left solely in the hands of the trade union leadership. Workers across all unions must come together to demand coordinated strike action across sectors. This together with a strategy beyond “day here and there” strikes will ensure that action is as effective as possible.
Strike action has to create a crisis for the government and employers, otherwise it won’t be effective and will result in watered down deals. As larger workplaces move into action, smaller workplaces could time their actions for the same day and benefit from increased media coverage and the potential solidarity of tens of thousands of workers. We cannot wait for action like this to be called, pressure must come from workers across all unions for our leaders to call such action.
Coordination must result in a 24 hour general strike – a powerful mobilisation that would challenge the employers and politicians alike whether they be in Stormont or Westminster. We must reject any sell-out of disputes and force those who would do so out of the way. The money is there, it can always be found for the rich in times of crisis. After years of pay suppression, pandemic working conditions and attacks on our employment terms we must be prepared to go on the offensive for our fair share