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How smart are smart strikes?

Apart from making me a member of the wrong trade union,  John Harris’ reporting in The Guardian of the strike day events in Salisbury, Swindon and Gloucester was very good indeed. He correctly highlights the fact that the bulk of the strikers on N30 had not previously been involved in industrial action, and the whole event was characterised by the normalcy of its participants; physiotherapists, probation officers, cleaners, nurses, receptionists, police community support officers, council admin staff, refuse collectors, scientists, librarians, and even the staff from English Heritage. Picket lines felt innovative and fresh, as first time strikers invented their own way of doing it.

The context therefore is that the industrial action is giving expression to, and accelerating, a political crisis for the government. Solid respectable public servants, many of whom consider themselves part of the professional middle classes, find themselves in the unlikely role of waging a sustained industrial campaign, that is in its own way as deep a challenge to the legitimacy of the government as posed by the 1984 miners strike.

To win this dispute we need to consolidate this progressive coalition with a recognition that the so called middle classes have largely the same economic and social interests as the traditional working classes. We also need to recognise that in so far as the working class is defined by its position in the economy, then the trade unions inherently need to relate to people on the basis of their actual experience, and that the trade unions are modernising institutions that continually adapt to retain membership.

Forming a sense of alliegance to trade unions cannot just rely upon shared economic interest, it also requires the forging of a sense of collective consciousness; and that requires the unions to draw on the iconography and experience of the past. Although we need to make the message modern and relevent, we also need to remind people that we are a powerful social movement, and invite them to identify with us.

So while John Harris is perceptive about the significance of putting RCN on the platform, and having an ordinary person speak about how he is affected by the changes; Harris underestimates the degree to which these were conscious choices made by us fire and brimstone lefties! He also fails to understand the importance of reinforcing the sense of trade union tradition on those newly drawn into industrial action.

Paul Kenny, general secretary of GMB, came to Gloucester, and his interview above with John Harris lays out the strategy that GMB is putting forward, and which other unions are also discussing. Essentially, rather than doing what the government expect, of periodic set piece mass strikes, the proposal is that all the public sector workers affected by the issue pay a levy to fund strike pay to key sectors of workers, and TUC would coordinate a rolling programme of different strikes, that would maintain momentum. this could even start before Xmas.

Trade union studies expert, Gregor Gall, has criticised the strategy of smart strikes. Gregor bases his argument on the apparent lack of pressure that UNISON and UNITE have put onto Southampton council this year; and elsewhere Gregor has referred to the experience of the 1989/1990 ambulance drivers dispute by NUPE and COHSE, which was at the time regarded as innovative, but many regarded the end result as a score draw.

Gregor seems to favour the escalating strike model used by NALGO in 1989, but in reality it is very hard to see how such a campaign could be prosecuted today, given uneven union density, and in some places fragile shop steward organisation. (The NHS in particular seemed weaker on N30 than other sections). Nor does such a model seem to match the level of confidence of our members, nor their ability to withstand losing that amount of wages.

I think Gregor is mistaken in comparing the dispute in Southampton with the pensions campaign, both because the council dispute is much more sectional, and because the council have less room to manouvre than the government.

But he also underestimates the massive political difference between now and the 1989 ambulance dispute. The crisis over pensions threatens to destablise the electoral base of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, and the longer the dispute goes on the more time there is for the unions to explain to the public how reckless the proposed reforms are in undermining the stablity of the pension schemes. If the dispute escalates to include – for example – RCN and BMA, then the industrial relations landscape is transformed. Already, union recruitment is soaring.

To me, smart strikes seem very smart indeed, allowing workforces who cannot easily strike because of their role in health or education to fund hard hitting strikes in area with a denser union membership, which affect the governance of the country more than they do the general public.

Meanwhile our unions can mount a political offensive demanding pensions justice for all, and end to pensioner poverty, and for the cancellation of the £10 bn in tax relief paid to pensions for the richest 1% of society.

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