UK: March 15 demos marked the next phase of coordinated strikes

Nigel Smith

March 15th marked the next phase in coordinated strikes across the UK, with the NEU (largest teaching union) UCU (lecturers union) and PCS (civil servants) on nation-wide stoppages. There was also a strike by ASLEF and RMT (train drivers), on the London underground. 

This is against a background of a recent pay settlement by the FBU (fire fighters union). The FBU recommended acceptance of an improved pay offer of 7% + 5% over two years , brought about via collective bargaining and not from negotiations with pay review bodies. The deal was over-whelmingly accepted by the membership.  

Most of the NHS unions are in a process of negotiations over pay. The Royal College of Nurses negotiators didn’t receive a mandate from the membership to postpone the planned strikes. They suspended strike action in order to enter into those negotiations and are recommending acceptance of the first offer that has been made to them. This offer appears to include a lump sum of about 4.5% for all workers and a 5% increase for next year. Workers will be tempted by the lump sum offer which will amount to approximately £2,000 for a worker on £35,000. However the decision remains with workers as to whether or not to accept the offer. The line that is being taken by the unions is to accept on the basis that it will resolve the dispute and it’s the best offer available. The union negotiators don’t seem to understand basic principles of negotiation and appear grateful that the government was willing to speak to them – seeing this as a victory, rather than a substantial settlement in favour of their members. They act more like arbitrators between the employers and their members, rather than a fully committed advocates of the rights and needs of their members. This is a sad indictment of the approach to negotiation from the union tops and is bound to have a demoralising effect of the determination of workers to continue the struggle. Unfortunately the junior doctors’ action from 13th to 15th March, is at the present time, isolated within the NHS because of the talks being entered into by the other NHS unions. The disputes involving RMT (transport union) as well as CWU (postal workers) remain on-going.

A major demonstration fronted by the NEU (teachers’ union) took place in London, but also smaller rallies and demonstrations took place across the UK. The demonstrations and strikes coincided with budget day and were therefore highly symbolic and point to the draconian anti-worker legislation that is going through parliament.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) still appears to be taking a back-seat while the disputes continue, with no real evidence of any significant level of coordination. It is noticeable that the TUC did not provide backing for the March 15th events, unlike those of February 1st.

Meanwhile workers across the country are showing that they are prepared to vote for strike action and to continue with disputes which in some cases have been running for several months. Workers in passport offices have voted for five weeks of strikes and the National Union of Journalists has voted for strikes over changes to local radio. The turnouts on the different strike days are encouraging, but there is a lack of drive from the tops of the unions and the TUC to really mobilise further. Calls for a general strike are being made by ordinary workers, but these calls seem to be falling on deaf ears from the union tops. 

What is needed is bold leadership and although groups such as Enough in Enough and People’s Assembly are trying to broaden the struggle, the complete betrayal of the struggle by the Labour Party is leaving a great number of Labour supporters sitting at home, who should be taking to the streets. The sense of hopelessness among many Labour supporters is apparent and without Jeremy Corbyn taking a stronger position around his future in the movement as well as those close to him, any momentum behind broadening the struggle is undermined.

However, in discussions with workers on picket lines it is clear that they have reached a critical point of determination. They talk of workers having to rely on foodbanks and not being able to heat their homes adequately. There is a clear understanding that rates of pay have declined across the whole of the public sector and that profits are rising for the super-rich. Imports of champagne into the UK are at a record high and the city elite talk of a return of the “roaring twenties.” This is an expression that was used to characterise excessive consumption by the super-rich following the First World War. Ordinary workers are regarded with contempt by government ministers. A WhatsApp exchange between two ex-government ministers tells you all you need to know about the contempt in which our teachers are held by the Tory political class. “What a bunch of absolute arses our teaching unions are,” declares Matt Hancock. “I know, they really, really just hate working,” replies Gavin Williamson, ex-education secretary. These view are not reflected across society. Any parent, student or grandparent who visits schools will see straight away how professional and self-sacrificing our teachers are. Reports of teachers buying basic equipment such as glue sticks, so they can give students a meaningful educational experience are common-place.

Let’s hope that the nurses and other workers hold out for a decent settlement as the transport workers have. The government achieved its objective in negotiations with nurses and other NHS unions recommending a rise of 5%. The nurses deserve more than this and need to be ready to reject this offer as it is well below the current double digit rate of inflation and in no way catches up with the historic slump in pay across the NHS.

It is vital at this time, that workers learn the lessons of past struggles and coordinate action more closely as well as develop a sense of their worth in defiance of a government that only wants to  benefit the rich and its big business backers.

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