Estelle Cooch writes:
Over a million public sector workers went on strike today against pay, pensions and cuts. The strike was the biggest in several years and brought together unions that haven’t struck together since the two big pension strikes of 2011 – June and November 30th.
It is worth recapping how the action came about. It was the NUT, now on their third day of strike action this academic year, that first made the decision to call for a summer strike back at their conference in April.
This strike was initially meant to take place on the 23 June, but as talks with the government continued the strike was postponed to 10 July. This coincided with similar ballots that were taking place in Unison, GMB and Unite local government.
An interesting dynamic emerged in many schools where teachers in the NUT and school support staff found themselves on strike together, but teachers in other unions, namely NASUWT, were not.
Jonny reports from Phoenix school in East London: “There was very militant picket line at the Phoenix School in Tower Hamlets. Around 30 people, almost all of them Unison members, cheered as cars honked their horns in support.”
Colin in Lewisham commented “John Roan Secondary School in Greenwich is on strike today. Picketing teachers joined the march in central London. I went along to show some parent power! There were also 40-50 people at a strike rally in Woolwich called by Greenwich & Bexley Trades Council which is pretty big for Woolwich!”
On 23 June Unison announced the result of their strike ballot and four days later GMB voted to join what was starting to be called “a day of action”.
Ian reports from an unusually sunny Manchester:
“It can’t be right that people who look after children, sick people or old people get paid less than parasites in the city. Worsening terms for public sector workers is part of making them more attractive for privatisation. It’s obvious that if the government gets away with cutting pay and conditions for public sector workers, employers in the private sector will be encouraged to turn the screw yet further. I visited local authority pickets at two sites in Manchester, in Hurpurhey (where I saw a young worker join UNISON and then the picketline rather than go in) and West Gorton, at a building I used to work in before the council took it over.”
In Birmingham the sun and the steel band added to the general carnival atmosphere that greeted NUT general secretary Christine Blower and Unison general secretary Dave Prentis.
As July 10 started to snowball other unions also decided to get in on the action with PCS and the FBU calling national strikes, and local (but certainly not less militant) disputes in UCU (Kings College London), Bectu (the Ritzy cinema), RMT, TSSA and Unite timed their action to coincide.
There were about 20 firefighters picketting Euston fire station. I spoke to Steve Jones, the FBU rep, who explained why he was on strike:
“We’re on strike today against this government’s pension robbery. As firefighters they want us to put in an extra 3 percent towards our pension. We’re already making a 14.2 percent contribution and then they want us to work an extra ten years and get less money at the end of it. Why?
It makes a massive difference to us that so many unions are on strike today. It shows unity from refuse workers to teachers because at the end of the day we all contribute to society. I’ve got children, I’ve got bins that need emptying, I’ve got street lights that need to be turned on. Without all these things safety goes out the window and the society we live in will become a much more dangerous place.”
Euston fire station (Photo and video by Estelle Cooch)
In Newcastle Hanif popped onto the rally in his lunch hour, but was impressed by the size and breadth of the demonstration:
“Around 600 people marched through the centre of Newcastle on 10 July in support of striking public sector workers. The strongest contingents were from FBU, Unite and GMB, as well as banners from PCS and Unison. Many people were applauding as the march moved towards it’s rally point chanting “I heart Sure Start” and “Low pay, no way!”
The past few months have been marked by a series of disputes on issues of low pay, be it zero-hour contracts or campaigns for the living wage. Adam reported from the rally at Hackney town hall:
“Around 200 striking workers and supporters gathered there with speakers from the local trades council, NUT, Unison and Unite. Escalate to win was the message from the stand. This is the worst series of cuts to both workers conditions, and for those at the ‘bottom’ of society. The biggest round of applause went to the mainly low paid women workers. There was a couple getting married inside the town hall (a different kind of union!), but when they emerged (after being married by scabs), they were encouraged to support the strike, which they did, a perfect example of uneven consciousness! ”
One of the most inspiring disputes of late was the Lambeth College all-out strike. The college workers voted on Monday to return to work over the summer – Matt Cookson’s report of this is here.
When the London rally finally got to Trafalgar Square, Sherrl Rogall managed to catch up with Lambeth College UCU rep Mario Nain who was firm about his prospects for September strikes: “We believe we can win the arguments to come out again in September. We are a small group of people but we’ve grown in confidence throughout this strike”
The question on everyone’s lips seems to have been – what next? The FBU are escalating fast, calling fifteen strikes over eight days between 14 and 21 July. Meanwhile the NUT and local authority unions are considering more strikes in the autumn. It is clear that there are pockets of resistance emerging all the time – both in the public and private sector.
In the lead up to the general election it is possible that fear of a Tory re-election could motivate workers to fight back. As issues such as education and the NHS reach centre-stage there is space for us to transform the election from Labour’s strategy of debating specific cuts, to a debate over the whole question of austerity.
But it is also possible that in the lead up to the general election, fearful that Labour will lose, the union leaders will become more timid. If we want to avoid this we need to try to do three things – build in, build out and build up.
In many schools this was the first time for a while that teachers and support staff have been on picket lines together. This is a good thing, but it reflects the uneven nature of recent strikes. July 10 was no exception to this, with many unions still not out, but we should seize this opportunity to strengthen formal and informal organisation within workplaces. Where links and contacts have been made they need to continue. Part of this will be going back to work tomorrow and arguing with those who didn’t strike that it was a fantastic day – and encouraging those not in a union to join. If this is done seriously it will make it more difficult for the union leaders to argue that there is no desire for strike action.
Everyone felt better from taking action together today, but those activists in unions that didn’t participate (for example NASUWT and UCU) need to campaign to get on board. At many academies, for example, support staff in Unison were not part of the action, while their GMB colleagues were. Many health workers were also asking why they were out on N30, but not today when the NHS remains a key issue in the lead up to the general election. The strikes by the Ritzy workers and UCU members at King’s College are inspiring and a model of solidarity, but can private sector workers or other smaller groups of workers coordinate their campaigns with the public sector? Unite would be well-placed to try and do this.
Finally if we strengthen existing union organisation and involve more unions the logical conclusion is to build up to the next big action. The Tories can withstand a one-day strike every few months, but this won’t actually be enough to save our public services, or the pay and conditions of those who work in them. That requires escalation. Many union leaders will be hesitant about this – particularly in the lead up to the next election. But members are far likely to support action if they believe it can win – and if they know we are planning to strike together. People need to get involved in the union in their workplaces and branches and campaign for it to happen, leaving union leaders in no doubt that the appetite is there and that action will be supported if called.
Thanks to everyone who sent in photos, videos and reports – keep sending them and we’ll keep updating. There is a separate report on the dispute at King’s College University here.
More photos from today’s rallies and picket lines
London main march to Trafalgar Square: