A mass strike in Britain – is this a new era for organised labour?

Yesterday's day of action saw over two million public sector workers take to the streets, in response to far more than the immediate issue of pension reform. Have the trade unions caught the popular spirit of Occupy?

Even before the first picket line went up, the historic nature of the moment was clear for all to see. This was not simply about the narrow terms laid down by the mainstream debate: the ‘affordability’ or not of public sector pensions and the various myths these terms perpetuate. Beyond these confines there was a much broader horizon and set of possibilities that the mass strike posed: can the trade unions carve out a new role as catalysts for political change and in the process undermine all the assumptions that have dominated industrial relations in Britain since the 1980s?

I hope very much that the answer is an emphatic “yes”.

But, while it is easy to recognise, as the TUC’s Brendan Barber did in his unpublished article for the Sun,the overtly political dimensions to the pensions’ dispute, it is quite another thing to rise to the challenge of changing the role of the unions in wider British politics. My own experience on the picket lines at the University of Sussex and the demonstration in Brighton city centre which followed, underline the challenges these new times pose both to the official structures and leaderships of the labour movement, and grassroots activists at ‘the base’.

The remarkable fact about this strike movement – from which all the great potential of it flows – is its extraordinary, and possibly unprecedented, popularity in comparison to previous outbursts of industrial discontent. The now well recounted opinion poll from the BBC showed that some 61 per cent of the wider population backed the strikes. This must reflect both a spontaneous perception of injustice – that government policies in these times of economic crisis have favoured the richest over ordinary people – and also how the student movement of last year and the more recent #Occupy mobilisations have succeeded in shifting the terms of the public debate. 

If all these movements were characterised by popular mobilisations drawing in wide numbers of people with a clear and powerful message of resistance to injustice, then N30 very much stood in the spirit of these new times. It shows British trade unions may have at last properly embraced the politics, style and methods of organising of the new social movements. 

Tens of thousands marched in London, thousands took to the streets of Leeds, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and other major cities. But beyond these headline figures there were reports of significant demonstrations in relatively small cities: 7,000 people in Leicester, as many as 20,000 in Bristol, and over 2,000 in Chelmsford, to name but a few. The scale of these protests means they must have tapped into wider public support beyond unionised labour.   

Picket lines were set up at Sussex from 7am. UCU (University and College Union) members were joined by scores of students who organised a demonstration later in the morning. The atmosphere was upbeat with many of us sensing the shift in the public mood. Last week the University of Sussex Student Union emergency general meeting had voted to back the strikers, with literally only one or two votes against, support their picket lines and mobilise for the protest and rally in town. 

But hopes that the university would shut down entirely were dashed when Unison and Unite, although their members in the public sector supported the strikes nationally, did not take strike action alongside the UCU at Sussex. Many support staff organised by these unions who went into work on the day expressed frustration that they weren’t striking. One even said they had contacted Unison central office to ask if they would support her if she refused to cross picket lines, but was told in no uncertain terms that they would not as it would constitute illegal ‘secondary action’

Although the campus was far from closed, this did not render the strike ineffective: campus was undoubtedly very quiet, most lectures were cancelled and many students heeded their union’s call.

But it illustrates the difficulties the trade unions have in realising their political potential. That is, the disjuncture between the power of the social mobilisation and the relative weakness of workplace organisation at the base of the unions. There is undoubtedly a cultural dimension at work here too. Higher Education, for example, simply does not have the tradition of tight shop floor organisation and militancy of organised “blue collar workplaces” which were also out in force on N30. The Hollingbury refuse collection depot in Brighton had a big picket line of some 50 people and a very solid strike. So, N30 was plainly and inevitably uneven in the sociology, culture and outlook of the workplaces whichit brought together – generalising the best practice and helping develop the kind of workplace organisation that can empower union members are major challenges for our movement.

The activist left needs to put itself at the forefront of answering this challenge. OurKingdom blogger Guy Aitchison was right when he said in response to the huge London demonstration, “when workers strike it dwarfs anything the activist left mobilises”, but the two are not always mutually exclusive: activists operate at the base of the unions and feel the relative weakness of these structures in contrast to union tops. So, if the union leadership is not prepared to support their members who walkout for fear that it could be deemed secondary action, then they directly undermine the mobilising power of the base and reinforce a sense of atomisation and weakness.

It is important therefore to get the balance right between optimism and realism. Without inspiring belief that victory really is possible this time, there can be no victory. But neither will victory come if we don’t develop practical answers to the problems that still beset the formation of effective unions.

Indeed, at the Brighton rally, the fear that union leaders may take a line of least resistance reverberated as speaker after speaker urged them to up the ante in the New Year. Tom Hickey of Brighton University UCU, said that today’s protests had not only sent a message to the government, but to “every leader of every trade union in the public sector – no compromise on our pensions”.

If one shadow hanging over N30 was the moderate strategy likely to be promoted by the official leaderships of the labour movement, the other was how the N30 strikers could shift the terrain of British politics if they did not have a political voice that was firmly on their side.

Public opinion is infamously changeable and the question now is whether the unions can capitalise on their current high level of support in a tangible and lasting way before the opportunity is lost.

It was not hard to find strikers angered by the stance of Ed Miliband. As one speaker at the Brighton rally put it “I welcome every Labour party member who’s with us on today’s strike, but I hope that no one’s relying on Red Ed Miliband who is sitting on the fence and getting splinters up his arse”.

How to respond to these political and organisational challenges posed by what could be a new dawn for industrial relations in Britain is outside the scope of this short report. But activists across the movement will have to reflect upon them in the coming weeks and months. Once again the enormous power of organised labour has been illustrated. But realising this potential power as a force for political and social change will require many more ‘historic days’ on the road ahead. 

About the author

Luke Cooper is a postgraduate student and associate tutor in International Relations at the University of Sussex, a supporter of the Anticapitalist Initiative, and co-author of Beyond Capitalism? The Future of Radical Politics (Zero 2013).