My first strike

After the student protests in December, many young people took part in their first British strike yesterday. A first time striker looks for wider connections in the past and elsewhere as he seeks to discover what it is he is joining.
Samir Jeraj
1 July 2011


Today I joined my fellow Public and Commercial Services Union (mainly low paid civil servants) members who are on strike. Despite a long history of activism and supporting strikes, this is my first strike as a member of a striking union. My generation is possibly the most right wing and individualistic in modern history, but this isn’t an inevitable trend. In the year I was born, there were nearly 30 million working days lost to strike action and membership of trade unions was 11 million as compared to around 8 million today. It remains to be seen if we can move beyond the selfish individualism of Thatcher and Blair, and create a new collectivist set of values.

In a continuum of action starting with the student protests at the end of last year, following through the 26th March demonstration against government cuts, and the coordinated action today, the next likely date for strike action is September, with the local government union UNISON likely to join in a ballot of members. Without a resolution on public sector pensions and action on private sector pensions, this is likely to go ahead. The work to be done in between is to build support inside and outside unions, counter the false discourse on public sector pay and pensions, and to take coordinated action. But we need more than a plan of action: we need a new collective idea about how to relate to each other on a basis of compassion.

The rhetoric from the Conservative-Lib Dems shows the need for central government to be seen to assert authority. However, this has combined with an inherent dislike of trade unions from many Coalition MPs. The Conservative traditional hostility to trade unions comes from a 1980s attitude still present in its members and MPs, Grant Schapps described the free magazines produced by councils as ‘Town Hall Pravdas’ – a reference that went of the head of anyone who was born after 1980. Within the Lib Dems, a classic liberal attitude prevails – ‘it’s ok to strike in principle, but not in practice.’ For a party that has jettisoned its socially liberal programme in favour of wanting to be seen to be good for the economy in a recession, the Lib Dems have abandoned the chance of building on the support they were beginning to painstakingly receive from unions and forge a new alliance around electoral reform (which most unions support) and a negotiated consensus on jobs and pensions.   

Not going into work made me feel like I was skipping school. No one else in my workplace is a member of a striking union, so it was a somewhat lonely strike. I joined members of my union on a picket line outside one of the Her Majesty’s Revenues and Customs (HMRC) offices. According to the front page of the Independent, the average pension for the staff who work to get people into employment is just £5,000. Current proposals will see this amount fall between 20-50% with a doubling or tripling of employee contributions and the loss of 1 in 5 jobs.  At the end of last year the government announced 13,000 job losses at the HMRC. Despite errors in the Pay as you earn (PAYE) system affecting 5 million people last year, and £120 billion of evaded and avoided tax, the government feels it necessary to undermine the tax system by reducing the number of people collecting and administering it.

At midday, strikers and supporters met for a rally outside the Library in the City Centre. Something which always struck me at demos is the beautiful trade union banners on display, portraying a history of struggle far beyond living memory. True to the Norfolk context, the Trades Council banner depicts two events, Ketts Rebellion – a popular revolt in Norfolk which led to the establishment of a parliament in Norwich in 1549; and the Burston Strike School – a school where between 1914 and 1939 pupils went on strike in solidarity with sacked socialist teachers.  What was clear about the strike from the speakers was that the reasons behind it were far bigger than just pensions.

Much has been written on the ‘new’ aspects of the student protests and mobilisation by groups like UKUncut , such as their use of social media, but perhaps even more significant is how the younger generation – the last of Thatcher’s children – are re-connecting with older traditions of dissent that have been largely airbrushed out of dominant discourses.  A generation of young people has learnt about the civil rights struggle, but not the miner’s strike. Whilst the former has become part of a shared liberal heritage of progress, the latter is too divisive and combative to be easily sanitised. Eric Hobsbawn wrote of historical memory at the beginning of Age of Extremes about how, at the start of the Balkans conflict, an aged Francois Mitterand attended a service in Sarajevo whilst under fire. The international commentators and media had forgotten that he was commemorating the start of the First World War. Finding new ways to reconnect with the past can inform our present struggles.

The speakers from the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) set out the issues affecting their profession rather than just their job. The ATL speaker talked about how the government had broken what was a contract between society and teachers, to educate the next generation who will provide for and care for the present generation in old age in exchange for a decent pension (the average teacher gets a £10,000 a year pension). The NUT speaker brought in the fact that many teachers now have student debt to pay off – an amount which will increase to £30,000 or more under the new system. These points taken together reveal the attack on an entire profession, wearing down the quality of those who want to apply to be teachers by grinding down pay, conditions, and pensions.

The speaker from my union pointed out that we know where the path of austerity will lead and what that will mean – not just for employees, but the public. In Greece, cities are depopulating as young people move back into the hinterlands, reversing the urbanising trend which the industrial revolution brought and which the welfare state civilised. In an article for The Guardian one Greek journalist stated with more than a hint of apprehension that this is “the first advanced-democracy revolution we have ever seen”.

In contrast to the 26th March, Ed Miliband and the leadership of the Labour Party made it clear in advance that they didn’t approve of the strike. During the run up to the strike and in the course of the day members of the Labour Party I encountered voiced their annoyance, one saying “We’ve got David’s right wing policies combined with Ed’s lack of charisma.” Ed Miliband now risks losing the support of union members, who largely backed him for Labour leader.  The results of the Inverclyde by-election do show that Labour can hold its heartlands at by-elections but there is still the possibility of the SNP depriving it of the seats it needs to win a future election.

Reflecting back on the day, it was a relatively unremarkable and simple action - not going into work and standing or marching in the public space threatened by a neoliberal attack far beyond than just our pensions. As the strike band (with more than a hint of irony) starting playing “We don’t need no education”, I thought about how we need to relearn our shared history of struggle for a better and more just society based on the redistribution of wealth. New Labour wanted to move on, “Forwards not backwards” was their 2005 slogan.  It may be that we are all just observers to what “forwards” is in Greece, but here and now we have a chance to build for September. 

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