I am on strike today. I actually voted no to strike action, but feel I needed to respect the collective decision of my union’s members. I lot of my colleagues however do not feel the same way and are not participating in the strike. The picture above is from the rally held in Bradford City Park this morning. These rallies are usually held outside the steps of City Hall, but there is an urban festival there this weekend so we were shunted over to one side. This was probably a good thing as there were only a couple of hundred people there (mostly union stewards) even though seven unions were on strike. Meanwhile, the Conservatives make hay with their announcement of plans to bring in yet more anti-union laws.
Good private sector companies understand the need for unions, knowing that proper consultation with workers can lead to improvements in efficiency and productivity. The Government’s attitude to unions however seems rooted in the 19th Century, and they are being goaded on by their right-wing allies in the media. This kind of anti-union zeal is already seen in many red states in the US, and leads to worrying events like this, where an employer welcomes the setting up of a union, but the employees are scared into voting no by unprecedented pressure from Republican politicians and their allies.
I’m deeply unhappy with the way the Government have treated public sector workers over the past 4 years. The grievances are real and I’m in favour of taking collective action to try and achieve change. Nevertherless I voted no to strike action because I don’t think there is any prospect of victory under this Government. One day strikes aren’t going to achieve anything, and support for unions is falling. Even among union members, a large number do not participate when a strike is called. There is no stomach to go on strike for an extended period because in general, public sector workers care too much about the job they do to walk out for the length of time it would take to budge the government. All we are doing now is pissing people off, losing pay and giving the Government the excuse it needs to bash us some more.
To today’s rally in where I am in Bradford then, and there were a number of speeches.
- Imran Hussain, the Labour Councillor who was defeated by George Galloway in the Bradford West By-election gave a very loud speech in which he supported the strikes, but made it clear that while Labour would like to help, they really couldn’t afford it right now.
- A GMB rep made a good case for why action was necessary, but pretended there were 1.5 million out on strike today.
- A PCS rep said some rude things about the Coalition and said sorting out tax avoidance could obviate the need for cuts. This pissed me off because the tax avoidance thing is a total red herring. There is no link between cuts and tax avoidance. Tackling avoidance is about fairness, not funding.
- The best speech was from a teacher talking about what it meant to her to be a teacher and why she felt she had no option but to go on strike. To me, this type of message is most likely to resonate with the public. We need to hear more of this.
So what am I arguing for then? I would do two things. The first would be to constantly remind people just what public sector workers do. I would find former students who’d been turned around by a teacher who were willing to say how much they valued their help, and do the same with NHS patients and users of local government services. I’d also shut up about tax avoidance, and start talking about the scandal of pay and conditions in some parts of the private sector.
The second thing would be to replace strike action with working to rule. For example, teachers I know work a ridiculous number of unpaid and informal unpaid overtime. If all teachers resolved to only work their contracted hours, schools would start to fall apart in a matter of weeks. It would very quickly become obvious how much teachers are expected to do, and how much money they are actually saving through their extra hours and goodwill. There have been half-hearted attempts already at work to rule in schools, but they haven’t held. It would take all unions to work together and commit to sticking with the action. I think if this could be achieved, it would be far more effective than a one day strike, and would force the Government to take action. The public would be more likely to be in support too, as workers would only be doing the hours and work as per their contracts, which would put the spotlight firmly back on the Government.