By Tom O’Donnell
The first simultaneous strikes against the government’s policies seems inevitable at the end of June. Following the upsurge of student protest at the cuts to higher education, and allowances and the hike in fees it was no coincidence that the first union to take major action was the college lecturers’ union the UCU, followed by a series of local actions by the teacher’s union NUT.
A series of unions are currently balloting their members for authorisation to call strike action, with many of the results known in mid-June. Amongst teachers the NUT is likely to be joined by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which would be its first industrial action since 1979. In addition the civil servants’ union the PCS is also balloting members and it is projected that around 750,000 trade unionists could be engaged in co-ordinated strike activity on June 30th.
The primary focus for the strike action is the loss of pension rights. The government is leading an all-rounded assault on pension entitlements that have already been contractually agreed, including lower employer contributions, a pensions ‘levy’ which amounts to a pay cut for workers, later retirement and lower retirement benefits. But the background is a sharp attack on living standards through cuts in government spending and from inflation, as well as a generalised attack on public services.
Looking ahead, the leadership of the UNITE union has formulated a joint pact with the PCS to co-ordinate further on strike action and there are hopes that UNISON members will be brought into struggle in defence of their rights especially since the membership is amongst the lowest paid workers in the country.
The government’s response has been to send Business Secretary Vince Cable to the GMB conference to warn that industrial action ‘that might damage the fabric of our economy or society’ would lead to further anti-union legislation. Britain already has some of the most draconian anti-union laws of any developed economy. As GMB general secretary Paul Kenny said, “Government ministers come on TV and the media, saying it’s OK to have protests and strikes in Egypt but when it comes to workers’ protests in this country we think we should legislate them out of business”.
In the short-term the threats from the government may well increase militancy and the vote for strike action. But an effort to demonise unions and shift the blame for the economic crisis onto them might yet lead to further government action against the right to strike.
The best possible preparation for that battle is for the biggest possible Yes vote in the strike ballots and the largest possible turnout of union members and their supporters on picket lines and any rallies on June 30th. The greater the mobilisations and the more they can be linked, the greater the prospects of resisting these assaults on the living standards of workers and their democratic rights.