‘Time to move on from marching – will Britain's biggest unions abandon their masochistic 'new realism' and take action?’ asks Richard Seymour in the Guardian
"Imagine," said PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka, "what a difference it would make if we didn't only march together but took strike action together." The cheer that resounded from the crowd in Hyde Park spoke for itself. This was 26 March, the day that half a million workers from across Britain turned out for the most significant manifestation of trade union strength in decades – although you may remember it as the day when some windows were broken.
However inspiring 26 March was, though, leaving it at a march from A to B – just in time for local elections – would be a terrible waste. Some union leaders may feel that the best use of this energy is to vote Labour in the May elections. But Labour councils are also pushing through cuts, and it is obvious from local strike ballots that union members aren't putting up with this. The next logical step is, exactly as Serwotka says, co-ordinated strike action. So, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), National Union of Teachers (NUT), University and College Union (UCU) and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) unions are moving towards balloting their members for a one-day national strike over pensions, job losses and wages.
What sticks out here is the participation of the ATL, which is a professional teaching union not given to militancy. Its last strike action was in 1979. Similarly, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) overwhelmingly passed a motion at its annual conference in Liverpool calling for an indicative ballot of members for national strike action. This is far from typical for the RCN, which, until a change in its policy in 1995, always ruled out industrial action. The "proletarianisation" of professionals in the public sector, with degraded conditions even for usually respected staff, is leading some of the traditionally conservative unions to be more militant than their larger counterparts.
If the strike ballots are approved by the members, this could result in up to 800,000 people taking strike action. If other small unions join the strike, there could be over a million people taking industrial action on that day. However, the largest unions – such as Unison, which drew by far the biggest contingent on the march – have not agreed to take part.
According to Paul Mason, this is because their "leaders believe they cannot deliver strike action until October, if at all". In fact, I understand that Unison has indicated a willingness to strike in autumn, while the GMB have not. Unison's logic is that if it strikes sooner, it will undermine negotiations with the government. Why should it be that Britain's biggest unions are so hesitant in fighting the most devastating assault on their members pay, conditions and jobs in generations? With almost 7 million members situated in strategically important sectors of the economy, the TUC has immense potential power – but they're reluctant to use it.
Since the mid-1980s, the trade union leadership has mainly been steeped in the culture of the "new realism". Broadly speaking, this entailed accepting the policies of the government of the day, and negotiating the best deal for members within that framework. Sweetheart deals were in, and industrial militancy was out. A series of defeats and a gradual erosion of union density strengthened the hold of such ideas. But if this strategy ever had any plausibility, it now looks masochistic.
Unite's position is more nuanced. Len McCluskey spoke in favour for co-ordinated action on 26 March, and the union's national health committee recently voted in favour of joining strike action on 30 June. In that sense, Unite forms a bridge between the smaller, more militant unions, and the big battalions allied to Labour. McCluskey has also advocated a model of political unionism (eg co-operating with anti-cuts campaigns) quite different from traditional "bread and butter" unionism. This offers a way forward redolent of Wisconsin, where trade union action was plugged into a much wider community response to Republican cuts.
So, what is the strategy here? Some will say that a one-day strike isn't going to work. This government may be weak, but it won't cave after 24 hours. But this would miss the point: 30 June would not be the end, but a good start. As with 26 March, the aim must be to build something big enough to give confidence to other trade unions to join the fightback. It must be to break the paralysis that seized the British labour movement since the recession began.
If Unison did join national strike action in October, and Unite participated along with the smaller unions, it would constitute a sea change in the culture of industrial relations in this country. Such co-ordinated action would be as close to a general strike as we've seen in Britain since 1926. It would have a much bigger impact in the UK than in the continent, where general strikes are a more regular occurrence. It would shock the government to its core. The alternative is surrender, a weaker union movement and a much nastier society.