Socialist Alternative

10 years on from huge strikes – what are the lessons for today?

The past decade has provided more than its fair share of seismic political events nationally and internationally and no doubt, in bourgeois history books, the November 30th public-sector pensions strike in 2011 will be slotted into a long list of footnotes. However, that strike and its eventual sellout and defeat is rich in lessons for everyone seeking to understand the current situation we’re in and wanting to change it, not least trade unionists. 

Some of the most extensive industrial action since the 1926 General Strike had the potential, not only to beat a fragile government back, but even to bring them down and pave the way for an alternative. The Tories took the climbdown by right wing trade union leaders as a green light to go on the offensive in a merciless race to the bottom, tearing up workers’ rights and presiding over the rise in zero hours contracts, endemic poverty, huge cuts in public spending under the guise of ‘austerity’ and an appalling mental health crisis. A decade on, we revisit that seminal strike in order to prepare for the battles to come. 

Coalition government attacks pensions

Soon after the coalition government was formed between the Tories and Lib Dems in 2010, the government commissioned Lord Hutton (arch Blairite and former Labour cabinet member) to ‘review’ public sector pensions as part of its ‘austerity’ agenda. The argument trotted out was that, with life expectancy rising and interest rates falling, the ‘gold plated’ pensions of public sector workers were unaffordable and unfair in comparison to the private sector. David Cameron even had the gall to suggest that some public sector pensions schemes were in danger of going broke, a barefaced lie when you looked at the relative health of the pension pots, as outlined by Hutton. What hadn’t escaped workers was that this argument for belt tightening wasn’t applied when governments had bailed out financial institutions during the 2007-08 crash or when employers were able to take payment holidays in the 1980s and 90s, depleting pension funds. Workers and young people were being made to pay for a crisis not of their making. 

Paying more, working longer

The proposals from Hutton amounted to public sector workers working longer, paying more and getting less at the end of it. The pension age would rise and be brought into line with the state pension age and pensions would be calculated on a career average rather than final salary basis, leading to thousands of pounds lost for workers. The proposals were accepted wholesale by the government.

The attack on pensions was one of many being prepared by the coalition government with cuts to services, further privatisation and £9k tuition fees all on the agenda. Autumn 2010 saw massive student protests and occupations which had an effect on some union leaders, with Unite and GMB formally backing the demos. The potential for a more generalised fightback was confirmed with the enormous ‘March for the Alternative’ organised by the TUC in March 2011, bringing three quarters of a million people onto the streets of London. It is still the biggest specifically working class demonstration in British history with workers marching in their union contingents and thousands of community campaigners and students joining. Indicating the outlook of some of the trade union tops, some of the bibs on the march read “Too Fast and Too Deep”. 

The message was clear from a section of the TUC bureaucracy, they weren’t out to oppose all austerity measures and challenge the government and the capitalist class as a whole. They were out for some concessions that could be sold back to members as a reason to end the struggle and stop the rocking of the boat. The lurch to the right that saw the Blairites take hold of the Labour Party had also had a profound impact in the unions as many leaders fully accepted the ‘logic’ of the market, seeing their role as ameliorating the worst effects of capitalism rather than challenging the system itself. 

Action in June

Not all union leaderships were willing to lie down and accept the reforms. Action in June saw the left-led Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), National Union of Teachers (NUT), Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and University and College Union (UCU) coming out for a day, piling the pressure on the other union leaders to act. 

The summer and early Autumn saw more unions ballot their members, drawing in sections of workers taking action for the first time. The summer also brought riots in inner cities across the UK and was a warning of the conditions affecting many working class communities. The inchoate rage of the riots needed channelling into a movement that could genuinely transform those conditions and bring in behind it those outside the formal structures of the unions. 

Bringing new groups into struggle was key to N30. The June strike was the first in the 127 history of the ATL. This has been a feature of the past decade, as conditions in various ‘professions’ have been eroded and new groups of workers drawn into the ranks of the working class. Four years later, the junior doctors strike over changes to their contract, foregrounded this process. The need for the trade union movement to reach out to these groups and the completely unorganised is as pressing now as it was in 2011 as the ruling class will seek to divide workers. 

Cameron’s attempt to play public and private sector workers off of each other had the potential to be turned against him if the movement had developed its demands and strategy to draw in private sector workers as well. This was not an abstract idea, as we saw Unilever workers on strike in December 2011 over attacks on their pension scheme; by this point the right-wing TUC leadership were preparing to end the public sector strike rather than broaden and deepen it.

Attempts to divide the movement

There were other attempts to divide the movement as concessions were offered to those within ten years of retirement and to the lowest paid. These concessions showed the government being forced to respond to growing pressure but were also about giving opportunities to the right wing trade union leaders to sell out, and heading off a more sustained challenge. There may be occasions when it is right to settle a dispute without winning everything on the table if a strike is losing momentum and it is better to preserve the gains made to fight again in the future but N30 was not one of them.

Up to three million workers were out on strike on that day and many more joined demonstrations. It wasn’t just the major towns and cities that saw big turnouts, 4000 were out on the streets of my hometown Taunton, not a place normally associated with mass trade union demonstrations and this was replicated the length and breadth of the UK. This could have been used to escalate the action, calling further days of action and appealing to other groups of workers in the private sector to ballot and join with mass advertising, workplace meetings and coordination locally by trades councils or strike committees. 

Importance of leadership

You will often hear it claimed that a union is only as good as its members and, while there is of course some truth in this statement, N30 demonstrated the importance of leadership and the treacherous cabal at the top of the TUC. Leon Trotsky observed in 1940 “There is one common feature in the development, or more correctly the degeneration, of modern trade union organizations in the entire world: it is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power…The labor bureaucrats do their level best in words and deeds to demonstrate to the “democratic” state how reliable and indispensable they are in peace-time and especially in time of war.” 

As Ed Milliband, Rachel Reeves and the front bench of the Labour Party implored the union leaders to settle the strike, agreeing with the general thrust of the government’s argument that pensions needed reforming, TUC General Secretary and lifelong union bureaucrat Brendan Barber began to peddle a ‘heads of agreement’ behind the scenes over the Christmas period that would see the dispute settled without defeating the core aspects of the government’s plan. He was backed up by Dave Prentis of Unison, the biggest union in the public sector and run by an entrenched right wing. Both have been rewarded handsomely for their services since: Barber received a knighthood and with no apparent irony is chair of ACAS, the body used to mediate between employers and unions. Prentis is now a director of the Bank of England, clearly seen as a safe pair of hands in the eyes of the ruling class. 

Complacency from some left leaders

While it was the right wing leaders who hamstrung the movement at a critical moment when the momentum was with us, there was a complacency amongst some on the left that the scale of N30 would be enough to win substantial concessions from the government. I asked at a packed meeting for student teachers at the Institute of Education in the run up to the strike what would happen in the event of Prentis or others selling it out and the response from the UCU speaker on the platform was that the strike was going to be a gamechanger and we mustn’t be bogged down with pessimism. Wishful thinking is one of the worst enemies of the workers movement and has plagued us ever since. It was also a reflection of us entering a new phase of struggle. 

The previous period under the New Labour government had been generally characterised, maybe with the exception of the firefighters strike in 2003, by periodic one day protest strikes. These strikes, sometimes called off at the 11th hour, were used to leverage some tiny concessions and then settled with very few developing into protracted battles. ‘Concession bargaining’ was the name of the game and saw terms and conditions traded to head off other attacks. 

The coalition government and the subsequent Tory government were not interested in trading. Their austerity agenda was about dismantling key aspects of the welfare state and cutting public spending to the bone. The belief that playing nice with the ruling class would lead to them looking on the union leaderships more favourably has been blown out of the water as it’s only given confidence to their offensive, knowing that the tops don’t have a stomach for a serious fight. 

Learning the lessons

In order to avoid this in the future we clearly have to ensure that fighting left leaderships are elected to replace those not willing to fight but the role of rank and file organisation is clearly essential. Millions participated enthusiastically in the N30 action but discussions about strategy and next steps were taken out of our hands with deals done behind closed doors and the ranks of the unions were not sufficiently strongly organised independently of the bureaucracy to be able to resist it when the sell-out began. We could learn much from the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, where rank and file members debated and scrutinised the mayor’s offer on the picket line before agreeing to return to work.

These lessons are so pertinent today. Current TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady appeared on the steps of Downing Street last year in support of the government’s furlough offer during the pandemic. A belief that responsible lobbying is preferable to the preparation of industrial action is still prevalent within the bureaucracies of many unions. Some unions did fight on with action in the spring and summer of 2012 by the PCS, NUT, UCU, Prison Officers Association and others but these smaller unions represented a minority of public-sector workers and the unity of the movement, the most powerful aspect of N30, had been broken by the January capitulation. 

Shift in approach

The shift to a more lobbying focussed approach by trade union leaders has been aided by the introduction of the Trade Union Act 2016 and draconian thresholds that make winning national strike ballots much more challenging. Any demand for strike action, particularly national action, can be met now with howls of ‘we’ll never meet the thresholds’. The sellout of N30 was the midwife to that Act because it gave the Tories confidence that they could get away with it without a serious challenge from the labour movement. No doubt some in the movement will have cynically welcomed the Act because it seemingly ruled out coordinated national strike action like N30 and its introduction disoriented many left leaders still wanting to fight.

Marxists often comment on how the working class will move to the political plane when checked industrially. The election of Jeremy Corbyn seemed to present an opportunity to claw back what the Tories and Lib Dems had taken. Corbyn’s leadership inspired and energised a movement drawing in new activists and pulling others out of a malaise. For all the positives, one of the downsides of Corbynism was that it delayed a serious and widespread debate in the unions about how to operate on this new terrain. 

Shifts in the unions

The recent election of Sharon Graham as Unite General Secretary vindicates the argument that change is needed. Graham can be accused of an apolitical approach by counterposing “Westminster versus the workplace” but it is also a positive reflection of the frustration with a lobbying strategy that doesn’t harness the industrial strength of members. 

From 2015 onwards, the prospect of a Corbyn government and more fruitful collaboration between the unions and Labour Party was seen by some as the antidote to all our problems. We must now use the anniversary of N30 and Keir Starmer and the right wing’s reclamation of the Labour Party, to have that debate and prepare for future struggles, recognising the importance of industrial action at the core of our strategy.

Potential for action

This Autumn we see the possibility of coordinated action being discussed once again on the issue of pay with NHS workers and others discussing and balloting on the governments’ pay offer. A newly elected left majority on the Unison National Executive Councilis a positive difference to 2011 and Graham’s victory in Unite also strengthens elements of the leadership but learning the lesson of what role organisations of rank and file workers should play is even more important. The NHS Workers Say No! Campaign has brought together thousands on social media and spearheaded protests and meetings that have pushed the unions to act. 

That kind of organisation has the potential to hold leaders to account and democratically debate the way forward. With attacks on pay and job losses on the horizon, rank and file organisations need to be built within and across all trade unions and reach out to the unorganised so that we avoid the mistakes of ten years ago.