Tomorrow's coordinated strike by public sector workers looks set to be larger than the one on 30 Novermber 2011 that was billed as a public sector 'general strike.' But what does that mean, and are we in any better position now, industrially, than we were then?
Tomorrow, like a lot of other people, I'll be up and out early to get to my workplace. I'll have a bag full of placards and hi viz vests in tow and spend the morning trying to persuade a reticent minority of my workplace not to scab. I'll then be going into the city centre for what will likely be a large, lively march before ducking out from a long and uninspiring line up of bureaucrat speeches to find a pub.
It'll be fun, and for many union reps and workplace organisers a decent pay off for an awful lot of hard work organising ahead of the day. (Including, in my case, organising for a separate strike over a different issue just two weeks previous.)
But what happens afterwards?
These things tend to follow a formula in almost every detail. You can predict not only the rhetoric and bluster used by the union tops, the 'these strikes are wrong'-ing by the Labour Party, the hysterical denunciations from the media and the threats of legal repression by the state, but even how militants respond to it. The cynicism and despondency in the months or years where nothing is happening, the sudden burst of (relative) optimism when some momentum actually starts building, and the anger when it's all pissed away in the aftermath. If it feels like you've been down this road before, it's because you have: many times over.
The solutions remain the same too. We need to build up the confidence of rank-and-file workers; not to play their part in the union tops' struggle-by-numbers, then be happy with whatever pig shit is shovelled onto our plates and called a win, but to take matters into our own hands. Decisions made by mass meetings in workplaces, struggles spread beyond the artificial boundaries of 'bargaining units,' recallable and accountable strike committees and a sustained campaign of disruptive direct action. Many people have argued it many times before, myself included, and will continue to do so.
What's interesting, though, is that there is some shift towards militancy. Not in the workforce as a whole, granted, but here and there in pockets. The decision of UCU at Lambeth College to walk out indefinitely is unprecedented in the modern era of one day action and 'sending a message' rather than stopping production. The continued Ritzy living wage campaign, incorporating not just strikes but a call from workers for a boycott of Picturehouse, has also been more imaginative and garnered more attention than most bog standard union disputes. Even amongst some of the unions taking coordinated action, there is more going on than just this one day. The firefighters will be taking eight consecutive days of action next week, and both the National Union of Teachers and the RMT have been pursuing their disputes even when other unions aren't alongside them. (PCS is theoretically committed to fight alone as well as with other unions too, but after agreeing to utilise selective action last summer we have still yet to start the fund to subsidise it.)
This doesn't mean that we're likely to divert from the formula tomorrow. Big day, lots of pickets, marches and rallies, then relax. But it does make the point reiterating that there is space to push for something more than stage managed set pieces and that, as slow and painstaking as it can often be, it is possible to force action that is more than a glorified protest. What's missing is how we build upon these developments or link them up across unions and across workplaces in any meaningful way.
So maybe what needs to follow J10 is a serious conversation on how we build a national rank-and-file movement. Not as a Trot front, or to be harnessed for the benefit of the union tops, but to give workers direct control over our own struggles.
In the meantime, solidarity to everyone taking strike action tomorrow and beyond.
As someone who will be
As someone who will be picketing, the strike seems like a token gesture. And that's depressing.