The unions and the fight against austerity - Tom Denning

Teachers and Council workers strike together in Tower Hamlets in March
Teachers and Council workers strike together in Tower Hamlets in March: 3,000 filled the streets

Tom Denning considers the current position of the unions in relation to the fight against public sector cuts.

Submitted by Steven. on May 8, 2011

On 30th June, up to 750,000 public sector workers, including many members of the UCU, NUT, PCS and ATL unions, perhaps along with Unite health workers, are expected to strike together.1 The reasons given on the ballot paper will range from pensions to job losses. But in each case, the root of the indignation is the cuts, which will crush pensions, jobs, pay, services, and the day to day experience of working life. The strikes follow a demonstration of several hundred thousand in London in March, the first salvo in what promises to be a bitter battle.

Coordinated strike action may not materialise: recent promises of such coordinated action by unions including PCS, UCU and RMT were never translated into action. GMB and Unison have signalled they won’t be ready to take national action until October, or even 2012. Should it go ahead, the date is far from perfect: for UCU, NUT and ATL members, it comes close to the end of term, when many pupils have finished – the impact on the running of schools and colleges will be relatively minimal. Still, unions in education – where membership is stronger than any other sector – probably want to get moving before the summer break. But we have to ask the question: what comes next?

The paradox of militancy

Anti-cuts activists face a paradox at work. On the one hand, they are well aware that the government will not be defeated by a series of politely managed one-day strikes, the trade union routine which has characterised the past two decades. On the other, when they talk to their colleagues about the cuts and strike action, there is very often not even much enthusiasm for the limited plans which have been laid down. There are of course exceptions, with some workplaces and sectors much more militant than others. But even then: if you ask your fellow workers whether they’d arrange a strike through a canteen meeting rather than an official ballot, if they’d be prepared to picket out fellow workers, or stay out indefinitely until they win, perhaps without strike pay – currently, you’ll rarely get a positive answer.

This paradox produces a challenge. We know that ideas change through the experience of action; and we can imagine that, if only the crushing lack of confidence were to be overcome on a mass scale, the government could be forced back. But where can that confidence come from, if members are unwilling to take the sort of action that will win? Given the urgency of the challenge, is gradually building confidence through a better version of the old routines an option? And even if it were, why hasn’t it been going on during the more gradual attacks – for attacks they were – of the preceding Labour years?

The state of the unions (and the workers)

Let’s take a look at the reality of public sector trade unionism in the UK.

About 50% of local government workers are members of Unison, according to internal estimates (which, many with experience in trade unions will know, are often a bit hopeful). Many branches are well below this figure, and have little or no steward structure. An additional number are members of the GMB, but that is worse than useless since in most areas of local government, GMB effectively functions as a scab union, providing representation to those who don’t want to strike. Total union membership in health is just over 40% – which includes Unison, Unite and the Royal College of Nursing, the last of whom are traditionally anti-strike. Total union density in education is just over 50% according to the same figures (although it is probably much higher among teachers), which suggest an equivalent level for the PCS in the civil service.

Strategies and tactics

The traditional left has a two pronged strategy. One, they seek to build pressure within the unions for more action. The thought is that even right-wing bureaucrats need members’ support to stay in power; so will be forced to adapt somewhat to their views. Two, they seek to capture the leadership of the unions: there is a ‘crisis of leadership’, and the left can fill the void. (In some cases there is a third prong: democratise the union – but this almost never happens in practice, so we can leave it aside for now.)

Both prongs of this strategy are problematic. The first, because there is a very real limit to the extent to which this sort of ‘pressure’ can really control the official leaders: it can often be diffused through token action – the result of which tends to be demoralisation rather than anger. The second, because, while leadership may sometimes be a real issue, it is far from the main issue at the moment. The PCS union is all but run by the Socialist Party (a Trotskyist grouping): but achieving official leadership is not enough if workers remain unconfident at the base, and whilst (perhaps because of this) the leaders remain wedded to a somewhat more leftish version of the same routine practiced by the right. Both prongs seem somewhat blunted by the fact that there will be no leadership elections in many of the major unions – Unison, most obviously – until the vast majority of the cuts are done and dusted. Until it’s too late.

Striking in unison?

On 30th March, around 3,000 NUT members and Unison school support staff struck together in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, a borough in which membership is relatively high and organisation is strong. Unison regional officials dislike the left activists prominent in the borough, but did not stand in the way of strike action. Even teachers and support staff at the Central Foundation School, which was not balloted for official action due to its status as an Academy, struck unofficially in sympathy.2 So, in the right circumstances, pressure from within the structures will have some impact: activists will not be able to neglect this method entirely.

Yet, as local government worker Steven Johns argues, it isn’t credible to suggest that Unison (the union whose members are most at risk) has a serious intention of doing all it can to fight the cuts:

at a pensions briefing . . . we were told that we would not be joining the June 30 strike, and any action wouldn’t be until later this year, or perhaps early next year (which will be well after the horse has bolted – our 50% pension contribution increase will start to kick in in April). . . . This is not a case of reluctant members being unwilling to strike – this is the union holding us back. A majority of members in my branch voted to strike against compulsory redundancies in an indicative ballot, however union has still not permitted us, several weeks on, to hold an official ballot while redundancies continue unabated.

Johns believes that the excuse that the union’s records are not up to scratch is not credible. Furthermore, as he points out, national strikes in 20073 and 2008 were organised and concluded well outside the control of the grassroots membership. If workers are alienated from unions, it is surely not least because their struggles are so controlled from above, and their ‘victories’ so compromised.

Towards a new rank and file

Grumbling about ‘bureaucrats’, or ‘the unions’ is useless. Workers who are serious about fighting austerity, but who are unsatisfied by the routine of trade union defeat, need a definite programme of organisation which amounts to more than taking over a stale structure. We are by no means strong enough, at present, to declare an alternative structure through which to mobilise mass action. But we can begin to seriously make the case for a new rank and file movement. Perhaps this time its motto will be: without the officials when possible, with them when necessary. A former member of rank and file teachers’ groups in Scotland describes his experiences of a rank and file movement like this:

In 1974/5, the Rank & File Teacher group had been to the forefront of a three month long independent (unofficial or wildcat) rank and file movement of Scottish teachers organised through Action Committees. The central demand was for a £15 a week flat rate pay increase. The Action Committees organised weekly three-day strike action, street activities, large demonstrations, and an occupation of the EIS (the main Scottish teachers’ union) HQ. Negotiations were conducted directly between delegates from the Action Committees and representatives from the Scottish Office at New St. Andrews House in Edinburgh. . . . The Action Committees held weekly open meetings of striking teachers, and sent flying pickets to other schools to draw them into action.

He also recalls how a rank and file caucus campaigned for everything from smaller class sizes to gay rights, and were able to initiate unofficial action. (Unfortunately, rank and file caucuses across the country were closed down in the early 1980s, when the Socialist Workers’ Party withdrew its members.)

PCS activist Steve Ryan believes that a resurrection is necessary. “This will need to start slowly, and be built patiently and carefully. There is a way to go. Not to start, though, may leave the movement set back for years.” The Unite Grassroots Left conference on May 7th is perhaps one opportunity to start organising such a movement, if activists can avoid being sucked into over-emphasis on electoral work. Rank and file orientated members of other unions are welcome to attend.

What happens now?

In the run up to June 30th, we need to argue for maximum rank and file control through mass meetings (or meetings of the most active strikers) held during the strike day. Where possible, we should argue for strike action to cross official boundaries (as it did at Central Foundation in Tower Hamlets) and the one-day time limit. This might not happen often: but where it does the whole movement can draw strength and inspiration. We should try to reach out to other groups of workers, such as those in Unison, directly, such that workers begin to organise each other, not wait to be organised from above.

Most of all, we need to take upon ourselves the development of activist structures which allow us the independence to present an alternative way of doing things. In some cases, these will be organised by a group of workers with a particular political perspective (such as the Solidarity Federation’s Education Workers Network). In others, workers will primarily be united simply by the need to control their own struggles, and raise issues beyond the traditional formula of jobs, wages and hours. One such project is in genesis at a university in the South West involving academics and support staff in producing a samizdat bulletin, following a meeting held at lunch time during the most recent UCU strike.

Such alternate forms of organisation are not only important in themselves, but because they offer hope of a genuine relationship with community mobilisations outside the workplaces. Trade unions often say they are striking to protect services. But they are only able, legally, to strike over a ‘trade dispute’ – an issue which would affect the terms and conditions of members. If the quality and content of services is to be a real issue, workers need to be prepared to fight beyond the point where demands over work have been met, to the point where demands over services are conceded as well. This implies, therefore, breaking the boundaries of trade unionism: real community and workers’ alliances need to be based on being prepared to back each until the demands of both parties are met – not just until remote union leaders decide that legislation demands a swift exit. When workers really did act like this in the 1970s, the sorts of action they took were well beyond the scope of the current legal framework.

The unions’ responses to austerity are indeed inadequate, and do indeed partially reflect a real lack of confidence amongst workers, as well as the commitment of many union leaders to industrial passivity and the slower cuts programme proffered by Labour. Yet, many workers want more, and where they feel able to organise for it – such as in Tower Hamlets – are able to get it. The time for complaining is over. The time for organising an alternative has begun.

Tom Denning is a member of The Commune group. He has previously written on anti-cuts strategy and the unions for New Left Project, Red Pepper, and has a forthcoming article on the same topic in Shift Magazine.
This article was commissioned by New Left Project for their May Day International collaboration with ZNet and others, and was taken by libcom from

  • 1The unions named through acronym, or otherwise, in this article are as follows. UCU: University and Colleges Union – lecturers in Further and Higher Education. NUT: National Union of Teachers – the largest and most strike prone of the three teachers’ unions. PCS: Public and Commercial Services Union – the civil servants’ union. ATL: Association of Teachers and Lecturers – teachers’ union, a small, historically anti-strike teachers’ union. Unite: Britain’s largest union, formed through a merger of the former Amicus and Transport and General Workers’ Union – represents many private sector manufacturing and industrial staff, as well as some in the NHS. RMT: Rail, Maritime, and Transport union – includes London underground station staff and some drivers. GMB: stands for ‘General and Municipal Boilermakers, but effectively a general union, organising everything from car park attendants to teaching assistants; in some areas, a militant alternative to Unite, in others a passive alternative to Unison; more or less takes anyone who’ll join. Unison: the largest public sector union, and the largest in the NHS and local government – well known for a leadership closely allied to the Labour party right wing, and for persecuting hard-left officials.
  • 2An Academy is a form of ‘independent’ state school which has been promoted by governments over the past ten years, partly as a way to weaken unions.
  • 3 libcom note: 2007 was not an actual strike, but there was a strike ballot



13 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by joselito on May 20, 2011


I'm wondering if anyone knows of a similar piece analyzing US public sector unions


13 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Steven. on May 20, 2011



I'm wondering if anyone knows of a similar piece analyzing US public sector unions

I wouldn't say this is all that comparable, but this piece by Loren Goldner might be the sort of thing you are looking for: