Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The mass strike comes to Britain

You'll have gathered that I'm immersed in work at the moment, but it's definitely worth pausing to notice this.  The leaders of every major trade union in Britain, from Unison and Unite to the PCS, GMB, NUT, FBU, and others have reportedly said they will back coordinated strike action on 30th November.  They have named the day.  This could result in 3 million workers on strike, the biggest single day of strike action in the UK since 1926.  My article on the previous strike a few months back put it like this:

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.

That remains the case.  Stuart Hall, writing in The Guardian the other day, warned that "popular thinking and the systems of calculation in daily life offer very little friction to the passage of [the Tories'] ideas".  There is a great deal to this, and this is why people need a sense of their collective power.  Importantly, a number of union leaders are talking about defying anti-union legislation, which has been one of the factors inhibiting militancy since the Thatcher era.  It would, of course, be foolish to assume that what union leaders promise at conference will materialise without a struggle.  The ballots are still to be held.  Even if they are passed, union leaders can wobble and call off strike action.  The government, if it panics, may offer the major unions just enough concessions to cause them to back off.  The success of the strike ballots as well as the success of the action on the day depends on the arguments had, and alliances forged, between now and November.