Monday, May 28, 2007

What are we going to do about public sector pay?

Full marks to the National Union of Teachers for sending out half term homework to their members about the NUT’s demand for a pay rise of 10% or £3,000. We certainly need some vigorous campaigning to alert the members of public service unions to the need to fight Gordon Brown’s pay policy.

With strike action over pay by PCS members hitting Liverpool’s museums today, this call from the teachers highlights once more the need for coordination between public service unions, called for by PCS Conference and UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis.

The recent experience of the disputes over public sector pensions is a reminder that coordinating industrial action between unions (and in the case of UNISON even within a Union) raises questions about democracy and governance of such disputes – these questions will be debated at UNISON’s Local Government Conference.

An equally important question which arises is about the tactics to be adopted in taking strike action. This is an issue which is touched upon in an article in the latest Labour Left Briefing which is critical of the approach of the leadership of PCS in their disputes over pay, privatisation and job cuts.

Trade union activists are less used to debating tactics for industrial action than we once were. The incidence of industrial action has collapsed as trade union membership and density have declined since the 1970s.

However, that is no excuse for not trying to learn the lessons which are there to be learned – and I think that activists in the public sector unions who consider ourselves to be on “the left” have a particular obligation to ensure that the debate from which we might learn such lessons takes place.

For many activists the starting point is a desire to see “all out indefinite strike action” as the best weapon to defeat the employers. In a private sector company the threat of all-out indefinite strike action, which interrupts production and hence the making of profit, may be an effective threat. In any setting, all-out indefinite action is the most serious form of strike action available to a group of workers.

Whether to advocate such a tactic depends upon judgements about its effectiveness and achievability in any set of circumstances. For left-wing activists who do not seriously expect to be in a leadership position it is an easy thing to “up the ante” in rhetorical demands without worrying about the consequences of actions which you know won’t be taken – this is why some people always used to call for a General Strike

For those of us who are seriously thinking about the strategy and tactics which the trade unions should adopt, the luxury of calling for the Moon is not an option. We need to work out what we can do to achieve our objectives of securing better pay for our members and how to shift the position of our employers.

In public services, particularly where these are still in the public sector, the relationship between management and union is mediated by political contingency as much as by straightforward economic imperatives. This means that industrial action has to be integrated into a political campaigning strategy to achieve influence for trade union objectives.

Aside from all-out indefinite action the options for strike action depend upon either calling out “all of the people some of the time” or “some of the people all of the time” (or at least for a long enough period of time to make an impact). For many public service workers a one day strike is no more than a demonstration, since the work remains to be done the next day (although of course this does not apply to everyone). Calling out “key workers” for a week or more is an alternative to relying upon purely symbolic strike action.

Ever since NALGO’s 1989 pay dispute, the strategy adopted within NALGO and then UNISON has usually been to seek to combine elements of both these tactics – with a campaign launched with an all-out one day strike and then followed up with “selective” action. The latter – when it entails payment of strike pay at the rate of “full take home pay” - can get very expensive, and there are significant shortcomings with the approach.

These emerged in the early 1990s in the Newham NALGO dispute, in which at one point the Union was paying “full take home pay” to an entire branch – or at least those who weren’t tempted back to work by offers of a premium payment for strikebreaking – in response to threats of victimisation against “selective” strikers.

Those of us who want to see united action by public service workers in opposition to Gordon Brown’s attempt to hold down our standard of living need to start spelling out what united action it is that we want to see.

It is easy to see that this would start with the largest possible one day strike, less easy to see where we would go from there…

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