Monday, October 10, 2011

Selective action and silver bullets

As ever Gregor Gall is thought-provoking in his contribution to the necessary debate on tactics for the defence of public service pensions - in which he argues that the current experience of the dispute over attacks on pay and conditions in Southampton Council demonstrates that "selective action" is no "silver bullet" (http://m.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/10/southampton-smart-strike-union?cat=commentisfree&type=article).

We should welcome this contribution to a vital debate, even while perhaps questioning the use of the "bullet" metaphor in relation to a dispute with a Council Leader not averse to wrestling armed men to the ground (http://m.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/apr/08/submarine-shooting-sentry-murder-hms-astute?cat=uk&type=article).

We need a considered and informed debate about tactics for this dispute - and that means we must be free from the preconceptions of those (such as the now largely apolitical CPBML)(http://www.workers.org.uk/) who believe that mass action has had its day and smart action is the only way. Equally though we mustn't fall into the trap of discounting selective action completely, as some on the left may do.

Gregor makes, in my opinion, a couple of errors - both of them about a strike I was part of 22 years ago. The 1989 NALGO pay strike was won not only with escalating all-out action, but also with targeted selective action by key workers on strike pay at the rate of "full take home pay." This shows that UK trade unions have sometimes been prepared to pay high levels of strike pay - and that selective action can, in principle and in certain circumstances, be an effective tool.

UNISON has paid strike pay at that rate in several disputes since vesting day in 1993, but the experiences of the London Weighting dispute of 2002/3 and the 2002 national local government pay dispute both illustrated the greater limits placed on the utility of the tactic of selective action in an era of lower union density and greater privatisation.

Even before 1993 NALGO had learned, in the London Borough of Newham, how expensive it could be to go down the "full take home pay" road in a local dispute. NALGO branches had more money and autonomy than UNISON branches - and I led strike action on "full take-home pay" twenty years ago. Today barely a handful of our branches have the resources to sustain this approach and fewer would be wise to do so.

I think I broadly agree with Gregor's thesis that selective action won't be what wins the pensions fight, in spite of his misreading of 1989. I think our most experienced officials share that view.

However many activists, particularly in health where there has not been national action for a generation, have not been through the experiences which have persuaded that the tool of selective action is now so blunt. Our leadership must therefore continue to sponsor the debate in which Gregor Gall has made a welcome intervention.

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

1 comment:

nick venedi said...

Great lette our Jon!

Nick