N30 and after: was that it? A debate on the public sector strikes

Gregor Gall analyses the 30 November strikes. With a response by Heather Wakefield

February 5, 2012 · 14 min read

30 November in Lancashire. Photo: Andy O’Donnell

Was that it? Well, maybe. While France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain have been rocked by numerous general and public sector-wide strikes over the past few years, in Britain we have had just the two one-day strikes over pensions reform, on 30 June and 30 November last year.

Apart from these, large-scale resistance to job losses, pay freezes and cuts in services has been notable by its absence. Slogans such as ‘We won’t pay for their crisis’ ring hollow; the reality is that ‘we’ are paying for their crisis and ‘they’ are getting away with it.

Punching above its weight

All of this may be true, but it is also the case that N30 packed a punch well in excess of its weight as a one-day strike. In this sense, it was far more of a protest than an orthodox strike – and not just because it was only a day long. Any strike in the public sector is necessarily more of a political action because the government is the ultimate employer and it responds to political pressure, as opposed to the pressure of a strike as an economic action against a profit-seeking organisation in the private sector.

In the run-up to N30, especially once the ballot results came in, the media was dominated by the prospect of the day itself. This cleverly built up pressure on the government as the first truly mass and coordinated strike in decades loomed large. Indeed, all the significant concessions – in terms of the raised threshold for paying more in contributions and the moratorium on changes affecting those retiring within ten years – came as a result of the threat of the strike.

The concessions were a validation of the unions’ recognition that the best way to strengthen one’s hand at the bargaining table is to threaten action – even if that came late in the day, given that negotiations began in March 2011. But it was also government ineptitude that helped 30 unions to not only sing from the same hymn sheet but coordinate their action on the same day.

Even after the concessions, however, most public sector workers will pay more, work longer and get less when they retire. Moreover, the stomach for further action looks to have been severely weakened and inter-union unity fractured as it becomes clear what different unions are prepared to settle for.

Strengths and weaknesses

The logic of the bargaining process so far is that the only way to get more concessions is to threaten to strike again (and do so if necessary). Yet the strike’s central dynamic is most clearly revealed in Unison and the GMB where – despite grassroots activist pressure – the action was instigated and controlled by the national leaderships.

This may have been less true in other unions, such as PCS or Unite, and there may have been cases where national leaders and activists worked more closely and on an equal basis. Nonetheless, N30 was in essence a mass bureaucratic strike (I use the term sociologically). This is most clearly shown in that the date was set by national leaders and made only a one‑day affair without any subsequent other days lined up. The only discussion on subsequent action concerned ‘smart striking’, which ran counter to the demands expressed by many in the organised grassroots.

The bureaucratic nature of the strike produced particular strengths and weaknesses. Its primary strength was that, in the context of the widespread atrophy of active workplace unionism, N30 was driven and controlled by national leaderships. For example, many Unison branches have poor steward organisation and have been unable even to get quorate meetings recently, but the majority of their members struck on the day. In many cases, the national leaderships – along with their full-time officers – made up (temporarily) for much of this atrophy.

Yet a major weakness is that because some national leaderships now seem to be willing to accept insufficient concessions and disregard their previous statements of not allowing members to ‘pay for a crisis not of their making’, grassroots activists are unable to enforce their will – or the leaders’ earlier statements.

The unravelling of the N30 unity and action also reveals a number of strategic weaknesses, concerning both national leaderships and the grassroots.

No movement?

First, it is questionable whether the unions in the public sector (or the economy as whole) do constitute a ‘movement’ as such. It is common to talk about the union ‘movement’ but there is little sense of the unions pulling together in terms of policy and action. This was evident before the autumn, with the ATL, NUT, PCS and UCU striking on their own on 30 June, and Unison saying striking then was premature as negotiation had not been exhausted.

It is better to see the union ‘movement’ as a spectrum, ranging between the ‘militant’ PCS and the ‘moderate’ Unison, GMB and many small professional unions. What they have in common is currently outweighed by their differences, which are being highlighted now that the government is effectively practicing ‘divide and rule’ tactics. While there are material differences between the pension schemes, the idea of fair pensions for all is being lost.

Indeed, Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, has lambasted what he sees as ‘fatalism’ on the part of many other unions in this fight. By this, he means leaders of the GMB and Unison in particular do not seem to think they can win because they have become so psychologically inured to years of defeat since the 1980s.

Second, the ballot results for N30 raise the question of how much appetite there is for continued action. This would mean either upping the ante with more national one-day strikes or continuing the action in some form of ‘smart’ strike – selective (regional, sectoral) rolling action.

But of the 30-plus union ballots, only three secured the backing for action of more than half of those entitled to vote. With so many members either not voting or voting against, along with the large numbers of non-members, it would be a major challenge to transform any further strike from a one-off protest into an ongoing action that shuts down public services. Yet this is an important way to exert more pressure on the government and is what the unions must face up to.

Public opinion

The third strategic weakness is public opinion. Polls showed strike support climbed from being evenly split in late October to clear support (60 to 40 per cent) as N30 approached. This resulted from a combination of effective union campaigning and government ineptitude. But it was only a case of ‘so far so good’, because while public support is critical to not undermining a strike (especially in the public sector), it is not sufficient to winning one.

Despite occasional strikes in the private sector over pensions (such as the one at Unilever), there is a lack of any widespread organic connection between private and public sector workers, with many private sector workers believing public sector pensions are ‘gold-plated’ or seeing nothing wrong with public sector pensions being brought down to the level of their own.

This chasm between public and private has been reinforced by the union movement not taking the necessary steps to create widespread and deep-seated alliances of users and producers of public services, where the interests of both are cemented in the common interest of more jobs with better rewarded staff providing a better service.

The union movement in Britain is far behind its counterparts in, for example, Australia and the US in this regard. Union movements in these countries approximate much more to social movement unionism, whereas in Britain the sole locus of the workplace remains much more dominant.

Just how telling the disconnection will be depends on whether there is more action and to what extent the general public feels inconvenienced by it. The longer any action goes on, the more likely public feeling will move towards the government.

Thus, quick, sharp action is needed to win and keep the public on side. The unions could blunt any public hostility by mobilising citizens again in a show of generalised anger against cuts – with pensions as part of it – as they did on 26 March 2011.

Finally, if unions really do wish to stop workers working longer and paying more but getting less, then they must address the issue of where and when to knock out public services. In Greece last September, civil servants occupied their workplaces so that the audit team could not do its work of assessing revenues and liabilities for another bailout. Would UK unions be willing to target the tax system itself, which will be responsible for implementing the increased pension contributions come 1 April 2012?

This necessity of creating strategic levers of power also faces the other major ongoing battle of the moment. Electricians at seven major companies face a ‘sign or be sacked’ ultimatum. Their campaign since August last year has highlighted that they need to stop the construction sites, rather than just protest outside them.

It looks as if 2011 was just a warm up as these struggles are yet to be concluded. Unions face crunch time. Their actions so far could point the way to victory but that is very far from assured. To gain those victories, they must address their shortfalls in terms of acting strategically, as a movement and in alliance with the wider citizenship.

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire.

Response: An amazing day

By striking if we have to, by negotiation if we can. Heather Wakefield responds that working this way is not a ‘weakness’

Midnight, N30. Unison’s president, Eleanor Smith – a nurse – leads workers at the Birmingham Women’s Hospital out on strike. So began a day that saw more than a million public service workers on strike for pension justice.

N30 wasn’t just the biggest strike since 1926 and the biggest public sector strike ever, it was also the UK’s biggest women’s strike. An amazing day, with substantial public support, union recruitment at high levels and a mushrooming of new activists, many young, giving the lie to the view that public sector unionism is being dismantled, like the services our members represent.

Those who did not take part also merit a mention, not least because their absence was felt on N30 and because their abstention from any future action would leave big holes in any strategy underpinned solely by strike action. In the NHS, the BMA, the Royal Colleges of Nursing and Midwives were noticeable for not having balloted, as were some smaller ‘professional’ unions in the NHS. That left the lowest paid and vulnerable fighting for the highest paid with power. The firefighters’ FBU also decided not to ballot, in the light of evident progress in negotiations.

So far, so good. But did the strike achieve its objectives? What happens next? Why has there been no further action? And where does it leave public sector trade unionism?

It’s easy to forget that the government’s initial objective was to do away altogether with defined benefit schemes and replace them with defined contribution schemes – in which your retirement income is only as good as your investments and the market at the time you retire.

The ‘independent’ Hutton report made it clear that he wanted to reduce the level of pensions to the low ‘income replacement’ levels of the earlier Turner report, and the rate at which pensions accrue – generally from 1/60 of salary each year to 1/100. Hutton also wanted to keep workers outsourced from the public sector to private companies and voluntary organisations out of public sector pension schemes altogether.

Dogged negotiation

Dogged negotiation by the TUC team representing all the unions had begun to knock the rough edges off some of the coalition’s plans for these ‘big ticket’ items before the threat of N30 – let alone the actuality. But there is no doubt that the strike threat focused the minds of Francis Maude and Danny Alexander – Cabinet Office minister and chief secretary to the Treasury – who have led for the government on overall pension policy and negotiations.

Shortly after the announcement of Unison’s ballot results – and before some of the more surprising ‘yes’ votes – they produced a new ‘offer’, which included full protection for those within ten years of retirement and beyond, retention of the 1/60 accrual rate and ‘cost ceilings’ that provide scope for serious negotiation. Most workers transferred to the private or voluntary sectors will retain their right to stay in public sector pension schemes.

Those who retort that workers will still have to work longer and receive less are in some senses correct, in others not.

The switch from RPI to CPI indexation was imposed earlier on and the offer includes linkage to the rising state pension age. The former is currently the subject of legal appeal by a number of unions and the nature of the link to state pension age remains an issue in the negotiations.

What also needs to be said is that each scheme currently under review is different and it was inevitable that negotiation within sectoral bargaining groups would follow action – as it would also have to follow any further action, unless HM Government keeled over completely. This is an unlikely scenario, given the low density in many workplaces, lack of organisation in outsourced providers and the non-participation of some big-hitting unions.

The agreements currently under further negotiation and consideration by most unions in the NHS, civil service and schools are detailed ‘heads of agreement’, dealing with contribution increases alongside proposals for new schemes from 2015. The situation in the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS), which also covers support staff in police, probation, schools, further and higher education, the Environment Agency, transport and the voluntary sector, is different.

The LGPS, uniquely, is ‘funded’ to the tune of more than £140 billion, and has a membership that is much lower paid than other schemes – 70 per cent earn less than £21,000 per year. Here we have agreed some principles for negotiation, which provide the potential for no change until 2014, no contribution increases for most members, retention of ‘admitted body status’ for transferees to the private or voluntary sectors and choice over retirement age and contributions. The retirement age has been 65 for some time.

Get to grips

Those who argue that unions wanting to negotiate – the majority – have ‘sold out’ and undermined trade union solidarity need to get to grips with the complexities of public sector pensions, serious areas of weakness in membership density and organisation, sectoral bargaining arrangements in the public sector. Only when they have done that should they decide whether there is a route to getting everything we want through industrial action.

They need also to consider the other issues facing our members and the public – cuts in services, privatisation, reorganisations, redundancies, casualisation and cuts to pay and conditions. Unions need to strike, campaign and negotiate on these issues too – placing ourselves firmly alongside service users and communities – as well as fighting on our unique industrial challenges like pensions.

In the meantime, our dispute with the coalition remains, our ballot is ‘live’ and we will consult our members over further action if negotiations fail to deliver. In that event, industrial action will need to last longer and include unions hitherto not participating. That will be a challenge. But it’s worth looking for a resolution through negotiation first.

Heather Wakefield is the head of local government at Unison.

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