An encouraging example of workers’ solidarity during the UNISON strike
The following article was sent to us by members of the Midlands Discussion Forum. As well as putting forward a very clear general perspective on the recent council workers’ strike, it contains some very interesting information about a small but significant expression of class solidarity in the wake of the strike.
28 March 2006 saw the biggest strike in Britain since 1926. More than 1 million workers in local government – in housing departments, refuse collection, street cleaning, libraries, school meals and cleaning, and other departments – were called out by eight unions including Unison, Amicus, T&G and GMB. This was a union ‘day of action’ against proposed reforms to the pension system, which would mean local government workers accepting the same pension deal as most private sector workers and continuing to work to 65 at least, instead of the current rules that allow many state workers to retire at 60.
The proposed reform to pensions matches similar reforms in other European countries, such as France and Austria in 2003, and in the USA. The proposal is part of a wider attack by the British state on ‘the social wage’, including an extension of the working age to 68 for those currently under 30, and is a sign of capitalism’s historic bankruptcy. No longer able to provide anything for the working class other than long-term unemployment or overwork until an early death, workers are told we cannot expect the state to support us in our old age, after a lifetime of toil, or a lifetime wasted on the dole.
As in France and Austria, as in the New York transport workers’ strike at the end of 2005, there has been massive anger from workers over these reforms, which call into question the very idea of the future capitalism has to offer. This anger has led to the unions putting themselves at the head of the protests against them. The issue of pensions is an issue that affects the whole of the working class; it is an attack on whole class; it is an issue that unites all workers, whatever sector they work in, whatever their age, whether they are employed or unemployed. The massive mobilisations in France showed the extent of workers’ anger there; the massive strike in Britain showed the workers’ anger here; this isn’t just an issue for British workers or British capitalism, but a worldwide sign of capitalism’s historic failure.
From the beginning, the unions tried to divide workers into categories to fragment any sense of solidarity. There was no call to extend the strike to other categories of state workers who can also retire at 60, but whose pensions were not under threat – civil servants, teachers, or health workers for example – or those in the private sector who generally must work to 65. Even within council departments, there were divisions – some areas and departments would work normally, others would be closed or partially closed as workers went on strike.
The press also attacked the most basic principles of working class solidarity: the council workers were presented as ‘privileged’ (because their working conditions had not been attacked quite as savagely as other workers in the 1980s) and out of touch with economic reality, a throwback to the ‘bad old days’ of the 1970s and ‘80s (in other words, to the last time large numbers of workers in Britain were expressing their combativity).
In one town in the Midlands, several council departments were on strike, including the street cleaning department – this department is made up of both permanent-contract workers, mostly GMB members, and temporary-contract workers, mostly young workers who have come to Britain from Poland after the eastward expansion of the EU, and are employed by job agencies. These workers are not unionised; in general, very few workers employed by job agencies are members of unions.
As a result of the strike, those strikers who were on permanent contracts but not union members were disciplined, for instance by having the option to do overtime withdrawn – in a job as badly paid as street cleaning, overtime is for some workers absolutely vital to make ends meet. The young Polish agency workers, however, who struck in solidarity with their union colleagues, were sacked.
The reaction of the permanent staff at the street cleaning department was anger at this blatant provocation. An impromptu meeting of around 35 workers – about half of those on shift the next morning – was held in the works canteen to decide how to get these young workers re-instated. Representations were made to the GMB shop steward in the department, who informed the workers that as the agency workers were not union members, the union would do nothing to help. Three workers’ delegates demanded from management that the agency workers be re-instated. The management’s reply was that the agency workers had not actually been sacked by the department; because their contract of employment was with the agency, it was the agency, not the council, that had declined to re-employ them as the contract had been breached.
This hypocritical response provoked the workers at the department even further. A further meeting with management followed, at which the workers demanded re-instatement of their sacked colleagues. Management agreed to write a letter to the agency informing them that the Polish workers were not to be blamed for not coming to work; that in the ‘confusion’ of the strike it was difficult to know who had or had not turned up. This letter was then delivered by two of the workers to the employment agency – in order to ensure that they arrived, as the workers did not trust management to see that this was done. As a result, all of the sacked workers were re-instated.
United, the working class is an irresistible force; when workers show solidarity with each other, striking in sympathy and solidarity, demanding from management the re-instating of sacked colleagues, transcending the barriers that capitalism tries to erect between us – union/non-union, permanent/temporary, contract/agency, native/migrant – each action, though in itself tiny, is a part of the process by which the working class as a whole begins to re-discover its own identity as a world class, and as an historic class too; the class that holds the future of the humanity within itself, the bearers of communism.