A future for strikes

It is now officially the day of what is arguably the biggest strike since 1926, which will happen to be the first strike I take an active role in. As a student I cannot withdraw my labour – I after all pay for the privilege of even attending the institution that I do – but I feel a real sense of obligation to stand in solidarity with staff who are taking industrial action in not only my university, but in fact the facilities of the public sector that we all come to rely upon.

You are probably aware of the issues that people are striking over. Pension schemes are certainly not the most glamorous of workers’ struggles, but one that most people have a vested interest in and will inevitably come to rely on when the time comes. This was reiterated to a lot of my peers as we received an email on Monday reminding us of the strike action and cancelled lectures; but also pointing out that pensions are an issue that many of us will soon be worrying about when we begin to work – especially as it becomes increasingly necessary for students to take on employment as they study. Yet, several decades dedicated to the erosion of the power of unions has meant that a culture for collective action simply does not exist for many.

This may be hard to come to terms with, but we won’t see a general strike in the immediate future, especially when there is a trade union presence in only half of work places around the country.

But this is an important opportunity to introduce basic concepts of industrial action to an audience that has never before played a part in it, including myself. Tomorrow will be the first picket line that I ever stand on, but I have at least been privileged enough to look into the nature of these things myself and gain a basic understanding of what to expect. But, consider for a moment that you are a first year student who arrives at the picket line to find one of your lecturers in the cold, losing a day’s pay because of a fight to save their pensions. You will no doubt be sympathetic and will hopefully make this known to them, but then you still feel compelled to cross the picket line to do the reading for the lecture you are missing in the library. It would seem that this is not an unreasonable position to take, but when you consider the wider importance of striking in order to cause disruption to the employer by withdrawing the labour the work place needs to function, it becomes clear that even a step over the imaginary line in fact counter acts the cause you may seek to support.

We cannot students for this as many will never have even encountered a picket line before – but I will be trying my upmost to reiterate to people that support expressed as you enter a work place where an industrial dispute is taking place is simply is no support at all. Pretending any different is disingenuous at best and selfish at worst.

We should not dominate the discourse with overly worrying about state of workers’ struggle because of this strike, but should also recognise that it is an extremely exciting prospect and an opportunity to construct important structures for the continuance of the workers struggle. When head teachers who had previously been praised by the prime minister for breaking a strike and keeping their school open decide that they will join their colleagues in taking strike action, it is clear that the political landscape is rapidly changing. The narrative of ‘There Is No Alterative’ is being fundamentally challenged by even those who have voted for the conservatives all their lives, but will nevertheless be engaging in strike action along with workers more than a few pay grades bellow them.

It is somewhat glib to draw comparisons between events in Greece and the UK, but clearly the backlash against austerity and cuts there is a sign of what is to follow when such severe attacks are made on a public infrastructure that so many are reliant on. This aesthetic of several day general strikes coupled with riot and attempted reappropriation of state property for the commons is not limited only to Greece as this is but one manifestation of where the failures of a Eurozone neo-liberal agenda threatens to collapse entire world markets and sends financiers everywhere into sheer panic. The inevitability of yet more popular strike action is clear to see in this context.

But as I have already said, it would be mad to assume that a general strike would be at all tenable, or indeed necessary, in the context of the UK trade union movement. If this is the kind of action that we are looking for, then there is much left to be done in order to make it happen. Luckily we do indeed have the biggest strike action since 1926 to build upon and should take this opportunity with gusto. Newly unionised workers and those taking their first strike action must not be allowed to walk away from this action with a sense that it was all for nothing. The public sector may indeed lose the battle for pensions with the government. Unfortunately this is a point we may need to accept, but that should not easily translate into a wider failure of organised workers. Nor should we allow unionisation to be the reserve of those who are easily unionised as has been the way of late. Around 17% of the private sector is unionised, much less than the public sector, thus if we are ever to counter the narrative that attacks on the public sector are being made to bring them in line with the private sector, workers in this group must have the voice to make clear that they are not content with their conditions either.

Moreover, groups such as students who are more often than not failed by their unions must be able to see unionisation in the work place an effective political tool. Being able to change your material conditions when you are working in extremely precarious conditions to be able to sustain yourself through a student lifestyle places the battle for cheaper drinks at the union bar into a clear context and means that more and more students will see actions such as November 30th as the model for their struggles; or at the very least the fact that an organised group of workers can have a direct effect on their employer.

This is all novel and exciting for me, but I do not underestimate the magnitude of this particular day of action. I hope that trade union bureaucrats do not either, or that at least rank and file trade unionists are able to bring about organisation in the work force without the blight of bureaucrats.

A future for strikes

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