On July 10th, 2014, the UK saw a one-day strike of up to a million teachers, firefighters, civil servants, council employees, and health workers. This strike – the biggest that the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition has faced up to this point – was directly related to the government’s neoliberal austerity policies. A key aspect of this agenda has been ‘pay restraint’ for public-sector workers, who had a pay freeze imposed on them between 2010 and 2012, followed by a 1% cap on pay rises ever since (while RPI inflation in 2014, for example, has stood at around 3%). This programme has resulted in employees suffering a fall in income in real terms (as the cost of living has not been ‘frozen’, and has increased year upon year), leading unions to criticise what they call ‘poverty pay’.
The weekend before the strike, however, the government announced that the pay freeze would continue until 2018, showing that they were committed to following through with their policies and ignoring the voices of hard-working professionals. It has tried to justify the freeze on a regular basis by claiming that, ‘in a time of austerity’, it doesn’t have the funds to raise wages in line with inflation. According to PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka, however, “politicians of all parties… trot out this rubbish daily to justify huge cuts in public spending, including the jobs and pay of millions of public servants” while, in reality, the ‘austerity’ rhetoric is a lie which seeks to hide the fact that the country is “not broke”. Instead, he asserts that “the money is [simply] flowing in the wrong direction, and often into the offshore accounts of wealthy tax dodgers”.
With insufficient pay, pension cuts, increased workloads, and encroaching privatisation, public sector workers once again felt it was necessary to say “enough is enough”, according to TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady. Thanks to the pay freeze, he said, salaries have “failed to keep up with the cost of living… year after year” – a claim backed up by Serwotka, who affirmed that “public servants, like most people, simply cannot make ends meet”. As a result, strike action was inevitable.
FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack, meanwhile, asserted that the government is destroying public services and “wrecking the lives of millions”, and that firefighters have taken strike action in particular because of pension changes and the effect that funding cuts and privatisation have had on workplace safety. He insisted that “the failure of [government] policies” was evidenced by the fact that so many workers had decided to join the strike action against the government. FBU members, he said, face “a stark choice of being sacked or losing half their pension” and that this showed “claims that the government values our firefighters” to be “an utter lie”.
NUT General Secretary Christine Blower also asserted that government politicians, and in particular Education Secretary Michael Gove, are “refusing point blank to accept the damage their reforms are doing”. She emphasised that teachers “deeply regretted” taking strike action but that, because the teaching “profession is on its knees” and the government is not listening to what the professionals say, they were forced to strike as a last resort. Government policies, she affirmed, were leading skilled teachers to leave the profession due to low morale (exposing it to future staff shortages), and that responsibility for the strike therefore lay firmly with the government. “Teaching is one of the best jobs in the world”, she insisted, but it “is being made one of the worst [and one that fewer and fewer people will want to do] under Michael Gove and the coalition”.
The NUT, along with Unite, Unison, and the GMB, reaffirmed what Frances O’Grady said about pay rises lower than inflation causing a fall in the living standards of workers. Amidst these conditions, the NUT also pointed out the damaging effects of the proposed change to the pay structure of the teaching profession (which will be replaced by performance related pay) and the fact that teachers, who already work around 60 hours a week on average, face working until the age of 68 – with reduced pensions when they finally retire. The union insisted that such changes to the pension structure, in which teachers will pay more and receive less, simply add to the pressure that teachers already have to deal with. Blower, meanwhile, asserted that frequent external assessments, and Michael Gove’s constant reforms of the curriculum and examinations system, are causing “unnecessary stress to teachers, pupils and parents”.
Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis, also echoing O’Grady’s words, emphasised that “it is a massive decision by local government and school support workers to sacrifice a day’s pay by going on strike, but today they are saying enough is enough”. At the same time, he pointed out that the government and its “friends in the media” were trying to discredit the strikes and “do everything they can to rubbish [union] members and attack the few employment rights that we have left”. He also reminded us that the UK has “some of the toughest strike laws [and anti-trade-union laws] in Europe”. Instead of threatening to make these laws even tougher, he said, workers need to pressure the government into “changes that would reduce the unfair advantage that employers have”.
Mark Serwotka repeated Blower’s regrets about the inconvenience to the general public, but affirmed that PCS members felt they had to demonstrate that “everyone depends on our members’ services” and that they therefore deserved “a decent wage”. And herein lays the main reason for strike action: the fact that public sector workers are not seeing any benefit from a recovering economy, and are actually up to £4,000 worse off than they were in 2010. Whilst accepting the existence of Britain’s huge budget deficit, workers are becoming ever more aware that the government is attacking them to pay off the nation’s debt rather than placing the burden on wealthy corporations that avoid tax and exploit workers on a daily basis.
Members of more than six different public sector unions (mainly from the NUT, FBU, Unison, Unite, GMB, and PCS) exercised their legal right to protest against injustice on July 10th, marching through the major cities of the UK demanding the attention of their government. Museums and libraries were shut, and passengers at airports were told to expect delays, but the main impact was seen in the education sector, where around 21% of schools in England (around 6,000) were closed (according to the Department for Education), and a further 912 were shut in Wales. Though the PCS went on strike throughout the UK, the FBU and NUT only struck in England and Wales, while the others struck in all nations apart from Scotland. Hot spots of strike support, according to Unison, were the North East, Wales, and the East Midlands (where most council offices have closed), and that, thanks to over 60 picket lines in Newcastle, most public services were shut down there.
In London, demonstrators marched towards Trafalgar Square at mid-day, chanting “low pay, no way, no slave labour”, accompanied by RMT members working for Transport for London. NUT members, meanwhile, carried inflatable scissors reading “education cuts never heal”. But it was a chant of “fair pay” that most unified striking workers, with the main rally calling for a living wage and receiving great applause as a result. One supporter of such a demand was US union activist Ginger Jentzen, who played a prominent part in the victorious “$15 Now” campaign in Seattle in June 2014 and joined strikers in solidarity with the NSSN. Having also lent her support to the NSSN’s “£10 Now” campaign, she affirmed that union actions had the power to change political debates. “Wealth inequality”, she said, “is on the political agenda in the US and it’s a testament to the pressure from below in terms of the low wage worker walkouts”. She also emphasised that, “if we organise together as working people, we can win”.
In Wales, meanwhile, 70,000 workers went on strike, seeing business at the Welsh Assembly and elsewhere cancelled for the day. In Northern Ireland, a number of services were also shut down thanks to the action of the Public Service Alliance. At the same time, 919 government workers in Scotland took part in industrial action (representing over 12% of the workforce).
Parents who had to look after their children as a result of school closures were reported to have varied in opinion regarding strikes. Many understood why teachers were striking but, according to BBC reporter Jo Black, comments ranged from ‘annoyed to sympathetic’.
BBC political correspondent Norman Smith, meanwhile, said that “strikes are meant to cause maximum pain for employers” but that this strike was not likely to cause them much damage. In fact, he affirmed that annoyance in the divided British public could actually increase support for the Conservative Party’s anti-union proposals. He also stated that mainstream newspapers were likely to support such a stance.
From Misery to Hope
The official government line, as expected, was a miserable combination of victim-blaming and arrogance. The Cabinet Office, for example, claimed the strike had had ‘little impact’, affirming that most schools in England and Wales were open but that strike action was still “irresponsible”. Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said that fewer than 500,000 people had participated in the walkout (though the GMB and Unison insisted that over one million people had taken part in the strikes). He also declared, in a House of Commons address, that “responsibility for the disruption caused by the action lay with union leaders”, and that it was “not right for members of the public to be inconvenienced”.
Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, asked how it could “possibly be right for our children’s education to be disrupted by trade unions acting in this way”. In a plan to weaken the power of unions like Margaret Thatcher did in the 1980s, Cameron has proposed changing employment law to impose a minimum participation in union ballots on industrial action. He has proposed this change in response to calls from leading Conservatives (and the business leaders that control them), who have been pressing for at least a 50 per cent turnout in order for union ballots to be considered legal, and for the introduction of a time limit on how long a vote in favour of industrial action can remain valid (which would reduce the possibility of ‘rolling strikes’). Such ‘tough new laws’ have been threatened if the Conservatives win next year’s general election.
The NUT, however, seems to harbour hope of a positive response from the Establishment. Avoiding open conflict with the coalition’s neoliberal policies, the NUT instead affirms that disagreements with the government are mostly related to the “implementation” of programmes rather than their content. Using Finland as an example, it insists that “productive dialogue” can lead to “positive results… for children, education and teachers”, hoping that the strike will help to push Michael Gove into tackling the problems it points out and reducing the number of inspections so that teachers can spend more time focussing on their lessons.
Dialogue is a key part of what unions do, and in that aspect it is indeed important, but the NUT’s optimism regarding the government seems too much like wishful thinking. When politicians from all the major parties (including the supposedly ‘left-wing’ Labour) have criticised the unions, saying they are making ‘unreasonable demands’, it is clear that ‘dialogue’ is not enough. Even Labour leader Ed Miliband (a fan of the fruitless dialogue that almost always ends up with workers losing out) took an anti-union stance once again, affirming that strikes “are always a sign of failure… on all sides”. So, whilst insisting that the government should bear responsibility for the strike, he also blamed unions in equal measure – something which would be unthinkable for a true workers’ party.
The fact is that the government continues to ignore the voice of professionals, sticking firmly to its commitment to reducing the size of the public sector, privatising as much as possible, and blaming teachers for ‘disrupting children’s education’. With such a miserable authoritarian stance, it should become more and more apparent to us all that the government has no respect for workers, and no interest in the ‘positive dialogue’ that the NUT hopes for.
The government hopes to discredit the strike by pointing out that it was based on ballots conducted several years ago with low turnout from union members, even though a simple majority of voting members is perfectly legal. The NUT ballot, for example, which was held in 2012 and had a turnout of 27%, was picked on as an example by Michael Gove, who said children needed protection from “politically-motivated industrial action”. A key question here, though, is why turnout was so low. Just like in elections, many citizens are clearly doubtful about the power that collective action can have. Thanks to Thatcher, hopes that unions could bring about change were dashed, and a significant people have lived in a passive, submissive state ever since as a result.
Not content with having divided workers and created a materialistic, individualistic society back in the 1980s, though, the Conservatives aim to quash the signs of remaining unity in the UK. But they did not win the 2010 elections with a majority, and they will not win a majority next year. So their attacks on workers and their forms of organisation do not have to continue. As Ginger Jentzen pointed out – if we organise, we can win. And this does not only mean voting for an anti-austerity, socialist party like Left Unity next year, but also recapturing the fighting spirit of union members of the past. The consciousness of working people must be reawakened, and they must be helped to rediscover the power that mass collective action can have.
Workers must know that it is not the unions that are ‘irresponsible’, but the government, which attacks trained professionals and their living standards whilst allowing or helping exploitative corporations to get richer. They must know that it is not the unions that are ‘inconveniencing members of the public’, but the government, which is damaging both society and the economy by cementing injustice and encouraging greater inequality. And they must know that children’s education is not ‘disrupted’ by unions, but by ignorant bureaucrats who unilaterally interfere with a profession they know almost nothing about whilst refusing to listen to the trained workers who know it inside out.
The miserable rhetoric of the Conservatives is correct. Participation in union votes should indeed be higher, and low turnouts unfortunately represent the weariness of British workers after decades of neoliberal onslaught. However, participation in general elections should also be higher, and low turnouts in these situations are far more worrying.
Conservative hypocrisy, however, means that they are perfectly happy, when it suits them, to run a government which received the support of only a small handful of eligible British voters. But if they are dead set on criticising democracy in trade unions, let’s make sure they also criticise themselves too. Let’s make sure they accept the fact that they are not democratic representatives of the UK population; criticise the way in which they make decisions that go against the wishes of the British people; and condemn the absence of consultation with professionals before they make decisions that are going to affect the quality of life of millions of workers.
Michael Gove was right. There was indeed a political motivation behind the strike. But it was not an attempt to destabilise an already unpopular government (politicians are entirely capable of doing that all by themselves). The strike was simply the search for justice for hard-working public sector professionals. It was the search for an end to austerity measures which have hit ordinary workers hard whilst allowing rich elites to benefit from their increasing misery. And it was a sign that the rising consciousness of workers means the status quo will not remain intact for too much longer.
 PCS = Public and Commercial Services Union (representative of civil servants, passport office workers, public sector staff, etc.)
 TUC = Trades Union Congress
 FBU = Fire Brigade Union
 NUT = National Union of Teachers
 Unite = Representative of local government, council, and teaching staff
 Unison = Representative of workers in local government, healthcare, colleges and schools (also the biggest public-sector union and the second largest union in the UK)
 GMB = Representative of workers who serve school meals, clean streets, and empty bins, along with carers and school support workers
 NSSN = National Shop Stewards Network
Article written by Oso Sabio using information obtained from the following source: