A London public sector worker striking on 30th June wrote to The Commune about an action which gave confidence to her and her workmates.
I work in a big public sector workplace, where redundancies have just been announced. Not only are people going to lose their jobs, but some of the services will just be scrapped and very poor and vulnerable people will lose the services that we provide.
People knew the redundancies were coming and there was a lot of anxiety, over who, how many… When we recieved the results there was outrage as it was felt to be decided very unfairly. My department sent a message to management that we were not going to accept these staff being treated so badly and we rejected this list. In the end the process was delayed and then the list was drawn up again to include basically pretty much everybody.
The day to day atmosphere was complicated. On the one hand people were tired and upset. The department has had a few redundancies year on year so people have watched again and again as their colleagues lose their jobs, the department gets smaller, people lose their right to the service, fees go up. Everybody knows if they don’t lose their job this year they might lose it next year. We are a relatively active and traditionally left wing workplace and people had been on a lot of demos this year, there have been some good campaigns around defending the service but there was a tiredness and a bleakness in people’s faces.
On the other hand people were going from angry to furious. The name of a place where recently people had taken very strong strike action suddenly began to be heard again and again in the corridors. The year on year attacks seemed to be making people feel simultaneously ground down and wound up. In a meeting with management a co-worker stormed out. More and more often little meetings broke out, voices were raised.
Close to the day of redundancies being formalised we had a meeting. Between my working life and political life I have, unfortunately, been to many meetings. They were not usually like this. Ten minutes in one person was proposing indefinite strike action. There were nods and sounds of agreement. After a few minutes there was a suggestion that as “a start” there was a management meeting coming up and we could invade it. I watched in stunned silence as it was voted for unanimously. We talked about some practicalities and then the person who had proposed it said we should vote again, and if you put your hand up, you were going in. Again we voted unanimously, so the action was on.
The day of the action dawned and I went to work unusually excited. I was nervous that we would either call the action off or it would go terribly badly. I had fearful visions of staff being dragged out by the hair by security or of the management screaming at us to get out and everybody shuffling out, heads bowed. There were some jittery moments when people said we should call it off as it was “too confrontational” but at the agreed time suddenly everybody was there and ready. We started talking about but what if this and what if that and getting ourselves generally into a state until someone sensibly said that it probably wouldn’t go at all how we expected anyway and we had agreed the important things and now we might as well just go and do it. Everybody instantly calmed down and got into a much better mood. We filed out of our room and down the corridor, and were suprised to see the secretary waving us good luck which was a really nice gesture of support and lifted people`s spirits. We got to the room, people were nervous but excited and we went in. The person who went in first said the manager didn’t look too bothered at first- until he saw just how many people were pouring in, basically the whole department. People were excited but also very tense and emotional, rather than shouting or making noise the atmosphere was very somber and serious. We made our prepared points, although we got the jitters and forgot our lines, we got everything basically said. Anyway the important thing was that the whole department was there, doing something which was very scary and confrontational for a lot of people, that was way outside of the known for a lot of them, but they did it, everybody went in and stood shoulder to shoulder in front of managers that a lot of people are scared of, managers that will be picking from amongst us for redundancies. We left when we had said our piece, we left when we chose to and not before, and despite the total lack of jumping fences,shouting, running or vandalism it was actually one of the most inspiring bits of direct action of my life.
So what did it achieve and how come?
People afterwards felt fantastic. Even people who had spoken against it at times said it was great and were visibly excited. We had tried hard to do something that pretty much everyone felt more or less ok with. The most important thing, as I said before, was that almost everybody did it and the feeling of strength and mutual solidarity that came from that will hopefully make it much easier to do more actions together, as we know we will have to do.
All this was easier because we are a workplace where a lot of people have worked together for years, have been on strike together before, have confidence in each other. There is also a basic left wing culture that a lot of people share. No political party has much presence but some kind of political background is commonplace. These conditions won’t apply in that many workplaces I know. But anyway I wrote this to share some of the ways that we went about the action and I hope I will soon be writing again to say that we did something else—in fact I am pretty sure that I will.