reflections on june 30th strike day: tense debates over camping plan

Activist solidarity initiatives for last month’s J30 national strike day had rather mixed results. Daniel Harvey stresses the need to centre our activity around the workplace.

We sat around in a circle in room 3C of the University of London Union (ULU) building on Malet Street. The rain pounded down outside the window, as the residue of J30 activists discussed how the day had gone. In my short experience of the left it was probably the meeting least worth the train ticket, but it was in fact a microcosm of what the build-up to J30 had been from the start: a lot of open chat without much substantial organising focus.

Spanish protesters set up camps in public squares: was J30 time for us to do the same?

On the one hand was the activist side of the debate from the people’s assembly, who wanted to duplicate the events in Madrid and Cairo, and continue the revolution based the occupation of public squares.  On the other, some striking teachers, who said they would have liked the organisation of more pickets, and a more down to earth and local approach.

It shouldn’t have been surprising, as this was the debate that paralysed the organising meetings in the lead-up. Originally, the process which had been led by people from the IWW, Solidarity Federation and The Commune, had managed to get some agreement on some support and marching between the pickets, to offer direct support to the people who came out, and encourage people not to go in to work.  That however, was lost, and the penultimate meeting in ULU was marked by workers who came in for the first time walking out in sheer frustration at the sheer unreality of talk about tents and zombies.

As with most big days of action like this one, what happened on the day largely happened in spite of what activists had been planning for. In Hackney, there were pickets, not as large a number as you would have thought from looking at the maps done beforehand, but where they were, there were a lot of supporters. Outside The Learning Trust I saw a lot of people from the NUT with some teachers turning up later.

Around the corner I found an abandoned picket outside a small job centre and a few security guards loitering in the distance. Across, on the other side of the Hackney Town Hall was a small PCS picket where there were a couple of workers outside, as well as a lot of supporters who brought hot drinks and food.

So despite how sparse the pickets were, the ones which did exist were very well supported from what I could see.  And the second part of the plan for a march between pickets, did work, at least on a small scale in Hackney, where eventually the people outside the The Learning Trust went on a march with a UK Uncut banner down to Hackney College where there was a really large and successful picket.

This was by far the best thing to happen for us on J30.  The arrival of the solidarity marchers was something which was described as quite emotional for some of the people who saw it, and made the teachers there pretty enthusiastic about the strike afterwards.

The second part of the day was not particularly memorable.  Some went home after the pickets finished, but a lot travelled down to join the march which followed the usual route through central London, down the Strand and past Parliament. I ended up carrying the Hackney Alliance banner, which was good fun, and the Education Activist Network people behind us kept things lively.

Eventually after I got an ice cream with a couple of other Commune comrades and sat on the grass outside the abbey, we saw the result of the strikers assembly which had been argued for so vigorously in all those long meetings beforehand – it had about 20 people, and some thought no actual strikers amongst them either. Madrid it wasn’t.

On the whole, I remember it as a pretty fun day out, with a lot of good company and conversation. J30 was in the end rather like the 26th March TUC demo in the end, something of an expression of token resistance by the unions, which probably won’t be remembered as being hugely significant in the long-term. It is disappointing that the Tory spin machine did its work, artificially inflating expectations beforehand, by deliberately conflating the numbers of strikers with the number of marchers, 750,000 as compared to about 30,000, and so passing it off as a damp squib.

For us, the lesson has to be to get back to some grassroots organising. We need real support for striking workers and to try and detach ourselves from the activist activities which can’t achieve anything substantive in the long-run, and which really plays into the hands of those in the union bureaucracy that want to keep our resistance to these safe, one-day spaces. The amount of unofficial walk-outs on the day is something we should be encouraged by, and something which should build on the spontaneous and run-away student opposition to tuition fees which left Aaron Porter and the NUS looking quite embarrassingly weak.

The real success of J30 were the thousands of workers who came out, the library workers from Unison who came on the march, and all the others who went on strike for the first time ever on the day.  What this achieves is at least the possibility for people that they can choose to fight the austerity agenda, and that militancy is an option. We have to build on this, and spread that feeling out as far as we can.

But that also means we have to start working outside the left-wing bubbles in London, like Hackney, as well. As one teacher from SolFed pointed out, organising locally works in places where you know there are unionised workplaces which are receptive to our ideas. But you can’t build activity in places where none exists without a lot of support, and that’s why all the hard work is ahead of us.