A college worker recently on strike describes how the mood in her workplace has developed throughout the pensions dispute, in tandem with a local fight over redundancy and restructuring
In my workplace both the admin staff and the teaching staff were out on strike together for the first time in years, which made the strike a very different experience. Normally, although we talk to each other every day in the course of work, we don’t organise together or support each other much in the face of redundancy, restructuring, disciplinaries etc. The teaching staff are better organised than the admin staff and usually have better working conditions, and haven’t tended to pay much attention to the problems faced by the other workers.
In the buildup to the strike we had some joint meetings, both informal canteen meetings and one formal union meeting, and we did some activities together, such as leafleting. It bought it home how separated we are in the two unions, UCU and Unison, and how unnecessary it is – I had never even met most of the Unison people, and yet we work in the same building. This is not only because of the union bureaucracies. We could easily talk informally to each other but we don’t, due to inertia and inward looking attitudes.
In the borough the three biggest employers are the council, the hospital and the college, and all three of them were on strike, so locally it had a big impact. Leafleting the hospital the positive comments from people outnumbered the negative ones about two to one. On the day turnout on picket lines was very high, and, when I went taking food to picket lines, going from the maintenance workers on one side of the road to the social workers on the other brought home what a wide range of people were on strike.
Although 30th November was pretty successful for us, management intimidation, debt and lack of class consciousness meant a lot of people still crossed the picket line. We are being called out and sent back by the union leadership but we are not in control of the struggle, although we do nearly all the work. The grassroots do the leafleting, the flyposting, the going round talking to people, the fundraising (this is my sixth strike with no strike pay) the banner painting and the picketing, but we don’t get to make any of the important decisions. We’ve rowed with workmates, gone to work early and stayed late to leaflet the gate or talk to people working in the evening. Now if the union executive accept a deal that doesn’t offer us any real improvement, all those people who weren’t happy about losing a day’s pay will see the whole strike as a total waste of time and won’t listen to anything we say next time.
As I’m writing this there are negotiations with deals being made, while we are at home hearing one or other union announce a deal on the radio. Apart from checking websites and asking friends for news, we don’t know what is going on, and we may or may not be on strike again soon. Our fragile unity in action built up on the ground with other unions, involving lots of hard work, can all be rendered null and void with a decision made over our heads, that we won’t be on strike together next time. My union has decided that the final decision on pensions will be put to the membership, but a lot of unions don’t even have that.
We can complain as much as we want about our unions disempowering us and selling us out, but how do we get control over strikes back in our hands? We need networks and local strike committees so we can support each other and start building up an independent culture outside the official bureaucracy, but our attempts haven’t got very far in this borough. Often the people who might be interested are already very busy, long working hours make it difficult to meet, and we are too inclined to stay in our own little corners instead of reaching out to other workplaces. In my workplace we have trouble even sending a delegate to the trades council, as the people who would like to go have to work that evening. People in more difficult workplaces need to be able to get support from people in strong workplaces, and backed up if they suffer victimisation.
Seventy five per cent of the workforce isn’t in a union anyway, and unemployment locally is at about thirty per cent, so as the active rank and file we are a minority within a minority. The majority of the working class and poor population are not striking and don’t have any obvious way to do so. Subjectively it seems to me that there is a lot of support around: the day after the strike a total stranger stopped me in the street wearing a union tee-shirt and said well done. People outside London are saying when their strike demo got to the town centre, crowds of people shopping burst into applause. Those things aren’t normal so it looks like people feel more positive about big strikes than they usually do. However we need to fight for more grassroots control, and work out how to organise meaningfully with the non-unionised majority, or we won’t win.