why the phony war?

London based college worker Siobhan Breathnach writes about the top down nature of the UK public sector pensions dispute

We got notice of the 10th of May strike on a Friday afternoon ten days before, in the middle of an emergency meeting about redundancies. The first response was “They have got to be fucking kidding.” There was a general expression of dismay and disbelief. So what is the problem? Why weren’t we pleased about being called out?

We’ve been striking over pensions on and off for more than a year. My branch has been out four times in the last twelve months. Some of the early strikes were really something out of the ordinary. On November the 30th, early in the morning, going round picket lines with a big box of sandwiches, sometimes I stumbled across picket lines where I didn’t even know there was a picket line. There was one in my own street, there were people picketing in fancy dress, there were pickets of more than twenty people at 7am. Across the country people said it was the biggest march in their town since the Gulf War, since the miners, since the seventies… There were many reports that when the union march reached the town centre passers by started applauding and cheering. So there was a feeling that we were part of something big, there were millions of us, maybe the pensions dispute could actually achieve something…. And then Unison pulled out, the biggest of the public sector unions and the most right wing. Another strike wasn’t called for months and since then everything has felt like a slow slide down into a pit.

My union, UCU, has a fight going on between the general secretary and part of the leadership which is linked to the Labour Party and wants to wind down the whole dispute, and the left of the leadership which is pushing for strikes. This means that as the left on the NEC is finding it difficult to call strikes at all, at the branch level we get notification very late, without enough time to prepare. We don’t get informed about what is really going on, and spend months between strikes not knowing when the next one will be, who we will be out with, if there even is one, and we don’t know why strikes are on or called off.

The NUT is crucial in the pensions dispute because along with UNISON it is the one with the most power to cause disruption. Their leadership keep talking about negotiating joint strike action with NASUWT, the other biggest teaching union in schools, and are delaying calling strikes as they are trying to reach agreement with them. However, although it is obviously better if they go out with both unions involved, it is ridiculous to wait for them, as NASUWT have always been the union which teachers join who don’t want to go on strike. They are a conservative union and the NUT is bigger and more active, and can call strikes by itself perfectly well. They had a vote at their congress in favour of strikes in June, which has been ignored by their executive, who instead have said there will be joint action in the autumn with the NASUWT.

Negotiations between different unions don’t happen at the local level, people meet up sometimes in trades councils, but they don’t have the power to call pensions strikes. Negotiations for joint action are only taking place at the national level, and a lot of the people carrying out the negotiations don’t want strikes anyway which means they have no desire to resolve problems and agree joint action. So the FBU in my borough voted by a huge majority to strike on one pensions day, but nationally it was defeated and they don’t have the power to officially decide to strike with us at a local level.

We have had a strike which was just at the London regional level, another strike when we were out without the NUT, only with PCS and Unite Health, and we don’t know now if we will be on strike before the autumn or not. Although all the strikes have been pretty solid in our workplace, the whole process is disempowering. We are now in a bad position as we need to take serious strike action over an urgent local dispute, and a lot of the membership are feeling demoralised and resentful over losing pay four times this year.

What has been really positive in the pensions strikes has been the support and solidarity between different groups of workers locally. We have organised marches between picket lines that have been very popular and made people feel really positive. We have also done a lot of visiting between pickets, which has meant that now we get reciprocal visits from library workers and especially from the local NUT, who came in numbers to our last two strikes and donated to our strike fund. However, while this has been very positive and might be the start of something important, it is not nearly as strong as it needs to be.

The trouble is basically this. The leadership don’t believe they can really win the dispute and so see really fighting it as throwing money and resources away on a lost cause. We can’t officially strike without permission of the leadership as it’s a national dispute. The majority of workers are not prepared to walk out unofficially. So we are stuck, without democratic control of the official union strategy and without the power and confidence at the base level to go ahead without it.