Industrial action, but not always as we know it
Barnet council is so notorious for its plans to outsource public services that it acquired the moniker ‘easyCouncil’. No surprise then that today staff in the council are taking part in a second day of industrial action in protest at their employer’s slash and burn approach to public services.
What is perhaps more surprising is the way (and here) that unions are approaching the industrial action. As well as the traditional picket lines, UNISON members are using street theatre to get their message across to the local community. More radically, a group of striking members has volunteered to spend the rest of their day on strike volunteering for a local charity, and have called on Barnet Council to give the money they otherwise would have paid to council staff as a donation to the local mayor’s charitable fund.
These are interesting developments at a time when many unions are gearing up for the TUC Day of Action on November 30, and protestors around the world have taken to the streets to protest against the failures of the market.
Public sector strikes are often emotive and concerns about the potential impact of industrial action in the public sector are not confined to service users or the broader public. Public sector union members are always loath to take industrial action which impacts on the people that use their services. No teacher, nurse, social worker, care assistant, town-hall worker or civil servant relishes the prospect of not being able to do the job they take pride in, never mind the personal financial and other pressures which accompany industrial action. It’s a cliché, but it’s true nonetheless, that strike action is always seen – by both public and private sector workers – as a last resort, one to be taken when there is no other alternative. That’s why the government should be so worried that there is such a groundswell around November 30.
But what is happening in Barnet illustrates, on a small scale, the sort of approaches unions can take to ensure that industrial action is not only effective but also attracts the sympathy and support of service users and the broader public. In particular it highlights two issues.
First of all, it speaks to a need for unions to think imaginatively and innovatively about what form industrial action can take. Some of this may look and feel very different to what both unions and the general public would consider to be ‘traditional’ industrial action – in Germany Verdi has used flashmobs in supermarkets to put pressure on retailers on issues round pay and hours; and in New Zealand the Super Size My Pay’ campaign has use ‘lightning strikes’ accompanied with loud music and the offer of free coffee in their (successful) efforts to get chains like Starbucks to sign up to collective agreements.
As far back as the mid-1980’s Canadian bus drivers in dispute with their employer produced ‘unfare’ cards, asking passengers to only pay part of their fare, accompanied by a pledge to pay the remainder when the bus-driver’s dispute was settled; more recently and in a very hostile environment, Iranian bus-drivers have refused to collect fares from passengers in protest at their working conditions.
We can also learn from our own history in this regard – the 1990’s Ambulance driver’s dispute, when driver’s ended up effectively running their own ambulance service is just one example.
Secondly, we need to take seriously the need to win the battle for public opinion.
Often during industrial action engaging the public rarely goes beyond a leaflet to passers-by and encouraging the odd beeping horn from a passing car. But in the face of a government determined to drive through cuts, and determined to take an axe to public services, as well as pensions, terms and conditions, it is essential that union members connect their struggles to service users and the broader public. Identifying and encouraging service users who will act as public advocates in the media for workers on strike; framing the dispute in terms of what cuts will mean for service users not just workers; using our time on strike as creatively as the workers in Barnet did; all these are small efforts that could be crucial in helping frame disputes in a more positive light, and building the sort of broad progressive coalition we know will be necessary if our campaigns are to gain any real traction.
Of course, none of this is easy. At times the issues at hand will not lend themselves to broader public campaigning, and will only be resolved industrially. But its equally clear that alongside our current challenges are real opportunities to move calls to build ‘progressive alliances’ from rhetoric to reality. To do so will require new and, at times, brave thinking. It will be mean being prepared to supplement the traditional union ‘play-book’ with new lessons learnt from other movements. And sometimes it will mean empowering local activists and reps to do things differently.
The polling evidence suggests that a small majority of the public believe that unions are in the right to take industrial action to defend pay, terms and conditions – our challenge is to build on that latent support. Our starting point is a strong one. Our members make up one in four of the working population. Lets use that base to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the wider public.