Friday, November 07, 2008

NUT / PCS: Are Workers Unwilling To Fight?

The last couple of days have seen NUT members vote by only a small majority on a low turnout for strike action; and PCS call off a strike called for Monday based on a ballot which also had a smallish majority on a low turnout. NUT's Executive has decided not to call strike action; PCS has got the employer's agreement to extend its mandate pending talks.

It was hardly a surprise to see the PCS strike called off, as its advance press release had led on a call to the government to avoid the strike rather than an announcement that the strike was to take place.

I'm not going to comment on the rights or wrongs of the specific decisions not to call and to call off, respectively, strike action - rank-and-file activists in those unions are better placed than me to judge the rights and wrongs. But obviously the weak mandate is a key factor, and I think it is worth kicking off a discussion on why the members' votes were so un-resounding. I would suggest two factors.

Firstly, the economic crisis. Many workers may respond to the economic doom and gloom with a reluctance to rock the boat in case the boat capsizes and tips them out. They may feel too nervous about keeping their job to be willing to put themselves on the line for higher wages - perhaps especially in the civil service where so many jobs have already gone. Or they may go along with the idea that in times like this, the whole country should pull together and tighten our belts.

This is an understandable but unfortunate attitude. Alternatively, workers might respond to the economic crisis in a more belligerent way, saying "If I have got higher fuel bills then I need higher wages", or "If the government - my employer - can afford £500 billion to bail out the bankers, then it can afford less than that to give me and my workmates a decent pay rise". Indeed, workers may well feel both the fear and and the sense of injustice at the same time. Which one is decisive in choosing whether to vote for a fightback or not may well depend in their confidence in their union's chances of winning.

Which leads neatly on to my second point. Striking involves sacrifice, and beyond a certain limit, workers will be willing to make that sacrifice not just to make a gesture but if they think they have a chance of winning. This is perhaps especially the case, and more of a cold mathematical calculation, when it comes to pay fights. In my experience, when a union asks its members to fight over pay, the members ponder on how much they will lose by striking versus how much extra they are likely to win.

It has been great to see both NUT and PCS take national strike action over pay when for so many years neither did. But those have been one-day strikes months apart, easily ridden out by the employer, and I can't see how anyone would think that Gordon Brown would crumble in the face of that.

It is a particular shame to see the confidence, mobilisation and power of April 24's action apparently dissipating, its momentum allowed to drain rather than being built on.

Finally, I am not excepting my own union from criticism. RMT has messed up its share of pay fights, and lost a ballot in Network Rail operational grades earlier this year. Here is an interesting analysis as to why that particular ballot was lost.

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