Strategy and Straw Men

A posting here on 2nd February dealt with the potential for further joint strike action in the public sector. This is now edging ever closer with the decisions of the PCS, NUT and Unite union executives over the last couple of days. The FBU are also gearing up for action now having not joined the N30 strike. PCS has made it clear that it is to consult members on a ‘new programme of action’, starting with a one-day strike on 28th March, which is also the stated intention of the NUT.

Having to wait some 4 months for the possibility of another one-day strike is bad enough. The first pension contributions rises are due to kick in this April, which will create a psychological barrier making the dispute more difficult. That is, if the leadership are not serious about the possibility of the type of action needed to win the dispute on pensions, with others if possible and on our own if need be.

The February 2nd piece addressed the attitude thus far of our leadership towards selective action. Whatever has been said by NEC members or even Serwotka himself during this and other recent national disputes there is nothing to suggest that this has been given serious consideration, let alone been prepared.

By selective action we mean taking out key sections for short periods; long enough to hurt, short enough to prevent the employer setting up a mechanism to work around the action.  This tactic has worked. It was used several years ago in DEFRA. Using intelligent selective action plus all-out action they won three pay increases in one year!! If instead they had taken one day’s action, waited two or three months, and then took another day or even two days they would have lost.

Who could argue that a coordinated campaign targeting the passport offices, ports and airports would not have focused government attention on our demands and sent out a clear message to other unions that a real fight back- and a victory- could be had?

So why is the Union leadership reluctant to use a useful tactic?  A number of straw men have been erected in these debates over the years. Firstly that it is selective action vs. national action. We are arguing for national action plus selective action. It is not a case of one versus the other. Selective action helps the effectiveness of the national action and national action bolsters the impact of selective action. They are complimentary tactics.

Straw man 2. It will cost too much money. The leaders of the NEC have the memory of the screens dispute that they lead in the DWP firmly imprinted on their mind. By taking out individual DWP offices for months at a time, and without a proper judgement of their strategic position in the work process (the wrong form of selective action), they spent over £7 million.  However the error was not the decision to have selective action but the selective action that was called – in DEFRA selective action was crucial in driving up DEFRA pay rates, with three pay awards being won in a single year.

Instead of learning lessons from the DEFRA campaign, the NEC leadership will tend to counterpose its negative experience of calling selective action in the DWP to our proposal to call out strategically placed members in a “hit and run” campaign linked to national action and co-ordinated action where members have local disputes to prevent a sense of isolation.

We are not denying that selective action will cost money.  That is why we have argued for an all members’ levy.  If this suggestion had been taken up years back then we would be sitting on a war chest now. Even at this late stage PCS could generate vital funds by starting a levy.

Straw man 3 – who are these “magic” workers that we can take out  (and that they would be fighting everyone’s else battle for them)? In many Departments, such as the DfT, DWP, and HRMC, there are clearly areas that impact on the employer’s operations, finances, and political standing more than others. In many places there are already backlogs. A push there could knock the whole thing over.

That’s where politics comes in. The Independent Left is standing in the NEC and DWP elections. We believe that a real strategy is needed to win on pensions. This means evaluating tactics for their effectiveness, given the concrete circumstances. PCS also have some broad demands on pay and jobs which have not been addressed by the union in any meaningful way. By preparing a serious fight back on pensions, we can prepare the way for the battle that is needed  on pay and jobs and widen the struggle against the ConDems austerity programme. If you want a leadership that thinks as we do then please vote for us.

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