Is strike action over?

UNISON members in Scottish councils voted by 62% for industrial action on pay this year. However strike action did not take place due to the turnout being less than the 50% required under the Tories’ recently implemented Trade Union Act. This was the first big test of unions’ ability to deliver industrial action under the new laws and UNISON failed. A ballot of Unite members in the North Sea industry similarly failed to get the turnout required for action. All unions are recognising that the new law is a major hurdle for getting a positive vote for strike action.

Unions are considering their response to this Tory law which is designed to further weaken the power of unions. None of them should be considering giving up on industrial action as a way of taking forward workers’ interests. However, responses have to recognise that strikes were not the be-all and end-all of union campaigns. Pay campaigns which are an annual round of claim/offer/reject/ballot-for-strikes have spectacularly failed over many years. Regardless of the new anti-union laws, it has been clear for some time that union campaigns needed refreshed and revitalised with some new, or maybe some old, ideas.   

Nye Bevan wrote in In Place of Fear that after the defeat of the miners in 1926 that ‘from then on the pendulum swung sharply to political action. It seemed to us that we must try to regain in Parliament what we had lost on the industrial battlefield’.

The hope placed in a Corbyn-led Labour Party coming to power reflects a similar view and, thus, is part of a strategy to achieve ends that are beyond us on an industrial level and repeal the laws that weaken us. Unions will, and should, continue and increase support for Labour in the hope that laws can be changed in the future to swing the balance of industrial power back towards workers. However, the prospect of a Labour Government is some distance in the future.

Union campaigns and lobbying are successful. The UNISON victory to abolish Employment Tribunal fees and decisions on Equal Pay show that legal campaigns can be successful. The Living Wage was won for council, NHS and social care workers in Scotland through lobbying and campaigning, not strikes. This involved winning arguments and building alliances to pressure politicians to adopt and implement the policy.

In launching its ‘Pay Up Now’ campaign, UNISON aims to involve members in building support for an end to the public sector pay cap, including targeting Tory MPs in marginal constituencies in the run up to the Chancellor’s autumn statement. If such a campaign, taking advantage of the relative weakness of the Tory government, is to be successful, it will require thousands of members to be involved.

However successful political actions and campaigning cannot be relied upon to achieve improved pay, stop attacks on jobs and end austerity policies. Not on their own. Therefore, unions must find ways to engage with members in campaigns that will lead to more of them taking part in ballots for industrial action. This will involve many things and consideration of different tactics in different situations.

PCS recently successfully balloted a small group of members in Sheffield DWP over the closure of a Job Centre. These members were concentrated in the one workplace, could talk issues through and engage directly with union leaders, before the decision to ballot was taken. This illustrates an option for unions to consider. Rather than consulting thousands of workers spread over many workplaces, they could focus on identifying small groups who could take effective action on behalf of the wider membership who would support them through financial means.

There are risks in a selective or smart strike strategy such as this with employers seeking to threaten the selected group of members and members feeling isolated. However, these are issues which unions should be able to overcome.

The UNISON ballot was preceded by an online consultation where members received emails and texts, and social media was utilised to raise awareness on top of the traditional material produced by the union and branches. Many unions hold consultative ballots and these will become more frequent with unions having to find ways of engaging with members, visiting workplaces, having more face-to-face conversations, and organising more workplace discussions. Such intense member engagement exercises are more difficult with restrictions on facility time and a decrease in the number of shop stewards. Therefore, union staff will need to be deployed in a targeted way building support for strike action.

The in-depth organising campaigns which unions talk about but seldom manage to sustain will need to be delivered in order to turn around member disengagement and re-discover the industrial action tool. The issue we have to face up to is that members are not engaged and participating in union activities. All of the strategies referred to above must be about developing better organised unions and involving members more who will then be more ready to take part in union action, from signing the online petition to voting for strike action.

Stephen Smellie is depute convenor of UNISON Scotland and a NEC member of UNISON