“This increased level of union coordination – sparked by the CWU and RMT last Summer – now encompasses swathes of public sector unions who have rejected real terms pay cuts by the Government.”
By Beth Winter MP
The scenes of teachers, lecturers, civil servants and transport workers coming together on Wednesday was a sign of the escalating opposition to the Conservatives ideological attack on people’s pay and the unions that organise to defend it.
Across the UK, every community witnessed protests against Rishi Sunak’s attack on people’s incomes. From central London to the smallest villages, teachers formed picket lines at school gates, whilst civil servants from Whitehall to local Job Centres also took strike action for better pay.
This increased level of coordination – with up to seven unions participating on the 1st February – and four other health unions due to be out on the 6th February – demonstrates the increasing level of union activity, sparked by the strike action of the CWU post and telecoms sectors and the RMT on the railways last Summer, and is now encompassing swathes of public sector unions who have rejected real terms pay cuts by the Government imposed last July.
That these unions are increasingly working together is a sign of the agreement between unions at their congress last October to increasingly coordinate activity, including demonstrations, rallies and industrial action against spending cuts and falling wages.
On the one hand the Conservatives have refused to engage in meaningful negotiations as they force down the value of key worker pay and continued hiding behind the fig leaf of the so-called independent pay review bodies. On the other they are attempting to clamp down on unions ability to campaign effectively, and intimidate workers, through their Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. This will dictate to staff – through work notices – that they have to attend work even during a strike, remove rights their rights to claim unfair dismissal if they ignore the work notice, and threatens the funds of trade unions who don’t enforce the work notices.
MPs in Parliament have expressed support for coordinated action have also led in campaigning against the Strikes Bill.
To represent the opposition of Welsh Government to the legislation, I tabled amendments to prevent the bill impacting on Wales. Over one hundred other amendments were tabled, many by my colleagues from the Socialist Campaign Group, from Richard Burgon, to John McDonnell, and Andy McDonald, Ian Lavery, Zarah Sultana, Ian Mearns and Sam Tarry.
But the Conservative majority in the Commons ensured it went through the House of Commons. It may well now be held up by the House of Lords and the Government may find it amended and pulled apart by our Peers, but that can only hold it up so long.
The way the Bill can most effectively be stopped is through escalating political and public pressure, that backs the unions pay campaigns and backs their opposition to the Bill.
On Wednesday, as around half a million people walked out on strike, the TUC also called regional rallies against the bill. The effect of that was to bring together the picket lines from each local community in collective activity. As teachers across London moved from school gates to a mass demonstration of 40,000 in Whitehall, similarly hundreds came together in Glasgow, in Liverpool, in Manchester, Leeds and elsewhere. In Cardiff over 500 people gathered at the Wales TUC rally outside the UK Government Office.
These rallies provided a focal point for supporters of strike action to join those who had been picketing earlier in the day. They came from other unions, but also community groups like ACORN, People’s Assembly and Tenants Unions, and climate groups like Extinction Rebellion.
The opportunities for members of the public to visibly demonstrate support for trade unions taking action to defend the pay of nurses, of paramedics, of firefighters, is vital if we are to win this campaign.
So it is welcome that there is now a major demonstration call on Saturday 11th March in support of health workers and NHS demos. This can become another focal point for community activists to come together with trade unions to resist the Conservative attacks on our public services and our public servants.
Beth Winter is the MP for Cynon Valley and a regular contributor to Labour Outlook, you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram and twitter.