Amy Ferguson, Unite Hospitality Combine chair (personal capacity)
This year’s Policy Conference of Unite the Union is taking place amidst of the current lengthy strike wave. These strikes have had an electrifying impact on society, garnering wide public support, repopularising the idea of strikes, and inspiring others to take similar action against the cost of living crisis. However, the pay deals won have been a mixed bag. It is important for us to look deeper at what type of strike action is winning the best results.
There have been a number of strikes that have won doubledigit or above-inflation pay rises – for example, Kingspan and Survitec workers in Northern Ireland and National Express workers in the West Midlands. There are different factors and creative tactics that have fed into these victories, which should be analysed.
One common feature across all three is that they utilised the tactic of indefinite strike action. That is, workers voted to stay out on strike, enforcing maximum pressure, until their employers caved. It is an incredibly positive development that homelessness workers at St Mungo’s have also voted to implement this tactic. This marks a stark difference from many of the disputes of the past decade, which have limited themselves to sporadic days of action, thus cutting across their potential impact and allowing strikes to lose momentum.
Following three days of strike action, Kingspan workers won a one-year pay deal of 10%, backdated, as well as a £1,000 one-off payment. This workforce, assisted by
ISA member and Unite Officer Neil Moore, fought an impressive battle against divide-and-rule tactics. During the strike, there were regular gate meetings to give workers democratic control over their dispute. This allowed them to respond quickly to the actions of their boss. For example, when they discovered the company would be flying in scab labour from Poland, the workers appealed to them (in Polish) not to cross the picket line. They explained that the struggle for a fair livelihood in Poland was the same as that of the workers on strike: to fight against the greed of the capitalist class that is the cause of hardship among the working class, no matter where we live or are from.
Similarly, National Express workers won a 16.2% pay rise and also dealt with intimidation and divisive tactics from their employer. The workers stood strong in their resolve and maintained unity by setting up an anti-union-busting hotline to assist all workers who were subjected to such tactics.
Finally, Survitec workers have also now won a 10% pay increase after 10 days of strike action. The workers were originally offered 6%, which would have represented less than 1% of the company’s annual sales. This was, for most of the workforce, their first experience of strike action. Similarly to Kingspan, they held regular gate meetings to make democratic decisions about ‘offers’ and how to run the pickets, including how to convince delivery drivers not to cross the picket. It was this approach of involvement of members that has also been cited as a key reason for solid membership growth in the factory.
As workers are getting organised and taking action, the capitalists are rattled. In the near future, we will likely see more divide-and-conquer strategies being unleashed. Such tactics can be overcome, and genuine pay rises won, with militant organising strategies as well as coordination between workforces and sectors.
Sharon Graham and her supporters have strengthened the position of the left in the recent Executive Committee elections. This will need to be strengthened further with a strategy to build a fighting rank-and-file base in the union. Drawing on the experience of recent struggles to put forward a strategy to win will be crucial to consolidating these gains.
— Breaking —
Socialist Alternative and Socialist Party (ISA in Ireland) members in Unite have put forward this motion at Policy Conference, which has successfully been passed!
Conference recognises the renewed upsurge in industrial action by working people determined to win pay improvements, defend hard-won terms and conditions, jobs and skills, and to defeat the threat of privatisation. Hundreds of thousands of workers have taken strike action – including significant disputes in health, transport, communications and education. Following decades of falling real-terms wages, the tide is turning and working class people are refusing to accept attacks on our living standards.
Conference further notes that Unite members and reps have been at the forefront of this historic fightback, winning approximately 80% of disputes and in many cases securing double-digit pay increases, and that this fightback has been driven by our General Secretary, Sharon Graham, and her focus on the workplace and on our members’ jobs, pay and conditions.
The current wave of industrial action has been fuelled by growing social and economic inequality combined with political attacks on workers. The ongoing pressure on workers’ pockets continues to mount as high inflation and interest rates hit working-class people. While the richest in our society have seen their wealth grow further, the cost-of-living crisis has disproportionately impacted on working people, with many finding that one job is insufficient to provide even a basic standard of living.
The Tory government and the bosses have responded in turn with vicious attacks on the trade union movement. As they have illustrated in the health service and rail disputes, they are intent on an ideological crusade to maximise profit and curb workers’ rights to organise. They are gearing up for a protracted period of attacks on workers’ living standards and hope to score an early victory against the unions.
We must therefore deepened and extend our collective actions to focus on the fundamental social and economic change needed to deliver lasting advances for our members. This will require strategic industrial coordination between trade unions.
The need for such coordination is being increasingly recognised by a growing number of workers and their unions. While seeking the greatest possible degree of cooperation and coordination between trade unions, Unite members must retain the freedom to act as circumstances dictate in pursuit of our objectives.
Coordinated industrial action is one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of the trade union movement, and has the potential to improve pay and conditions for workers while also defending public services from privatisation. Bringing workers across sectors out at the same time would drastically increase the pressure on the government and the bosses they represent. The power of workers acting together can also be a bulwark against political attempts to limit workers’ rights.
Therefore, this Conference mandates the Executive Council to ensure that, as appropriate, Unite takes the lead in engaging with other trade unions to deliver the real and lasting changes our members need.
Part of this should be initiating cross-union action forums where they are not present, as well as Unite strike committees across workplaces and sectors in struggle to deal with pressing questions such as unified demands, joint strike date and strategies to broaden the strikes.