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10 July strike: one day is not enough

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More than one million workers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland struck on Thursday 10 July against the government freeze on pay and the 20% decline in real wages since the Tory-LibDem coalition came to power in 2010.

Workers from several unions – the National Union of Teachers (NUT) Unison, Unite, the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) the GMB and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) – were on the picket lines and the streets in every major town and city.

In London members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) and TSSA employed by Transport for London, and Bectu members from the Ritzy cinema were also on strike. UCU members at Lambeth College and Unison members at Doncaster Care UK were between strikes in long-running campaigns, though visible on the demonstrations and rallies.

Teaching unions report 4,000 schools were closed and 2,000 partially closed as 200,000 teachers struck over pension and pay and cuts. Support staff joined them. One picket from South London reported that in his school, less than ten students trudged into school, either because their parents were unable to find childcare or were just anti-union.

Civil servants, care workers, refuse collectors, firefighters all took to the streets. Firefighters are due to strike over eight days from14 July, although on the 10th action only lasted nine hours.

In London 25,000 marchers occupied the West End, while in Liverpool 7,000 workers attended lunchtime rallies, Bristol 4,500, Birmingham 4,000, Newcastle and Manchester, 5000, and in Brighton, Bournemouth, thousands marched. In Hull 2,000 turned out, in Huddersfield 1,500 and in Leeds 3,000 – a militant display of strength, not seen for years.

Firefighters are now being forced to work till 60 to get their full pension, and if they fail to remain the levels of fitness and have to retire at 55 they could lose up to half of their pension.

A report from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) proves that public sector workers are on average £2,245 a year poorer than when this government came to power. Yet the government is still restricting pay increases to 1% over two years. One minister has threatened restrictions would go on for another four years.

More anti-union laws

Prime Minister David Cameron’s official spokesperson commented after the action, that strikes by public service workers are always wrong. This can only mean that the Tory leader believes that the workers should be forced to work, no matter how they are treated: a slave master’s charter indeed.

If he wins the next election Cameron plans to make it unlawful for them to strike unless 50% of all workers eligible to vote, vote yes. He has also hinted that unions would not be allowed to use a mandate more than once, so outlawing rolling strikes.

It has been widely pointed out that not a single MP was elected with more than 50% of the popular vote. And of course the coalition government secured its “mandate” more than four years ago, yet continues to dish out austerity measures as if it was legitimate. Let’s remember that neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems asked for support for the austerity package, which was only outlined after the coalition was formed.

Cowardly Labour

The Labour Party leader Ed Miliband as usual refused to back the strike. He thinks the way to win popularity is not by showing solidarity with workers fighting the Tory-led coalition but by posing for the cameras holding a World Cup copy of The Sun, Rupert Murdoch's notoriously reactionary tabloid.

Clearly decisive action needs to be taken against Cameron’s cabinet, the majority of whom are millionaires, but who argue nurses, teachers, cleaners, firefighters are “greedy”. Clearly too something needs to be done about a party which takes millions in union members’ affiliation fees but attacks even a completely official, legal and popular strike.

A recent poll shows 59% think that the government is unfairly targeting public service workers. Even among those who voted Conservative in 2010 support for a public sector pay rise stands at 52%. And two-thirds (69%) oppose the government pledge to cap wage rises below inflation until 2018.

Labour’s cowardly attempts to pander to what the gutter press claim is “public opinion” only align it with the most reactionary part of the middle classes. Ironically Miliband would make himself popular and “look strong” if he stood up to Cameron and the Tory press barons.

Way forward

The 10 July strike is the largest since the day of action over pensions back in November 2011. Once again the response of workers to the unions’ call has given the lie to the professional pessimists who claim workers are not ready for action or lack “confidence”. What they have certainly lacked over the last three years is leadership. The TUC leaders say, “Britain needs a pay rise!” British workers also need leaders who will fight for one, or rather, who will let their members fight for one.

Whenever the union executives allow this, as on the 10th, activists at workplace level have proved time and gain they can rally the rank and file and get them out. True militants (and socialists on the picket lines) also report many workers are fed up with single days of action, always far apart, and which lead to no results.

They sense that escalating the action to an all-out indefinite strike is the only way to force the Tories and the Councils to back down. Likewise, meekly obeying the anti-union laws, which hamper solidarity action, only encourages the Tories to draft even more legal shackles for the unions.

There is a real danger that the union leaders will once more fritter away the momentum, seeking to sign rotten deals with the different employers, just as they did after 30 November 2011. That is why we cannot leave the fightback in their hands.

If they call action, good – indeed we should demand that they do so, and that they step it up all the way to all-out indefinite action. We should demand that they coordinate the action between all the different sectors and that none of them settles till all have got the offers they want. We should call on Unison leaders to make firm their proposal for a two-day strike in the week commencing 20 September, and for other unions to follow suit.

But just asking the union leaders is as fruitless as just asking the bosses and the Tories for a pay rise. Irresistible pressure is needed in both cases. In one case it is an all-out strike; in the other it is to organise the rank and file so that, if the union leaders won’t lead, then we can start the movement from below.

In every union that took part on 10 July we need to build strike or action committees at local level to watch out that our leaders don’t settle for peanuts or sell out altogether. We need in every union to demand escalating action on our claims. We need to support every section in action – like the firefighters next week.

The TUC demonstration planned for 18 October should be massive and militant. We need to make it the place where we demand from the leaders more and more united action. If the Tories and the judges try to break our unity, invalidate ballots, or introduce more laws, we need to demand from the TUC a general strike to force the repeal of all of Thatcher’s anti-union laws.