The news that over 200,000 civil servants in the Public and Commercial Services Union have voted for a programme of industrial action, beginning with a one-day strike on November 10, is not very exciting in itself; you could see a mile off how they were going to vote. What is interesting is the possibility it throws up of (all together now) co-ordinated strike action.
When the PCS goes out on a one-day strike on November 10, they will be on their own. No other union has timetabled action for that day. But the series of strikes targeting different government departments and agencies (Jobcentres Plus, Revenue and Customs, HM Coastguard, Cabinet Office, etc) could be a different story.
Unite is currently balloting prison service staff and NHS staff (separately) over pay, while the National Union of Teachers is also conducting a strike ballot. All could lead to strikes this autumn – and Unite have specifically called for co-ordination with a prison strike. Unison, despite being the biggest public sector union, are out of the quation because they went to arbitration in local government (as I predicted here).
They’d better hurry up though. The TUC congress held the prospect of a national “day of action”, with lots of different unions taking part. But that was over a month ago, and there’s a statutory minimum notice period for strike action. (Actually we sort of had one of those, but it was limited to Scotland and only affected 150,000 people in Unison – the other unions just sent reps who marched around. )
Officials at PCS and NUT have already indicated to me that they’re up for co-ordinating. Unite, however, is a slightly different matter. The super-union does not work closely with the other two, who are considerably smaller, not affiliated to the Labour Party and always more strident in their calls for action.
Or as a well-placed Unite source told me today: “They’re not the unions that Unite has traditionally worked most closely with… If you look at PCS, hey’ve made it their strategy to do that [co-ordinate action]. Unite’s not so focused on it.
“But clearly, we have been co-ordinating action with other unions.” Well, maybe. But not with PCS and NUT – not this year anyway. A lot of it will come down to the work of full-time union officials. And they can be temperamental. That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact borne out by the rift in Unite which has been exacerbated by full-time officials being worried about their positions.
As at the TUC, a lot of union rank-and-file – including in Unite – want to see co-ordinated action, but it’s not about to happen. It takes a lot of work, plus the will at the top to see it through. Unite’s executive hasn’t seriously discussed the issue yet, and unless they really push for it, I don’t see a major co-ordinated strike happening this year. In which case, some of that optimism expressed by shop stewards at the TUC will have been in vain. But we’ll see.