What do we want? More pay! When do we want it? Er…

Djinn76, Flickr

Pic credit: Djinn76, Flickr

For union leaders meeting at next week’s TUC Congress in Brighton next week, the question won’t be whether to take strike action, but when. Or more precisely: whether to do it at the same time as each other.

There’s no dispute among them that the pay deals being offered to public sector workers are even worse than last year’s. The NHS pay deal, one of the more generous ones, offers eight per cent over three years. But inflation is creeping towards 5 per cent at the government’s CPI measure, and more at the RPI measure unions prefer to use.

Co-ordinated strike action theoretically raises the possiblity of Winter-of-Discontent-style chaos, with schools closed, rubbish piling up, Jobcentres Plus locked and so on. One newspaper last week suggested it was a distinct possibility. Is it?

Well… not really. For a number of reasons:

1) For starters, you would need to pass a motion at the congress which actually spelt out that the unions would take strike action together, and that the TUC would co-ordinate it. Going on strike is a very bureaucratic process nowadays, and they’d need help. There are several motions from different unions along these lines currently on the agenda, which will be composited into one motion. But while some, like the Public and Commerical Services Union, want joint strike action, others like Unison just call it ‘action’. The difference is more than literary. Last year’s TUC also voted for co-ordinated action, but it didn’t lead to anything much.

2) The TUC leadership, who could well sway the final wording, would need to be persuaded that the TUC should co-ordinate such action. I’m not an expert on such matters, so feel free to correct me, but as I understand it, the TUC has not recently (say in the last five years) tried to co-ordinate industrial action between unions. And I am told that they wouldn’t want to. Certainly it is the more militant unions like the PCS, the Prison Officers Association and the National Union of Teachers that seem to genuinely want co-ordinated action. And the TUC is always a lot tamer than this lot.

3) All the public sector unions would have to want it. The Observer article I link to above quotes a Unison spokesperson. I know who it was, and having spoken to them, I understand what they’re saying but it doesn’t amount to a likely chance of joint strike action. Unison voted at its conference this year for such action but the leadership hasn’t actually shown any willingness so far to do it. A Unison shop steward I interviewed this week basically said they didn’t want to.

I can’t predict what’ll happen next week, but my best guess is lots of angry speeches about low pay vs. fat cat salaries, followed a public sector pay motion just vague enough to avoid concerted inter-union action on it. That won’t stop minor joint action between, say, PCS and NUT. But the TV news offices don’t need to dust off cans of film from 1978-79 just yet.

Update: Jon Rogers of Unison has this on the public sector pay composite motion.

Update 2, Friday 5 September: I’ve just heard from a source that the TUC has composited a motion which will call quite strongly for co-ordinated strike action. I don’t have any more details just yet. This is a victory for the more militant NUT/PCS/UCU wing of the TUC.

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