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Form joint strike committees and unite the pensions struggle

Jeremy Dewar looks at the impending mass strike action in defence of pensions and asks how we can get the biggest turn out possible

Around three million workers are now set to strike together at the end of next month in the biggest day of action for a generation. Unison (1.1 million members), the GMB (300,000), Unite (250,000), firefighters (43,000) plus teachers in NASUWT (250,000) and heads in NAHT (25,000) are balloting to join the 750,000 teachers and civil servants in the NUT, ATL, UCU and PCS, who struck in the summer. Even the prison officers, banned from taking industrial action, are set to walk out.
The anger of millions is not hard to understand.
Public sector workers provide vital services, such as free education and healthcare, street cleaning and fire fighting, council housing and benefit provision. And what do they get in their retirement? Male workers on average £4,000 a year, women less than £3,000.
Now the Coalition wants to steal tens of thousands from each of them.
Despite the big TUC leaders’ attempts to dampen expectations, 30 November is taking on a great significance for our movement.
Important as the pensions issue is, it’s not only about pensions. This just happens to be the issue around which we could force the union leaders to unite the struggles against cuts and privatisation.
And it’s not simply public service workers who want a coordinated fightback. Many private sector workers see it as an opportunity to further their own struggles.
Mick, an electrician involved in the JIB dispute (see opposite), bluntly told Workers Power: “They’re talking about a general strike on 30 November, but we can’t just go out for one day. We’ve got to go out for a week to really hurt these bastards.”
Mick hits the nail on the head. We need to think of 30 November as an opportunity to launch a general strike that can unite every section of society threatened by the cuts and bring down the government. But also, we cannot wait another five months before we are out together again. This time we need to stay out till we have all won.
The question, therefore, is how are we going to achieve this?

Organise the rank and file
A month ago I wrote that it looked unlikely that the unions would coordinate action across the different sectors. So what changed? In short, the world economy nosedived and the Tories stopped making concessions. A new austerity package looks inevitable.
Even if the TUC was reluctant to launch total war on the bosses, the Coalition decided now was the time to call their bluff. This gave Unison, Unite and the GMB little option but to join the November strike.
But we still have to watch our leaders like hawks, keep the pressure on them and prepare to lead the resistance, should they try to settle disputes separately, as happened in the pensions dispute of 2006.
The best way to do this is by forming joint strike committees (JSCs) consisting of elected delegates from local workplaces and branches. Where anticuts groups have strong roots in the unions, they could initiate this; more usually, left wing branches or trades councils could take the lead.
JSCs can initiate lively and highly visible campaign in the run-up to the strike, involving public meetings, rallies, demos and direct action that can help win large majorities for action, recruit more members and win the argument for escalating the action. In the process it would help cement cross-union relations that could survive any breaking of the united front at the top. And they can serve as an alternative leadership if the union leaders try and sell the strike short.
Why are the TUC tops so reluctant to launch a general strike? Because these well-heeled bureaucrats do not have the same interests as their low-paid members. For them compromise is a way of life. But when compromise would leave us at the mercy of state benefits in our old age, we cannot accept it. That’s why we need a new leadership, one that is controlled by the rank and file.
If we look at the exciting developments in the construction industry, where the Siteworker network is shutting down building sites and demanding to join in on 30 November, we can see how a movement from below can force the pace.
So let’s build Healthworker Network, let’s expand Education Networks and initiate Council Worker Networks. And most important of all, let’s use 30 November to escalate the action, leading to an indefinite general strike to stop all the cuts and bring down the austerity coalition.

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