Gregor Gall: Unions must present united front

The PCS cannot go it alone in the battle to beat austerity cuts, writes Gregor Gall

Today, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union is the only one to stand up and be counted in the fight against the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s age of austerity. Some 250,000 civil servants all across Britain chose to strike on Budget Day in their dispute with the government on pay, pensions and working conditions. This is because Budget Day not only symbolises but also readily comprises the continual attacks upon the public services and those that deliver them.

For those concerned with the pressing issue of creating a counter-coalition to the UK government that is capable of halting and reversing the policy of cuts, the question must be: where are the other unions who represent six million workers?

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The pattern of the PCS going it alone – indeed, having to go it alone – is, depressingly, one that has been well established in recent years. The absence of the troika of the union movement’s biggest guns – namely, Unison, Unite and the GMB – means that PCS, as the fifth-biggest union, is faced with a situation of either having to accept the other unions’ acquiescence or to fight but do so in isolation. This is “rock and a hard place” territory, with the knowledge that fighting may not win but not fighting leads to defeat.

The united action of a one-day strike by 30 unions, representing three million public sector workers, on 30 November, 2011, against the reform of their pensions was very much the exception that proves the rule.

Before and after this united 2011 strike, the PCS union worked tirelessly towards achieving co-ordinated industrial action because it believes that by more unions acting together, a bigger punch can be packed. But it has been spurned by the leadership of other unions. The age-old slogan of the union movement that “united we stand, divided we fall” is being acted out before our very eyes.

PCS members will again take strike action on 5 April, but they are unlikely to be joined then or at any other time soon after by other unions. Teacher members of the NUT and NASUWT unions will strike at the end of June in the north-west of England and then again in the autumn. This later strike may take the form of a national one-day strike. This action will be against pay freezes, increased workload and rising pension contributions, almost the exact same menu of reasons PCS members are striking over.

Moreover, the fractured sense of unity between the PCS and the NUT/NASUWT is especially notable because just prior to and just after the 26 November, 2011, strike, these unions held joint days of strike action. Then, they seemed to show others what was possible.

All this disunity is in stark contrast to our continental cousins. In recent years in France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, the union movements have not only taken frequent, united action in the form of general strikes but also made progress in holding back an even bigger tidal wave of cuts. What makes this achievement all the more remarkable is that the union movements in these countries are divided by politics and religion into rival confederations. By contrast, Britain has just one, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and its sister organisation, the STUC in Scotland.

What explains the difference between Britain and these continental cousins? It would be easy to say that these southern Europeans are naturally more rebellious, but this takes us nowhere fast.

There are certainly different traditions and patterns of protest in these other countries, where the emphasis is on more direct, street-based mobilisations and rather less on wheeling and dealing in private, smoke-filled rooms. But what they have that the union movement in Britain lacks is an acute sense of not letting themselves be quite so subject to “divide and rule”.

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The hopes that the new leadership in Unite, the country’s largest union with 1.4 million members, would allow it to join with the PCS have not come to fruition. Moreover, Unite has a minority of its members in the public sector and so this places the spotlight on Unison as the largest public sector union (with 1.2 million members). Its leader, Dave Prentis, has certainly “talked the talk” of fighting back in recent years, but it’s hard to see bountiful evidence of him and his union “walking the walk” on this front. The GMB is, again, in a difficult position as it is substantially smaller than Unite and Unison, with some 600,000 members, and does not have most of its members in the public sector.

So, it is a sectionalist mentality that holds the unions back individually and collectively. It’s not quite a case of each union saying “I’m alright, Jack” as caricatured by Peter Sellers’s shop steward Fred Kite, in the Boulton brothers’ 1959 film of that name. It’s more a case of not joining up the dots to see the bigger picture.

And this sectionalism, in the main, breeds timidity and not militancy. Only if unions stand up together again – and often – can they get a sense of their potential power. The coalition government is now becoming jaded and ever more divided. It may not be about to fall, but standing up together against it can widen those divisions. The alternative is to cry into one’s beer and pray for a change in the governing party at Westminster in 2015.

That’s an option that should not be considered. Attacks on the public sector and its workers have already taken place since May 2010, more are happening right now, and Labour is not promising anything like a full reversal of the cuts.

If the unions stood together and fought back now, they could push the centre of political gravity to the left – and that would be something that Labour would have to take heed of to get elected.

• Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Bradford