The 1st of February marks the first instance of ‘coordinated’ national action in the current wave of industrial disputes. First called as a day of protest in response to the government’s latest piece of anti-trade union legislation, its escalation to a day of synchronised strikes across some unions appears, at first sight at least, significant. One would assume it will garner significant media coverage (including hysterical declarations of a general strike) and encourage socialisation and communication across the labour movement and the rest of the public that may be beneficial in the future.
However, the disruption caused will not be particularly significant. While days’ lost statistics will spike as a result of the action, the fact it is only one day means any disruption will be minimal. Rather than look at this as coordinated national action, where action by one union has a tangible impact on action by another, it is perhaps more accurate to look at it as synchronised action. Indeed, more than anything else, the 1st of February will highlight the divisions and obstacles to meaningful coordination.
Some of these obstacles are the structural tensions that exist in organised labour, as is shown by the unions who are not partaking in action today. The clearest example can be found in the Royal College of Nursing, currently the union who look best placed to succeed in their public sector dispute and whose members enjoy the most public support. As a professional body who are not affiliated to the TUC, the RCN have made it clear they do not expect nor seek coordination and want no part in the 1st of February action having already called their own strike dates of the 6th and 7th of February.
This has led to GMB, who are currently re-balloting four of their ambulance trusts (with successful ballots by no means certain), piggybacking on the RCN’s 6th of February action (and not taking action on the 1st) as they lack the numbers to do the heavy lifting by themselves. While calling action on the 6th of February, GMB have also called action for the 20th of February, 6th of March, and the 20th of March. UNISON and Unite called action for the 23rd of January, with Unite also calling additional local action through to the 20th of March. This seems more reactive than coordinated. Unite as the union with by far the fewest ambulance workers (its ballot was of 2,700, GMB’s was of over 10,000) cannot drive action by itself. This is not simply due to union rivalry preventing cooperation (although that is part of it), but also because organising takes time and effort and cannot always work according to timetable, Besides, each union has a finite number of strike days that they can enact depending on how supportive and financially vulnerable the members are.
Even the unions partaking in action today are constrained by their own disputes. This is principally because of the atomised nature of the economy, each industry’s own pattern of production, and a legal framework that keeps trade disputes artificially separate. An example of this can be seen in the National Education Union. Having only just concluded its ballot, the NEU is yet to take action, while the last time the University College Union took action was in November. Thus, it was easier for these two unions to take action on the 1st of February as they are not yet confined by the schedule of prolonged action and negotiation. Even with this increased flexibility, action on the first of February was not a given, thanks to the UCU’s union wide commitment to having their arguments in public, we can see that the process for arriving at their current cause of action was fractious and could well have resulted in a different set of dates. Moreover, a one off day of action by all eligible PCS members (who have currently been engaged in guerrilla style industrial action) is something that PCS were considering even before their ballot had closed so to call it on the 1st of February was relatively straightforward.
The absence of protracted industrial action and progress in negotiations has given the above unions more flexibility. This is in contrast to the RMT; as they are close to a deal they have only asked their driver members (many of whom will dual-card and be ASLEF members anyway) to piggyback on ASLEF’s strike. This has come as a surprise to some of the unions organsing the one-day action and is in spite of Mick Lynch’s rhetoric of the importance of a General Strike. Depending on your point of view, this is either sensible or tokenism; one thing it is not is meaningful coordination and it looks more akin to synchronisation by convenience.
This is not to say that it is impossible there is genuine coordinated action in the future, but it is unlikely. Changes in the law and workplace culture means that, unlike fifty years ago, there is not a vibrant shop floor movement capable of coordinating action on the spot. The process of organisation is slower and more prone to malfunction, though even in the 70s and before there were substantial obstacles to solidarity. However, even in the sectors where national industrial coordination currently appears most viable, such as health and education, there are still obstacles.
The NEU ballot only covered around 18,500 support staff, who are employed by local government and not schools. Should UNISON and GMB ballot their support staff members then they could coordinate with the NEU and ensure schools remain shut. However, this is not straightforward. UNISON are currently taking the NEU through the TUC disputes process over who should be recruiting support staff so this may well not happen. NASUWT are re-balloting so may be able to coordinate action with the NEU, but given that they represent many of the same grades this would only be the bare minimum for coordination. While many of the health disputes lend themselves to coordinated action (given that most NHS staff are on the Agenda for Change pay scale), the fact that we have yet to see genuine coordinated action demonstrates how hard this is. For instance, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists has consciously decided to stage strikes on some days that no other NHS union is striking because it does not want physios to get ignored in the focus on doctors and nurses.
Perhaps the above is excessively pessimistic, and maybe February will herald the start wave of coordinated strike action. However, it is not clear how many of the unions currently taking action help other unions simply by virtue of doing so. For instance, does UCU action impact ASLEF’s dispute on an industrial level? The structural obstacles to coordination outlined above, the law, distinct timetables across disputes, and tension between unions, are real and present, and currently there is no indication that they will be substantially overcome. Instead, it appears as though the disputes (many of which have a good chance of success on their own industrial merits) will carry on largely separate without meaningful coordination of action across organised labour. Even if synchronisation increases, it is doubtful coordination will.