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A week of strikes shakes government
Teachers on strike on 24 April 2008, photo Martin Powell-Davies
The strike on 24 April by hundreds of thousands of teachers, civil servants and college lecturers shook the government. Reports from up and down the country showed that it was enthusiastically supported by those taking part. The teachers' action was their first national strike for 21 years, and with the UCU and PCS unions also taking action on the same day, marked an early 'spring' in the revival of the trade union movement.
The attempts by the capitalist media to downplay the numbers involved and the strikes' effect, flew in the face of the experience of those taking the action. Up to ten thousand schools were shut for the day and many others cancelled classes. Commerce and industry were affected as parents took a day off work to look after their children. Child nurseries reported a five-fold increase in requests for crèche places.
Birmingham council workers first strike on 5 February 2008, photo S O'Neill
In Birmingham, Britain's second biggest city and the largest local authority in Europe, teachers, civil servants and lecturers were joined by council workers who took two days of strike action of their own.
In Scotland, the establishment was shocked by the marvellous strike action of the Grangemouth refinery workers.
These strikes reveal a deep ongoing anger of ordinary workers against the bosses and the government. They are bringing to the surface the boiling anger of millions of people against a system that rewards the greed of a few whilst attacking the needs of the many. They also revealed the power of the working class, who we were told 'no longer existed'.
Look at the case of Grangemouth, sold by BP to a little known company called Ineos, which is now the biggest private company in Britain, mainly owned by one man, Jim Ratcliffe. Ineos bought up chemical companies globally, to become the world's third largest chemicals company with a turnover of £45 billion a year.
The company borrowed billions in the process and now, finding itself affected by the credit crisis, is telling the Grangemouth workers that their wages and pensions will have to suffer. But the power of this relatively small number of workers has been brought home with a vengeance. 40% of the UK oil flow is dependent on Grangemouth.
The Sunday Times pointed out that if the Runcorn chlorine plant - also in the hands of Ineos - was to be shut down by a strike then Britain would run out of drinking water in three days!
The special case of the Grangemouth oil workers will not necessarily be reflected at this stage across the private sector. Power workers and other energy workers, for example, who also have enormous power to bring the economy to a grinding halt, have had above-inflation pay rises, primarily because the bosses know the potential strength of these workers.
So the public sector remains for the moment the most likely arena for mass struggle. The issue here is whether or not the sector's union leaders are going to grasp the opportunity to take the struggle forward in a united public-sector wide strike against the government pay freeze. Socialist Party members in the unions and others are calling for this to happen.
The National Union of Teachers' decision to call the strike on 24 April (after delay by the executive) helped to break the logjam at the top of the movement. The PCS and UCU unions both took the opportunity of it to call on their members who were in pay conflict with their employers to also come out on the 24th.
Unfortunately the other 20 or so public-sector unions did not follow suit. Unison will be balloting its members in local government and health. The Unison leadership though is doing its best to dampen down any mood for a positive vote, particularly in the health service. But it is possible that they will not be able to keep the floodgates closed.
The NUT will soon have to decide its next steps. Left members on the executive have called for a new ballot, this time for 'discontinuous' action, so strikes can be called without having to have a new ballot each time.
The government's pay freeze can be beaten. Thursday 24 April proved that workers will fight back if called on, especially when they see the possibility of a united struggle with others. It remains to be seen if the right wing union leaders will be forced to give a lead this year. Nevertheless, pressure must continue and be stepped up, for a day to be named for a 24-hour public-sector wide strike.
A date in June would be the best time for teachers; the date of the planned TUC lobby of parliament - 9 June - should at least be turned into a public-sector day of action, but could be turned into much more.
When all-public sector action takes place, a new stage will open up in Britain. Perhaps not immediately back to the level of past periods, but nevertheless a giant step forward.