New Internationalist

Unions celebrate victory as up to a million workers strike in Britain

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Unions still represent 6.5 million workers in Britain and are a staple of a democratic state. Senan/Socialist Party under a Creative Commons Licence

On 10 July, up to a million teachers, fire fighters and other public sector workers joined picket lines and marches across Britain.

Unions have reported the one-day strike as industrial action on the biggest-scale since the General Strike of 1926, which saw between 1.5 and 1.75 million workers walk out. 

Workers from the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the Fire Brigades Unions (FBU), Unison, Unite and others, took to the picket lines to protest the government’s austerity measures, wage-cuts and falling living standards. 

Since the Liberal-Conservative coalition government came to power in 2010, the public sector has seen pay frozen, pensions slashed, and an influx of unstable zero-hour contracts.

Teachers have seen a 12 per cent pay cut in real terms. But people were also out to protest the move towards the marketization of public services, which is changing the culture of the workplace, introducing goal-based work ethics and top-down governance to the detriment of workers. 

‘I was on strike because our state education system is being ruthlessly decimated,’ said John Farmelo, teacher and member of the NUT, who attended the rally in Brighton where Green Party MP Caroline Lucas spoke about the dismantling of public services. 

‘It’s ludicrous that teachers should be expected to work until they are 67-years-old and take smaller pensions when they are doing such a vital job,’ he said.

Turnout was high, with a positive atmosphere at over 50 rallies and marches held in towns and cities across the country. Despite – or perhaps due to – the strike’s success, mainstream media has largely focused on the immediate impact to services, with phrases such as ‘schools hit by strikes’. It would be better to reverse the rhetoric: today hundreds of thousands of workers sacrificed a day’s pay in a brave struggle for decent conditions and high-quality services.

The media has also demonized union leaders as extremist renegades, out of touch with the realities of working life. Yet, unions still represent 6.5 million workers in Britain and are a staple of a democratic state.

Cameron’s ongoing efforts to crack down on strike laws have made headlines again after he questioned the legitimacy of yesterday’s action due to low ballot turnouts. In the Labour camp, Ed Milliband appeared non-committal in his refusal to support the strike – a stance that is likely to aggravate both unionists and Tories alike.

Cameron’s Britain is based on an ideology of neoliberalism that diminishes the importance of unions and industrial action. It perpetuates the myth that keeping one’s head down and competing against fellow workers will win the race to the top. Dissent is discouraged and considered unproductive and damaging. After Thursday’s strike, it will be harder to question the legitimacy of trade unions in the democratic process. NHS staff are already talking about planning industrial action in September. 

Farmelo’s one regret from yesterday’s action was that not all teaching unions participated. But that is not to say they were not represented. The hundreds of thousands workers who protested sent Cameron a message he would be unwise to ignore.

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