Jonathan Neale writes: One chapter on the 1982 hospital workers strikes from a book I wrote many years ago seems very relevant now. I hope it will be useful, in different ways, to university workers and hospital workers. You can download the chapter here.
For the university workers’ strikes right now, this chapter holds bitter lessons about why one day and five-day strikes will lose. But 2022 is not 1982. There is a way now to move to an indefinite strike and win. At the end of the post I also talk briefly about the relevance of the chapter to health workers now.
I was an occupational therapy technician in a geriatric hospital during the 1982 strikes, and a shop steward in the National Union of Public Employees.
Reading what I wrote back then, I can feel my pride in my fellow workers and my rage at the leadership of our unions. I was angry because our leaders were introducing what was then a new strategy – one day strikes, two-day strikes, five-day strikes, regional rolling strikes, and so on.
Before that, the custom in unions in the UK had almost always been to go out together on indefinite strike until you won or you lost. The one day and rolling strikes were a departure from that tradition. One of the main reasons I wrote the book was to warn other workers about what a disaster the new tactics were, and why, and how.
To my bitterness and sorrow, short strikes have become the norm in British public sector unions for forty years now. I have lost count of the number of one day strikes I have built and been part of over those years, many of them in universities as a UCU member before I retired.
We always lost those strikes. I believe that was the point of the strategy for union leaders. They could avoid a fight and exhaust the workers who wanted to fight.
In 1982 the management and the government knew that they could ride out short strikes. The shop stewards and the workers learned that the short strikes were not going to win. The TUC, our union leaders, also knew that the short strikes were going to lose.
But the union leaders kept calling short strikes because they were under pressure from the stewards and the union members to do something. But our leaders were also afraid of taking on the conservative government of the day, our ultimate employer.
Still, they did not dare simply betray us. So they kept calling short strikes, a strategy they knew would lose. The aim, and the result, was to exhaust us. Then at the end, they could turn around to the stewards and the workers and say, it’s your fault. Support for the strikes is falling away. That shows you are not willing to fight. We tried, the leaders could say, and the workers gave up.
Sound familiar? It is achingly familiar after 40 years. The leaders of UCU, like Jo Grady and the rest, who have just voted for more short strikes absolutely know what they were doing. They are determined to lose.
The employers know it too. That is why they had the confidence to cut pensions deeply right in the middle of the strike. It was a brazen fuck you, designed to demoralise UCU members by showing they were not worried at all.
But don’t give up. Because there are important differences from 1982 in the universities now. First, it’s not about a small pay claim. It’s centrally about the pensions and pay cuts of a 30% or 40% for all of your retirement. That means people are furious, and they know the stakes are high.
In 1982 Thatcher was prime minister, at the beginning of a decade of domination. In 2022 Boris Johnson is prime minister. He is obviously a weak man and a liar. After Brexit, after Covid, the government is vulnerable. Prices are increasing fast, and many workers are worried.
Looking back, the tide of global history was flowing against the unions in 1982 in many countries. Look around the world in 2022, and the tide is flowing toward resistance. UCU members can sense that. And the UCU picket lines this time have felt quite different from previous pay disputes.
That means there is still the possibility of escalating to an all out strike. There are three ways this could happen.
One is that angry representatives win the vote in the higher education committee or the national executive. Many people on these committees want to do just that. But they are not a majority yet.
The second is that one union branch, at one university, could decide to stay out on strike. I think that given the present depth of feeling, if any branch did that, many more branches would join them. It would be unofficial, but hell, resistance is not always official.
The third is concentrated pressure on the higher union bodies. That means big, polite, insistent lobbies of every member of those committees at their work. It also means national lobbies and protests, but the local lobbies would be more important, because they will be bigger and have greater moral force.
It is worth trying all three strategies at the same time, to see what works. But it is essential to all of them that people tell each other, and all the university workers, that everyone knows they will not win without an all out strike, and that everything you do is pointing towards that.
Many people will say, understandably, that the strikes have been patchy nationally. But an all-out indefinite strike would change that.
The time I was in a pay dispute I was a lecturer at Bath Spa University. On the first one day strike there were 22 of us on the picket line. This was a good turnout for a very small university. Very few lecturers crossed our picket line.
During the course of the morning I asked each of the others on the line two questions, privately. Do you think we are going to win? And did you vote for the strike?
Every one of the twenty-one thought we were going to lose. We have done series of one day strikes before, they said. We know they lose.
Twenty of them said they had voted for the strike, although they knew it would lose. One of them said they had voted against the strike because they knew it would lose, but they were on the picket line because they believed in unions and solidarity.
We had 180 union members, and very few of them crossed the picket line. They too had voted for the strike for a large majority. They too knew it would lose.
The point is that there is a deep feeling of protest, anger and solidarity. There has been for a long time. It is driven above all else by what a stupid and greedy management and government have done to learning and to our work.
But there is also a weariness, and a deep knowledge that the present one-day and five-day strikes cannot win. That does not mean call off those strikes. It means escalate. An all-out strike would change the balance of that equation, and could change it decisively.
But, to say it again, it will not be possible to persuade enough people to act without telling everyone, from today on, that everyone knows that only an indefinite, national strike can win.
It’s been forty years. It’s time we stopped fucking around with our future.
Health workers are the other group who may find this chapter particularly useful. Three things in particular stand out rereading it. One is the nuts and bolts of how to organize emergency cover and still have a strong strike. The second is the nuts and bolts of how to build support for health workers among other people. The third is the enormous support health workers were able to build in 1982, and the very wide variety of workplaces who struck in our support.
The union movement as a whole is now much weaker than in 1982. But feeling about health and the NHS is now much stronger. A determined indefinite national strike by health workers, with adequate emergency cover, would now mobilise enormous support. No government could stand against that.
Again, you can download the chapter on the 1982 strikes here.
You can download a pdf of the whole book, Memoirs of a Callous Picket, here.
And for the story of how the graduate student teachers at Columbia in New York fought and won their all-out strike in 2021, you can read pages 29-35 of our recent article on Harvard and sexual harassment, which you can download here.