Since their election in 2010 the ConDem government have driven through a dramatic series of cuts, privatisation and attacks on working conditions.
The NHS is the most visible drive towards privatisation, with education not far behind. The cuts sweeping local government are not simply the effect of the recession, but an attempt to abolish large areas of public services.
The restructuring of public sector pensions has seen significant resistance, with 750,000 on strike on June 30th and 2,500,000 on November 30th. These 2 days of strikes forced some concessions from
the government, and some unions seized the opportunity to withdraw from future action while negotiations continue. Meanwhile the NUT, PCS and UCU have called a strike on March 28th which will see approaching 1,000,000 on strike.
A serious debate is raging in the trade union movement – how far can we go in resisting the government? Will strikes win further concessions?
The experience from the last week, and from 40 years ago, indicate that determined and militant action can win.
For the last 6 months electricians and construction workers have organised pickets at construction sites around Britain. They have been campaigning against the introduction of a new Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA) by 7 major construction companies of which Balfour Beatty is the largest. The BESNA would see de-skilling and wage cuts of up to 35% for hundreds of workers.
Every Wednesday morning construction sites from Glasgow to London have been picketed and blockaded by rank and file sparks and their supporters. Hundreds have joined the pickets. Oxford Street has been blocked during the rush hour and last week Park Lane was blocked by sparks protesting outside the Electrical Contractors Association annual dinner.
UNITE the union called a ballot of its members in Balfour Beatty in November. After they returned an 81% vote for strike action Balfour Beatty used a legal challenge to the ballot to nullify it.
In January UNITE re-balloted and their members voted to strike again. Once again Balfour Beatty raised a legal challenge to the ballot but last week a judge threw out the challenge. As the sparks
prepared for a strike Balfour Beatty threw in the towel and abandoned BESNA. Both rank and file sparks and the UNITE leadership are now calling on the remaining 6 companies to abandon BESNA, or face the consequences.
This victory come almost exactly 40 years after the Battle of Saltley Gate, where 30,000 Birmingham engineers struck in support of striking miners, and 10,000 of them marched to reinforce 2,000 miners who were picketing Saltley Coking Works, forcing the police to close the gates and effectively securing victory for the miners.
On Friday 10th February 2012 Birmingham Trades Union Council organised an anniversary rally to celebrate the anniversary. Arthur Scargill spoke at the rally alongside former Yorkshire NUM leader
Ken Capstick, Bob Crow general secretary of the RMT, Tony Burke UNITE assistant general secretary and Norman Goodwin, who had been an engineer and took part in the Battle of Saltley Gate.
With Britain no longer able to claim to be the ‘workshop of the world’ big business and successive Tory and Labour governments tried to make the workers foot the bill with pay restraint. The Tory
government felt that the miners, who hadn’t had a national strike since the defeat of the General Strike in 1926, who be easy to beat.
They hadn’t bargained for 2 things.
Firstly the miners, in particular the Yorkshire miners led by Arthur Scargill and others in the Barnsley Forum, sent out flying pickets from the beginning of the strike. Up to 60,000 miners were involved in picketing 500 key facilities – power stations, docks, coking works.
Secondly the solidarity that was delivered by other unions. Rail workers, unionised lorry drivers and power workers refused to touch coal or any replacement fuels.
Saltley Coking Works was soon the only plant in the country supplying significant coal supplies to industry.
Up to 2,000 miners from the Midlands, Yorkshire and Wales began picketing. 800 police were mobilised for several days to keep the gates at Saltley open.
Arthur Scargill spoke to the Birmingham East AUEW shop stewards and the National Union of Vehicle Builders. Both agreed to call their members out on strike on the 10th.
By 11am 30,000 Birmingham engineers were on strike and 10,000 joined the picketing miners. The police were overwhelmed and forced to close the gates. It was a massive victory for militant action
We face difficult times. One of the most crucial cuts both the public and private sector are trying to make is labour costs. Both by redundancies and wage restraint workers wages are increasingly under pressure.
There is widespread anger with the government and huge sympathy for anyone who resists them.
The lesson from Saltley Gate 40 years ago, and the sparks last week, is that determined and militant action is the key to victory.