UCU and EIS members in Higher Education are engaged in the first big strikes since Labour’s election defeat. Many who backed Corbyn recognise the need to build power and resistance in workplaces and communities. Ian Allinson argues that solidarity with the strikes offers an opportunity to do just that – but that there’s no guarantee of that opportunity being taken.
It’s pretty obvious on one level why strikers need solidarity. The most effective solidarity is to take action yourself, like the UNISON members who refused to cross UCU picket lines, the postal workers who refuse to cross picket lines in most disputes, or more dramatically the miners and engineering workers in the 1980s who struck in support of healthworkers’ pay. Even financial support is essential if workers are to take the sustained action often necessary to win. Workers at many universities have started 14 days of strikes after taking 8 last year. While many are low paid, even well-paid workers can rarely afford to lose several weeks’ pay – they often have bills that reflect their normal income. So financial support matters if we want workers to win strikes.
Solidarity strengthens the giver as much as the receiver
Other reasons why solidarity matters are less obvious, but just as important. Solidarity has the potential, done right, to strengthen the giver as much as the receiver. Too often solidarity, like so much in life, is individualised – with people donating or signing petitions online – or a donation is agreed at a union meeting only attended by a few activists. Though better than nothing, these approaches lose much of the benefit of solidarity.
When workers go on strike, their issues usually feel unique. But get strikers into conversation with other workers, and you nearly always find that many of the issues are shared. Who hasn’t experienced bosses trying to increase workload and hold down pay while lining their own pockets? Who doesn’t either have no adequate pension or fear losing it? Who doesn’t see the threat of casualisation and job insecurity? How many workplaces don’t have pay gaps on gender and race? Such conversations are often a surprise to strikers and their supporters alike – revealing a shared class experience previously hidden by differences in education, status, industry and occupation. I’ve been with teachers and dockers and with builders and IT workers as they learn about their shared experiences and interests. By asking for solidarity, strikers raise class consciousness.
Solidarity is at its best when collective. The current strikes have seen students organising collectively to provide food and drink to strikers, to produce banners, leaflets and posters urging students to respect picket lines even when their lecturers are scabbing, and to mobilise to swell pickets and protests. These actions strengthen student organisation – both because students learn from the strike and because of the bonds that this collective action builds. We badly need more workers following these examples of collective solidarity.
Most workers aren’t in a unionised workplace, let alone one where they can lead an unofficial walkout in solidarity with strikers. So what might collective solidarity look like? There are any number of small ways workers can collectively show solidarity. They could take a photo with a poster and share it on social media. They could sign a solidarity card or letter. They could add their names to a solidarity message. They could work together on sending messages of protest to an employer. Workers could visit a picket line together. They could chip in to a collection – even a couple of quid from a handful of people is a start. For longer strikes, they could pledge to give an amount each week or month. What distinguishes these types of solidarity from the individualistic ones, or from the generous union branch donation, is that they involve workers talking to each other about the strike.
When workers discuss a strike, they learn hope. Usually they face similar issues to the strikers, or fear they might. At a time when strikes are rare, spreading the idea that it is possible to stand together and fight is a huge benefit. In discussing a strike they may learn lessons about how the media, employers, the police, or the union bureaucrats behave – getting a small taste of the rapid learning strikers themselves experience.
In the last couple of decades, when workers have gone on strike, they have usually won. Not always everything they hoped for, but usually a lot more than they would have got without action. One of the frustrating features of this period has been the failure of such victories to generalise. Victories have often been like well-kept secrets. When workers do know about victories, they have felt remote and irrelevant – few have seen them as examples to copy. The result of this failure to generalise is that most of the time employers have been getting away with murder, without any serious resistance. The loss of basic traditions of solidarity has contributed to this failure to generalise. Workers who have contributed to strike funds, followed the course of a dispute, and maybe met strikers, feel part of any victory and understand it far better than those who (at best) read some distorted snippet in the news.
Responding positively to Labour’s defeat, rather than sliding into despair or pinning hopes in disappointing potential Labour leaders must mean a focus on building working class power and engaging with struggles beyond the electoral arena. Building solidarity with the Higher Education strikes is something that everyone can do.
Strikers and solidarity
Those who are on strike have a vital part to play, yet many are reluctant to ask for solidarity. Some don’t grasp that solidarity is not charity. You are not asking for support because you are the most needy person on the planet. You have taken a stand by going on strike. By asking for solidarity you are helping the rest of the working class gain hope, inspiration and organisation. People want to give solidarity because your cause is just, because they wish they were standing up as you are, and because they know your victory will make their resistance seem more possible, while your defeat would encourage their employers to intensify their offensive.
The media try to kid strikers that they won’t get solidarity because many other people are worse off than them, and that people feel jealousy rather than solidarity. But millions of people know that we need to level up our lives rather than allowing those at the top to set us against those just above or below us. Every group of strikers who asks for solidarity is stunned at the response. Working class people are constantly told we are selfish, nasty and worthless. We are not.
In the past, unions had a tradition of strikers doing ‘delegation work’, touring round workplaces and union branches to talk to workers and raise support. Local strikes would often send delegations all round the country, with activists putting them up and taking time off work to show them around local workplaces, building up networks of militants. In the early 1990s this meant I knew reps in most of the unionised workplaces in East Manchester, so taking strikers round was relatively easy. With strikes becoming less common, more unions paying strike pay, and too much of the left neglecting workplace struggle, this tradition has decayed. Now you often have to show up at a workplace, go to reception and ask to speak to the union rep without even having a name. This is more hit and miss, but still gets results – often good conversations, promises to do collections or make donations, or invitations to speak at meetings. If we are serious about rebuilding workplace power, the traditions of solidarity need to be rebuilt, and the Higher Education strikes offer an opportunity to make a start. It is an opportunity everyone on the left should seize.
Support the UCU and EIS strikes
See above for ideas for how you can show solidarity. We have published a collection sheet for the UCU strikers. It is best to take money directly to pickets or donate to local strike funds if you can. Otherwise you can contribute to the UCU national strike fund online via Account: ‘UCU Fighting Fund’, sort code: 60-83-01, account: 20179432, reference: ‘Fighting Fund Voluntary Levy’; or send a cheque payable to ‘University and College Union’ to Fighting Fund donation, Finance Department, UCU, Carlow Street, London, NW1 7LH. You can donate to the EIS strike fund online via account Name ‘EIS’, sort code: 60 83 01, account: 20315704, reference ‘ULA Levy’.