Two Million Public Worker Strike in Britain—
The 99 Percent Fight Back

By Graham Durham

November 30, 2011 marked a historic day in UK trade union history as two-million public sector workers across Britain and the north of Ireland struck against pension cuts proposed by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition government. The strike involved the largest number of trade unionists taking action since the 1926 General Strike.

The strike closed thousands of schools and public services from Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, across Scotland and the north of Ireland and throughout England and Wales. Twenty-nine different trade unions supported the strike including PCS, the civil servants union, all the teaching unions even including the head-teacher union, which struck for the first time ever. Large local government and National Health Service (NHS) unions, including UNISON and UNITE, took part, and some very small unions such as the Society of Physiotherapists and the Association of Educational Psychologists joined in. After the relatively quiet strike years of the last ten years many hundreds-of-thousands of workers took strike action for the first time in their lives.

Standing with me on the early morning UNISON picket line at Central Middlesex hospital in Harlesden, west London, two dozen first-time strikers felt the power they possess and kept up a constant questioning and informing of patients and managers arriving. Nurses from the only union not striking in the NHS, the Royal College of Nursing, were dismayed at the failure of their union to take part; and demands for action in that traditionally Tory union have been overwhelming. Strikers later joined the 25,000-strong march through London where police had erected steel wall barriers to prevent strikers linking with the Occupy London protest at St Paul’s Cathedral. Many trade union branches have supported Occupy with donations and there are now four Occupy sites in London—including an empty City bank building renamed the Bank of Ideas.

November 30 Marches and rallies occurred in towns and cities across Britain—as well as 20,000-plus strong marches in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. And in similar events in all larger cities there were rallies in Chesterfield, Lincoln, Exeter, Huddersfield, Halifax, Northampton, Norwich, Cardiff and many other towns. In the north of Ireland a massive Belfast rally showed that the hostility to the Coalition austerity measures was universal amongst organized workers.

As with the rest of Europe, Tory PM Cameron is seeking to make workers pay the price for the failures of bankers and the developing worldwide recession. Increased pension contributions, increases in the working age to 68 and reductions in the value of pensions threaten to reduce wages now and increase pensioner poverty in the future. Cameron and his Liberal Democrat allies such as Deputy PM Nick Clegg are trying to drive a wedge between public and private sector workers and commence a “race to the bottom” in pension provision. Determined action such as extended strike action is the only way to prevent growing poverty of retired workers.

With 170,000 public sector jobs slashed already since the Coalition formed in 2010, unemployment in Britain has reached the highest level in 19 years. As with the rest of Europe—following the technocrat governments imposed on Greece and Italy—British workers need to resist the growing austerity measures, welfare and benefit cuts, health facilities closures and local facilities, from libraries and youth clubs to services for disabled children, from continuing cuts. Despite the desire of some trade union leaders to compromise with the government, trade unionists must demand more action in 2012 to force the government to back down.

Graham Durham is a member of UNISON, the public service trade union; and Brent Fightback, a campaign sponsored by Brent Trades Union Council that aims to unite workers in the public, private and voluntary sectors with service users and all those at risk from the cuts.

—December 18, 2011