I find myself in the very unusual position of suggesting a moderate union leader has engaged in infantile ultra-leftism. I’m referring to the claim by Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, that he would ‘mount the most sustained campaign of industrial action the country has seen since the general strike of 1926’.
In the interview given to the Guardian on Saturday 18 June (which it headlined on its front page with ‘Biggest strike for 100 years – union chief’), he continued, saying: ‘It will be the biggest since the general strike’. He then made a ‘call to arms’, telling members to prepare for a campaign of strikes ‘without precedent’ on 21 June (see Guardian 22 June), reiterating his point of the need for ‘sustained’ and ‘indefinite’ action.
Although never a member of the ‘awkward squad’ of union leaders, Prentis is not unknown for making bold and critical statements. But never has he engaged in such bombast and hyperbole before. There are a number of possible explanations for his statements.
One is that he was trying to curry favour with the growing groundswell of opinion within his own union for effective action against the Con-Dem coalition government. The Guardian interview was given just the day before his union’s local government annual conference opened (then followed by the union’s general annual conference). Previously, he had only gone so far as to say Unison would ballot for industrial action on pensions.
Another is that he was trying, especially in the run up to the 30June action that his members are not involved in, to outflank his far left critics who hold some sway inside Unison by bringing them on side, knowing that they would lap up his comments because it is precisely what they want to hear (as the reports in the Guardian 23 June and Socialist Worker 25 June made clear).
A final reason is he was trying to take control of the situation not just within Unison but the whole public sector union movement in the run up to the most widespread action so far against the government’s austerity programme on 30 June (and even though the PCS union has been leading it to date, either by taking action or by arguing for coordination of action).
In the background, the context for these reasons may be that Unison is challenging Unite to be the biggest and most influential union in Britain.
But it is not just that Prentis has made such uncharacteristically exaggerated statements. It is also the case that these statements simply do not add up. But Prentis’ error goes beyond this – not only is the bombast and hyperbole unwarranted, it is also dangerous.
Rhetoric and reality
If Prentis wanted to come close to matching the 1926 parallel, he should recall that 160m days were ‘lost’ to strikes in that year. The miners’ strike accounted for 146m of these. Just for the sake of argument, that means the general strike accounted for 14m strike days over its nine 9-day duration.
Even if the historical clock is not turned quite so far back, he should be aware that in 1979 when most of the ‘winter of discontent’ took place, 29m days were ‘lost’ and in another eleven years (1912, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1977, 1980, 1984) out of the last 100 more than 10m days were lost to strikes. Yet Prentis is only proposing – when you look at the detail – having regional rolling strikes, where clearly not all of his union members would be on strike on the same day.
Even with 1.2m members in the public sector (out of 1.4m Unison members overall), trying to produce tens of millions of strike days would take his members some considerable time to achieve when conducting rolling regional strikes. With 12 regions, it could take up to two and a half weeks before every Unison member had even been on strike once and 1.2m strikes days had been notched up.
I think his members – even some of the most militant ones – would baulk at taking the amount of action that would be required to notch up 10m strike days or more. Take, for instance, the 27m days ‘lost’ in 1984 as a result of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike which created one of the biggest spikes in strike days since the Second World War. This means that Unison members are extremely unlikely up for this massive level of action and sacrifice.
It makes me recall that the (rolling action) action he is proposing is not even as radical as that of his former union, NALGO, when in 1989 it took action which started with a one-day national strike, then the following week upped the ante to a two-day and was prepared to move the following weeks to three, four and five days a week. NALGO’s strike accounted for much of the 4.1m days ‘lost’ to strikes that year.
If Prentis was not just referring to his willingness to lead his members into said battle but also those in other unions then, of course, the strike days ‘lost’ would mount up more quickly – but not that much more quickly. Most of the other two major (GMB and Unite) unions’ membership is not in the public sector. PCS, which has been at the forefront of taking action and calling for coordination, has balloted over 80% of its members, but that still only accounts for 250,000 workers.
While Prentis could help bring about the involvement of other unions, it is not entirely within his gift, for Unite and the GMB have yet to entirely make clear what they will be doing. Neither of the national leaderships of those unions, especially with regard to the GMB in local government, has so far shown much willingness to take a lead in arguing and organising for industrial action to stop the jobs losses affecting their members in the public sector.
Why this matters
So is this me being overly pedantic as a high-minded academic? Is this about me trying to create a storm in a teacup about nothing much? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Such exaggeration is - as I have already ventured - dangerous. There are a number of reasons for saying this.
First, there is the sense of marching the battle ready troops up the hill, only for them to be marched back down, having never really engaged the enemy on the other side of the hill. Demoralisation and disillusionment are often the result – especially if the compromise that allowed the battle to be called off is not seen as a clean and wholesome victory.
Second, there is the danger of ending up with massive egg-on-your-face if you can’t deliver what you publicly said you would, and this is all the more so if this results in you not winning the battle you said you would. You could end up being weaker than you were before making such a public claim. This chimes with the view of Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, who in an interview with the New Statesman (23 June) commented on his rationale for not using the term ‘general strike’: ‘what you say should have a clear resonance and should be deliverable’.
Third, the 1926 general strike was an abject defeat, bringing about the opportunity for the Tories to legislate for the Trade Disputes Act 1927 (which removed the immunity in tort to unions over industrial action as a result of the 1906 Trade Disputes Act) and for the capitalists to impose their terms for resolving the Great Depression crisis upon the rest of society, namely, immiseration for the majority. The point here is that by raising the stakes so incredibly high, especially when the union movement is generally weak and acquiescent, there is the serious prospect of defeat, glorious or otherwise. The saying ‘cut your cloth according to your means’ is highly salient here.
Fourth, Unison members better be prepared to use up their savings and other reserves - such as they might be - because no £30m Unison strike fund will keep them in strike pay for the length of time that it takes to mount ‘the biggest strikes for 100 years ‘ [Just trying to keep the sentence length down a shade]. This again suggests that Prentis is calling for something he cannot deliver upon. Or, when members realise that £30m will only go so far, they may realise that Prentis is calling for action that they are not prepared to agree to and deliver given the financial sacrifice in the here and now that it would demand. Indeed, when asked in a press conference what he meant by regional action, Prentis said ‘he didn’t want to bring everyone out on the same day because lower-paid workers couldn’t afford it’ according to The Socialist (22 June).
Fifth, Prentis is asking his members metaphorically to go from 0 to 60mph in less than 5 seconds given that the number of strikes in Britain in 2009 and 2010 was less than 100 per year, the lowest it has ever been since records began in 1981. Across both years, just 0.82m days were ‘lost’ due to strikes when only four years in the last 21 years since 1990 have seen more than 1m days ‘lost’ due to strikes. So union members, Unison ones included, are not exactly battle hardened troops that are straining at the leash to take more and greater action.
I’d genuinely love to be proved wrong on all or any of these counts because I’d dearly love to see a strike by workers of the size Prentis has talked about and which, therefore, might be capable of knocking out this government on pensions and more besides. But I’m not convinced I will be. Prentis has made a serious and dangerous miscalculation in pitching the stakes so high. He will have not only frightened and disorientated many troops on his own side but also opened himself and Unison up to ridicule.
Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire (firstname.lastname@example.org)