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Organising unofficial action

This is written to complement the article I wrote last week on the successful unofficial strike by postal workers in Portsmouth. Since that article was written there was also similar action taken by postal workers in Bridgwater. The aim of that article was to show how unofficial action can both get round the failure of union leaderships to support effective action to further or defend the interests of their members and exploit loopholes in the anti union laws. This article is more of a legal briefing in that the law is explained in greater detail. However, I have also sought to draw out the practicalities involved in organising and participating in unofficial strike action. The relevant law is to be found in sections 20, 237 and 238 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

Unofficial action deemed official by the law

Section 20 is the key section in terms of unions being legally liable for acts of stewards and other workplace reps who are elected or appointed in accordance with the union’s rules. To avoid liability the union will need properly to repudiate any act which is authorised or endorsed by one or more of such reps. It makes no difference that the rep has acted contrary to the union rulebook or any express instructions issued to that rep by the union leadership or paid officials. Therefore, if a union rep successfully persuades members to walk out the union is liable for this until it repudiates. In law this action does not become unofficial action until the union properly repudiates what the rep has done. Elected reps can be disciplined and indeed dismissed for organising unofficial action, although the rep will retain the right to claim unfair dismissal providing s/he has at least two years completed employment. (This employment requirement is not necessary where a rep is dismissed for trade union activities in which case the dismissal is automatically unfair. However, there is some hostile case law on this which excludes organising unofficial action as a trade union activity.) Union reps have to determine for themselves if they are at risk of victimisation before being up front about organising unofficial action.

It should be noted that all the above applies where a union rep is a member of strike committee, and this is the case even if the committee is an unofficial one in that it is not set up within the union’s rules. Moreover, a union is bound by the acts of such a committee even if the relevant union rep(s) opposed the organisation of unofficial action or were not present at the time the decision to organise the action was made. In short, the fact that at least one workplace rep is a member of the committee is sufficient to mean that the union is deemed to authorise the action and therefore must repudiate in order to avoid legal liability.

Reducing the risk of victimisation

This legal position is useful where there are a number of union militants who can form a strike committee but elected reps need to do what they can to avoid victimisation where they know or suspect the employer is out to get them. Such reps could absent themselves from the committee at the time the decision to call the action is made, and so make it as difficult as possible for the employer to prove the rep was involved in organising the action.

Industrial action is unofficial from the outset and none of the above applies where the strike committee is unofficial and no workplace reps are members of it. However, such action is rendered temporarily official, in the sense that the union will need to repudiate it, if the action is endorsed by one or more elected reps. This would be the case if one or more of the reps participates in the action. This seems to me to be another way in which union reps at risk of victimisation can take steps to reduce that risk. It can be argued that the rep is a participant in but not an organiser of the unofficial action, and therefore not in a different position to that of any of the other workers who take the action.

Action deemed official and unfair dismissal

The practical significance of the action being deemed authorised or endorsed by the union under s.20 TULRCA is that initially it is s.238 that applies to the action in terms of unfair dismissal law. The effect of this section is that an employer can dismiss all the workers who take the action, though the dismissals must take effect whilst the action is taking place not after it has come to an end. Where the employer carries out such dismissals then unfair dismissal rights are excluded and there is nothing in law that the strikers can do about the dismissals. However, if the employer fails to dismiss all the workers taking the action then the dismissals become selective and ordinary unfair dismissal rights apply, though remember these rights are only possessed by employees with at least two years completed employment.

Again union militants on the ground need to assess whether there is a real risk that the employer will be happy to dismiss all members of the workforce who take unofficial action. It is also important to take into account, particularly where all the workers are young, that most or all of them may not have the two years completed employment necessary to claim unfair dismissal. Also unfair dismissal rights are only possessed by employees and this does not include all workers. For example, workers who are employed on a casual basis, where contractually there is no obligation on the employer to offer work and no obligation on the part of the worker to accept any work offered, are not considered in law to be employees. A combination of all of these factors will generally mean that workers on zero hours contracts have no unfair dismissal rights even where technically they might be considered to be employees because they have to be on call and are prohibited from working for any other company.

Where the employer does not dismiss all workers taking the action than as above under s.238 workers who have unfair dismissal rights can bring ordinary unfair dismissal claims. However, it is important to take into account that such claims will not automatically or always succeed, and, in any case, winning the claim only means the workers will be given compensation by a tribunal. Ultimately, tribunals do not possess the power to order employers to reinstate dismissed strikers.

The effect of union repudiation and using ‘days of grace’

The significance of union repudiation is that s.238 ceases to apply and the industrial action has become unofficial within the meaning of the TULRCA. The practical consequence is that the employer can choose to dismiss on a selective basis and therefore deliberately victimise known militants – be they union reps or not. The union will probably refuse to provide any support or advice or representation to workers who are sacked under s.237 to avoid being found to have endorsed the action, as this would have the effect of invalidating the repudiation so that the union once more becomes legally liable. The Act expressly provides that organising industrial action, even though this is done in full compliance with the balloting laws, cannot attract legal immunity, and typically trade union leaderships will refuse to organise such action.

However, this is where practicalities intervene which give unofficial strikers a degree of legal protection. First, a union will have no opportunity to repudiate where a walk out is of short duration as the workers will have returned to work before repudiation can occur. This was the case with both the unofficial strikes by postal workers in Portsmouth and Bridgewater last week. Secondly, even where the duration of unofficial action is more sustained, the employer has to wait one working day after repudiation, before s.237 comes into operation to permit selective dismissals. It is useful to note that Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays do not count as working days even though these days may be contractually worked by workers taking the action. Therefore, if effective union repudiation takes place on a Friday, the employer cannot rely on s.237 until the following Tuesday.

All union militants, let alone revolutionary socialists, will be fully aware that the law cannot be relied on to defend workers rights and generally the law operates in favour of employers and the State. Nevertheless, in my view, it is useful to know the above law, and union militants can assess for themselves if it is of any use to them when it comes to organising or taking unofficial action.

This is the second of two articles by Roger opening up a discussion on the practicalities of organising unofficial action. The first can be found here. Neither article should be taken as the last word on the subject and activists should seek advice from fellow reps and other sources before embarking on unofficial industrial action, which does carry risks of dismissal and disciplinary action if anything should go wrong.

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Wildcat action and the law

On Tuesday Portsmouth postal workers spontaneously walked out of their morning shift in protest over the sacking of a colleague who had been sacked for refusing to do extra work after his shift had finished. They demanded that management reviewed its practices and returned to work once their managers agreed to do this. As both the employer and the workers’ union, the CWU, were at great pains to stress this action was unofficial and was taken without the support of the union and its officials. What the postal workers actually demonstrated is that not only can unofficial action work but it is the best way of getting around the State’s anti union laws and the cowardice of union leaderships refusal to support action in defiance of them. Given the general confusion over legal controls on unofficial action it is worth examining what the law actually is and why unofficial action can be taken without the workers involved incurring any special legal penalties.


The mass media, employers, politicians and even trade union militants often refer to unofficial strikes as illegal. This suggests that such strikes are contrary to the criminal law and therefore workers taking unofficial action can be prosecuted or at least subject to individual legal penalties. In fact, outside of the context of the last two world wars, unofficial strikes have not been illegal for more than 100 years, and workers participating in them have generally not been in a different legal position to the one they are in when they take official action. Essentially, workers can have their pay docked irrespective of whether industrial action is official or unofficial. Similarly, whether a strike is official or unofficial makes no difference to the fact that judges are unable to give employers injunctions, that is, court orders, which force strikers to return to work or face fines and/or imprisonment for contempt of court.

The one difference between official and unofficial action is in the context of dismissals. As a result of slight improvements that the last Labour Government made to the anti union laws (which they largely left intact despite their being declared to be in violation of international law by the International Labour Organisation) workers taking official action will be unfairly dismissed for taking official action, although generally this protection ends if the action lasts for more than eight weeks. Unofficial strikers lose all unfair dismissal rights, and, therefore, if their employer sees this as viable can be victimised through selective dismissals. However, the technical legal definition of unofficial action is different to how the term is commonly understood.

Changes to Thatcher’s anti union laws made by the Major Government impose extremely complex balloting procedures that trade unions must follow before industrial action can be lawfully taken. If the ballot is defective then the union must repudiate industrial action, that is, instruct its members not to take it, or face legal action by an employer. However, unfair dismissal law prevents any selective dismissal of unofficial strikers until one working day has passed since the date of repudiation by the union. This is equally the case where there has been no ballot at all because workers have voted by a show of hands to strike or have spontaneously walked out. Where such action is short, as was the case with walk out by the Portsmouth postal workers, the union has no opportunity to repudiate the action and therefore the only course of action open to the employer is to dismiss all workers who take the action. This can happen as was the case in the mid 1990s when Eastern National sacked all its bus workers in Chelmsford (where I used to live and was secretary of the Trades Council) who went on strike for one shift. However, typically, employers will not regard it as a viable to sack the whole workforce unless it is small and/or unskilled and therefore easy to replace.

Therefore, although unofficial action is particularly hated by both employers and the State because it is outside of the framework of union structures and control, such action is the best way to get round the anti union laws which seek to prevent strikes from taking place until the employers have had several months to prepare ways to defeat them. Moreover, given the current preference of union bureaucracies for one day strikes as a form of protest, short sudden unofficial strikes are much more effective as again we see with the action by the Portsmouth postal workers.

Court Action

By way of contrast, UCU called off an official strike in Further Education colleges last week as a result of court action by the employers. Had UCU members in FE defied the UCU leadership and taken unofficial action then I don’t think there could have been anything college managements could have done. Teachers who struck would have lost pay but then that would have also been the case had the strike remained official. Effectively, in this common place situation where union leaders insist on obeying the law they are, whatever their intentions, objectively acting as the agents of the bosses and the State by policing their members and preventing industrial action from taking place.

Union leaders, along with bosses and the State, lead workers to believe that unofficial action is illegal and therefore particularly invidious. In fact, it should be seen as the best and safest course of action to respond quickly to an employer’s attacks on workers’ conditions or rights, and it is action which can be taken directly by workers without waiting for their union to act where, in practice, this delays the taking of industrial action by several months. Typically, such action is defeated before it even starts.


A word of warning – steps should be taken to keep secret the identity of militants who organise unofficial action. The law distinguishes between organisers of unofficial action and those workers who take it so that the former may be subject to individual victimisation through being sacked. I recall that, on the tube, militants used to wear masks or balaclavas at mass meetings called to vote on unofficial action. Arguably, where a walk out is genuinely spontaneous there are no organisers, and it remains the case that the employer must dismiss everyone or no-one.

If the Tories win the election they are planning to make the balloting laws even more draconian by requiring a union to have a majority of members it proposes to call out on strike voting in favour. At present and in accordance with democratic norms unions only need a majority of those members who actually vote. I am unaware of any current proposals to change the law re unofficial strikes and I doubt even the Tories will go back to the nineteenth century by enabling employers to get injunctions to force workers back to work. They could change the law to give union repudiation retrospective effect to allow victimisation of individual unofficial strikers, but this could be double edged by weakening union authority over their members.

So, all trade unionists should take heart from and follow the example of the successful short unofficial strike action taken by postal workers in Portsmouth. If official action is sustained and properly supported by a trade union so that a victory is feasible then that is obviously good. But where official action is symbolic and often quickly called off by unions, as has happened with public sector strikes in recent years, then generally it achieves nothing. To reiterate, as we have seen in Portsmouth, short unofficial action organised at rank and file level can both get around the anti union laws and deliver employers with the short sharp shock necessary to bring them to heel.

This is the first of two articles by Roger opening up a discussion on the practicalities of organising unofficial action. The second can be found here. Neither article should be taken as the last word on the subject and activists should seek advice from fellow reps and other sources before embarking on unofficial industrial action, which does carry risks of dismissal and disciplinary action if anything should go wrong.

This article originally appeared on the Portsmouth Socialist Network blog. You can also find them on Facebook.

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Striking to lose: problems facing the NHS industrial action

Note: This article was written before the decision to call off local government strikes by UNISON, Unite and GMB.


The media is widely reporting the decision by NHS unions to stage the first strike over pay in 32 years. Contrary to the media reports, this action is not the result of widespread frustration over poor pay deals, but the fact that health unions finally decided to ballot their members for action after 32 years of accepting pay deals. NHS staff have had 4 years of a pay freeze, and the 1% pay offer withdrawn by the government was only the latest in a long line of injustices heaped on NHS workers, including privatisations, cuts and scapegoating for the failures of government policy.

What is different now is the context; the NHS unions are facing both anger from their memberships and a crisis of legitimacy. UNISON, UNITE and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) have presided over the wholesale destruction of the NHS at the hands of the Tory government. While UNITE has been willing to act oppositionally, backing community campaigns and local demonstrations, the leaderships of UNISON and the RCN have been completely acquiescent to the governments agenda, the RCN even collaborating with the government over the Health and Social Care Bill.

With this legacy behind them the withdrawal of the government's pay offer forced the unions to ballot over pay in order to shore up their credibility, and maintain the appearance of opposition to the government after allowing their members to take a kicking for the last 4 years with no serious attempts at confronting the government's agenda.

In UNISON, every year the pay freeze motions at UNISON health conference calling for action against the freeze have been ruled out of order, kept off the agenda, or voted down following opposition from the union leadership. Its not that members decided themselves not to fight, its the fact that control of the democratic mechanisms for deciding when to take action - ballots - are controlled by the union hierarchy and only utilised when they want it to be.

The RCN has talked about balloting its members but has yet to do so, despite pressure from the membership. Its legacy is gaining nothing for its members from collaborating with the government over the Health and Social Care Bill, missing the opportunity to campaign for mandatory minimum staffing levels in the wake of the Francis Report, overseeing the rise of nurses' registration fees from £76 to £120 in the space of three years, while the registration body for nurses serves as little more than massively expensive and inefficient truncheon in the hands of government. This has resulted in its members being exhausted and burnt out on criminally understaffed wards, with 60% of them looking to leave the job.

The decision finally to ballot has revealed the weaknesses of union organisation in the NHS, and of the do-nothing strategy of the union leaderships.

A potemkin UNISON

UNISON's ballot, while widely reported as showing a two-thirds majority for action, revealed the structural weaknesses of the union organisation following decades of privatisation, and the lack of engagement of much of the membership. UNISON has roughly 427,000 members in the NHS, going on the number of ballots issued in last years HealthSector elections.

The number of NHS workers balloted for the strike was 300,000. Why the discrepancy? 120,000 of those UNISON members work in privatised parts of the NHS, and are not covered by the Pay Review Body decision, and thus not entitled to strike against it. This includes most NHS cleaning staff and a whole host of other ancillary services; patient transport, laundry services, kitchens, hospital security. They constitute the bulk of low paid workers in the NHS. Rather than issue pay claims for those workers and ballot them when those are rejected by their respective companies, a time consuming but completely possible action, UNISON decided to just ballot those covered by the pay review body.

This sends the message to the mass of low paid NHS workers that the union isn't willing to fight for them, it undermines the strength of any action taken and breaks down solidarity between low and high paid workers. If you're the union branches trying to argue that hospitals should stop all non-emergency work to allow more members to participate in strike action, being able to legitimately claim that transport, cleaning and catering are all affected helps that argument. The knowledge that these workers won't be taking action will embolden NHS management.

The turn out for the ballot was also dismal, 13.3% of those balloted, 40,104 of 300,000, voted. Of those who voted, 26,126 voted yes to strike action, and 33,481 yes to action short of a strike. This unfortunately is fairly standard for UNISON. In the pensions ballot in 2011, Unison balloted 750,000 local government workers and 350,000 health employees. The turnout then was 29%.

When UNISON Health rejected the pensions deal offered to UNISON after the strike, turnout was just 14.8% and 50.4% voted no.

UNISON also appears to play fast and loose with membership figures. This statement from UNISON claims 350,000 NHS members were balloted. This is directly contradicted by information elsewhere on the UNISON website and has not been explained. If its an attempt to bolster members confidence or bluff management, its an unprincipled approach, especially when information to counter the claim is available elsewhere on the union's website.

UNISON has declared that their members will only participate in a work-to-rule till the 18th of October, in contrast to UNITE who have declared theirs will run till the 9th November, when there are rumours of another “day of action”. So UNISON's members will only be able to work-to-rule for three days, then its back to work as normal.

This curtails the ability to maintain pressure on the employers, and harms reps' ability to organise an effective work-to-rule. Perhaps its also because UNISON see a deal being reached very quickly following the strike, and the leadership don't want the hassle of ending a work-to-rule, an act which could be unpopular with members if the deal isn't any good.

There is also the question over how much active participation can be expected from members when participation in the ballot is so low, and participation in the union structures is also tiny.

In last years National Executive Committee election, out of roughly 300 branches, just 69 submitted nominations for the elections. Turnout in the vote was 20,883, just 4.7% of the total membership.

This raises questions as to how active are the majority of Unison's branches, and how engaged are the membership. If there is to be the type of strike action we need to win even the 1% the government withdrew, we will need to take recurrent and sustained action. Without an engaged membership organising and taking a lead, this won't be possible.

The anti-trade union laws stipulating ballots-via-post and other onerous conditions are part of the problem, detaching decision making and control of disputes from branches and the workplace, leading to disengagement by the membership. Also UNISON's terrible internal bullying culture encourages disengagement lest activist members incur the wrath of officials who witchhunt and victimise them.

Facing all these problems, its questionable whether UNISON could pull off sustained, effective strike action. Massively disengaged membership, low levels of activism, division of membership between NHS and privatised services, are all  not easily solved, and there are few signs that UNISON is taking any steps to rectify them.

Minority unions

Both GMB and UNITE have members in the health service, but they are “minority” unions. Unite has roughly 100,000 members in the NHS, the GMB 22,000. Unite's ballot result was 62% in favour of strike action, 77% in favour of work to rule in England, with slightly higher results in Northern Ireland. They have not released the turnout. The GMB had a 78% vote in favour of strike action, and 91% in favour of action short of a strike. Turnout has not been released either. These are promising results, but given the possibility of settling and calling off strikes already being raised in Local Government, if UNISON decides to settle in health, its doubtful either union would stay out on their own.

The Royal College of Midwives also voted for the first time to take industrial action. It is positive that all the unions will be acting together, and hopefully some links between union activists on the ground can be built. We have been in this situation before though.

In 2011 all unions in the public sector went on strike for a day against pension reforms. Within three weeks UNISON's leadership had decided to accept the government's slightly improved offer, and called off the strikes. All other unions eventually pulled out as a consequence. When UNISON Health members were balloted to accept the deal months later, they rejected it by 50.4% on a 14.8% turnout. With a weak mandate, and a demoralised, disorganised membership unable to enforce the decision due to the months spent “consulting” along with the drawn out ballot process, UNISON's leadership declined to act on the rejection, and the pensions dispute was declared over.

Sold out, sold short

There is already the danger of our strike being sold short. A paltry pay offer has already been made by the government to Local Government workers. UNITE and GMB wanted to consult members on this non-offer but it was withdrawn by the employers as UNISON rejected the opportunity to consult members. I imagine there will be a similar offer made to NHS workers after the strikes. If turnout on the day is not strong, and members and branches are not pushing for more action, the unions could quite easily do what they did in the 2011 pensions dispute, accept a slightly better (or simply not as bad) offer, and call off action while members are consulted over whether they accept it. These consultative ballots take months to arrange and organise and the energy and organisation built up in the run up to the strike will be frittered away campaigning for a rejection.

Even where members do reject an offer, this is no guarantee the strike will be put back on. None of the democratic lay bodies of any of the unions have enough pro-strike members to push through a vote for more action against the will of the leadership. The only thing that will potentially keep action on the agenda is consistent campaigning activity at the base of the unions; members holding workplace meetings, organising an effective work-to-rule and maintaining pressure on the leadership to act by passing resolutions, writing to officials and keeping support for the strike going.

A short strike, a long campaign

The strike is limited to 4 hours, from 7am to 11am. The short time of the strike may encourage attendance as members don't need to lose a whole days pay, but anecdotal evidence from reps has some members saying they may not bother striking as 4 hours is not serious action. It doesn't represent the scale of their grievance with the government, and they don't expect it to win anything.

While all members should respect the democratic vote of the members and join the strike, the reality is with a demoralised and disengaged membership, appeals to principle are not enough. If we are to get members to respect the vote and not cross the picket, there needs to be action worth taking, a pay deal worth fighting for, and a strategy to win. Without these things members will not be convinced of the necessity of action and appeals to working class and trade union principles, when class consciousness is at a low, will not be enough to secure a good turn out.

We need proper strikes, Twenty four hours not four hours. Escalating action, one day, then two, then three over the next three months would put pressure on the government, and now is the time to do it in the run up to an election.

A decent pay claim, 11%, equivalent to what MPs gave themselves would give members something to fight for, and be easy to justify and popularise to the public. Any counter arguments that this is a time of austerity can be met with the mountains of evidence that there is plenty of money to cover pay in the NHS, if the market mechanisms, costly privatisations and extortionate PFI are dismantled, renationalised and cancelled respectively.

Our union leaders need to stop worrying about embarrassing the Labour Party and Ed Miliband, and start fighting for their members. The unions need to offer a positive vision of what the NHS could be if the government's policies were reversed and a democratically run, publicly owned, and well funded NHS was rebuilt, and make the fight for pay part of a fight for that vision of the NHS.

We don't control the machine

One serious problem we face is the inability of branches to call action, and corresponding disengagement of the membership from branch activity. The ability to ballot is held by the unions' regional and national structures, not by branches. This means branches are reduced to lobbying and pressurising these leadership bodies to allow them to vote for action, which is nigh on impossible given the lack of involvement from the majority of union members.

Union activists need a wide ranging discussion to develop a strategy to re-engage our members, revitalise branch organisation and give branches the ability to credibly pressure the union machine for action. This should be tied with a serious examination of how we democratise our unions, and campaign for the repeal of the anti-trade union laws. These laws force unions to adopt these onerous balloting methods and curtail the memberships' ability to exert control over the union and their own industrial action. Until they are repealed, or rank and file members find innovative ways to overcome them, they will be a serious obstacle to the sort of industrial action we need to win.

What can we do now?

While on the pickets tomorrow, arguing for further action, and getting support for resolutions through reps and branch meetings is a must. Make sure workplace meetings happen this week to plan and coordinate the work-to-rule for the next several weeks. If possible a weekly meeting should be called to see how members are implementing it in each department. This will allow people to raise difficulties, and identify any managers or departments which are resisting it or hassling members so they can be spoken to and the members supported.

Management have already been caught planning to undermine the strike even though it is only four hours long. They will be working to minimise the effectiveness of any work-to-rule, so we should be prepared.

In a previous article I detailed some imaginative ways the work-to-rule could be implemented to reduce pressure on staff, and develop organisation among members. Hopefully this will spark further discussion and responses. I believe we need to fully face the situation we are in, look at all the inadequacies of our union organisation and politics, in order better understand how to create a viable plan for getting ourselves out of it.

A number of single issue campaigns are developing which may be useful for engaging members and drawing them into activity in the longer term, and could form the basis of joint campaigning work between union branches around the country:

The 4:1 campaign works to highlight nurse understaffing in NHS services, and pressure the unions to campaign for mandatory minimum staffing levels, as is the agreed policy of UNISON and RCN.

Docs Not Cops is a coalition of health workers, migrants groups and other activists which is fighting the effects of the Immigration Act on the NHS, and oppose the racist charges it seeks to impose.

A cross union rank and file meeting has been called by a number of trade union activists in the public sector. It will take place on November 8th at the Indian YMCA, 41 Fitzroy St, London, UK W1T 6AQ and run from 12 noon to 5pm. This will be an opportunity for health trade unionists to meet and discuss the strike, the effectiveness of the work-to-rule, what our various leaderships are planning, and where we go from there.

See also: How can we save the NHS? which is available as a pamphlet. If you would like to order copies for your workplace, union branch or campaign group please contact

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A strategy for the NHS pay strike


With both UNISON and UNITE balloting for strike action and action short of a strike in the NHS, there is an urgent need for discussion among health activists of how we ensure the strikes are successful and strengthen our fight for to save the NHS, and don't result in disillusionment and disorganisation of our members.

While a ballot for action is welcome in the NHS, and long overdue, there are serious problems with the action the leaderships of UNISON and UNITE are proposing.


A four hour strike


Firstly, there is the nature of the strike action proposed. UNISON has stated that if the ballot is successful strike action will only be for four hours. UNITE has termed their action a “microstrike”, leaving open its length, but hinting at a short or partial action. I have not seen an explanation for why this is. It is demoralising for reps and members who want a whole days strike action, and creates massive problems logistically for workers to undertake a four hour strike. With a full days strike action, unions can demand the hospital only provide emergency cover, the equivalent of Sunday working; outpatients, and non-emergency services are closed, elective surgery is cancelled and wards run with reduced staff. This frees staff to participate in strike action, and while stopping the hospital working, is no more dangerous to the patients than spending a normal Sunday in a hospital bed.

With a four hour strike, we cannot make such a demand. The hospital will run as normal, and those working with patients on wards or in theatres, or in time critical services like pathology and diagnostic scans (CT, x-ray, MRI), will have to leave work in the middle of extremely busy schedules to participate in the strike and then return to a massive backlog of patient demands and urgently needed work. This will be extremely difficult to organise, and management will be able to bring massive pressure to bear on all staff not to participate in the strike due to the potential effects on the patients.

A four hour strike will be extremely difficult, if not impossible to organise for most clinical NHS staff and, pardon my cynicism, seems like a conscious decision on the part of the union leaderships to make the strike harder to pull off.


No further action


There is no plan of action beyond the single day. We are being balloted for a single four hour strike, and then a work to rule. No further days are planned. UNITE has said on their leaflet enclosed with the ballot “If we plan to take further actions, we will communicate with you again.” This doesn't give our members the impression that our leaders have a strategy for taking the dispute forward, and if they do have a plan, deprives members of the opportunity to see what it is, discuss it and suggest alternatives.

Trade union activists can look around at other recent strike action and decide for themselves what works and what doesn't. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) had a series of one day strikes, months apart, which secured nothing for their members, and served to demobilise members who grew tired and demoralised of organising one day actions so widely spaced out they lose all momentum and support in between.

In Higher Education, UNITE, UNISON and UCU staged a series of one day actions, again widely spaced out, which again served to demobilise rather than mobilise the workforce, and ended up splintering the strike as participating unions dropped out until UCU alone was taking action. The strength, unity and enthusiasm built up through joint actions was frittered away and the strike action secured minimal gains.

The unions need to announce a plan now, of successive days of action taking place every month, preferably escalating, to demonstrate to the workforce that they have a plan, and are willing to put the pressure on the government needed to secure a win.


A work to rule where there is too much work and the rules are against you


The second component of the action is a work to rule. UNITE are calling for workers to take their breaks, and to leave work on time. While welcome, this is easier said than done, and that advice shows a lack of both understanding of the pressures staff are under, and creativity when it comes to implementing a work to rule.

NHS staff are under massive pressure. All staff whether clinical or non-clinical are at, or in many cases past, breaking point due to the pressure to perform their work and ensure patients are cared for safely and mistakes are not made in an incredibly high pressured and increasingly bureaucratic system.

Those of us in clinical roles are bound by our codes of conduct to complete all our work necessary to ensure our patients are treated with care and dignity, while non-clinical staff are bound by basic human decency to ensure they do a good job and no patients suffer.

Nurses doing ward work are not missing their breaks and staying hours after work because they want to, they do so because those hours are the extra amount of labour time required to provide the minimum of safe basic care in the understaffed NHS. Admin workers are staying at their desks hours after work to ensure urgent referrals are completed so patients do not have to wait longer than necessary for treatment. Porters miss breaks and stay late to ensure urgent patient cases are moved around the hospital, and patients are not left sitting on wards, missing treatments. There are always jobs left over at the end of the shift which the workforce has to hand over, piling more work on the next shift.

In this situation, asking workers to undertake a work to rule when there is simply too much work, and that work is vital for the wellbeing of other human beings, will be extremely difficult unless we develop some imaginative and creative ways of reducing our workload and using the work to rule to undermine the bureaucratic and oppressive systems of control implemented by NHS management.


What are our demands?


Finally, what are our demands? This strike is ostensibly to secure the 1% pay rise the government denied us last year. This is paltry, a terribly weak demand that does nothing to galvanise the membership and merely leaves us open to comparison with private sector workers who received nothing in the same period.

We need political demands which tie our strike into the fight to save the NHS, and a wage claim which actually gives our members some relief from the downward pressure on wages exerted by inflation and four years of a pay freeze.

In the US, the Chicago Teachers Union, operating in a climate far more hostile to trade unionism, fought and won better conditions and pay using the strategy of social movement trade unionism. They went out to the communities they served and met community groups, parents associations and won them to supporting their strike, by taking up their demands for smaller class sizes, better funding for schools. Instead of fighting on the narrow basis of pay and terms and conditions, they made their strike about preserving and improving their service.

We have to make this strike about protecting and improving the NHS. Even if we win a pay rise, it won't be much use as the service is dismantled, privatised and cut piece by piece. And simply striking for pay without talking about the need to defend the NHS from cuts and privatisation will allow the government and media to portray us as greedy, and that our demands will bankrupt a service already suffering from cuts and austerity.

The anti-union laws prevent political strikes, but we can ballot and strike over a pay claim, while making clear our demands and actions go further than this and are political in nature. By making our strike about the future of the NHS we can rally the public in support of us, and mobilise public opinion against the government.

My suggestions for demands to put to branches would be:

  1. An 11% wage claim for everyone in the NHS, the same as parliament gave themselves
  2. Mandatory minimum staffing ratios for nurses in all services, to protect patients and guarantee them good standards of care
  3. The cancellation of all PFI debt, to free up money to pay for wages, the hiring of more nurses, and to repair the damage done by cuts
  4. A halt to all cuts and privatisations wherever they are happening


There will be resistance from trade union hierarchies worried about their positions and their jobs if we break the law, but the argument has to be had out that securing successful action to protect the NHS and guarantee our members a living wage takes precedence. Unions should be under the control of their members, and if we want to take action on a political basis they should support us or get out of the way.


Strike for a whole day


A priority for all NHS branches should be lobbying for a whole day of strike action. We need to make sure there is broad agreement that we need at least a 24 hour strike to begin the action, and that this should tie-in with a plan of escalation.

Reps and branch meetings should be convened and motions passed asking the union leadership to endorse a full 24 hour strike in the NHS as the first day of action. This should be common sense to most reps and members. If enough branches pass motions calling for a proper strike, hopefully the leadership will correct their error.

To ensure they get the message, we should also start discussing how we can make the strike twenty four hours ourselves. Most reps and members will be rightly frustrated with this ill-thought-out four hour strike plan and the trouble and obstacles it creates for those trying to organise action. This frustration should be enlisted to make the case for branches organising 24 hour strikes ourselves.

A properly organised twenty four hour strike will be safer for patients than a disorganised 4 hour strike with workers walking off wards and out of clinics and leaving patients and other health workers in the lurch. We're being balloted for a strike, people will want to have a “proper” strike, and its safer for patients if the hospital is running according to Sunday working. If we get a ballot for yes, why shouldn't we take the initiative and take a proper days strike action?

While such an action would violate the anti-union laws, its the prospect of branches attempting to organise a 24 hour strike themselves which may force the leadership to endorse such action and make it legal. If we merely pass resolutions, and don't take the practical steps to agitate among the membership and prepare for a twenty four hour action, the leadership won't feel the pressure to move on this issue.


Action, action and more action


One day strikes only work if they are a part of a plan to escalate action, or they come together frequently enough to create an ongoing political issue for the government. I have two proposals for what strategy we should argue for.

Escalating action: This would mean if we manage to get a one day strike in October, then we go out for two days in November, three in December, four in January, and on from there. These should be announced in advance and the dates set so members can prepare, we can collect money for hardship funds and win the argument for striking over the Christmas period when members will want to be saving money for presents for children and family.

Escalating action would ramp up the pressure on the government immensely, and the longer strikes would build up backlogs of NHS work that would be politically deadly for the government, and a huge logistical problem as the extra capacity doesn't exist to clear them quickly. This will be hard to argue for in the face of a vociferous media quick to blame the NHS for any failings, but unions need to be clear that the short term inconvenience due to delayed operations pales into comparison to what will happen if we lose the entire NHS due to government policy. This its why its crucial we make any action about protecting the NHS, not just our pay. The public will accept inconvenience and delays for action to save the NHS, they will be less accepting of it simply for a higher wage deal for NHS workers, as deserving of this as we are.

What is crucial is making sure dates for action are set as soon as possible. Its positively sabotage to wait till after the first strike before calling more action. The union leaderships might want to see what the turn out is first, but they've already guaranteed the turn out for the first strike will be poor by the nature of the action they've called. If members can see there is a plan to escalate action they are more likely to commit, we can have the argument out early with those who are opposed, do the necessary preparation and members will see the leadership has a plan, and their sacrifices will be worth something as they will exert real pressure on the government.

Consistent regular action: This would mean going out once a month every month until the election. While not increasing the pressure as escalating action does, it will create huge political problems for the government. NHS strikes generate huge political pressure on the government. If they happen each month, even if just for one day, that will become a regular source of political pressure and unpopularity for the government. And the last thing they want in the run up to the election is for the NHS to be in the news and NHS workers to be marching regularly in the street. While one day of action a month is in my view quite conservative and doesn't apply the necessary pressure, it would still be a big undertaking and achievement for a demoralised and in some areas poorly organised NHS workforce. Keeping up regular political pressure on the government through short but regular strike action would keep the NHS in the news, and be politically deadly for the Tories in the run up to the election. They may be more likely to give in and offer a larger rise in an attempt to “buy off” NHS workers ahead of the election, and avoid the possibility of NHS strikes in the run up to the vote.


Creative and radical ways we can work to rule

Given the work to rule is a big part of the unions' strategy, we should have a serious discussion among members about how we can use this to our advantage, to reduce unnecessary work and bureaucracy, develop members confidence and organisation and take back control of our work and our lives from the employer.

As stated above, taking your breaks and finishing on time are a serious challenge to most NHS workers, so an effective work to rule has to involve reducing our workload as well. For clinical staff, one tactic might be to organise a boycott of paperwork; all non-essential, non-evidence based paperwork should just be binned. As nurses we complete reams of largely unnecessary paperwork which is not evidence based. It is primarily designed not to aid patient care, but to provide legal cover for the hospital if any errors are committed. It also functions as a labour disciplining tool, giving management instruments for monitoring nurses work, forcing us to work harder to ensure everything is done according to policy. Most of this paperwork is clinically unnecessary, bureaucratic and time wasting. Refusing to do it, and instead just recording written notes, would be popular, free up nurses' time to complete all their care, take their breaks and (possibly) leave on time, and would not breach our code of conduct.

I am sure other staff groups have similar tasks that have been forced on them by the current target driven and bureaucratic management culture. Identifying these tasks and organising to boycott them would be an effective way to implement a work to rule that would reduce management's power to bully us by removing their monitoring tools (hourly rounding charts, etc), while freeing our time for the things that matter, like patient care and communicating with colleagues.

It also gives us a politically popular message: we're rejecting bureaucratic and inefficient practices in order to give us more time to do our jobs properly and care for patients. That is much harder for management to argue against.

Another tactic would be to copy the lead of Australian nurses. I had the privilege to meet Lisa Fitzpatrick, Chair of the Victoria branch of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation earlier this year. Lisa spoke to the 4:1 Campaign about the ways ANMF members fight cuts and attempts to take away their mandatory minimum nurse staffing levels.

When they organise action short of a strike, nurses block hospital beds. They effectively ban a hospital from admitting patients into 1 in 5 beds. How do they do it? Direct action. The nurses will go round the ward and physically remove the mattresses from every 5th bed, hide it, lock it in a cupboard, or stick it under a bed where it can't be used.

They then put big “BED BLOCKED” signs on the beds to indicate they can't be used. They keep a couple of beds open in A&E for emergency cases, but they refuse to take more non-emergency patients until their demands are met. This forces the hospitals to scale back or stop all their elective work in order to keep beds free for emergencies. The nurses don't stop caring for patients, they just refuse to let the hospital dictate how many they take, and force hospital management to re-prioritise their work and their admissions. This video of Lisa's talk explains how they do this, why its effective and how they use the media to their advantage over this issue.

How could this work in a British context? We don't have the organisation or militancy among health workers at present to block 1 in 5 hospital beds in the NHS. But the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has issued new staffing guidelines, which recommend that nurses should not care for more than 8 patients at a time.

It is completely justifiable that nurses utilise the bed blocking tactic to enforce this new guideline when hospital management is unwilling to. Branches could organise to support their nurse members enforcing the 1:8 ratio on their wards as part of their work to rule. Nurses can state they're "working to rule" to the new NICE guidelines, and they won't work on understaffed shifts, or care for unsafe numbers of patients, according to the new rules.

Petitions could be circulated for nurses to sign asking that get the 1:8 ratio, and pledging not to work if they're forced to care for more than 8 patients, an unsafe number according to NICE and all available nursing research.

On wards where nurses regularly care for 8 or more patients, whenever a patient is discharged nurses should block the bed(s) until the nurse-patient ratio on the ward is 1:8. Those beds then stay blocked until the hospital provides more staff and meets the ratio of 1:8 permanently.

Given that a survey of 526 nurses by the Nursing Times in February 2014 found 44% of nurses saying they regularly cared for 10 or more patients on their wards, and a UNISON survey of 3,000 nurses reporting 45% caring for more than 8 patients, tens of thousands of nurses could participate in this action. We can make our work to rule about enforcing patient safety in an NHS made unsafe by brutal cuts and austerity. We can make our action popular with the public, and reclaim our rightful place as champions for patients' safety from creeps like Jeremy Hunt.

These are just a few ideas from the nursing profession, I welcome other health activists contributing their knowledge of their work and specialities to this discussion. We need to come up with ways of reducing our workload, while maintaining or improving patient safety, and putting pressure on trust management.


Developing strike organisation in the NHS


All of the above ideas are predicated on developing much better organisation among trade unionists and health workers in the NHS. If any of this is to happen, branches need to involve their members in planning and organising all aspects of the strike, and we will need cross-union organisation within hospitals and between them. The leaderships of UNISON and UNITE will be wanting to use the strike for their own purposes, and trying to keep whatever happens from inconveniencing the Labour Party in the run up to the election. The calling of the “micro strike” is just the first example of some of the obstacles we may face from our leaders.

There isn't enough of a left presence in UNISON to vote through further action in any of its leadership bodies, and UNITE has refused to call further action in the past when UNISON has called off strikes in health, so any further action is going to have to be a result of pressure from below, from the membership and branches organising and demanding it.

Using the strike to develop a coordination of NHS workers and health branches which is committed to a transforming the fight over pay into a political fight over the future of the NHS is an opportunity which can't be missed, and will be crucial if we are to have any chance of securing and sustaining further action, let alone winning anything substantial from this fight.

Nurse Boothroyd blogs at and is involved in the 4:1 Campaign for Mandatory Minimum Staffing Ratios in the NHS

See also: 'How can we save the NHS?' which is available as an IS Network pamphlet for activists, health workers and campaigns. If you would like to order copies please contact us at:

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Reports: #J10 public sector strike against austerity

Thursday July 10 2014 saw the biggest public sector strikes in Britain for some time, possibly since the 1926 general strike. Thousands of people demonstrated all over the country against public service cuts, attacks on wages and the ruling class’s permanent austerity programme.

The cost of living keeps rising while wages are frozen and vital services are closed or outsourced. There is a generation of young people out of work, paying extortionate fees for study or scraping by on low pay and zero-hours.  Workers are seeing their pensions, pay and working conditions eroded. People who are dependent on various health and social care services are seeing these essential services taken away or drastically reduced. This is class war being waged and won by the rich and their government.

As workers, fighting back in the workplace is our most powerful weapon to resist these attacks. This strike was big, but after the sell-out of 2011 we all know that in itself is not enough. There can be no islands of trade unionism, especially as the balance has moved away from workers striking at the point of production and big workplaces toward more dispersed sectors based around distribution and social reproduction where strikes, particularly one-day strikes, often don't have an immediate impact. Unions will have to mobilise alongside wider social movements and community campaigns or face a shrinking constituency. Initiatives that encourage greater rank and file activity and increased democratic control of unions need to be encouraged and nurtured.

Marches and rallies took place in most major towns and cities across the UK, thousands strong in Sheffield, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere.


Gareth H: Walking through Trafalgar Square with a wad of Left Unity leaflets, I ran into Paul Mason, Economics Correspondent for Channel 4 News and author of Why Its Kicking Off Everywhere. I thrust one of our leaflets in front of him and said, ‘Paul Mason, you need one of these don't you.’ He took a look at it, smiled and said, Yes I do,’ taking it from me. Kinda made my day despite the rain.

I haven’t seen any “official” figures but I thought there was a pretty good turnout from the NUT, PCS and FBU. The only speaker at the rally who had any oomph and gave any real mention of class politics (that I could hear) was Matt Wrack, general secretary of the firefighters’ FBU union, saying that this is a demonstration of what the working class can do and calling for lots more days like this.

"If you want to cross the picket line at Streatham Library you have to crawl through the Scab Tunnel." (Pic: Steven E)




Grace Petrie at the rally in Town Hall Square, Leicester (video: Ambrose Musiyiwa / CivicLeicester)

Anti-cuts councillor Wayne Naylor addresses the Leicester strike rally.



(Pic: Christian H)



(Pics: Luke S and Martin R)


Martin Ralph (UCU - PC):

On the Liverpool rally the unions said 3,000 marched. At this rally a motion was put to tell the TUC to organise a two day general strike in the autumn. All voted for it.

FBU and NUT gave the strongest speeches at the rally, perhaps because the immediate attack on pensions (which will mean not taking any pension until the age of 68 and competency tests for teachers and firefighters in their 50s) in addition to workloads, changing contracts and wages means the rank and file teachers and firefighters want to fight. The FBU have organised 18 days of strike action since October 2017.

The other unions were on strike against the 1% pay offer. However, Unite and Unison are affiliated to and will support the Labour Party in the elections “to the hilt” with many millions of pounds. The Labour leader Miliband told the BBC yesterday that he did not support the 10 July strikes.

At the national conference of trade union councils in June, 34 delegates voted for and 31 voted against a motion calling on the trade union councils to start a discussion on what type of political representation is needed by the working class. They then voted to send that motion to the TUC Congress in September. The RMT voted this year to remove any mention of the Labour Party from their statements rule book etc. The FBU, PCS and other unions can and do give support some anti-cuts candidates irrespective of what class struggle party it is.

(Pic: Jon Super)


Pics by Louise W here:

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The Labour link and the unions

Left Unity joint Trade Union officer and IS Network member Tim Nelson discusses the 'Labour link' with the unions. This article first appeared on the Left Unity website.

The relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party has once again come into focus recently as a result of tensions between Miliband, the Labour right, and the union bureaucracy; most notably with Len McCluskey and Unite the Union. Given that Left Unity is founded on the premise of being a left wing alternative to the Labour Party, and therefore by definition should be aiming to relate to trade union members, represent their interests, and attempting to break them from their illusions in and support for Labourism, this debate is of fundamental importance for us.

The recent tension between Miliband and the Unite leadership has, in my opinion, been blown out of proportion. Tensions between more left wing union officials like McCluskey and the Labour leadership are real, however both Miliband and the dominant part of the Unite bureaucracy still believe they have more to gain than lose from the continuation of the Labour link. Sabre-rattling, however, solves both their purposes – Miliband, to mollify the Blairites and the establishment; McCluskey, to reassure his members, and left wing supporters, that he is sufficiently combative.

The Unite leadership is subject to pressure from its members, who wish to see a firmer line taken in confronting the government, and this is reflected in the pressure it puts upon Labour. The confrontation between Unite and the Labour leadership came about, not as a result of McCluskey attempting to distance the union from Labour, but exactly the opposite. It was Unite purposely pursuing a strategy of engaging with the constituency Labour parties and attempting to get Unite-supported candidates selected which led to attacks from the right of the party. This approach has not stopped, and is a key part of McCluskey’s political strategy. The plan is to influence society for the benefit of Unite members by active engagement in the Labour Party in the hope of pulling it leftwards.

Much has recently been made of Miliband’s reforms to voting inside the Labour Party, and McCluskey’s suggestion that funding from Unite may be cut. However, membership subs, which are what both are discussing, are not the only mechanism for funding. The union may still give sizable donations, as a lump sum, instead of paying through the mechanism of membership fees. I would therefore argue that while Unite may appear to be at the battle over the Labour link, the Unite leadership not only wishes to continue in exclusively supporting Labour candidates, but will also continue to actively engage with it, as they see the internal struggle within the Labour Party as the key political battleground.

In the case of my union, Unison, the question of the link is even less of an issue. Unison, traditionally, is a top-heavy union. The vast majority of its members are passive (in that they do not actively engage in the union) and the union structures are severely bureaucratised. The union leadership is heavily tied to the Labour Party, and is in fact to the right of most Labour members as many MPs. The Labour link is often raised by many on the left, but is firmly embedded in the union’s culture. This is backed up by regular witch hunting of far left activists, which means the position of the right wing leadership often goes unchallenged.

Both Unison and Unite, along with many other unions such as USDAW and GMB, have a firm position of using their political funds to exclusively support Labour. The Labour Party only allows unions to affiliate (and therefore have voting rights) if the only support Labour candidates. The RMT was expelled from the Labour Party as a result of not adhering to this rule. Therefore, in order for the left to win support for candidates from unions currently affiliated to the Labour Party, we would need to convince them to break their affiliation from the Labour Party completely.

We should not underestimate the scale of that task. Trade unions’ primary function in our society is to win the best conditions for their members within capitalism. For many trade unionists, however flawed the Labour Party may be, it is the best chance to alleviate the damage capitalism inflicts upon their members. “Clout” within the Labour Party is therefore valuable, as it can be used to influence a party which is powerful enough to win control of the government and make real material differences to trade union members’ conditions. In arguing for a break of the Labour link and support for radical left candidates, we are essentially asking that unions abandon their real influence inside the Labour Party for support for a party currently composed of 1-2,000 members, which currently has no elected representatives, and so far has had little to no impact on the trade union movement. Furthermore, we are ignoring the distinction within the trade union movement between the leadership and the working class membership.

The Labour Party is not, and never has been, the political expression of the working class. It is rather the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy. As mentioned above, the role of trade unions is to win the best deal for their members within the capitalist system. Unfettered class war, from the relatively secure position of the trade union leaders, does not seem to be the best policy for achieving that. Compromise seems necessary, even desirable. They represent their members’ interests to the bosses, and then relay the bosses’ position back to the members. The union leaderships therefore often adopt a vacillatory role.

The Labour Party plays a similar role politically. Its leadership, and the vast majority of its membership, accept the “logic” of capitalism and look to win the “best deal” for the working class within that. It negotiates within the capitalist system, therefore mirroring the role of the trade union bureaucracy on the political front. This should not be surprising – the Labour Party was established by the trade union leaders. This is the reason why “tensions” between the Labour leadership and the unions is generally a myth, or at the very least a simplification.

Granted, there are tensions between some left union leaders, such as McCluskey, and the Labour leadership which has since the 1980s been dominated by the right. But then there are also tensions between the left and right within the trade union bureaucracy, and within the Labour Party for that matter. In fact, if we look at the recent attacks from New Labour against Unite, they claimed Unite was signing up members in order to swing votes in favour of left candidates; the exact same charge could be levelled against the USDAW leadership, which uses the same tactics in support of the Blairites. The existence of tensions between right and left does not necessarily represent a division between unions and the Labour Party. The fact remains that Blairism is very much commonplace within the trade union bureaucracy, Unison being the obvious example. A tactic of attempting to break the Labour link through pointing out the obvious – that Labour is not left wing – misses the point. Many trade union leaders do not think the Labour Party should be left wing. Therefore, Left Unity’s attention should be concentrated on the members, particularly the militant minority who not only oppose the link with Labour, but challenge their own leadership as well.

If we are going to build Left Unity within the trade union movement, a fixation on the Labour Link is not the way forwards. As argued above, most trade unionists that support the Labour Party do so because they believe it is the most effective vehicle for representing their members on a political level, even if they have no illusions in it. In order to counter this, Left Unity needs to concentrate itself on making the argument, and proving the necessity, for a party which will fight with and organise alongside trade union members. We should be seeking out, recruiting, and organising those members who want to fight back against capitalism. To do so, we need to take up political issues which the Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy won’t touch, and rally trade union members around us on that basis.

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