June 30th: Refusing to be divided
The coverage of the June 30th strikes has been more positive than I expected. Perhaps its the fact that teachers are seen as a different class of worker to “those pesky miners”, that teachers play an obvious role in all our lives. Anyhow, this blog post is part “what I said in my speech”, part reflection on the day.
We heard Michael Gove tell us that strike action amongst teachers is reckless because children will lose a whole day of education. Its funny how they never said that about the Royal Wedding. When it serves the government to interrupt education so young people can be inculturated into our monarchic obsessions, its just fine. When its an important lesson about solidarity, collective action and the way we earnt the 8 hour day, the 5 day week, protection from instant firing, controls on children’s working conditions and the whole concept of retirement for ordinary people.
They say this is about public sector workers being greedy, and that private sector workers should be angry about this. But these sector boundaries really only mean anything from the point of view of those managing the economy. We’re all stuck at the bottom, we all rely on each other’s work – how many private sector workers send their children to a public sector school? – and its time we rejected these boundaries.
I work in the voluntary sector, where staff are fragmented and unionisation has yet to even begin. UNISON has almost no idea what to make of us lot. Our lives are dictated by local and national government decision makers who refuse to take responsibility for us as employees, but expect us to work ourselves to the limits to prove we’re worth re-funding.
The day itself has been a huge success – far from the media bloodbath that some were predicting and that no doubt informed some of Ed Milliband’s thinking, the picture has been one of a real injustice. The front page of the Independent said it all: MP’s pensions are a ridiculous exception to the rule that public servants must expect to live frugally. Perhaps the saying of Jesus that one should pull the plank out of one’s own eye before pulling the speech out of a neighbours makes some sense when we talk about the difference between nursing staff and MPs.
But perhaps its just that social movements have learnt how to speak to the media. We are getting better. I think that’s probably the only reason we can be seen as a threat to the designs of those at the top of our society. Even Mark Serwotka seems to have managed to speak to Middle England. The biggest media disaster I’ve seen so far is a very soggy protester pushing his bike and trailer along on a march in York. Please don’t go looking – its a really bad photo of me!
Whilst the police in York behaved impeccably, facilitating unorganised marches (yes, we said we’d march, but to accuse anyone of “organising an authorised march” would be ridiculous, as no one had actually put the slightest bit of effort into planning it out. Utter confusion turned to seamless flow of marchers, despite the pouring rain.
The cycle tour of picket lines was a great success and the “Flying Picket Cycle Cafe” was well received. We served up something like 6 litres of hot drinks to 6 different picket lines. People were surprised that we’d even gotten a flask of milk (its the little things in life!). It was great fun and a real pleasure to meet so many PCS members and the people who run our national services – one and the same. We had 10 people plus 2 cycle police, which made a very nice size of ride. If we’d had 30 it would have been a very different event, but you don’t need a lot of people to make a real effect with this form of action – it put a smile on the faces of the pickets, which was what counted.
I think it worked as an action designed to make people taking strike action feel less isolated, which is what mattered, and because we were cycling – even at pretty low speed – we could visit picket lines spread over several miles. The biggest challenge was to stop people chatting for so long we were going to be late for other picket-lines. We’ll do it again in York I’m sure (or I’ll just ride around with a drinks trailer) but do make an effort to organise this in your own city – it just required a map, a list of picket lines, some guesswork on timings and a trailer full of flasks, but could have involved food very easily. Disposable cups were a sorry necessity, as we needed to leave before drinks were finished.
I want to thank absolutely everyone who made the day a success in York. Without the efforts of PCS, NUT, UCU and especially ATL members, it would have fallen flat. Without the throngs who endured the rain to hear speeches and performances in the city centre, it wouldn’t have felt like the coming together that it was. To those who cycled, marched, rallied, made sound systems, speeches, media and everything else, you did a brilliant job, and I’m sorry that its often me who gets thanked and not yourselves.
If we build on what we’ve got; if UNISON, the NASUWT and Prospect all get themselves balloted for October, we’ll have an amazing second round, and a chance of repeating the victory of the French.
For Dignity in old age!