UCU university union members strike last year (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Working class Britain is ­seething with pent up anger. Anger that pay doesn’t keep up with the price of food. Anger at those at the top that ignore our suffering. And anger at the Tories for 12 years of vicious austerity that means that almost nothing in society functions as it should.

But on Wednesday 1 February the boot is going to be on the other foot. At least half a million people will join strikes all over the country. Teachers in schools, colleges and universities will be out. So will almost all train drivers. And the people that work in dozens of government departments will be on picket lines too.

More than simply a strike, the day can be a festival of resistance—a chance to hit back at those that have brutalised us for more than a decade. There must be rallies, marches and solidarity action in towns and cities everywhere.

“There’s a real mood of excitement about this at school,” says Jodie Mallier-Ridley from the teachers’ NEU union in Coventry. “The Tories are on their knees,” she adds. “Every new strike ballot or result that is announced is another nail in their coffin.” 

Even workers not currently in dispute, or in un-unionised workplaces, can be part of the action. Already some have said they will try to walk out at ­lunchtime to show their support.  Students, campaigners and those not in a job will have a chance to join in the day’s actions too.

“Going on strike with other workers in other unions will be a real lift,” said Jodie. “We are all fighting for the same thing so meeting up at rallies and picket lines will lift us. Even some staff who have never been on strike or are a bit anxious about it know  they’re out with thousands more workers. That gives them a boost.”

Jodie said a mass, united strike “shows how we can make change from below”, and that it can instigate wider social change. She is right. With so many people on the streets and on picket lines there will be an awakening of the potential power that all workers hold. For too long the Tories and the bosses have held the whip hand. But 1 February can be the day we start to turn that around.

‘We can’t afford to lose. What happens now will set the tone for many years’

Keith Crane works for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. His PCS union has called 100,000 civil service workers out. He spoke to Socialist Worker as the secretary of the Efra London and South East branch. 

Since we began this dispute we’ve had a very significant increase in membership and in activists coming forward wanting to play an active role. A lot of these are young people. The number of members we have under the age of 27 has risen from a dozen to 100 in a year.

When the result of the strike ballot last year was announced, lots of people joined us on the day, and are still joining. That shows the extent to which young people are taking part in the fight against the government. We now have a base of activists the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

We think we’re going to get very big picket lines on 1 February. When these are finished, we’ll be moving off in a bloc along with other PCS branches to join the NEU march as it comes down Whitehall in central London. In our department, there’s already been targeted strikes by workers in the Rural Payments Agency in Workington and Newcastle.

It’s been very well supported by members there, and our membership density increased. But there’s a strong feeling among our young activists in London that our targeted action is not going to be enough. We’re clear that further national strikes are going to have to take place if we’re going to beat this government. We can’t rely on only targeted strikes and limited all-members’ action.

We can’t afford to lose. What happens now with pay and conditions will set the tone for years—the rest of your career and pension. We can’t afford to take such a hit. The idea of targeted action is that it minimises the sacrifice of members. 

But if we do that to the extent that we can’t win, then members stand to sacrifice a lot more. The prospect of taking action alongside teachers, lecturers and train drivers will be a boost to the momentum of the dispute.

‘In the past my union struck on its own. This time we’ll be with others’

Around 70,000 university workers in the UCU union plan to shut down universities on 1 February. Mark O’Brien is a UCU activist at the University of Liverpool. He told Socialist Worker that the mood in his union, and across Merseyside, “is fantastic”.

“People are really looking forward to marching together on the day,” he explained. “We’ve been working with the local trades council and have also formed the Liverpool Solidarity Forum to bring all striking workers together.

“Thousands of teachers in the NEU union will be coming to Liverpool from the Wirral and around the Mersey region. We also want to get the dockers who struck and workers from the Jacob’s factory that stuck recently to play a part in the day.” 

Mark said that for the UCU, a day like this is of vital importance. “My union has taken part in many strikes since 2014 over pensions and pay. But, for most of it, we have been striking on our own. The University of Liverpool went through a gruelling fight over redundancies. I think many of us were worried about workers becoming fatigued by strikes. 

“A day like 1 February could boost workers in our union and make it clear that broader solidarity exists for our strikes.” Mark thinks that the planned 19 days of UCU strikes, starting on 1 February, is a testament to the hard-fought battle by rank and file members.

He hopes in every union, workers can have the confidence to question their union leaders. “After years of striking, our members now know they need to go beyond tokenistic action. The honeymoon phase that we had in the summer of strikes is gone,” Mark said.

“With victimisation and employers digging their heels in, more activists on a branch level will start asking questions. On 1 February we will put out the idea that more strikes, even if that means challenging union leaders, is the way we win.” 

‘Ultimately, we need to escalate strikes. The union should head for all out action’

Some 300,000 teachers in the NEU union plan to kick off a series of strikes for a major pay rise on 1 February. Thousands of schools in England and Wales will be closed as a result. Neil Dhanda is a secondary school teacher in east London. He told Socialist Worker that he is a part of organising “vibrant picket lines outside all schools—if they close or remain open”.

“We really look forward to linking up with other workers on strike. It’s really exciting—it’s something that hasn’t happened for a long time. “We are also organising to take contingents from around London to the central London rally. Strikers will also be attending other rallies planned across England and Wales.

“It would be good if the unions coordinated strikes more often. The more out the better.” Neil added that in preparation for the day of action, “My colleagues have put aside an afternoon where we will make placards. We also have some students involved in that.”

A pay rise is desperately needed. “Pay has significantly worsened over the past decade,” Neil explained. “The offer of 5 percent the government gave us last year is below inflation. Take into consideration the cost of living crisis, our living conditions are really being hampered. 

“Now really is the time to take action.” Neil hopes that teachers in other unions won’t cross the picket lines. Instead he calls on them to join the NEU strike.

“Ultimately we need to escalate the strikes we have planned”, he said. “I think the NEU should announce more continuous strikes, coordinated with other unions. And we have to focus on making 1 February a huge protest that will be an impetus for all striking workers to carry on”.

‘We’re pushing for unofficial action’

In my workplace we won’t be on official strike, but there’s a plan to take part in the day. We’ll push for the maximum and then see what we get. The first thing will be to get a meeting at work in the morning, at about 9am, either outside or in a canteen. Then we can propose we send a delegation—or more—to the local strikers’ meet-up. 

It will be very helpful if there’s a big rally near us that we can get to quickly. Whoever can be involved will march off from work, join others and then march to other workplaces trying to encourage them to get involved. That could be at the council offices, Royal Mail, or buses and other public transport. 

Then we’d go off to the city-wide demo. We won’t know what we can do unless we have a go. If you start with, “Let’s do a selfie solidarity picture from the union reps” then you might not get anything. If you plan seriously for a walkout then you might set off a storm, and at least there will be some real resistance.

‘Students give the movement vitality, and we’re future workers’

Katie Coles is a student at London School of Economics university (LSE) building for the 1 February action. She told Socialist Worker that students have been “rallying support” on campus. “The LSE solidarity group has been holding meetings,” she explained. “It’s been a really good way of coordinating between students and staff.”

Katie explained that the support group is “student led”, made up of students and PhD students who also teach. “It’s been mainly used to support the ongoing UCU strikes, but it’s developing as a network to be used for different things too.

“In our group chat people will share stuff that’s going on or try to arrange to get down to RMT picket lines for instance.” Katie said on 1 February, the group plans “to support the pickets on campus”. “Then we’ll gather to get a big unit to demonstrations happening in London”. 

“I hope the day will raise solidarity between the different unions and make greater links between the strikes,” she added. Students have been involved in making posters and holding film screenings about the marketisation of higher education. 

Katie said the UCU strikes have had a “rallying effect”. “Students have been able to do their own teach outs and share their own experiences. I also find there’s more people talking about racism, sexism and classism at university. It’s allowed students to have a voice.”

Katie added that it’s important students get behind the 1 February. For students wanting to join in, she said, “Definitely enquire about solidarity groups on your campus. Or even get one started up if you can. We’re all facing a real terms’ pay cut. Students can give the movement vitality, and not just as external actors. We’re the future workers—these fights are about the future of public services.”

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