Hundreds of trade unionists debated ‘where next?’ after more than a year of strike (Picture: Guy Smallman)

The Workers’ Summit that met in London on Saturday was a big success. It had support from 100 union bodies, over 600 people registered, and there were 400 or more in each of the three main sessions. 

This was the largest and most serious attempt so far to pull together workers who want to do more than cheer on the union leaders. The gathering was a sharp contrast to the routine, rule-constrained, top-table-dominated gatherings that sections of the trade union movement specialise in.

When the chairs of the summit called for participants to discuss with those around them, there was a loud buzz. People swapped stories, put forward their views, agreed and disagreed. 

As well as platform speeches, dozens of workers contributed from the floor in the main sessions. They included bus, NHS, civil service, Amazon, local government, school, college and university workers. And there were many more in the smaller sessions.

The summit met under the slogan of, “Link the fights, reject bad deals, fight to win.” Those in the hall urged on more struggle, but also called for a better approach than the one that has dominated for over a year. 

To shift the pattern of struggle significantly requires tens of thousands of activists to organise at a local level. And they have to seek to act independently when the union leaders fall short. The summit couldn’t deliver that, but it was an important beginning.

As NHS worker Jordan Rivera said in the opening session, “What union leaders want and what workers want aren’t always the same thing. We have to be able to act independently of them where necessary.”

University worker Anne Alexander said, “We need open strike committees, more people inside unions and across unions organising from the bottom. That’s the sort of organisation that empowers people and goes beyond the method where the union leaders snap their fingers and expect people to jump.”

As an indication of the atmosphere of struggle, there was a bigger cheer for a speaker from the Camden traffic wardens’ victorious indefinite strike than for a video message from Jeremy Corbyn. 

The summit came after a year of the highest level of class struggle for more than 35 years. It’s part of an international trend as inflation cuts working class living standards, bosses grab massive profits and virtually all politicians parrot the same pro-capitalist message. 

Last month the US saw 4.1 million strike days, the biggest monthly total since August 2000.

But at the same time, the British union leaders have repeatedly held back the struggle and imposed a strategy of occasional, on-off, divided strikes. They have created a blocked revival of resistance. This is a period of hope and inspiration, but also one that demands urgent action. Otherwise the new can be cancelled out by the resurgence of old myths that real victories are impossible and the best outcome is Keir Starmer in Downing Street.

Harry Eccles, a nurse and member of NHS Workers Say No, added, “We’ve seen crappy offers across the board. In the RCN union, members voted to reject because of rank and file networks. We explained how shit the deal was.” 

Civil service worker Emilia Clarke, “Where I work in the cabinet office we had an 80 percent yes vote for strikes on a 60 percent turnout. This was the biggest turnout we’ve ever had. 

“On the days we did strike, we had big picket lines of around 60. A majority of those on them were young women. But our union leadership failed to call the national strikes we needed, despite civil servants receiving the worst pay offer in the public sector. Our leadership has sold us out. 

The day had a positive novelty in two senses. It’s refreshing to have a discussion about the strikes which begins from hatred of the bosses, but sees there’s a gap between union leaders and those they’re supposed to represent. 

And it was also a big step forward for workers from different sections of the working class to swap ideas and debate the way forward. There was strong support for escalating and all-out action rather than occasional walkouts.

Camden traffic warden Tiago stressed that going on indefinite strike was critical to their success. “If you go on strike, go all out, give everything you’ve got and throw out bad deals. Involve everyone in the strike and don’t leave it to those at the top,” he said. 

Zak Cochrane, a striker from St Mungo’s, said the biggest lesson of the 13-week indefinite dispute was “fighting for democracy from day one.” “We tried to link our fight with Camden traffic wardens, UCL university security guards and junior doctors,” he said. “We rejected bad deals and fought to get the rise we knew we deserved.

“The indefinite strike meant people came to the fore, and could lead through strike committees.” 

Zak added that after the second week of a planned four weeks, the strikers pushed for indefinite action. “But sections of the Unite union wanted us to go back in and out for two weeks,” he said. “We said no. Yet it felt like we had one arm tied behind our back. 

“We should’ve pushed from the start for the strike committee to run the strike—it’s the best and brightest vehicle. Our strike was proud and brave—and an indefinite strike was the way to go.”

For some at the summit, the union leaders’ failings are a matter of individual politics. For others, it is something more structural and systematic. Some speakers, for example, stressed the importance of voting for Marion Lloyd in the PCS union general secretary election.

But Royal Mail worker Gary Smith said, “We’ve seen in the CWU how a union leadership can throw away a chance to win and can push through a terrible deal. But what matters is not so much who is the general secretary. It’s the organisation on the ground being able to shape strikes and impose the decisions of ordinary members.”

Several speakers stressed the importance of fighting oppression and taking on issues such as imperialist wars.

Local government worker Ameen Hadi said, “We have talked rightly about strikers’ unity and trade union unity. But we also need unity against racism. It’s shameful that the government targets refugees and it’s also shameful when the Labour front bench goes along with the same attacks.” 

Summing up the day, Jess Edwards, an NEU member and one of the summit organisers, called for support for the strikes that are taking place. But she also called for opposition to the war in Ukraine and against the British government’s warmongering.

She said that action is the way to build unions and that workers should not sit passively waiting for a “round two” of the strikes. Instead they need to push for more struggle and then prove in practice that extended and indefinite action wins. 

It’s very significant that socialists are at the heart of many of the most successful strikes. We need a bigger revolutionary core in the workers’ movement.

Everyone who came to the summit, and the many others who agree with its themes, need to organise support for struggle. We need to push for more strikes and develop the networks that can challenge and overcome the union leaders who put obstacles in the path of success.

How it was organised

The groups and union branches that organised Saturday’s summit began to hold meetings in the early summer. Those events showed the audience for grassroots discussion and networking.

On Saturday there were three sessions with everyone together on, “Organising From Below,” “A Year of Strikes—What Next,” and, “Link the Fights, Reject Bad Deals and Fight to Win.”

 There were also seven break-out sessions held simultaneously. They were hosted by groups that have opposed lack of leadership from the top of the unions or poor deals at the end of strikes. These were NHS Workers Say No, UCU Solidarity Movement and Educators Say No. 

Other workshops discussed how to win the strike ballots in colleges, the lessons of the indefinite action at St Mungo’s and organising for a fight over local government pay.

Some highlights from the day

Education worker Carly Slingsby:

“Members of the NEU had a lot of faith in former joint national secretaries Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted. They said we couldn’t shift the pay offer, and they overplayed the strength of the government. 

“It’s difficult to get a vote against a deal when leaders are calling for it. But what encourages me is that 26,000 people voted against the deal. That’s 26,000 people that are up for a fight and that we can start to shape in a rank and file movement.” 

Kevin Scally, EIS union rep who the bosses have made redundant from Edinburgh College where workers are striking to win his job back.

“There are times when we have to ignore what union full timers are saying. Do your own thing. Don’t let them convince you to go to a tribunal. They have a low success rate. At Edinburgh College, we’re striking to stop redundancies. Before the strikes escalated the principal said there was no dispute to address. Now the principal wants to meet up to discuss my case. We’ll keep striking if we don’t get the outcome we want.” 

Amazon striker Darren Westwood:

“Strikes work when you go out and stay out. We need to push that argument forward. We need more Amazon fulfilment centres to come out, but the union has been too slow to do that. 

“It took ten years for them to get enough members at the Rugeley site to make a strike possible—and now bosses are closing it. The GMB only got Coventry organised because we went out on a wildcat strike. I will go to other sites and speak to workers. We need these strikes to spread.” 

Shana Carquez from John Fisher school in south London. NEU members struck for six days last year after author Simon James Green—whose books feature LGBT+ characters—was banned from speaking at the school. 

“We knew we had to band together. There’s power in solidarity and people coming to our picket line and the messages of support from all over Britain. It was a bitter dispute, but we were sustained by wider support.”

Kevin Biderman from Brighton UCU where workers are on indefinite strike:

“When management came to us with the plan for redundancies we told them they could piss right off. They have forgotten it’s our labour that keeps the university going. But our students have not forgotten that. They have been brilliant in supporting us.”

Where next? 

This is part of the statement from the organising group of the Workers’ Summit:

The strike wave has been a huge boost for the confidence of working class people to fight back. But it has also raised questions and challenges. 

We believe the upturn in workers’ struggle is not over and that we need to develop networks that are independent of the trade union leaderships. 

There were sizeable minorities (around one in five) in many unions to vote against the deals recommended by union leaders and, most impressively, in the case of the Royal College of Nursing there was a majority. 

We want to give confidence to those who want to fight for more than the below inflation offers that were made. We want to see more escalation and coordination of the strikes in order to achieve this. 

We are committed to working together in the future in order to make this happen. This is essential because a general election will not bring the change we need.  And we need to build opposition to racism, sexism, LGBT+ phobia and all the oppressions which our rulers use to divide us. 

We support the call from the TUC for a strategy of non-compliance with the new minimum service laws that undermine effective strike action. 

Our first actions from this event are: 

Visit a doctors’ picket line with union banners on Monday 2 October 
Mass solidarity action with the doctors’ strikes and march on Tory party conference by attending the demonstration and using the online Workers’ Summit portal built by Strike Map on Tuesday 3 October 
Work together on regional Workers’ Summit events 
Urge trade unionists to support and utilise Strike Map to build solidarity, grow networks and support strike action 

Issued by the Organising Group of the Workers’ Summit that includes: • NHS Workers Say NO • Educators Say NO • Strike Map • UCU Solidarity Movement • Lambeth NEU • Hackney NEU 

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