Britain: November 30th public sector strikes - Biggest movement since 1926

On November 30th 2011, three million public sector workers in Britain will strike over the government’s attacks on their pensions. This coordinated strike action represents the biggest strike movement since the general strike in 1926. To all intents and purposes it will be a 24-hour public sector general strike.  

As we move closer to the mass strike, the government have become increasingly restless at the consequences. They are worried that this could mean a new Winter of Discontent as they struggle to implement their austerity measures. They realise this will be no ordinary strike, which will involve millions of radicalised and angry workers. 

The Coalition therefore came forward with a “compromise” deal on pensions, which did not fundamentally change the original package. Under pressure from below, the trade union leaders (despite a willingness to compromise) were forced to reject the offer and stick to the proposed strike. 

Of course, the bosses were as belligerent as ever. The Institute of Directors warned that “the public sector unions cannot be allowed to hold a gun to the government’s head in this way.”  

So the lines are drawn

The same world capitalist crisis that is affecting the Eurozone and particularly Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain is having huge repercussion not only internationally but in Britain as well. Every part of the UK will be affected, including the North of Ireland, where on October 5th UNISON called a huge education and health service strike. 

In the past, cinema advertisements for the next big release would shout in bold letters “Coming soon to a cinema near you!” This strike will be coming to a school, college, university, hospital, Job Centre, library, swimming pool, art gallery, depot, clinic and civic centre near you. It will affect every city, every town and even rural villages. The impact of the dispute on the public and on the government will be dramatic. There will be hundreds if not thousands of picket lines up and down the country and demonstrations and rallies in all major towns and cities. 

The list of unions taking action is long and even includes a number of organisations not affiliated to the TUC: AEP (Association of Educational Psychologists) and ASPECT(The Association of Professionals in Education and Children's Trusts) are “balloting members on options for dignified and lawful protest action on 30 November to stand up for fair pensions”. ATL’s 30 June ballot mandate is still valid). BDA TU (The British Dietetic Association Trade Union) is conducting a postal consultative ballot. The British Medical Association (BMA) which is not affiliated to the TUC is supporting the day through campaigning and lobbying activities. The BMA Council has said a ballot of its members on industrial action remains a firm option for a later date if the government continues to refuse to engage in genuine negotiations on the future of the NHS scheme. The Ballot of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists(CSP) is to be completed by 14th November. 

FDA (formerly the First Division Association) is balloting for action. The GMB ballot ends on the16th November. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) ballot will close on Wednesday 9 November. If its members vote yes, it will be the first time in the union’s 114-year history that its members will have chosen to strike. The ballot of Probation Officers (NAPO) and CAFCASS workers ends on November 17th. NASUWT (National Association of Schoolmasters/ Union of Women Teachers)Balloting ends on 17th November. The NUT (National Union of Teachers) ballot for June 30th is still valid. The PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union) ballot is also valid and there will be a one month overtime ban after November 30th.POA (Prison Officers Association) are balloting for what will be an illegal strike, as prison officers are banned from striking.Prospect’s ballot finishes on November 14th. (Prospect represents engineers, managers, scientists and other specialists in both the public and private sectors).

Public sector workers vote to strike on November 30thPublic sector workers vote to strike on November 30th The RCN (Royal College of Nurses)which is not affiliated to the TUC have said that industrial action is inevitable, and although they are not balloting for action on 30th they have stated that they are ready to ballot when needed. The Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists (SCP) ballot closes on 14th November. The Society of Radiographers (SOR) ballot closes on 14th November. The UCU (University and College Union) ballot for the 30thJune is still valid. Unison (public service union) has also balloted.Unite (a general union, including among others engineering workers) too are also balloting.Also EIS (Educational Institute of Scotland), NIPSA (Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance and UCAC (Welsh Teachers Union).

Of the major public sector unions, only the Fire Brigades Union is not balloting for action on the 30th November. 

Some of the unions have “live” ballots; in other words they already have a mandate for strike action from the June 30th action. It is quite likely that all the current ballots will deliver big majorities in favour of strike action. Inside UNISON the campaign for a yes vote has been waged on a much higher level than anything in the recent past. The stakes are high and the leadership has mobilised for the maximum vote. The result of the UNISON ballot that has just recently come out was a massive 245,358 to 70,253, more than 3 to 1 in favour of strike action. Among the workers in healthcare the percentage voting yes was even higher, at 82%.

To put the day into context of “official figures” there were 6,918,000 strike days lost in the UK in the ten years between 2000 and 2009. These involved 4,021,000 workers. “Official figures” will inevitably underestimate the true figures and many disputes involve “industrial action short of strike action”. But if as expected some 3 million workers are involved in the action it will be equivalent to 75% of the total number of workers who were involved in strike action between 2000 and 2009. Also, taken together with the June 30th strike by the UCU, PCS and the teachers, the two major Public Sector strike days in 2011 will have resulted in a figure for days lost which is equivalent to over 50% of the total number of strike days lost across the whole of the British Economy between 2000 and 2009 and more strike days are likely to take place in the future. At the end of this article are the “Official Strike Figures” for the years 2000 to 2009 and the details for the strikes on June 30th and November 30th for comparison. Marx made the point that sometimes the events of twenty years can seem like a day, whereas there can be days into which 20 years are compressed:

"How soon the English workers will throw off what seems to be a bourgeois contagion remains to be seen. So far as the main theses in your book [Condition of the Working Class in England] are concerned, by the by, they have been corroborated down to the very last detail by developments subsequent to 1844. For I have again been comparing the book with the notes I made on the ensuing period. Only your small-minded German philistine who measures world history by the ell and by what he happens to think are ‘interesting news items’, could regard 20 years as more than a day where major developments of this kind are concerned, though these may be again succeeded by days into which 20 years are compressed." (Marx to Engels, 9th April 1863)

The strike figures tell their own story, but much more important than that are the political repercussions. The strike represents a sharp turn in the battle against austerity. The reason is obvious. Instead of local disputes with councils and battles over job losses and budget cuts in the Civil Service or in individual schools and hospitals, this dispute is a struggle with the national government about one thing that unites all public sector workers. Also, by virtue of the way that the various schemes are organised, the campaign to defend pensions has to be waged at a national level. This in and of itself raises the stakes in this battle. 

The crisis in the public sector has generated huge opposition from workers. At the same time it has also meant enormous pressure from below on the active layers in the movement and indirectly on the leadership. What does that really mean though? In the first place it means that branch officers, shop stewards and active trade unionists are dealing with more and more concerns, questions and worries from the members. Managers are presenting lists of cuts or so-called “efficiencies.” There are countless restructures, reviews and redeployments. Human resources departments are turning the screws on sickness, and raising “capability” and disciplinary issues. The net effect has been a sharp change in the outlook of the most active layers. 

But there is also another side to the equation. The Tories and Lib Dems sought to deal out “shock and awe” in the public sector by “Front Loading” the cuts. Unlike the Thatcher government, Cameron and Osborne have moved quickly to impose big cuts. They have been forced to do so by the global capitalist crisis; however the Tories and Lib Dems will also be aware of the strength of the public sector trade unions and the battles that have taken place internationally. But they are also, perhaps most significantly, aware of the role of the leadership of the unions. During the New Labour Government UNISON’s leaders in particular had taken great pains to “hold the line”, resting on “partnership” with the government while policing left activists who argued for opposition to so-called reforms in the public sector. However, the Tories have underestimated the response from members and the pressure from below. Here is what our supporters in UNISON explained immediately after the General Election in June 2010: 

“Cameron may attempt to face down the trade union leaders. They might attempt to attack pensions, cut wages and slash conditions. Generalised assaults require a coordinated national response by the unions. Key to any perspective as to the way things are likely to develop will be the attitude of the trade union leaders who will be forced to respond to the new situation. Their response will vary. The PCS and CWU have been on strike recently while UNISON has maintained close relations with New Labour. The Tory threats to pensions and services are already having an effect in the branches. There is a grim realisation that there are choppy waters ahead. The mood is different from a couple of years ago, when the economic crash put workers onto the back foot. The Con Dems are a big enough threat to focus the minds of the active trade unionists. We have no choice other than to fight back." (Unison Conference: No Cuts, No job Losses! 11/6/10)

At the time of the comprehensive Spending Review in October 2010 we commented:

“The trade union leaders have talked about a mass campaign of civil disobedience. They have even spoken about the mass movement around the Poll Tax which involved some 14 million people. What is key however is not just the size of a movement, but what ideas and methods it’s armed with. Sections of the trade union leadership, most notably in UNISON have already indicated that their biggest concern is the threat of the Tories provoking an all out battle with the public sector. Under these conditions, it’s most likely that they will try and seek some sort of compromise with the Tories. Their dilemma is however that weakness invites aggression. Most of the struggles against the cuts will be local. Therefore the trade union leaders have to back each and every local struggle that breaks out.

“But at the same time, there are common issues and battles to be fought on a national level. One key battleground has to be public sector pensions. The press are full of lies and distortions about gilt edged pensions. The debate over the future of public sector pensions is already under way and the PCS have already taken strike action prior to the election

The trade union leaders have to fight fire with fire. There has been a lot of discussion over the last couple of years about coordinated national action. That is precisely what’s needed to defend pensions, and other terms and conditions, but more than that the movement needs to build towards a one day general strike. Only a mass movement of the working class, a rebellion against the cuts can defeat the ToriesThe Cuts, the councils, trade unions and the Labour Party.)

The immediate response of the trade union leaders, especially UNISON was to seek agreement with the government. But this has broken down after the Coalition refused to negotiate on what they have called “red lines”. In other words raising contributions, lowering benefits and getting rid of the Final Salary scheme. 

The union leaders have been forced to react to the situation and in some cases to the pressure from other left-leaning union leaders to present a united front. They also hugely underestimated the response from the membership. Even when it became obvious that there were more than 500,000 workers and their families and youth on the March 26th demonstration, the TUC were still saying that they were expecting 100,000 people to turn out. In fact it is likely that some 600-800,000 people were on the march. But now the issue of pensions has taken the whole struggle against the cuts onto a higher level. From the government’s point of view as well as the unions this is a key battleground. 

The anger of the workers is a reflection not only about cuts to pensions, but the austerity as a whole. Living standards are being constantly eroded. Prices and costs are rising fast while wages are either frozen or reduced. 

This strike is therefore about more than the pensions issue. It is a protest about the general attacks against the working class. General attacks require a generalised response. The 30th November is an important launch pad for such a struggle. A single day of action, in and of itself, will not make the Coalition government change its mind about pension cuts. In Greece we have had many 24 and 48 hour general strikes, and yet the government has moved on inexorably applying draconian cuts. However, a successful mobilisation of millions of workers will serve one very important purpose: it will show the workers themselves that there is the will to struggle. For years the right-wing trade union leaders have argued that the conditions for such kind of strike action did not exist, because people are not prepared to struggle. That idea already started to break down in March and June. With a huge mobilisation on November 30th it will become even clearer that the conditions for mass struggle do indeed exist in this country. 

When the Fianna Fail and Green coalition in Ireland imposed a tax on pensions (the pension levy) in 2009, they generated enormous opposition. The Tories have sought to apply the same measures by more devious means. But the principle is the same. Make the workers pay for the crisis. The reaction of workers in Britain will be equally as militant as that of the Irish workers. 

November 30th builds on the March 26th demonstration and the June 30th strikes which brought out 750,000 workers. But the movement is on a far higher level. Britain has now entered a decisively new period of heightened class struggle. New student movements are brewing and now wider and wider layers are being drawn into activity. The scene is set for the biggest confrontation between capital and labour in Britain for 75 years. Young workers and students can play an important role in supporting the strikes and in publicising the issues. Many workers in the public sector will have been on strike before. But there are no active trade unionists in Britain who will have ever been involved in a movement of this scale.The implications of this dispute for the movement as a whole will be dramatic. The new generation will learn from these events.

They will come to realise that it is not simply an industrial dispute, but a political struggle against the Coalition and capitalism. 

Increasingly workers will draw different conclusions to the past. Then, people held their heads down and tried to make ends meet under capitalism. Now people will see that this is now not possible. The question of changing society will be put back on the agenda as millions take strike action and mobilise on the streets. Table Adapted from Labour disputes in 2009 Economic & Labour Market Review | Vol 4 | No 6 | June 2010


Working days lost (000s)


Workers involved


Number of disputes

Stoppages involving the loss of 100,000 working days or more











































































































2000-2009 Total






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