UK Politics

Public sector unions are split over strikes

Teacher picketing in Manchester
Image caption The NUT is among the teaching unions taking part in Thursday's action

In public the unions remain united behind today's strikes.

In private however brotherly solidarity is being severely strained by the decision of four unions to go it alone.

As one union leader remarked bitterly: "Some people seem to want to be political martyrs."

The anger directed at civil service union the PCS and some of the teaching unions stems from the fact that many senior union figures view Thursday's action as a profound mistake.

They take the view that going on strike while negotiations are still continuing with ministers simply plays into the government's hands.

It creates the impression that the unions are not interested in negotiating.

Public opinion

Christine Keates, the head of the NASUWT - who are not striking on Thursday - says the unions have to be seen to have tried their hardest to get a deal before taking action.

"It's important to keep the high moral ground," she says.

"That means if there are negotiations, that you seek to exhaust all other avenues before resorting to industrial action."

She also warns that union members may be more reluctant to back a prolonged campaign of industrial action if they feel their leaders have not tried hard enough to secure a deal.

Above all, there's a fear Thursday's strikes risk alienating public opinion and without the backing of the public, its claimed, the union cause may be fatally weakened.

Seasoned union campaigners point back to some of the most recent successful union disputes such as the campaign against Post Office privatisation.

Then, Labour's Alan Johnson, who was head of the Communications Workers Union mounted a hugely successful campaign by adopting a deliberately moderate and restrained approach that galvanised public support for the unions.

'Smart strikes'

He also made a conscious effort to win over Tory and Lib Dem MPs, and to adopt a conciliatory and consensual approach.

"The more you avoid shouting and screaming, a return of the finger jabbers, the more you will get your message home," says Mr Johnson.

"I think they (the unions) should be seen to be on the side of the public and defending services against stringent cuts...... they should exploit that rather then their collective strength."

There is also criticism of the timing of Thursday's strikes.

The view of many union leaders is that its too early to be calling strikes and that they need more time to build an effective broad based campaign that reaches out beyond the union movement.

They also want to change the way the dispute is seen and reported. They want to make it an argument about the future of public services and not simply an argument about union member's pensions.

And if at the end of the day there have to be strikes, then the view of many union leaders is they have to be "smart strikes".

In other words they will not be mass strikes involving all union members but will instead be targeted, rolling strikes - designed to sustain a campaign and to not unnecessarily antagonise the public.

Privately there is also a belief that the leadership of the PCS is more interested in taking on the government and bolstering its standing in the union movement by adopting a more militant approach.

In short, the fear of many union figures is that Thursday's strikes may well only benefit the government.

Are you taking part in the strikes? Do you support or oppose the strikes? How are the strikes affecting you? Send us your comments and experiences.

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