Solidarity strikes with NHS workers?

A contribution to discussion. Picture above shows NHS nurses in front of a union banner held by South Wales miner, on strike in solidarity to demand higher pay for NHS staff.

Free Our Unions activists report discussions at work about supporting NHS workers’ pay demands, and colleagues saying they would be willing to strike in support of the NHS 

It’s a good idea, and good that it’s being discussed. We should try to spread the discussion more widely. If you’d like to discuss this idea, get in touch:

Solidarity action of this sort was once relatively common in the UK, and particularly solidarity with NHS workers. NHS strikes in 1982 and 1988 saw very widespread support from other trade unionists – and in many cases solidarity strikes. Miners, postal workers, steel workers, local government workers, dockers, Fleet Street printers, autoworkers, bus workers, school workers and others took such industrial action.

Both disputes won significant pay rises in the NHS.

We plan to carry interviews with workers who took part in solidarity action in the 1980s soon. There are more barriers now. For one thing, “secondary action” of this sort, limited by the 1980 Employment Act, was completely banned by the 1990 Act of the same name. For another, union leaders, organisers and even activists tend to be more reticent about arguing for action outside the framework of the anti-union laws than they were in past decades. More generally, the tradition of solidarity action has died away and the memory of it faded.

But now, with the health workers’ pay fiasco, in the context of the pandemic, we should ask: If not this, what? If not now, when?

Despite the anti-union laws, workers in various industries regularly take unofficial action of various sorts and get away with it. There has been quite a bit of such action during the pandemic. It would be very hard for the government to target workers supporting a cause like NHS pay.

Workplace and labour movement activists should discuss what is possible.

More broadly, these issues highlight the need for the labour movement to campaign urgently to repeal all the anti-union laws, including the ban on solidarity action, the ban on action for political goals, and the imposition of carefully controlled procedures for deciding on action.

The ban on solidarity action is, in the words of the Fire Brigades Union, “an outrage against democracy” – and, in the words of the Institute of Employment Rights, against “the whole ethos of the trade union movement”. Fighting to end it, and defying it where possible, is an acid test for the labour movement’s seriousness.

Further reading:

“The anti-union laws: an acid test for a Corbyn government”, Clarion magazine, January 2018

An article surveying the role of electricians’ union leader Sean Geraghty in leading action of Fleet Street electricians in solidarity with NHS workers in 1982, COHSE history blog

An article on South Wales miners’ 1982 strike in solidarity with NHS workers, London Met TUC archive

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