Greater Manchester has been home to an unusual number of major strikes in the last couple of years. Local activists and rs21 members Ian Allinson and Derek Fraser discuss what we can learn from these and the development of solidarity networks around them.
Britain has seen an increase in strike activity as inflation has risen and after lockdown rules were relaxed. Within this picture, Greater Manchester has seen two epic battles. The first was the twelve-week continuous strike at Go North West buses in Manchester which defeated ‘fire and rehire’ last year but left many workers dissatisfied with the concessions in the deal. Secondly, workers at the CHEP pallet factory in Trafford Park have been on continuous strike over pay since 17 December, making it the longest strike in Unite’s history – they will soon be reballoting for their third 12-week period of action.
There have been numerous shorter strikes too. Five universities in Greater Manchester are involved in UCU’s disputes – the University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Salford, the Royal Northern College of Music and the Open University. RMT members at TransPennine Express have been striking every weekend for months, and members at Atalian Servest on the West Coast Mainline have repeatedly struck in recent months.
Other strikes have included GMB members at Polyflor in Bury and British Gas in Stockport, Unite members at Evonik in Manchester and First Bus in Oldham, PCS members at the British Council and NEU members in several local disputes. Manchester’s refuse collection workers employed by Biffa are due to strike from 3 May.
Workers learn about the wider movement and solidarity by taking part in action. It has been inspiring to see workers from various recent disputes visiting each other’s pickets and protests to offer support, advice and encouragement. While workers are learning from each other, this doesn’t seem to be the motor of the recent strikes – none of which have been big enough wins to really impact popular consciousness and generalise. Instead, the uptick in strikes seems to be primarily the result of accumulated grievances and shared pressures such as fire and rehire and the cost of living crisis.
Traditions of solidarity had never completely died out in Manchester, thanks in part to maintaining a functioning trades council which always made it a priority. But solidarity networks have developed far beyond that. The process probably began with the 2018 First Bus strike in Rusholme. The First Bus strike coincided with disputes at IT services company Fujitsu and at Mears, who carried out maintenance on former council housing in north Manchester. The three strikes held a joint march and rally in the city centre which helped build support and solidarity. The Mears workers achieved a major victory after more than 80 days on strike.
The First Bus depot was situated on Oxford Road, home to the Rusholme ‘curry mile’ and the main campuses of the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University. When the employer threatened Unite over allegations that strikers were obstructing scab buses, Unite told strikers to move to the opposite side of the road, but to their delight, local residents and trade unionists repeatedly mobilised to blockade the depot.
Initially the police response was aggressive, including arrests. The participation of Labour Party activists (one of those arrested went on to be a left Labour councillor) helped legitimise the protests and the police had to back off. To be effective the blockades could not be pre-announced or publicly advertised, so their organisation relied on existing networks and private social media conversations. One of the lasting benefits of Corbynism was that it created and strengthened a variety of networks of the left.
The next big development in solidarity networks was in support of the Go North West bus strike. Unlike First, Go North West made no attempt to run scab services out of the depot that was on strike. Instead, they rented space in an out-of-town distribution park for their own scab operation and subcontracted running scab services to coach companies operating from their own depots. This meant that there were a variety of targets for protesters – from Rochdale to Stockport.
The dispute revived and grew the networks remaining from the Rusholme First Bus strike, involving people from a wide range of organisations in solidarity that involved more than just sending messages or raising money. Activists had to evolve their tactics in response to police claims that walking across gates was obstructing the highway. They copied ‘slow walking’ tactics from anti-fracking protesters who had tested them in court.
These methods of solidarity are not without their problems. Where the union is complying with the anti-union laws, supporters have to take great care to avoid involving the strikers or their union in their plans or actions, so they have ‘deniability’ if challenged in court, at the same time as ensuring they aren’t doing anything that the strikers aren’t happy with. Getting this right has required the building of trust between different groups involved in delivering solidarity.
Another problem is that community solidarity action is substituting for action by the strikers themselves. When strikers feel confident to mount pickets that block entrances or to picket other locations, they are far more likely to have the numbers and time to be effective – which is precisely why the law seeks to deter such action.
One lesson we might draw from these disputes is the importance of sustained strike action to building solidarity networks. It’s more obvious to everyone why they should prioritise solidarity with a continuous strike, and it’s easier to get involved if you aren’t struggling to keep track of which days workers are striking. A long dispute enables networks to form, trust to be built and relationships to develop. But of course a long strike is a sign of weakness – we want to win quickly. It is not a good sign that we have seen so many long disputes, not all of which have ended with clear victories.
Perhaps the biggest danger with substitutionist tactics is that they can distract from what is needed to decisively win a dispute. Despite Sharon Graham, the new Unite General Secretary, being committed to building ‘combines’ across employers and industries, it remains too common that individual workplaces are left fighting national or global employers in isolation. In the Go North West dispute, Unite could have lawfully found local disputes at other Go Ahead operations around the country. Or they could have piled pressure on mayor Andy Burnham by finding disputes with other local bus operators. During the ongoing CHEP strike, other sites (organised by Unite and GMB) have reached pay settlements without coordinating with the strikers.
The traditional way strikers spread action is to send delegations to other sites. The pandemic presented real barriers to this, leaving workers more dependent on official channels or on national solidarity networks which are rarely as effective. Unions often discourage strikers from visiting other workplaces for fear it will be portrayed as unlawful ‘secondary picketing’. This is paranoid nonsense – it’s not picketing unless you are seeking to dissuade people from crossing and going into a workplace. It’s perfectly lawful for strikers to leaflet wherever they like as long as they aren’t doing that.
In the current CHEP strike, activists haven’t felt confident that strikers would welcome direct action from the community, so solidarity has been largely limited to picket visits, rallies, a march, online events and fundraising. But the solidarity networks have continued to grow. There isn’t one centralised organisation – the overlapping networks include the far left, the Labour left, trades councils, some of the more active union branches, the People’s Assembly, students, the recently launched Strike! Manchester, and there are links with national attempts to promote solidarity such as Strike Map.
One of the most important and positive developments has been the involvement of Extinction Rebellion (XR), whose activists got involved in supporting the Go North West dispute. This experience contributed to the launch of XR Trade Unionists who have already turned out in force to support striking workers at the Fawley oil refinery. The statement issued by XR centrally about this marks a welcome shift to solidarity for a just transition. In the past XR had often appeared disinterested or even hostile to workers, particularly those in polluting industries. Convergence between the workers’ and climate movements represents the best hope for tackling the climate emergency.
The cost of living crisis appears to be contributing to a modest uptick in strike activity, and there is no sign of this easing soon. The RMT are gearing up for strikes across most of the rail network. Activists should seize every opportunity to build and develop solidarity networks in every area.
Download this leaflet for more information about how to support the CHEP strike.
Since this article was written CHEP has made an improved offer which Unite members are voting on.