With a rising number of strikes and a need to take more than token action to win, financial support for strikers is vital. Ian Allinson argues that both strikers and supporters need to get serious about fundraising, and explains how the process can help spread unionisation and resistance to more workers.
It matters to all of us that the current wave of strikes is successful. It has already inspired more people to join unions, and to think about unionising or taking action themselves. The more of these strikes that win, the more momentum we can build up and the easier it will be to get big ‘yes’ votes in other ballots, helping create a snowball effect.
But it’s not going to be easy – particularly for bigger strikes. The Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) has announced an escalation of its dispute with Royal Mail, with nineteen more strike days timed to hit the pre-Christmas period. It is clear that the rail unions will need a significant escalation to win, particularly because of the government’s efforts to prevent deals between the employers and unions.
Many workers are already struggling financially – that is one of the motors of this mini-strike-wave. Workers can’t afford not to strike. But many worry that token action is a pointless waste of money, and they can’t afford sustained strike action either. A credible plan to win has to include financial support for sustained action.
While some unions such as Unite and UNISON can offer a significant level of strike pay (money paid to members when they are on strike), this isn’t possible for all unions. The RMT and CWU are involved in disputes affecting the bulk of their membership, so it is impossible for them to provide meaningful strike pay. Unite boasts of its £40m strike fund, but if its million members all struck at once, that would be just £40 each.
So while strike funds can play an important role, particularly for unions with an industrially diverse membership and a large number of separate bargaining units, we can’t rely on them to enable all the wins we need. It’s also worth remembering that centralised strike funds have sometimes been used by union leaderships in the past to control members by threatening to withdraw financial support.
The alternative to reliance on strike funds alone is solidarity. Recent strikes have had huge public support. But how do we translate passive support into active solidarity? Of course the best solidarity isn’t financial, it’s practical. The working class has always been strongest when we support each other – whether that is postal workers refusing to handle mail to the Grunwick photo processing factory, engineers striking to demand higher wages for health workers or to stop arms to Pinochet’s Chile, or train drivers refusing to move coal during the miners’ strike. Anti-union legislation tries to deter such solidarity, and it is rare today, though there are exceptions, such as the solidarity of dockers at Southampton and ports internationally with the strikes at Felixstowe and Liverpool. Such solidarity can bring disputes to a swift conclusion and reduce the need for financial support.
The groundwork for such glorious actions lies in rebuilding traditions of solidarity that have been eroded during decades when strike action has been rare. We are already seeing growing numbers of workers visiting each other’s picket lines, which helps workers exchange lessons and build vital networks. Fundraising for strikes can help take this to the next level.
What can strikers do?
Strikers themselves have a key role in fundraising. Workers are often shy about asking for money, feeling it is like asking for charity or begging, particularly when we are aware that there are usually people worse off than ourselves. But solidarity isn’t charity or a gift. It strengthens both parties. By asking for solidarity, strikers are helping other workers and strengthening the movement as a whole.
Step one is to have a strike fund. You might use a union branch account, a completely separate account, or persuade a trusted local organisation like a trades council to hold the fund for you. Whatever account you use, make sure you keep proper records and can account for what has come in and how it is used. Be clear who can decide on spending any of it and how they are accountable. Keep control of the fund as close to the strikers as possible. I’ve seen disputes where large sums were donated into a union’s regional account – and the strikers never saw any of it until after the dispute was over.
Step two is to publicise how people can contribute to it. People need accurate and complete information to make online payments – the name of the payee, the account number, the sort-code, and whether the bank sees this as a personal or business account. Be clear if donors need to use a particular reference to ensure the money goes where it should, or if they need to email someone to give details of who the donation is from etc. It’s a good idea to provide details, including a postal address, for people to send cheques. There are still quite a lot of union branches which can’t make online payments. Make a graphic that can be shared online with the details of what the appeal is for and how to donate. Knock up a simple leaflet or letter outlining the dispute, asking for support and explaining how people can contribute. Make it available online and in hard copy and make sure strikers take them everywhere they go. Ask other organisations to circulate your appeal for support widely. Some organisations, despite sitting on plenty of money, won’t make donations unless they directly receive a request by letter or email – so do ask!
Step three is to collect money. The most basic thing is to have buckets on picket lines so that people who support you can put cash in. A crowdfunder can be a low-effort way to help lots of people contribute. Below I explain more ways to raise money including collections, levies and delegation work.
Step four is to be clear how you will use the money. Will you just pay a bit to everyone? Will money be used to feed all the pickets each day? Is the priority to cover travel costs for people attending pickets and other events so they are not out of pocket? Is the priority workers who may have joined too recently to be eligible for official strike pay? (This can be an issue in some unions, despite it being a huge boost to have new members joining to take part in a strike.) Is it for hardship payments, and if so, what process will the strikers use to assess what help different members will receive?
Better ways to raise money
If you only raise money by donations from individuals or official union bodies, you are only scratching the surface of what is possible. Individual contributions have limited potential for learning and strengthening organisation. Decisions by official union bodies to make donations usually involve relatively few people – the core activists who hold positions or attend meetings. If we can involve wider layers of workers in collective solidarity, this not only makes it possible to raise far more money, but strengthens the donors as much as the recipients.
Supporters can take a collection round a workplace, housing estate or community group. This is easiest with a collection sheet. This looks a bit like a petition, with space for name and maybe other relevant information such as contact details or department. If you make your own you can tailor it for the group you are collecting from, to make it easier to track contributions. If the strikers are well organised they may have produced one you can use. Always start by putting your own contribution on, and make it as much as you can afford. Then go to one or two people you are confident will also make decent contributions, before you go round everyone else. It helps raise expectations. Total up what you collect and, if possible, arrange for other workers to come with you to hand it over to the strikers. If you can’t manage that, at least get a photo of a bunch of you together that you can take along with the money. Get some photos of you handing it over and report back to everyone who contributed. This process gives you opportunities to discuss a strike with colleagues, so people learn about it and gain inspiration from it.
Another way of doing a collection is to announce in advance a day it will take place, so that workers know to bring in some cash, then have a few of you, ideally with strikers, on the gate to collect money in buckets. My best experience doing this was collecting outside my workplace with striking firefighters who brought an appliance (more commonly known as a fire engine) along.
You can invite strikers to come and speak at a meeting to explain their dispute, then take a collection – even if the meeting agrees an official donation. Guest speakers liven up meetings and help people learn from other people’s battles, preparing them to fight their own.
Strikers can accelerate these processes by engaging in ‘delegation work’. This consists of sending delegations (small groups of strikers) out and about to raise support. You can tour local workplaces and branch meetings; attend conferences, meetings, protests, rallies and other events; visit union offices and training centres.
In most disputes there is enormous pressure on the key activists, who are working far harder than when they are in work. This can lead to a reluctance to arrange delegation work because of concerns about workload and the fact that most people find the idea of public speaking daunting. I would recommend taking the opposite approach. Arrange so much that the key activists simply cannot do it, and other members have to step up. During one local strike I was involved in we sent delegations all over the country. On one day we had seven different teams out locally and nationally. The people who took part were astonished at the response they got and had their eyes opened to the solidarity that was available.
The next step up from a collection is a levy, where workers agree an amount they will contribute every pay day. You can create a levy sheet that is similar to a collection sheet but has a column for each pay period. You persuade colleagues to pledge to contribute, then go round and collect the money each pay day. This is a vital tool for longer disputes where a one-off collection isn’t good enough. It enables you to discuss developments in a dispute with workers on an ongoing basis.
If the strike you are raising support for involves workers at different locations (e.g. local Royal Mail offices), you might want to ‘twin’ with a particular workplace, so that you can build up relationships over time, which strengthens solidarity. Many people will have seen in the film Pride how Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners twinned with a pit village in South Wales and how the process of solidarity changed all those involved.
We do face some new difficulties in fundraising. Many people don’t carry cash, so you may need to get people to pay you using PayPal or something similar. Remote and home working makes it harder to take round collections, but remember that collections and levies are fundamentally based on one-to-one conversations and these still happen even if people aren’t face to face. As the movement rebuilds lost traditions of solidarity, we need to share our experiences of adapting it to modern life.
Ian Allinson is an rs21 member, a long-time union activist and author of Workers Can Win! A Guide to Organising At Work which contains lots more information about how to build up solidarity and its role in winning disputes.