Today (budget day) the PCS union called 250,000 members in the civil service out on strike in a dispute over pay, pensions and working conditions. This was a very important step, restarting national industrial action after the massive set-back suffered when a number of unions signed up to shoddy deals on public sector pensions in December 2011 and the rest dithered rather than carrying forward the tremendous action on November 30th 2011 - allowing the government to impose cuts.
Other unions are now talking about rejoining the fray, notably with the NUT and NASUWT teaching unions which have announced joint rolling strikes starting in the north-west on 27th June.
There's an argument raging in the TUC about how to fight cuts and austerity effectively. Some say we should wait for a Labour government. Quite aside from the problem that members are losing their jobs and services now, this argument is continually undermined by Labour leaders who fail to promise anything noticeably different even if/when they get in office. UNITE says it doesn't share this view, and recognises the need for working people to take action now to defend our livelihoods.
Within UNITE there have been some excellent debates since the TUC passed a motion about consulting unions about the practicalities of a general strike. UNITE's response to the TUC on this has been amongst the better ones. This was discussed in some detail at last week's UNITE Executive Council and Len McCluskey spoke at length about it when he spoke at an electioneering meeting in Manchester on Monday night.
In the debates within UNITE, most people recognise that large scale coordinated strike action will be needed if members are going to successfully resist cuts and austerity. But there are big debates about how we can achieve this. Some argue that we need to focus on "raising the consciousness" of members first. Others, including myself, have argued that taking action goes hand in hand with building organisation, confidence and consciousness, rather than the action coming afterwards.
The debate is reflected in the current contest for UNITE General Secretary. Len McCluskey makes excellent general speeches about the need for action, but the current leadership has done little to deliver it in the here and now. At last week's Executive Council meeting I was the only person to raise the issue of solidarity with the PCS strike. At Len's campaign meeting on Monday the strike wasn't mentioned at all. Jerry Hicks' campaign has focussed strongly on the need to close the gap between fine words about action at some unspecified point in the future and deeds in the here and now.
In the context of these important debates, it was great to see over 100 UNITE members at the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) on strike today, deliberately choosing to coordinate their strike with the national PCS action. On their picket line in Manchester this morning the UNITE members were very clear about the fact that coordinated action had to start somewhere and their desire to see it spread.