Speaking to the BBC last week Francis Maude, a government minister in the Cabinet Office suggested that trade union members should, instead of withdrawing their labour over a working day, down tools for just 15 minutes on 30 November. This proposal comes against the backdrop of a potential coordinated walkout of UK workers in the public sector, including teachers, civil servants, firefighters, nurses and local council workers which some commentators believe could number 3 million workers (1 million from the Unison union alone) and which follows on from an earlier walkout on June 30th.
Such a highly supported walkout is unprecedented in recent history, the nearest equivalent being the General Strike of 1926, a number all the more remarkable given the dismantling of trade union rights to strike under the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher.
Responding to Maude’s suggestion, one local branch of PCS (the Public and Commercial Services Union)which represents lower paid civil servants labelled the proposal the fifteen minutes of lame (the branch was PCS Euston). They and the Guardian are right. The withdrawal of labour by a democratically elected union is the very apotheosis of a democratic polity and the trivialisation of such actions by Maude is most likely nothing to do with protecting public service (Maude is after all overseeing a brutal cuts agenda that has already seen services to the most needy culled, whilst his colleagues in Her Majesty’s Revenue Customs who are responsible for tax collection offer sweetheart deals, excusing millions of pounds of uncollected taxes to Vodafone and Goldman Sachs, amongst others.
In fact, since Maude spoke to the BBC last week, things have gotten even more uncomfortable for the minister. Earlier today (14 November) civil service unions who are not known for militancy voted overwhelmingly for strike action. First there was Prospect, the union for specialist civil servants (for example, engineers and scientists), where 75 percent voted for strike action; in the case of the First Division Association, a union of senior civil servants, today’s results are even more resounding: 81 percent of votes were for industrial action. Bearing in mind that the combined efforts of both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives amounted to a bare 59 percent, it perhaps puts into perspective Maude’s oft spoken fallacy that the day of action lacks democratic legitimacy.
There are 28 trade unions which have so far voted or are balloting in favour of industrial action on 30 November.