Revolutionary socialists have traditionally assumed that it is among the strongly organised industrial workers that the first stirrings of a revolutionary consciousness would emerge and have identified this group as the backbone of the revolutionary process. This approach has often made them unable to appreciate the significance of work among service workers in the public sector. Of course it is true that these workers generally possess a weaker capacity for struggle than industrial workers and their actions usually have a less direct impact on the capitalist class. Traditionally they have been less open to revolutionary socialist ideas. But recent experience in Britain shows that action by manual workers employed by the local authorities and hospitals can have big political reverberations, both at local and national level. The service nature of their jobs means that they are brought into close contact with wide layers of the working class community. Their conditions of work, and the quality of the service they can provide, are of direct interest to most working people. A strike by public sector service workers immediately raises issues concerning the conditions of life of the whole working class community that are not automatically posed by an industrial dispute in the private sector. As we will see, even at the level of trade union tactics, the public sector manual workers are obliged to consider the wider implications of their actions in any dispute with their employers, and the potential exists for these struggles to have a politicising effect on the whole working class community.

The strike of public sector manual workers in the first three months of 1979 was the most widespread action of the low paid for many years. Chronic low pay is never an inducement to the taking of strike action. In early 1979 the public sector manual workers were earning a basic weekly wage of between £49 and £54 before tax, or between £35 and £42 after tax. In general the public sector worker is earning something very close to the basic wage and has fewer opportunities to boost earnings by overtime and special payments than do workers in the private sector. As may be expected the public sector manual worker is unlikely to have any savings and while on strike can expect only £5 a week strike pay from the Union. The national claim in 1978/9 was for a £60 a week basic wage and a thirty-five hour week; when it is borne in mind that the average industrial wage was around £90 a week at this time it will be evident that the claim was far from extravagant and its elementary justice could be appreciated by most other sections of workers. But maximising potential support for the strike required bold and imaginative leadership that was manifestly lacking at national level. In the name of democracy local branches of nupefootnote were left to decide what sections of workers to call out on strike and cash limits were set on the overall strike pay available in each area. Moreover there was little effective co-ordination between the various public sector unions involved despite the fact that the local authority worker’s claim had been delayed to enable joint action to be taken. During the scattered and unco-ordinated strike actions the union leadership completely failed to elaborate a national strategy and local tactics suited to such a struggle. In particular the union head offices shied away from the evident implication of the dispute; namely that at local level their members should themselves take responsibility for organising emergency services and at national level they should press home the attack on the reactionary policies of the Labour Government—policies which went directly against the clear decision of the previous Labour Party conference. In what follows we will trace the course of the strike in the inner London Borough of Camben. Camden was an area of full mobilisation during the strike, in contrast to many other areas; by the end of the strike Camden nupe members had won almost the full claim, while nationally the union leadership had settled for a 9 per cent increase—little more than had been on offer at the beginning of the strike.

The London Borough of Camden is one of the wealthiest in London, comprising the rich residential area of Hampstead in the north, a large working class area in the centre, and highly rated commercial properties in part of London’s West End to the south. The Camden Council is traditionally controlled by the Labour Party. While the Labour left is not well organised or vocal in Camden, the Labour councillors are not militantly right-wing either; in fact they like to project Camden as a pacemaker in local government.

Camden nupe is a local authority manual workers branch whose membership now stands at 2,200 and which has as members dustmen, road sweepers, sewer workers, stores staff, road labourers, masons, public lighting workers, fitters, plumbers, gardeners, cemetery workers, drivers, cleaners, caretakers, catering staff, Meals-on-wheels staff, care assistants in Old Peoples Homes and day centres, home helps, and pest control assistants. These workers are spread throughout the Borough (some actually work in Finchley, Blackheath, and Brixton) in at least 200 different depots or places of work. The nupe Branch Secretary is allowed full-time leave with pay to undertake trade union duties.

When I joined Camden in June 1974, the branch was led by a right-wing Labour Branch Secretary and a Branch Chairman who was a member of the Tory party. Democracy at Branch meetings was vestigial; attendance at shop-steward meetings rarely reached nine out of a total of 20 to 25 stewards. The Branch was dominated by the caretakers, who were in a relatively privileged position vis-`-vis other groups of workers because of bonus payments, and rent-free and rate-free accommodation. The Branch Secretary had been in office for ten years and was unchallenged. Among rank and file members the mood was one of resignation. It was generally accepted that he had capitulated to management, but the idea of doing anything about this was ruled out as hopeless.

Between 1974 and 1976 this situation changed. From the beginning of 1975 onwards I became a shop steward and helped to organise a fight in the Branch and at the shop stewards committee. Those members who had turned up to branch meetings as oppositionists, but whose input had in the past been largely disruptive and negative, began to act more effectively together. The contestation at the Branch slowly filtered back to the membership and gradually attendance at Branch meetings increased. Before standing as shop steward for the Highways group, an unorganised and non-militant section, I decided that the issue of democracy and the accountability of elected union officials was the crucial issue upon which to base my election campaign. A mass meeting was held—the first the section had ever had to elect a steward—and much to the consternation of the Branch Secretary, I explained my politics, and the basis upon which I was standing, before the vote. The main points I made were the need for the shop steward to act in the members interests and be recallable at any time by them, the need to wage a campaign for regular meetings of the section in working hours and finally that the steward should produce a bulletin regularly for the information of the membership. The Bulletin, entitled The Highwayman, came out about 14 times and its impact was as great in other sections to which it filtered through as in the Highways section. It was a vehicle through which to inform members of what had happened at the Branch meetings, and what was happening nationally, and it contrasted with the absence of any information coming from the Branch leadership. The Secretary tried a number of times to suppress it, but because it had been agreed to by the Highways section and because it answered a need, he failed each time. Between 1975 and 1977, when I was elected Branch Secretary, there was no strike in the Highways section and the only real victory we achieved, the paying of a total of £1500 among some members as a result of a works study ‘miscalulation’ that I uncovered, was gained by understanding the bonus scheme in detail, not by militant struggle. In weakly organised sectors of workers among the low paid in the public sector, trade union work is often mundane, slow and in the short term unrewarding.

The other factor feeding a potential revolt against the Branch leadership was the public spending cuts implemented by Camden Council in September 1975; cuts in overtime and in numbers employed, to be achieved by ‘natural wastage’. The majority of members were overnight forced to live on basic rates of pay alone. The Branch leadership failed to respond and offer a way of fighting these cuts; they clamped down on any opposition we were able to organise.