Paul Foot

Stop the Cuts

The challenge of the Rank and File

What to Fight For:
No Redundancies No Cuts!

A short article in a recent issue of Hospital Worker, a rank and file paper circulating in hospitals all over the country, sums up the fighting spirit which can stop the cuts.

Rob Silverstone, a NUPE shop steward at the Royal Portsmouth Hospital, writes:

“Management tried to sack 30 student nurse finalists here. Immediately a mass meeting was called, which was attended by 80 nurses, domestics, cooks and porters.

“We felt that unless the cuts were fought, wards would be closed down, leading to more redundancies and a further decline in patient care.

“So we decided to ban all overtime and work to rule.

“The action began to bite immediately. Within two days, management were talking of a mysterious sum of money which had appeared from nowhere. The next day, the action spread to St. James Hospital, and by the end of the week we had assurances that all 30 nurses would have their jobs guaranteed.

“So we won the first round against the cuts.

“But this is not the end of the matter. All the time there are nagging cut-backs – from non-replacement of staff to light bulbs.

“In Portsmouth we are trying to build a broad ‘Fight the Cuts’ campaign, for all trade unionists facing cuts in their social services. We also intend to draw in the industrial trade unions, because it is their health service and their schools which are being run down.”

Now listen to Frank Jeffers, the T&GWU convenor in the direct labour department of Knowsley District Council, Merseyside.

“Management told us they wanted 181 redundancies in the direct labour building department. Now there are 60,000 outstanding repair jobs on council houses in this area, rotting window frames, leaking toilets, and so on. We know that our jobs are necessary, and we decided at once that we had to fight for all of them. We weren’t prepared to negotiate a single job away. So we called a strike, which more and more council workers joined. When the school canteen workers agreed to join it, the council withdrew the redundancies, and agreed to re-open negotiations. They’ll be back for more cuts soon, but we know how to fight them.”

These two examples, unhappily, are exceptions. In most hospitals, the management would have been able to get away with the sackings of nurses. Direct labour departments are being run down all over the country, and stewards and union officials are agreeing to let some jobs go, in the pathetic hope that other jobs might be saved.

Rob Silvers tone and Frank Jeffers have a message for all hospital workers, all direct labour workers, all workers fighting for the cuts. DON’T ACCEPT A SINGLE REDUNDANCY – NOT A SINGLE CUT. Because the more you accept the more they’ll ask for.

The weaker the trade union resistance, the stronger and more determined the management. ‘Let’s have a few sackings’. They plead. ‘It’s the only way to preserve any jobs at all’. And once they get a few sackings, they grow confident and ask for more.

The argument of this pamphlet is that there is no case whatever for any social service cuts or for any redundancies in the social services.

Insist on Full Establishment

There are a whole number of ways in which the management try to get sackings without insisting on compulsory redundancies. For instance, they might ask for ‘voluntary redundancy’ and refuse to replace the job once its vacant. Or they might demand the Right to ‘redeploy’ labour as they think fit.

This manoeuvring is often more difficult to fight than a straight redundancy proposal.

Last year, for instance, Islington Borough Council in London decided to carry out a manpower budgeting survey. Almost all the departments were, according to the council’s own standards, about 25 percent understaffed, but as a result of the survey, the council decided to hold staffing at existing levels.

They set up a troika of councillors to ‘supervise vacancies’. A few months later an area administrative assistant in a social workers’ team died. The council refused to replace him.

The social work team acted instantly. They handed in the keys to their department and said they would not work until the job was replaced. It was replaced. A few weeks ago, another job – of a senior social worker – was frozen. The whole social services department – about 400 people – came out on strike. The job was ‘unfrozen’.

Gordon Peters, a NALGO representative in Islington Council, says.

“Many of the ways in which the council starts to look for cuts are extremely insidious. You have to be on your guard all the time for cuts which seem to be made under the surface, behind closed doors, Then you have to act. We won those two rounds, but there will be more to come.”

No Unfilled Vacancies

Another even more subtle way of achieving redundancies without actually sacking anyone is the old trick of the ‘unfilled vacancy’. This has become increasingly popular with education authorities. When a teacher leaves a school, they declare a vacancy and often even advertise it, but then refuse to fill it. They sometimes salve their consciences by pointing out that the number of children to be taught is falling (as in London) – as if that were an excuse for not trying to get classes down to a decent size!

Teachers have found a very good way of resisting this trick. They ‘refuse to cover’ for the activities of any teacher who is off work for more than three days. The Executive of the teachers union (NUT) has sanctioned this activity in schools in Leicester, Oldham and Devon, but only after they balloted the schools and the teachers voted for the action by a two thirds majority. Rank and File working teachers have taken initiatives which will have a much more powerful impact.

A meeting called in February by the Standing Committee Against Cuts in Education was attended by delegates from 56 different London schools.

It listed a whole series of demands about the cuts, which included bringing classes down to proper size, a right to a permanent teacher’s contract, and refusal of compulsory transfers.

It called for teachers in schools on their own initiative to institute ‘no cover after three days’ action. The call has been answered in a number of schools and has been supported by the influential Inner London Teachers Association.

How to Fight

The few examples above are enough to prove that the best way to fight against the cuts is by rank and file action.

On March 21, in Glasgow, teachers and busmen struck in large numbers outside the council chambers against proposed cuts in the education and bus services. In Dundee, on March 5th in the biggest action yet against the cuts, 20,000 workers, about half the trade union force in the city, answered a strike call from 500 shop stewards, in protest against public service cuts announced by the Tory Tayside Council. Working people of many different trades came together to talk about the threat to their services and their jobs. In an enormous demonstration in the centre of a paralysed city, they felt their own muscle.

If the movement started by the strike isn’t paralysed by trade union officials, or Labour or Scottish Nationalist politicians, Tayside Council will find it very difficult to implement its cuts.

Very often, workers in a section of the public service which is threatened by the cuts feel weak. They think: ‘what can we do on our own?’ Often, too, workers take action on their own and find that the council or the government just ignores them.

In Islington, for instance, 17 jobs were frozen in the libraries. The library staff refused to cover. This meant, in effect, that no new library books were bought, and that many libraries had to close for half a day a week. But the council was not worried. They ignored the action. It caused distress to hundreds of people, especially old people, who had elected those councillors. But the councillors didn’t care.

Incidents like that, and there are many of them, make public service workers feel that there is no point in industrial action. They think: perhaps the Press is right. Perhaps our services can be ignored by the society. Perhaps we have no industrial strength. So what’s the point of going on strike?

But, as the Frank Jeffers case showed in Knowsley, the society can’t run without the public services. It can’t run without schools, and public transport and hospitals and local authorities. For all their insults, businessmen can’t allow massive strikes across whole local authorities. They want cuts in social service spending, yes. But they must have some social services. They can put up with a strike in a library department, yes. But they can’t put up with a mass strike throughout the whole of London public services.

Dilemmas like that of the Islington library workers are not solved by giving up in despair. They’re not solved by isolated action in one department. They’re solved by spreading the action right across the public services. Just as workers who go on strike in private industry often find that they are contained by their employers as long as they keep the strike in their own section or factory – so public service workers can be beaten if they isolate their dispute inside a library department or a hospital.


In scores of towns and cities up and down the country, rank and file workers affected by the cuts have started to set up joint bodies which link the workers whose jobs are threatened by the cuts with the workers whose services are being cut.

The East London Action Committee Against the Cuts, for instance, was formed last year out of a fight to save Poplar Hospital. It built up its strength to monthly meetings of 40 delegates, representing some 30 trade union branches and shop stewards committees. Judith Hamilton, the secretary, says:

“Its growing all the time. We’ve had one or two direct successes. Action by affiliated bodies managed to stop staff cuts at St.Andrews Hospital, Bow, for instance. But in the main we’ve been making propaganda in the area and building up our strength.”

Bodies like the Action Committee in East London have been set up, and are being set up, all over the country. They seek affiliations from all labour movement organisations, and, perhaps especially, from old peoples and tenants associations.

These bodies must be kept in the rank and file. Full-time union officers, with nothing much else to do, and even Labour councillors may try, for their own careerist purposes, to ‘take over’ the committees. If they succeed, the committees will become worthless shells, directed against meaningful joint action. Only if rank and file workers control them can they become fighting bodies which can stop the cuts.

The committees and their fights are enormously strengthened by rank and file papers. Some committees like the East London Committee have their own paper (Fightback). But a whole host of rank and file papers which have grown up over the past few years (and months) can give strength and argument to the fight against the cuts.

Papers like Building Workers Charter, Hospital Worker, Railway Worker, NALGO Action News, The Platform, Post Office Worker, Rank and File Teacher, Redder Tape, all of these fight and argue for trade union action against the cuts.

The protest can take many different forms. Often, the more original the protest, the better chance it has of success. In Islington, earlier this year, the council announced that they would not open the Canonbury Day Centre for old people, which they’d just built, because they couldn’t afford to run it.

The local branch of NALGO organised a ‘mock opening’ of the day centre. They hired a street theatre group to imitate the dignitaries opening this ‘fine institution’. The ‘mock opening’ got a lot of advance publicity in the local Press. Two days before it happened, the council announced that they would, after all, open the centre.

The ‘mock opening’ went ahead anyway. About 100 council workers turned up to enjoy what was in effect, a. victory demonstration. But the incident had proved that rank and file action, especially original, exciting action can shame the council into restoring cuts.

The cuts do not only affect trade unionists’ jobs. They affect working people in many different situations. They affect old people and women at home who may not be members of trade unions, but who feel, as Maureen Robertson feels, that their lives are being cut away.

Many such people feel isolated. They feel they have no strength to resist. How often do you hear people like this say: ‘There’s nothing I can do’.

Not so. The cuts have created, and will continue to create a great well of resentment in working class communities. You’ve only got to stand at a bus stop, go to a hospital, or listen in at a launderette to hear and feel that resentment.

But the Government and the corporations who tell them what to do will rest content as long as that resentment is confined to individual grumbling. They will only start to change their plans when they see people getting together and organising.

When parents of schoolchildren get together with teachers to march and demonstrate against the cuts in their school; when working women get together to protest with their children at the lack of nursery facilities.

When old people turn their organisations into fighting and demonstrating forces linked up and affiliated to trade union and anti-cuts bodies. When women in the home come out and form tenants associations which demand, in mass demonstrations, that their houses are repaired and their skeleton services maintained.

For seventy years the mass of British working people have left politics to the politicians. Housing schools, hospitals, prices, transport, have been ‘a matter for the council’ or a ‘problem for the MPs.’ All action has been relegated to an individual complaint to a councillor or attendance at an MP’s surgery one Saturday a month.

The challenge of the Rank and File Movement is for a change in this attitude. It’s a call to working people to start to take action themselves: to unite with their fellow-workers, fellow-parents, neighbours and friends in striking, campaigning, demonstrating against the cuts.

The main challenge of the Rank and File is to put an end to the despair which depresses so many working people. People wonder: What can I do – I seem such a tiny cog in the vast machine? How can I take on these local authorities, governments businessmen, union leaders? It’s that feeling which inspires people to accept the cuts.

In one local authority office, or one direct labour department or one hospital or one school, there may be no one who has ever heard of the rank and file or the fight against the cuts. When the cuts are announced in these places, the workers are inclined just to accept them: to take their cards and go home.

But in other places where there are rank and file activists, the situation is quite different. In a direct labour department where there’s a Frank Jeffers, in a local government office where there’s a Gordon Peters, in a hospital where there’s a Rob Silverstone, in a locality where there’s a Judith Hamilton – things can be different.

Cuts are not accepted. Rank and file activists start the argument and the fight against them. The argument and the fight take off from the office or shop floor. Workers respond and change. They shake off their despair.

A campaign grows, and brings more workers to its standard. The government or the nationalised industry or the local authority is forced to back down.

The challenge of the rank and file is to all workers, regardless of political persuasion. Fights against hospital closures, school meals increases, bus route or train cuts; demonstrations for better council house maintenance, against high rail fares, for nursery schools, strikes against town hall sackings or canteen closures – these will be started by people with widely differing political ideas.

In the fight against the cuts, there will be International Socialists, Labour Party members, Communists, Welsh and Scottish Nationalists, Liberals, and people who have no political affiliation at all.

The Rank and File FIGHT THE CUTS campaign requires only a willingness to fight to restore the cuts by mobilising the interest and strength of the people most affected by them – the working people.

No-one voted for these cuts. They are imposed by a weak, shambling government in the interests of a reckless and greedy class.

That class has been pushing workers around for 200 years, and they intend to go on doing so just as casually, just as brutally as ever before.

All over the city of London, everywhere where rich men gather together they are grinning at their success in persuading the Labour Government to cut the. workers’ standard of living.

They want the grins wiping off their faces.

The rank and file and that includes you, Maureen Robertson, can do it sooner than anyone imagines.


Last updated on 26 July 2018