When union members are asked to vote in an industrial action ballot, they want to know what action they are voting for. This presents a dilemma. Propose too little action at the start, and it might not be enough to win. Propose too much, and members might be wary of voting for it. Often members are willing to escalate action once a strike is under way – going beyond what they would have backed at the start.
When we’ve had local strikes, we’ve tackled this dilemma by not declaring with the ballot what action we will or won’t take – leaving it open ended – but committing that the union won’t call any action that hasn’t been approved by a members’ meeting. This gives members the confidence that they will remain in control of the dispute and won’t be asked to take action they don’t support, while giving them flexibility to escalate action as far as they need to.It’s a lot harder to use this approach with a strike that covers multiple sites. You can’t normally get all the members together in one place to debate and decide what action to take.
Shortly before a multi-site strike we arranged for members to directly elect a national “combine committee” covering every member. When we balloted, we said that no action would be called that hadn’t been approved by the combine committee. Combine committee members then worked hard to hold meetings around the country before deciding what action to call. While this didn’t give members as much control as they could have in a local strike, it gave them a lot more control and confidence in the process than giving a blank cheque to people they didn’t know. It avoided having to tell the employer in advance how far we could escalate the action.