TODAY, around 500,000 workers will strike throughout Britain. This will include many staff in Scotland in schools, universities and the civil service.

It will be the single biggest collective action since the public sector pension strike of between one and two million workers on November 26, 2011. The action today marks the culmination of many months of preparation by, and coordination amongst, various unions.

However, and as the rail and postal strikes since last summer have indicated, the “power to” disrupt employers’ operations does not mean strikers have necessarily generated the crucial “power over” their opponents to win their demands.

This is despite often taking extensive strike action. In the case of postal workers, they took 18 days to Christmas last year and rail workers took 16 days to early January this year. For teachers in Scotland, their national and rolling regional strike action has been the most extensive since the 1980s.

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The absence of translating “power to” into “power over” is illustrated by the lack of significantly improved offers and, of course, the continuation of the disputes.

Power is conventionally defined as the ability of person A to make person B do something they would not ordinarily do or want to do. It is the ability to compel and impose one’s terms.

Yet there are some union members that have translated “power to” into “power over”. This mindset is present in those involved in Unite the Union, amongst airside airport workers, lorry and tanker drivers, and refuse workers.

Under Sharon Graham’s leadership since August 2021, Unite has widely applied the “leverage” technique, bringing about a high success rate. The technique identifies the weak points in an employer’s operations and applies pressure upon them, whether that be investors and shareholders susceptible to the financial impact of reputational damage or fragile “just-in-time” production systems.

But the success of the leverage technique is also explained by the combined effect of three critical factors. First, the location of these employers in the private sector so that, ultimately, they are susceptible to the disruption to their profit-seeking operations. This means private sector strikes are essentially economic strikes.

Second, these employers’ operations are susceptible to disruption which has an immediate and considerable impact because few alternatives or substitutes exist.

And, third, Unite members, unlike most other union members, can claim strike pay, set in 2022 at £70 per day. Even though this does not equate to full recompense for the sacrifice of lost wages, it has been critical to facilitate the willingness to strike and to do so extensively if need be.

Consequently – and taking together the impact of all these factors – both the quickest and most impressive victories on pay and with least cost to members themselves have been in the likes of transport (air, road) and refuse collection.

So what does this mean for unions and their members in the public sector?

The National: Unite leader Sharon Graham has brought the union to success – but these victories have only really aided the transport and refuse sectorsUnite leader Sharon Graham has brought the union to success – but these victories have only really aided the transport and refuse sectors

There are examples where Unite’s leverage strategy in the public sector has borne much less fruit and at greater cost.

The best example is the Labour-controlled Coventry city council in 2022, where it took six months of continuous striking to bring the employer to heel over adequate pay rises for bin lorry drivers.

This indicates that confronting public sector employers can be a whole different ball game. Ironically, it might have been a different situation had the employer been a private sector contractor carrying out the refuse work.

Strikes in the public sector are essentially political strikes. Financial loss is not a key consideration here but making a government look increasingly incompetent and unable to exert control by delivering normal services is, especially in the run up to an election.

Yet, at the same time, public sector employers often have far greater resources to withstand the effect of strikes and are often increasingly willing to expend them in such a way in order to do so. Teachers in Scotland are finding this with the Scottish Government currently.

READ MORE: Scottish businesses have battled to survive amid lost trade with EU

At Westminster, there is an altogether different game is in play. With the Tories in a death spiral, the Westminster government is trying to resuscitate its dwindling electoral fortunes by “hanging tough” against the unions, meaning that the normal rules of collective bargaining do not apply.

The Tories want an extended confrontation with as many unions as possible (including the fabled nurses) in order to slay the union “bogeyman”.

Although not without risks, the only adequate union response is to up the ante in order to “square the circle”. Here, public sector unions especially need to organise much greater mass strikes than they did today and take “French lessons” by mobilising millions on the streets as their brothers and sisters have done in France a fortnight ago over pension reform. This is the surest way to help topple a weak and wobbling Tory government.

Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds