Weak and divided Tories shaken by 1 Feb mass strikes

All out together on Budget Day
Prepare for a 24-hour general strike

Editorial of the Socialist issue 1212

Wednesday 1 February marked a significant step forward in the growing strike wave to protect workers’ living standards, working conditions and rights. Teachers organised in the NEU joined striking rail workers in Aslef and RMT, civil servants in the PCS union, and UCU university staff; around half a million workers in the biggest united day of strike action in the battle so far.

On the picket lines, marching together in cities and towns throughout England and Wales – this was an impressive display of unity and resistance. Workers could feel the power they have when they come together and collectively organise to fight back.

It was a taste of the further united action that will be necessary to win decent pay rises in the face of the cost-of-living squeeze, to resist the attempt to drive down conditions in the workplace to intolerable levels, and to defeat the latest vicious Tory anti-union laws that are being rushed through parliament.

Striking workers can sense that the Tories are lashing out from a weak and vulnerable position. The Tories may be under ‘new management’ with Rishi Sunak, but none of the chaos and bitter in-fighting from the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss eras has gone away.

Ex-Tory chairman Nadhim Zahawi’s dodgy tax dealings show that the stench of sleaze and cronyism is still hanging around. The economy is on the brink of recession and is in the worst position of all the major capitalist economies – even Russia. While the NHS is on life support, with hundreds of people dying every week because of delays, and staffing and bed shortages, right-wing Tory MPs, desperate to cling on to their seats in the next election, are clamouring for tax cuts for the rich!

The Tories are still riven with splits and divisions over everything. Seeing the wide support that striking workers have, especially, but not only, in the NHS, some Tories have been calling for a few crumbs more for nurses. But chancellor Jeremy Hunt has resisted, terrified that any improved offer to the nurses would just harden the determination of other public sector workers and open the floodgates to more strike action.

So they are just sitting it out, paralysed, fingers crossed that strikers will gradually be worn down, support will wane, and action will eventually be called off.

This is precisely the time to push forward and take the strike movement to the next level. Five unions striking together nationally on 1 February was an important first step. But still only a minority of unions which have been involved in strikes or have mandates for action came out on that day. Imagine the effect if all the unions with live ballots were to coordinate to come out together.

Firefighters have voted overwhelmingly for strike action. 6 February is likely to be the biggest strike in NHS history.

Unlike the pensions strikes in 2011, this strike wave is spanning the public and the private sector. Even previously unorganised workers in Amazon have joined the action, with GMB members in Coventry walking out over their derisory 50p wage rise.

Stronger striking together

A coordinated 24-hour strike of all workers in dispute would not just be an impressive show of strength, but potentially could bring this hapless Tory government down.

There has been reluctance from some union leaders, especially RCN nurses’ union tops, to coordinate with other unions for fear that their particular pay struggle could become ‘diluted’. But ordinary nurses on the picket line instinctively understand that we are much stronger by all striking together.

The latest ‘minimum service’ anti-union law, which will effect workers in health, transport, fire and rescue, education, border security and nuclear decommissioning, clearly shows the need for stepping up coordinated action.

Some unions are looking to 15 March, the day Hunt will be presenting the Tory budget, for the next day of strike action. All the unions with mandates for action need to urgently come together to discuss striking together on that day as the next stage towards a 24-hour general strike.

A national demonstration, on the weekend before or after 15 March, could pull together not just striking workers but all the tens of thousands who want to fight the cost-of-living squeeze, save the NHS, defend the right to organise and protest, and get rid of this rotten Tory government.

But clearly, workers can have little faith that a future Keir Starmer government will act in their interests; the same Starmer who punished his frontbench MPs for speaking out on picket lines and jetted off with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves to hobnob with the rich elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He’s already made it clear that placating ‘the markets’ – code for the rich and powerful – is more important than paying workers the wage rises they need to keep up with inflation.

Workers need to build their own political party that stands firmly in their camp against the attacks of the bosses and the capitalist politicians of all colours, at local and at national level.

A starting point would be standing workers’ candidates in the local elections in May and in the next general election. This is due by the end of next year, but could arrive much sooner given the feeble state of this Tory government.

On Saturday 4 February, the national conference of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition takes place (see pages 8-9) to prepare for a political challenge at the elections – discussing a programme of fighting the cuts, supporting workers in struggle and defending our public services.

The immediate task is to unite the strikes to win the battles on pay, conditions and rights. But if only a fraction of those on strike were to put themselves forward as workers’ candidates, this would help lay the groundwork for building the mass political party that workers will need on their side in the important battles to come.