Build for a 24-hour general strike to smash the cost-of-living crisis and force the Tories out!

Editorial of the Socialist issue 1217

“What a bunch of absolute arses the teaching unions are.”

“I know they really really do just hate work.”

This was the WhatsApp exchange between former Tory health secretary Matt Hancock of ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ fame and ex-education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson. This took place during the depths of Covid, when teachers along with many other workers were on the front line of the pandemic, risking their lives, while the Tories were presiding over a catastrophic failure, and at the same time getting their mates rich through facilitating coronavirus crony capitalism.

The leaks of messages like this and probably many others to come will infuriate teachers and all those striking on 15 March – the biggest day yet of joint strike action in this strike wave, when over 600,000 workers will be walking out together. This is the day when the Tories move their latest budget in Parliament.

Matt and Gav’s texts yet again shine a light on the cruel class disdain of the Tories and their hypocrisy, that sees workers told there’s not enough money to enable their pay to keep pace with spiralling inflation so that they can keep the heating on, while the energy companies make massive profits. One of these is Centrica, the owner of British Gas, which brutally slashed workers’ contracts by about £10,000 through ‘fire and rehire’ during the Covid lockdown, and then sent car transporters to pick up vans from those who had been made redundant.

But this isn’t the only example of the double standards in cold-hearted capitalism UK. Two days after Budget Day will be the anniversary of the ‘St Patrick’s Day Massacre’, when 800 P&O ferry workers were viciously sacked, with private security guards sent on to ships, some with handcuffs. Brazenly, the company CEO told MPs that he knew that senior management were acting illegally but there was no other alternative to smashing workers’ pay and conditions to ‘protect’ the profits of P&O. Yet a year later, these executives have effectively got away scot-free. This is while the Tories are pushing through Parliament new strike restrictions on top of the existing anti-union laws, already the most undemocratic in Western Europe.

Defend the right to strike

These latest attacks on the right to strike must be taken seriously by the unions but they, along with the government seemingly holding the line on pay, aren’t signs of how strong the Tories are. Far from it! Rishi Sunak is their third prime minister in seven months and Jeremy Hunt the fourth chancellor since July. Sunak himself resigned amid the endgame of the campaign to ditch Boris Johnson.

The Tories have been reluctant to move an inch on pay to any group of workers because they are well aware that, given the generalised cost-of-living squeeze, all other workers would demand a real pay rise too.

But, Sunak has been forced to the negotiating table that he ruled out visiting a few months ago by the titanic struggles in the growing strike wave. The continuing strikes across every sector have now grown to a size not seen since the public sector pensions battle in 2011, when 2 million workers took action together against the attacks of the Tory-LibDem coalition. The ‘MegaStrike’ of 1 February, the biggest NHS strike in history on 6 February, and now the mass strike on 15 March, which continues on the 16th with the NEU and UCU being joined by the RMT on national rail, have all forced the Tories to start talking to unions.

Within weeks, proposed pay deals or at least ‘intensive’ talks have been offered to the FBU, UCU, NEU, RCN and now it seems other NHS workers. It appears that the Tories are now trying to get some of the disputes over the line. (See pages 4-5)

And, if any of these were able to extract from the Government a deal that broke the pay cap – certainly if it was at least of RPI inflation, which has been as high as 14% plus over the last year – it would signify a defeat for the Tories. That could embolden all workers to also fight for such a win. But such a deal hasn’t been offered to any of the unions, and there is a danger that the united front of unions’ action could fray and splinter for pay offers well below what is needed.

Coordinate the strikes

A real victory, all the way down the line, is absolutely possible. But to get it means maintaining and extending coordinated action. There have been no reports of the unions meeting together after the mass February strikes. Such a meeting could have hammered out a fighting strategy to build on those successful mass strike days. It could have seen the Budget Day strike reach even higher levels, perhaps of over a million workers if all those with strike mandates had come together on that day.

But nevertheless, the 15 March action is another crucial milestone, and the infusion of fresh forces joining the action, such as the junior doctors, shows that the strike wave is not relenting and, on the contrary, can be broadened and escalated. Another sign is the historic first strike by Amazon workers in the UK.

Militant members, reps and activists in all the unions must demand that the unions meet immediately to name the day for even greater coordinated action, up to the scale of a 24-hour general strike to inflict a major, if not terminal, defeat on the Tories, altering the class balance of forces in society.

During the 1 February mass strikes, tens of thousands of strikers flooded the streets surrounding parliament. Inside, Labour leader Keir Starmer failed to even mention them. On 15 March, the Tories will present their budget, this time surrounded by potentially hundreds of thousands of striking workers.

Jeremy Corbyn spoke at the teachers’ strike rally on 2 March in his Islington constituency. But Starmer has barred him from standing to defend his seat on the Labour ticket at the next general election, as part of his crusade to appeal to big business. The Socialist Party calls on Jeremy to confirm that he will stand, even as an independent. Our members are campaigning for the trade unions to back him too.

We are raising the demand for a trade union-backed workers’ list of candidates to contest the next general election, to give the strikers a voice in parliament, to tip the balance of class forces further still, and as a step towards a new mass workers’ party that is so desperately needed.

Model motion: unions must meet to prepare further coordinated action

This union branch welcomes the growing strike wave against the Tory cost-of-living crisis. The huge joint strikes of 1 February and 6 February (the biggest in NHS history), and now the 15 March Budget Day action, show the potential for mass co-ordinated action

This union branch believes that the Budget Day strike must be followed up with further coordinated action on an even broader scale

This union branch calls on the union NEC/EC to urgently approach all other unions, especially those with a live strike mandate, to meet together to agree a strategy, including naming the date for co-ordinated action involving all such unions. This approach should include calling for a conference of members of NECs of all these unions