Rob Williams, Socialist Party industrial organiser
The strike wave that has developed during the last few months of 2021 is growing in 2022. It has claimed significant victories for workers. The stored-up anger that has developed through the Covid pandemic has started to burst open.
Yet, at the beginning of Covid nearly two years ago, the unions in an official sense seemingly collapsed. Many union leaderships capitulated to the idea of ‘national unity’, the false claim by the Tories that there is a joint interest between workers and their unions on one side, and the employers and their Tory government on the other.
Virtually all official industrial action between March and July 2020 was suspended or cancelled, although many union reps and members heroically took, or threatened, unofficial action to ensure workplace safety. Even unions which in the past period have been seen as more militant succumbed to national unity. Notably, the leadership of the PCS civil service union ‘parked’ the union’s full national pay claim, even before the national executive had met. Only now, two years later, is the union even consulting members nationally on pay.
In September 2020, Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary Frances O’Grady stood side-by-side with Tory Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the head of the CBI bosses’ association to approve Boris Johnson’s government announcement of the watering down of furlough. Actually, this decision was subsequently delayed for a whole year, such was the outrage of workers coupled with the capitalists’ fear for the economy.
However, the national unity lie did break down because the bosses unleashed a brutal offensive against their workforces. They sensed an opportunity to go on the attack in sectors such as aviation, which was virtually at a standstill during the severe lockdown.
‘Fire and rehire’
The weapon of choice was invariably ‘fire and rehire’ – imposing worse pay and terms and conditions on workers. Unite alone has estimated that 10% of their members have been targeted in this way. Scandalously, alongside the likes of British Airways, the Blairite Labour council of Tower Hamlets in east London was one of the first to use this vicious measure, provoking a strike of Unison members.
Coupled with the capitulation of many of the union leaders to national unity and the fact that much of the union’s organisation and functioning was itself thrown back, the sharp contraction of the economy because of the first severe lockdown was a factor in the lack of official struggle.
As Marxists explain, there is no automatic correlation between the economy and workers’ struggle. Sometimes, if a downturn is severe it can undermine workers’ confidence as they see unemployment rise and worry about their jobs being lost. Undoubtedly, companies like British Airways saw an opportunity in the summer of 2020 to roll out their agenda to attack the workforce. But, bravely, British Airways workers, like many others, fought back.
This resistance has been of a level not seen for a whole period. While still mainly localised and at a relatively low level compared to the 1970s and 1980s, the strike wave is one of the most significant for over a decade, particularly regarding the private sector. The prevalence of one-day strikes, which we saw over the last decade, has been replaced by far more intensive action, with many strikes being indefinite. Bus workers in Manchester and British Gas workers took 85 and 43 days of strike action respectively against fire and rehire last year.
However, since then, workers in a number of sectors are recovering their confidence. In particular, this has been in specific areas where there are labour shortages and supply chains have been strained because of the pandemic. It has been estimated that there is a shortage of 100,000 HGV drivers. This has been as a result of a number of factors.
Some workers have left the industry because of long hours and poor conditions while some workers from abroad have moved back to their home countries as a result of Johnson’s Tory Brexit. These factors have exposed decades of underinvestment in training, as a result of the privatisation and deregulation of the haulage industry. This has impacted on workers in refuse and the buses, some of whom have left to become HGV drivers, causing shortages elsewhere.
On the one hand, workers such as these can feel the balance of forces moving in their direction. On the other, workers are driven into struggle by the rise in the cost of living. Real inflation, more accurately measured by RPI (rather than the oft-quoted CPI), is now at 7.5% and when Johnson and Sunak’s National Insurance rise is added, workers will need pay rises of over 8% to receive a real-terms wage increase.
No wonder it is being reported that the Tories will no longer be reporting the RPI rate! Similarly, is it a coincidence that the government’s Office for National Statistics is saying that it doesn’t have the capacity to publish monthly strike figures?
There has been a rising wave of disputes over pay, many of which have been in haulage, refuse and bins, which have often achieved significant pay rises, headed up by the Liverpool tanker drivers who won 17% and Wincanton drivers who won 24%. These struggles and the resulting victories have themselves given confidence to workers. Given the sharp rise in the cost of living, these pay battles have an offensive and defensive character.
While Unite was the union with most strikes during the last decade under the leadership of Len McCluskey, the election of Sharon Graham as general secretary is a shift change. The Socialist Party supported Sharon precisely because of her militant industrial strategy, and her victory was in part a product of the existence of militant activists. The union reported before Christmas that it had over 50 live disputes and says now that it is up to 75. Unite also reported that it had won over £25 million in pay rises for its members as a result of its industrial campaigns.
The union is now even more ‘battle-ready’ with the setting up of a national disputes unit and the developing of ‘combines’, bringing together reps and activists from the same industrial sectors. The first combine meeting for local government in January in order to mobilise for an industrial action ballot saw over 140 union reps meeting together.
Sharon Graham’s election has undoubtedly had a galvanising effect on the union, consciously utilising the changed balance of forces to win gains for members. This is the most effective ‘leverage’.
It is essential that ‘broad left’ organisations uniting left-wing activists and members are built in all of the unions, to bring together the most militant activists and reps behind a strategy to transform the unions into fighting organisations and, where the left has won victories, to maintain and consolidate those victories.
But it’s not just Unite that has taken action. We explain, including during the national unity phase of the pandemic, that unlike the leaders of the Labour Party and the TUC, the union leaders have to be far more responsive to the pressure of their members.
This includes right-wing pro-Starmer leaderships of unions such as shop workers’ union Usdaw and general union Community, who have been forced to sanction strikes during the pandemic. Only an increased pay offer from Tesco just before Christmas averted a fourth Usdaw strike, while Community members in Somerset took two months of strike action to face down fire and rehire at Clarks.
The UK economy is in a very perilous condition. In an attempt to check inflation, the Bank of England could be forced to further raise interest rates. Given the level of indebtedness, especially regarding mortgages, even a relatively small rise could have devastating effects.
The economic outlook could change quickly and mean workers are having to confront challenges that pose the need for a far greater scale of struggle and the need to raise political demands.
If plant closures and mass redundancies are threatened, even indefinite strikes may not be enough. Action such as plant occupations would be posed, married to mobilising the community, demanding that plants be taken into public ownership.
Similarly, the disputes opening up on the railways, where the RMT, in particular, is standing up to the bosses’ attacks on National Rail, the train operating companies, and London Underground, are of a fundamental character. The scale of the attack poses the need for a well-prepared fight, looking for wider solidarity and putting demands on the other rail and transport unions to join the fight. The budget cuts in London have already shown the need to demand that Labour mayor Sadiq Khan refuses to implement Tory cuts. And the need for the RMT union to be prepared to stand or support anti-cuts candidates in the local elections.
The decision of last autumn’s Unite policy conference, the first under Sharon Graham’s leadership, to call on Labour councils not to pass on any more Tory cuts is a vital part of the union’s industrial strategy in local government. The union exposed Coventry Labour councillors during the current bin strike for not coming out in support of the strike.
This sends out a clear message that Unite members come before Unite’s relationship with cutting Labour councillors. Given Sharon’s position that the union should support only those politicians who support the union’s policies, this opens up a debate within Unite about political representation and poses the need for a new political vehicle for workers.
Ten years ago, the main scene of struggle was in the public sector in response to the Con-Dem coalition’s attack on pensions. That reached its height with the November 2011 ‘N30’ walkout, which was effectively a 24-hour public sector general strike. The right-wing union leaders and the TUC rushed to come to a settlement, emboldening the Tories to roll out their brutal cuts offensive.
It also gave the Tories confidence to bring in their Trade Union Act in 2016, with a pitiful response from the TUC and most of the trade union leaders, who refused to even call a single national demonstration in opposition. The Act includes undemocratic 50% turnout thresholds in industrial action ballots. These have acted as a real barrier for national action, predominately in the public sector.
This has also been a factor in the tendency towards localised disputes, which have proved easier to overcome the threshold. It was therefore a tremendous vote by the RMT on London Underground to overcome the threshold with 10,000 members.
But this undemocratic barrier, on top of the Tory anti-union laws brought in by Thatcher and Major, and maintained by Blair and Brown’s New Labour, cannot be meekly accepted by the unions. One University and College Union (UCU) university branch had a strike vote of over 80% but was denied from taking action because their turnout was two votes short of 50%!
In 2019, an unelected High Court judge ruled out the Communication Workers Union national Royal Mail strike ballot result, even though there was a 97% vote for action on a 76% turnout. But unions must resist these laws, judging collectively how to do it, while avoiding the isolation of reps and activists.
The inaction of the public sector union leaderships, particularly on pay during Covid is also a big factor in the lack of strikes. Johnson announced in November 2020 that there would be a public sector pay freeze but there was no coordinated strike ballots across the unions in response.
The biggest union in local government, Unison, has a year later eventually carried out a strike ballot but it fell far below the 50% threshold. The leaders of the major unions in schools and the civil service have not yet even called industrial action ballots, but they have called consultative votes in which Socialist Party members will be campaigning for big votes to pave the way for strike ballots.
The UCU union did beat the 50% threshold in an impressive result but because the vote was ‘disaggregated’, breaking the ballots down to each college, the action that began late last year and is set to restart this month with some more colleges joining after successfully reballoting, is not totally national. But it will involve the majority of higher education members. Unite has launched a strike ballot in local government using similar tactics.
The mood of NHS workers was shown by the demand for a 15% pay rise, when inflation was appreciably lower than the present level, but this was allowed to dissipate. But despite this, the consultative NHS votes in Unison and the traditionally anti-strike RCN nurses’ union showed overwhelming support for action. As inflation rises, this mood can explode in the public sector and, has been shown in the past, NHS workers can take action outside of official ballots.
The crisis-ridden character of the Johnson government should give the public sector unions confidence that a serious joint fight could smash the Tory pay freeze.
The UCU vote along with that of the RCN is further evidence that wider layers are being drawn in to the working class and the union movement by the crisis of capitalism itself. Unite has members who are economists and researchers at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research who threatened strike, and reportedly barristers are looking to take action.
At the other end of the scale, gig economy couriers in small independent unions have been taking action in previously unorganised workplaces with a predominately young workforce. Young workers are seeing the importance of getting organised and what can be achieved when fighting back.
This shows the pole of attraction that the unions can be when they take action. But in this period of capitalist crises, militant industrial struggle must be joined with a socialist political programme to face up to the scale of the challenges facing workers, both in the workplace and their communities.