P&O London protest 21 March photo Isai Priya
P&O London protest 21 March photo Isai Priya

Rob Williams, Socialist Party national industrial organiser

On Saturday 18 June, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has organised a national march and rally in London.

Under the slogan ‘we demand better’, the TUC leaflet declares that “working people have had enough. Everything is going up but our wages. Ministers partied while people died. Now they do nothing while living standards plummet and P&O lays off hundreds of workers on the spot. It is time for a new deal for working people, real help with energy bills and a pay rise.”

While the demonstration’s demands are too limited, it has nonetheless been called over the issues that are to the forefront of all working-class people’s minds. If the turnout was dependent on the anger of workers, it would be massive and on the scale of the TUC demonstration in March 2011 against the Tory-Lib Dem cuts offensive.

Today it is even clearer that the Tories don’t have any solutions, and that action is needed to address the cost-of-living crisis. Rishi Sunak’s entry into the Times Rich List could also be a spur.

The Socialist Party will fight for the maximum possible turnout, and for the demonstration to be the springboard for coordinated strike action against inflation austerity.

However, the leaders of the TUC have been slow off the mark. The demonstration was called belatedly and many trade union activists have been concerned that it was organised as a tick-box exercise after the TUC called off a demonstration in Blackpool earlier this year outside the Tory party spring conference.

And it is clear that many trade union leaders have no idea how to mobilise for a mass demonstration. For instance, Unison recently posted on its website: ‘TUC demo: Seven bonus reasons to enjoy a day out in London’, which sought to attract members on the march through sightseeing and even finding romance!

It is this paradox that is the biggest challenge facing union activists, and this is related to the crisis of leadership in the unions, which has been particularly exposed by the Covid pandemic. Nonetheless, despite the obstacles at the top, the huge anger of workers could find an expression on the streets of London on 18 June.

Covid totally disorientated the bulk of union leaderships. They succumbed to the pressure of national unity, as the media and the capitalist establishment attempted to repeat the claim of Tory Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010-11 as he unloaded brutal austerity, that “we are all in this together.” It was a fallacy then as well as now.

But in the first few months of the pandemic, the union movement effectively shut down. Most official disputes were suspended or called off. Many union offices were closed and national executives barely met. The pandemic exposed that many union leaders had lost confidence over the last decade of onslaughts by the bosses and their Tory governments.

However, unions were never more relevant or necessary. In what was literally the fight of our lives, a layer of workers took unofficial action to ensure that they and their workplaces were safe.

The national unity consensus was broken after a few months – by the employers. They sensed that the deep economic contraction, with many workers furloughed, had put them in a strong position to go on the attack. Their weapon of choice was the imposition of worse pay and conditions through ‘fire and rehire’. Disgracefully, in the summer of 2020, alongside British Gas and British Airways was the cutting Labour council of Tower Hamlets in east London.

This vicious offensive, which saw workers such as those in British Gas lose over £10,000 a year, provoked a series of brave strikes. Even right-wing union leaders were forced to sanction action. Many of them were of a far more intensive character than has been seen in the recent past. Instead of isolated one-day stoppages, many of the strikes were escalated, some indefinite.

As the lockdown was lifted and the economy recovered, the confidence of workers in some sectors was restored, as the immediate threat of losing their jobs receded. Indeed, the shortages of labour and of skilled workers, such as HGV drivers, tilted the balance of forces back in favour of some workers.

This has been the basis for offensive strikes to recover lost wages, in particular for lorry drivers. That had a knock-on effect on bus and refuse workers, where a layer of drivers had left to take higher-paid jobs in haulage.

There has been a series of disputes on the buses, from South Wales to south London, and on the bins, from Sheffield to Eastbourne and Worthing. In these misnamed ‘soft south’ areas, the class and income polarisation is perhaps felt more than most.

An explosive situation can open up. Two weeks ago, binworkers in Welwyn Garden City walked off the job against bullying management and won a victory.

Perhaps the most prominent bin strike, and certainly against the most vicious employer, is that by drivers in Coventry. The Labour council has used brutal strike-breaking methods that the most hardline private sector boss would be proud of. It has spent over £3 million trying to smash the strike and the workers’ union Unite. But it has been met by determined well-led resistance by Unite and its members, who have understood the need to fight on both the industrial and political planes. This is a lesson that will be learnt by many workers during this period.

Coventry bin workers protest the suspension of rep Pete Randle. Photo Coventry Socialist Party
Coventry bin workers protest the suspension of rep Pete Randle. Photo Coventry Socialist Party

Spiralling costs

Spiralling inflation, especially with the catastrophic spike in energy prices, has added a powerful impetus to the predominately private sector strike wave that has developed over the last year. In January 2021, RPI inflation was 1.4% but it is now running at 11.1%. Gas and electricity have gone up at least 100% with more to come, forcing the Tories to consider a windfall tax of the energy companies. It has been estimated that already this year, workers’ incomes have been reduced on average by 12.5%, and this is on the back of a decade of pay cuts and freezes.

This has opened up a new stage in the struggle. The brutal sackings of P&O workers are a reminder that the bosses will be prepared to adopt vicious methods to protect their profits. As the economy shows signs of slowing into ‘stagflation’, job losses and even closures can again come onto the agenda.

The most militant industrial measures will be needed. On top of all-out strikes, the idea of workers occupying threatened workplaces can grow, along with demands that plants and companies be nationalised to defend jobs and save communities. It is also essential that unions raise the demand of re-nationalisation of the energy and utilities companies to answer the claims by the private profiteers that they have no option but to raise prices.

However, the experience of ScotRail underlines that this cannot be nationalisation with the same bosses and the same underfunding: the demand must be for nationalisation under democratic workers’ control and management.

Raging inflation also raises the need for coordinated action in the public sector. The TUC demo in 2011 was called against the austerity budget of the Tory-led coalition of Cameron, Osborne and Clegg. It was the platform for action to defend public sector pensions in June, and then the mammoth N30 strike of November that year. Two million public sector workers in 29 unions walked out together, in what was effectively a public sector general strike. There were demonstrations, rallies and protests in towns and cities nationally.

These should have been continued and escalated into early 2012. There was the potential to inflict a serious, possibly terminal, defeat on the ConDem government. But the right-wing leaders of the TUC, Unison and the GMB moved to accept a rotten deal and de-escalate the struggle. The effect was to embolden Cameron to roll out his brutal austerity programme.

Some of the left unions did attempt to salvage the pensions fight. In January 2012, at short notice, PCS Left Unity, with Socialist Party members and the National Shop Stewards Network playing a key role, organised a rank-and-file conference of over 500 union reps and activists. While not being able to resurrect action on the scale of N30, it did lead to the last pensions strike in May 2012.

This was joined by a national walkout of prison officers in the POA, who were forced to take unofficial action after being denied the right to strike. In addition, that day, 35,000 serving police also marched through central London in protest against Tory cuts. The Tories were warned of the current mood of the police when delegates to last week’s Police Federation conference attacked Home Secretary Priti Patel over pay, claiming that some police officers were using food banks.

This is a far cry from the position that the PCS leadership is now playing. Infamously, at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka produced a video where he announced that the union was “parking” the full national pay claim.

This was a week before the PCS NEC had met! This rivalled the craven partnership of soon-to-be-departed TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, when she stood alongside the head of the CBI bosses’ federation and Tory Chancellor Sunak, when the government planned to water down furlough.

This inaction has been reflected across most of the public sector during the last two years. But there would be huge potential to build a strike on the scale of N30 on the issue of pay, bringing in individual union issues, such as fighting the 91,000 jobs slaughter in the civil service, or teachers’ workload. There should be an urgent meeting of the public sector unions to coordinate RPI inflation-proofed pay claims and strike ballots.

One of the important but positive differences between now and 2011 is that then, the public sector pensions strike took place in a relatively quiet period as far as strikes in the private and other sectors were concerned. This opened up the opportunity for the Tories to try and play off workers in the private sector from those in the public sector, who they and their allies in the media dishonestly claimed enjoyed ‘gold-plated’ pensions.

Strike wave

This time, the strike wave that has developed has to date been largely in the private sector. There are national strike ballots taking place or impending on the railways, Royal Mail and British Telecom.

Tory transport minister Grant Shapps has threatened to ban rail strikes unless a certain number of staff still work. These proposals were first raised by Boris Johnson in 2019. Any such attempts must be met by a far greater fight by the trade union movement than happened against the Tory 2016 legislation that brought in undemocratic thresholds, when not one national demonstration was called. 

The potential exists for a rising tide of strike action in a similar fashion to the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1978-79. Following strike action at Ford, waves of low-paid public sector workers went on strike to break the right-wing Labour government’s pay restraint, in another period of high inflation.

Today, a 24-hour mass coordinated stoppage, effectively of a general strike character, would totally transform the situation. It would give huge confidence to workers, and act as a pole of attraction to the many young workers in workplaces not organised by the unions. It would put huge pressure on Johnson and the Tories, with the potential to drive them from power.

That would pose what political alternative is needed by workers, as Blairite Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer continues to move Labour back to the right, post-Corbyn.

In early 2021, Starmer opposed teachers resorting to strike action to prevent the Tories’ unsafe early full return of schools. At the end of May, Blairite shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves refused five times to say whether she would support strikes on pay in an interview with Andrew Marr on LBC.

This is reminiscent of 2011, when the then Labour leader Ed Miliband, now in Starmer’s shadow cabinet, refused to support public sector workers taking strike action in defence of their pensions.

In response to the brutal tactics of Coventry Labour councillors in the bin strike, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham suspended councillors who were members from the union. This was the first action taken by a Labour-affiliated union against cutting councillors for passing on Tory cuts. Over the last decade, it has been the councillors who refused to vote for cuts who were disciplined by New Labour.

Unite is firmly on the front foot industrially under Sharon Graham’s leadership. And this is married to its new position, agreed at last autumn’s policy conference, of calling on Labour councils to refuse to pass on Tory cuts, and instead implement no-cuts ‘needs’ budgets. 

Last autumn, the BFAWU bakers’ union disaffiliated from Starmer’s Labour in response to the party’s pro-business trajectory, after its national president Ian Hodson was expelled. In the last few weeks, the Fire Brigades Union and Aslef have had disaffiliation motions tabled at their conferences, while some CWU delegates wanted the cutting role of Labour councillors debated.

This debate will continue in the union movement as the crisis heightens, forcing workers to look for a political alternative to brutal capitalism. A growing layer can be drawn to a socialist programme. But a mass political vehicle is needed, based on the organised working class. Covid triggered a speeding up of events. We have seen distinct periods follow on top of each other, caused by the worsening economy. The working class is being forced into action to protect its living standards. Unite and the RMT have been to the fore, but most unions have been pushed into action. These clashes pose the vital need for militant unions and a political alternative that can fight for a future for workers.

March with the socialists 18 June!

The Socialist Party will be joining thousands of trade unionists and workers marching against the cost-of-living crisis on 18 June in London, join us!

  • Saturday 18 June
  • Assemble from 10.30am at Portland Place near Oxford Street, London
  • March departs 12pm
  • Rally 1pm at Parliament Square
  • Visit tuc.org.uk/DemandBetter to book transport from your area