Tens of thousands will take to the streets of London on Saturday 18 June as part of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) demonstration on the cost-of-living crisis; the first mass trade union demonstration for many years. Workers from across the country will be marching because they can’t afford to live.
The working class in Britain is facing the biggest fall in our living standards since 1956. But while many struggle to work out how they can afford to live, Chancellor Sunak has joined the ‘rich list’ of Britain’s richest few.
The TUC demo is an important start, but we need to it be the launch of a mass struggle to defend workers’ living standards. That means fighting for RPI inflation-proofed pay rises, a £15-an-hour minimum wage, nationalisation of the energy companies, and to get the Tories out!
P&O’s brutal illegal sacking of their workforce is a sign of how far the bosses will go to protect their profits. But the mighty seven-month all-out strike by Coventry bin workers, the various local strikes that have won victories on pay, and now the planned national rail strike, all show growing numbers of workers are fighting back: demonstrating that when you fight and strike you can win.
The divided Tory government, led by ‘one rule for you, another rule for me’ Boris, is on the ropes: 148 of his own MPs tried to boot him out! Clearly, replacing one Tory toff with another wouldn’t make much difference but the crisis in the Tory government shows just how weak they are. That should give the workers’ movement confidence that we can build a movement to kick them all out.
Right now the frontline is the national rail strike. Alongside a TFL tube strike on 21 June, it will show, on a scale not seen since the 24-hour public sector general strike on 30 November 2011, the power of workers’ collective action, and offer a glimpse of how workers keep society running.
To the horror of the ruling class, if the RMT can bring sections of society and the economy to a halt, it will show workers across the country, who are desperate to stop falling living standards, something of the huge potential power of the organised workers’ movement.
The whole workers’ movement needs to stand in solidarity with the RMT, and be prepared to fight any attempts to use existing anti-trade union laws or to bring in new ‘minimum service legislation’ against the strikes.
The rail action could also be a starting point to coordinate strike action. Workers already engaged in strikes and those balloting could aim to strike at the same time as rail workers. It could play an important role in raising further the need for workers across every industry and sector to organise and mobilise to strike together.
While local action and action by individual trade unions cannot be delayed, the trade union leaders should also begin to discuss how existing action could be built on to call a 24-hour general strike as a powerful show of strength, to raise workers’ confidence, and to terrify the Tories and the bosses.
If the TUC fails to step up, then those trade union leaders who are willing to fight should come together to mobilise for mass coordinated strike action. The CWU is balloting in Royal Mail and BT, and Unite is engaged in widespread strikes. With the RMT, they and others could form the basis of a ‘coalition of the willing’.
Many trade union leaders will refuse to even talk about building towards a 24-hour general strike because of the fear of what it would mean in Britain. The obstacle of the anti-trade union laws is also used to discount the possibility of generalised strike action.
These laws were already some of the most repressive in the advanced capitalist world – introduced by Tory governments and left intact by New Labour – even prior to the vicious legislation introduced by the Tories in 2016. Unfortunately, the trade union leaders did not organise serious opposition to the 2016 laws.
Lessons must be learnt. We need a mass campaign by the whole trade union movement against the further anti-union laws now being threatened in a desperate attempt to try and further hamper workers’ ability to take effective action.
Nor can we allow the existing laws to prevent effective action. Ballots and strike action can be coordinated even within the existing repressive laws, and disaggregated ballots can be used to maximise the number of workplaces that pass the legal thresholds. But, as the court ruling against the CWU showed in 2019, the courts are a tool that the bosses and the government can use to try and block action even when every legal hoop has been jumped through.
By contrast, the government is happy to stand aside when employers break the law: the Tories took no legal action against P&O!
We do not lightly support breaking the anti-union laws and thereby risking trade union funds, but the struggle – to earn enough of a wage in order to live – is too important to allow individual trade unions to fight alone.
In the next period coordinated action will play a vital role, even if it means confronting the anti-union laws. It’s why the Socialist Party fights to transform our trade unions into fighting democratic organisations that can fight tooth and nail in the interests of the working class.
In reality, even if just a few of those big unions took simultaneous strike action, refusing to accept the constraints of the anti-union laws, the government would be powerless to stop them and, in the process, the power of the anti-trade union laws to prevent struggle would be smashed.
While kicking out the Tories would be rightly cheered by millions, replacing them with a Blair 2.0 New Labour government would offer no solution. Starmer’s Labour is no alternative to the Tories; he hasn’t even come out in support of the RMT. And locally, Labour councillors continue to implement the cuts demanded by the Tories, willingly using ‘fire and rehire’.
Coventry Labour council has spent more than £3 million on an attempted strike-breaking operation against the Unite refuse workers’ strike, many times more than it would have cost to meet the workers’ demands.
Even if Starmer goes as a result of ‘beergate’, there is no chance it would reverse the Blairite consolidation of Labour as an out-and-out bosses’ party. We need a new mass workers’ party that stands up for us. Mélenchon’s left-wing coalition in France – currently neck and neck with Macron’s party in the elections – is an indication of the potential support for a new party.
In the last year the bakers’ union BFAWU voted to disaffiliate from the Labour Party, while in other unions – like the CWU, TSSA, Aslef and FBU – debates have been reignited on Labour affiliation. Unite general secretary Sharon Graham has made important statements challenging Labour councils’ abusive treatment of their workforces organised in Unite, and taken concrete steps to challenge that, including withdrawing all support and funding in the Midlands.
Those trade union leaders prepared to make a stand against Starmer’s Labour should urgently convene a conference of all trade unionists who want to discuss the building of a new party. The Socialist Party believes this should provide the foundation for trade unionists to stand as widely as possible in future elections on a socialist, anti-austerity programme.
In the meantime, the Socialist Party campaigns for steps in that direction as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), alongside the RMT and other trade unionists. With working-class people facing impending recession and plummeting living standards, there is no time to wait. There is the potential for thousands of trade unionist and anti-austerity fighters standing in the local elections next May and in the next general election, reflecting the rising anger of the working class and taking its increasing trade union militancy to the struggle at the ballot box.