In this piece, developed from discussions we held in November, we hope to contribute to the conversation around the current strike wave. We start with a few points that we think will help us understand the recent upsurge in strikes and inform our ongoing support for them. For more background on the current moment please have a look at this article.
- The crisis post-‘mini-budget,’ including the dressing down by the IMF and the recent Bank of England interest rate hikes against ‘inflationary expectations’, give the current strikes a particular political context. Finding itself in an internationally weak position, the UK government reacts to these structural pressures by turning the heat up on the claims of the local working class, to placate the markets and international regulators.
- In addition to this general context, there is the political need to defeat particular strikes, as they are either significant reference points for the wider class and/or bulwarks against restructuring. We refer here primarily to the current rail and postal strikes. This also explains the government’s effort to split the NHS strike off from these two larger disputes, by placating the nurses’ union, RCN, with token, ‘one-off’ handouts.
- The strikes also happen within a certain political vacuum as the Labour Party has distanced itself from, and even attacked, the strikes several times. This actually opens some potential space for a refoundation of working class politics. Instead, campaign initiatives like ‘Enough is Enough’ remain expressions of a ‘Labour without Labour’ politics of a symbolic platform of demands. While wider social issues, such as increasing energy or housing prices, surface organically in the current strikes, the trade unions tend to isolate them from the power and collectivity of workplaces, as ‘political’ strikes are accepted to be illegal. On the other hand, campaigns such as ‘Don’t Pay’ remain toothless without the power of workers as workers.
- The political context of the strikes and the government’s structural constraints express themselves in the form of tightening laws against strikes, e.g. allowing the use of agency workers or imposing minimum service levels. The necessity to impose a working class legality against bourgeois law becomes a pragmatic consideration of the strikes, a practical necessity to win a dispute. While some union officials speak about the need to ‘break the law’, the union as an institution then recoils. It’s our task to understand the realistic impact and limits of these laws (e.g. the unavailability of agency workers) and consider how practically they might be overcome.
- Similarly the fact that more and more union officials talk about the need for ‘coordinated action’ shows the bureaucracies’ awareness that the strikes themselves require cross-sectoral solidarity as a practical necessity. Decent and lasting victories will not come without it. In practice though, unions too often undermine this, e.g. the CWU ‘settles’ a dispute at BT, while their members at Royal Mail are still fighting an uphill battle; or Unison recommends to accept the NHS pay offer while the RCN tries to organise industrial action for more pay. On a larger scale, the recent dock workers strikes and other disputes in structurally strong areas were not used to support workers in weaker sectors.
- Perhaps similar to the ‘Striketober’ in the US, we see an increase of strikes in the private sector and a generation of workers who have never been on strike before, primarily the thousands of NHS workers during the recent two days of strike. Together with the various pragmatic questions that the strikes themselves throw up – the question of the relation of ‘social issues’ vs. workplace issues, the challenge of the bourgeois strike laws and the need for an organic coordination of strikes – the fact that new workers are involved might also allow for new dynamics to emerge. However, this would mean countering the union’s tight grip on how struggles are conducted and decisions made (not easy!), in order that they keep within the legal constraints.
- In quantitative terms there haven’t been so many strikes happening simultaneously since the late 1980s. This seems politically more important than the fact that more hours were lost due to a few large industrial disputes in 2011 compared to the current strikes. While we see an increase of strike activity in the so-called private sector, which is a new development, these strikes often happen in formally public companies that underwent privatisation, such as the postal service or rail companies. There is a significant regional concentration of strikes, meaning, the divisions in terms of regional development have not been overcome yet. Overall, most disputes settle with wage agreements below the inflation rate, which is an indicator for the current balance of power and effectiveness of the strikes.
- Last, but not least, the strike wave asks the question of our own role, as working class militants who want a fundamental social change towards a classless society. Often, left organisations just want to cheerlead the strikes and call for ‘expansion’, without enough focus on the internal issues and problems of the strikes and without discussing a strategy of generalisation and of actual effectiveness of industrial action. They use the strikes primarily as sounding boards and recruitment grounds and don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, first and foremost on the toes of union officials. There is a distinct lack of forums in which workers can self-critically reflect on their own strikes. Apart from immediate practical support, helping to create these spaces should be our prime task at the moment.
The ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines,’ the ‘key workers’ and ‘backbones’ of our communities, are rapidly transforming into reckless and greedy stooges of Putin. Government officials and CEOs adorn our airways, portraying yesterday’s Covid saviours as selfish and unreasonable, as the manipulated fodder of militant union barons. Reality is more sober and straightforward. Official inflation sits at 10.7%, is likely nearer to 15% and we’re predicted similar for the rest of 2023. Unless this is compensated for by government handouts or an uplift in the pay packet, living standards will continue to fall. As long as retailers stubbornly refuse to accept applause as legal tender, bills will mount up and workers will need to find ways of paying them.
Many workers are responding by individually looking elsewhere. Approximately 3.1% of people employed in the UK moved from one job to another in the third quarter of 2022. Since the UK emerged from lockdowns in 2022, this job-to-job move rate has stayed relatively high. The last time the rate was above 3% was in 2004. This ‘job hopping’ will provide opportunities for a few, but, overall, living standards will continue to stagnate and decline and the social problems attached will increase, until collective responses expand and coalesce.
And there certainly appears to be an expansion going on. The current strike wave has grown out of defensive struggles waged in 2020-21 against fire-and-rehire measures and other efforts at restructuring imposed during the pandemic. Although headline inflation figures have been growing consistently since early 2021, a massive increase in energy bills in April 2022 politicised the issue on a new level and wage disputes overtook struggles over contractual terms and conditions. Despite the growing background of industrial conflict for two years already, including at some relatively big workplaces (e.g. British Gas), the RMT rail strike in June 2022 was the first to really break through to public consciousness on a national level. Millions of people travel by train each day in the UK (it’s the most common way to commute other than driving) so unlike previous strikes in warehouses or universities, the dispute on the railways posed the question of wage struggles and their legitimacy to the public at large. Even with the context of pandemic sacrifices and generalised inflation, the level of public support for the strike surpassed most expectations and inspired many other workers to have a go for themselves.
In terms of overall days lost to strike action in a single month, October 2022 marked the highest (417,000) of any month since the November 2011 public sector strikes (997,000). Barring that exception, there have been more days lost in the last five months (1,161,000 from June to October) than any whole year in the last two decades. And some economists are predicting that December 2022 had as many as 1.5 million days lost to strike action. Numbers not seen, for a single month, since Thatcher. October 2022 also saw 124 “stoppages in progress” (basically the number of strikes happening at the same time), the highest figures since February 1988. This means that even if the overall numbers of days lost are lower than the 2011 strikes, the total number of concurrent disputes is significantly higher, indicating a higher general level of combativity and making the ‘hot strike summer’ more of a genuine strike wave than anything since the end of the 1980s.
These figures are still historically very low when compared to the period between 1950 and 1990. But judging by the long lists of announced strike dates and ballots in progress, things don’t seem to be cooling down much over the winter. There are now a number of high profile national disputes that have a mandate to strike, following the votes across Higher Education and Nursing workers. RMT (Rail workers), ASLEF (Train drivers), GMB, Unison and Unite (Ambulances), CWU (Post), UCU (Higher and Further Education) and RCN (Nurses) and PCS (Border Force and Security). Plus hundreds of thousands of education workers, fire fighters, junior doctors, local government and bus drivers are being balloted. And December was chock full of strike dates. Since official strike ballots in the UK must meet a legal threshold of at least 50% of votes in favour of action, on a turnout of at least 50% of eligible workers (in “important public services” these thresholds are stricter), these are disputes which must be backed by a significant part of their respective workforces.
For the last 25 years, strikes in the UK have been driven almost exclusively by the public sector, so something else that gives the current wave a qualitatively different aspect is that it has seen a significant increase in private sector participation. 
The apparent dramatic shift in private sector participation is largely due to the RMT and CWU strikes in rail, Royal Mail and BT; companies that used to belong to the public sector. However, the rise in private sector disputes is not solely down to this public-private ‘reclassification’ (we await more data to show which private companies are engaging in disputes). The last year or so has seen a string of significant disputes on the docks, in aviation, energy, retail, transport, manufacturing, logistics, waste management, and adult social care. In terms of the broader economic impact of the strikes, the return of the dockers is particularly significant. The Port of Felixstowe, which struck in August and September for the first time in 30 years, handles around half of the UK’s container freight and the first eight days of strike action was estimated to disrupt around $800 million of trade.
The struggle that private and public sector workers (often played off against each other) are now engaged in, could provide opportunities to break through some false barriers, share experiences and build solidarity. Compounded with the sheer amount of workers on strike for the first time, these tendencies could give rise to profound changes in the form and make up of ongoing and future struggles.
Ebbs and Flows – Regional Concentrations
Turning to the regional concentration of the strikes, using data available from June and July 2022, London stands out as having the highest overall number of days lost, stoppages, and workers involved, followed by relatively high numbers in the North West, Scotland, and the South East. Both the North West and Northern Ireland have extremely high numbers of days lost in relation to the numbers of workers involved, suggesting very long or frequent strikes by a relatively militant core of workers. Scotland also has a relatively high number of days lost relative to the workers involved, but this is paired with the second highest number of stoppages in the country, which again could suggest either this is a small number of workers maintaining long or repeated strikes, or that these strikes are dispersed through lots of relatively small workplaces.
In terms of absolute figures, Wales appears to be by far the least combative overall region, followed by the East Midlands and the North East. Perhaps surprisingly, given the connotations of more militant northerners, the 4 southern regions of England had 40% more workers involved in strikes and 22% more stoppages than the 5 midland and northern regions. This is despite only around 13% difference in population sizes. Another example of the north-south divide? Regionally there appears a general correlation between strike activity and higher income and productivity. While the north and Wales have high productivity areas, they tend to have poor income to productivity ratios, unlike the south where the opposite is found. They also, however, tend to have a higher proportion of the population employed in the public sector, which makes the disparities in strike activity more pronounced, as, at the time (June and July 2022), public sector strikes still outnumbered the private. This trend has now reversed. As more data comes out, it may reveal a further widening in the gap of the figures above.
Deindustrialisation and redirection of public money has hit many parts of the UK hard and lead to significant uneven development as investment has shifted south, especially the south east. Workers will need to consciously make the effort to make sure these divisions don’t hinder our chances of solidarity. Situations like the opening of a Cumbrian coal mine will need to be handled with care. The servants of fossil fuel industry will exploit these divisions to depict those attempting to stop the project as “southern” perpetuators of the north-south divide.
Calmer Seas – Official union actions so far
Generally speaking, while there has been a huge increase in the number of workers participating in industrial action, the quality of the disputes has remained pretty ‘mild.’ This isn’t surprising when unions are generally tied to the laws whose sole purpose is to limit the effectiveness of strikes and keep workers separated. The experience many of us have had of unions – that have no visible, collective strength in our day to day work lives and then suddenly pop up and tell us to vote in a ballot – is not conducive to workers’ power and contributes to a general lack of interest and trust in the unions. We have hit brick walls when we’ve tried to do even basic worker-led actions because of risk-averse, beaten down, corrupted and/or careerist local reps and officials. Challenging this malaise is difficult because so many of us participating in strikes are inexperienced, and/or getting embroiled in the union’s risk-averse decision-making structures is often a demoralising exercise. Knowledge passed down, from dirty fights and unorthodox actions of the past, is in short supply. This is one of our many challenges. To communicate and share the honest and important details of the struggles that won, and the reasons for those that failed.
There are debates within the long-running disputes around the best ways to continue or escalate. The realisation that one- or two-day strikes here and there won’t be enough is spreading. Especially if the governors start smelling blood. Bosses will be eagerly watching the turnouts and results of ballots, hoping to discern a drop in support for continuing action. The settlement of the disputes, likewise, gives some indication of the balance of forces. With some notable exceptions (up to 20-25% for some disputes, normally involving HGV drivers) the strikes are tending to settle somewhere below the rate of inflation; often a much better deal than whatever would have been imposed without the strike, but still ultimately a real terms pay cut.
In the nurses and ambulance strikes, unions and management have agreed minimum service cover during strikes (derogation). This is supposed to provide the minimum cover required for the most urgent and critical of care. Because staffing levels in the NHS are so poor in general, in some locations these derogation agreements have led to the ridiculous situation in which the level of staffing on a strike day has been the same, if not better, than usual.
If workers wish to continue to maintain patient care when on strike, they’ll have to be creative when it comes to forming an effective strike strategy. There will be ways of hurting the Trusts without risking patients. Workers are best placed to figure this puzzle out. There have been examples to draw upon from the recent past, of health workers coming up with tactics (paperwork bans, road blockades of key infrastructure etc.) that have resulted in significant victories. The Trusts aren’t being shy in deploying their own methods to undermine the strikes e.g. by offering handsome rates for overtime and bank shifts during the strikes.
Within the RMT rail dispute, when members were first consulted about strategy for their upcoming strikes, many highlighted Saturdays as the most fruitful day for strikes as, in our post pandemic world, passenger numbers are highest then. Head office didn’t initially take heed of this and scheduled midweek strikes. The government is paying the losses in passenger fares to the companies anyway at the moment. There are also discussions around freight and how this could be a leverage point, as companies move signallers in order to guarantee smoother freight transport during strike days. Royal Mail workers and Higher Education workers with the UCU were seriously considering long or indefinite strikes as a way to break the stalemates. Again, fundraising, community kitchens and other forms of mutual aid would be vital to making this happen. Indefinite strikes have been relatively uncommon during the strikes but have secured some of the better outcomes where they have been applied (e.g. 20% pay rise with 15% backdated for West Midlands Metro workers, 14.3-18.5% pay rise for Liverpool Dockers, 15% fee increase for barristers).
But CWU have not announced any more strike days in January 2023 because of a ‘change in tone’ in negotiations with Royal Mail, and the UCU general secretary’s strategy (continuing as before, random one or two day strikes + media) won in a vote by 57%, but only because the most popular option (discontinuous indefinite strike) was excluded from the voting options, so the majority of branches abstained. The general secretary and her faction (UCU Commons) have blatantly manipulated this process at every step of the way and people are really angry. It looks like she managed to technically win this one vote, but at massive cost to the bureaucracy’s credibility. The main question is what the membership and higher education workers in general do next.
Another element, often cited as a determining factor when looking at bargaining power, is immigration. Net migration is apparently at record levels (504,000). Yet labour shortages in many sectors still persist, meaning, hopefully, that our bargaining power in those sectors will be around a little longer. It appears a large part of that migration has been students not intending to work in the UK. Non-EU members make up the majority of recent migrants with some coming under a NHS and social care recruitment drive. Refugees/workers from Hong Kong, Ukraine and Afghanistan make up another large chunk of the numbers. Many of these migrants are employed in ‘low skilled’ work as their English isn’t sufficient or their qualifications aren’t valid. All this adds up to the net figure being deceptive when it comes to understanding its effect on the labour market and why business leaders are still decrying the restrictions on growth being caused by labour shortages.
Choppier Waters – Wildcat strikes and unofficial actions
The rash of workers’ unofficial strikes (wildcat actions) that took place over the last 6 months has been great to see. The wildcat strikes that we’re aware of seem to have been heavily concentrated in the energy sector and its supply chain. Oil rig workers in particular organised impressive walkouts, that the unions were forced to distance themselves from, in which they refused to come back until demands for higher pay were met. One exception from the energy sector were the unofficial walkouts of Amazon workers after an insulting pay offer, which quickly spread across different parts of the country. The online footage of Amazon workers refusing to get out of depots and sitting around discussing their dispute is encouraging. With luck, connections will have been made outside the depots and fulfilment centres during the upheaval. GMB union officials showed some support on social media for the actions and union activists on the ground had involvement in walkouts. A depot in Coventry has now become the first UK site to successfully vote to strike in an official ballot and will likely strike in January – although this is against the backdrop of Amazon’s recent announcement to close three bigger warehouses, threatening 1,200 jobs.
In general, the wildcat actions this year have tended to reflect one of two tendencies. The first has been that of strikes developing from a position of exceptional strength or confidence, and has tended to characterise actions in the energy sector. Workers on the offshore oil and gas platforms, for example, are highly skilled and experienced and have become effectively irreplaceable due to the labour shortages and energy crisis. At the same time, these workers spend weeks together living on the platforms and have a density of relationships that is conducive to independent organisation. The second tendency is of spontaneous actions breaking out in un-unionised workplaces, as workers are pushed beyond their limits and snap, as we saw at Amazon and Cranswick Foods.
Other recent unofficial actions include the Southampton dockers refusal to unload shipments in support of the dockers dispute in Liverpool and the Rotterdam port workers that refused to load P&O ships after the mass sacking of the UK workforce. There have been a few examples of cross union pickets and reports of slow-walking scabbing buses by RMT rail workers in support of striking bus drivers in south London, which have been brilliant. Although it did receive union endorsement, the Regina Coeli House occupation in Belfast is also worth mentioning here. Hostel staff occupied the centre, Northern Ireland’s only non-mixed hostel providing services for domestic violence survivors, after its closure was announced by the management board. The workers maintained the occupation alongside residents from December 2021 to March 2022, at which point they surrendered the building in exchange for the promise a new centre would be opened in May (as of January 2023, it’s still yet to appear). Although their union (Unite) did support the occupation, the level of dedication and commitment shown by the workers, to the extent that they were prepared to completely transform their day-to-day lives for the 11 weeks of occupation, place it alongside the wildcat actions as something on another level qualitatively from most other disputes in the last year.
As far as independent rank-and-file organisation goes, the only public-facing body that we’re aware of emerging from the current wave is the Offshore Oil and Gas Workers Strike Committee. Otherwise workers have relied on more private means, such as Facebook groups for Amazon workers or a kind of Whatsapp strike assembly used by care workers in the north west of England. Although the Offshore Oil and Gas Workers Strike Committee was the only network to issue public appeals, its demands remained basically limited to the horizon of their own dispute. Sex worker collectives have launched a much more unifying, class-based platform, Hookers Against Hardship (“Our demands are not just for sex workers, but the entire working class”), but as long as their demands remain isolated, their marginalised position in the social division of labour limits them mainly to lobbying and mutual aid.
Crest of the Wave – Union leadership and the law
Union leaders like Mick Lynch have gained a certain amount of credibility and praise since the beginning of the disputes. This is mainly due to strong media performances that have quite rightly made them household names. But there are also signs that this has encouraged passivity within the rank and file, as the leaders’ new prestige and apparent militancy inspires trust and respect, and places them beyond the scope of some of the usual suspicions. With confidence low, we are tempted to defer responsibility for tactics and strategy to the “people in charge.” Building our confidence to be able to take control of our disputes and not rely on the leaders and bureaucracies to handle our business will be crucial.
This credibility does seem to have been tested recently, though, at least in the CWU and RMT, with concessions to employers in negotiations provoking angry responses from members – although it’s difficult to judge how generalised this sentiment is and there’s been no sign of rank and file initiatives in response. An administrative error by the CWU (where they didn’t have the correct grading of striking workers), which led to strike dates being cancelled, also elicited a fair bit of outrage online.
It’s probably a clear indication of the current state of play that significant escalations by employers and the state have not been met with proportionate responses. The mass suspension of CWU and RMT reps during the strikes, moves which in the past would have been answered by spontaneous walk-outs, have this time gone largely unanswered. Among employers the Royal Mail has been particularly confrontational, suspending reps for alleged and unsubstantiated contraventions of rules and law, threatening 10,000 redundancies, further attacks on conditions and the de-recognition of the CWU in response to the strikes. The government meanwhile is pushing forward with new labour laws. In July 2022 the government eased restrictions on the use of agency workers to scab on strikes, and they now appear to be pushing forward with long-trumpeted ‘minimum service requirements’ that would significantly undermine the immediate impact of strikes in many key sectors. Under the given conditions it’s not completely irrational that unions and their members are reluctant to meet this escalation with their own. Workers are understandably cautious about becoming overexposed, and there’s a risk that by responding to blatant provocations (such as the suspension of reps) from a position of weakness, workers could open themselves to potentially fatal counter offensives. At the same time, the failure to respond also carries its own risks for the survival of the disputes, and as satisfying as it has been to watch the likes of Mick Lynch and Dave Ward twist up journos like pretzels and slag off upper management, this is no substitute for a militant workforce determined to see the struggle through to the end.
Even with the government obviously keen to legislate its way out of difficulty, employers – with a pack already stacked heavily in their favour – are still willing to openly break the law and gloat about the profits (e.g. illegal mass sackings at P&O ferries). We’ve recently had a government that was found guilty of proroguing parliament, of ignoring EU law, and so on, and all with relatively little damage done. They politicised the matter and painted those fighting against their efforts, including judges, as “enemies of the people.” It’s not automatically true that people won’t support actions that are technically illegal. Beyond moral concerns, we should confront the issue of the law as a pragmatic one. Workers might feel more confident to disregard the law if they knew how many people took illegal action and got away with it. As far as we’re aware very few of the wildcat strikers from the current wave have faced significant consequences, nor have we heard of any from the Southampton solidarity action. On the other hand, five of the workers involved in the Regina Coeli House occupation were sacked two days before they became entitled to redundancy pay. History of course is full of examples. These are practical questions that it should be possible to assess, but it has to be on a foundation of actual facts.
The law change that allows agency workers to be brought in to cover strikers won’t affect many workplaces a great deal, as the skills necessary for many roles can’t be provided adequately by agency workers. Likewise it’s unclear how the minimum service requirements would work in practice given that chronic understaffing has often been a massive factor motivating the strikes, particularly in transport, education and healthcare. Even if collaboration between unions and managers secured higher than usual staffing levels on NHS wards during the current dispute, this was for one or two exceptional days. It’s not at all clear where the additional workers would come from during longer strikes under the proposed new laws. With all of that said, workplaces which are more vulnerable to the introduction of agency workers will obviously need to assess new tactics and strategies. If agency workers or minimum service requirements make 1 or 2 day strikes largely ineffective, the only option would then be for longer strikes and groundwork will need to be laid in order to prepare for them. The lure of unofficial action obviously also becomes much greater as other options decrease.
The government have also been talking tough about 2,000 military personnel, civil servants and other volunteers from across government training as part of its contingency planning operations. We’ll no doubt soon be expected to applaud the “brave strike breakers” every Thursday evening from now on, even as the military itself expresses frustration at being brought in and used against the strikes. During the recent PCS Border Force strikes over the Christmas period armed services personnel were drafted in to scab on the strike and mitigate the disruption. In the face of this PCS General Secretary Mark Sewotka came out and threatened to sue the government, as scabs brought in “had no authority to stop and check people suspected of criminal activity.” From the union’s perspective, approaching the fight from a legal and national security standpoint might be understandable if your particular strike is being made ineffective, but workers will need to look more broadly and reflect on whether this approach is actually going to achieve anything at all or if it will do more harm than good. Legal cases can take agency and control away from workers and place it in the hands of lawyers and bureaucrats, and stoking fears around foreign criminals entering the country doesn’t encourage the kind of conversations that workforce needs to have regarding its role in maintaining inhumane border regimes.
So far, the TUC have only announced a symbolic ‘day of action’ on the 1st of February in response to the Tory’s tightening of the strike laws.
Riding the wave – Strategy and Unity
We don’t do our struggles any favours when we don’t have stringent protocols about when and how we will offer to postpone, suspend or end a strike. Often fear of ‘public opinion’ or at best ‘winning the PR war’ are the justifications for holding up strikes. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) offering to call off the strike on the 15th December in return for talks, with no assurances that demands will be met, is another sign of a recurring and confused orientation. It was no doubt, unfortunately, to a certain degree, a genuine offer, but was also part of an obvious PR ploy that worked really well. Pearl clutching BBC journalists get the chance to grill ministers about their unwillingness to talk with the nurses. But then what? The move is typical of the current focus of mainstream unions. The persistent worry about winning in the court of public opinion is symptomatic of the unions’ weakness and hesitancy. We saw this during the pandemic, when flashy media campaigns (‘British Airways betrays Britain’) that no major broadcasters covered, were preferred to shop-floor organisation in aviation, leading to a bonfire of jobs and conditions. Called off strike actions in the British Gas dispute for promises of talks with no improved offers so as not to appear bolshy to the media, were cited as key moments leading to defeat.
The only ones appearing to learn the lessons from the past are the bosses. The government’s open refusal of talks is based on power. Workers need to identify where our power lies and develop it. Our power isn’t in winning over the opinion of some middle-class know-nothing journalists. It’s in our own self-organisation and independence. Health workers could have a similar but inverted position to the government: “We don’t care what the media thinks, because we’ve got publications speaking to working class people everywhere. Our members on the ground have worked out the strategy and are ready to execute it and until our demands are met, expect more of the same.”
Another major issue impacting the strikes is for rivalries between unions to get in the way of unity in struggles. In the current disputes this has most commonly shown up as unions in the same sector taking disjointed or minimally coordinated action, such as the RMT, ASLEF or TSSA on the rails, or the total chaos of contradictory union strategies in the NHS. Another side of this problem, though, is the potential for conflicts between the immediate interests of workers to lead unions into open confrontation. The CWU attacked Unite earlier this year for the latter union’s apparent complicity in special deals their members (managers at Royal Mail) received to undermine the postal strike. And that’s to say nothing of industrial disputes within the trade unions’ own workforces, such as in the GMB or UVW this autumn, or even unions selling out competitors through backroom partnership deals, such as GMB’s now infamous recognition deal with Deliveroo. Even within a single union, the potential for mass strikes has been disintegrated through below-inflation deals, breaking up large blocs of workers and leaving those remaining to fight on alone (e.g. the RMT accepting deals in Scotland and Wales and thereby isolating rail workers in England, or the CWU splitting off BT from Royal Mail). On this last point though, it should also be said that it would be too easy just to blame this problem on the union bureaucracy. The members themselves voted to accept these deals.
Official Combines remain relatively inactive while their fellow workers are attacked, as in the case of the Rolls Royce dispute at Barnoldswick. Again, during the pandemic, British Airways Cargo workers settled their dispute with most demands met, leaving other BA and HAL workers unable to share in the increased and exclusive leverage that cargo workers at the airport enjoyed at the time. We can imagine industry, union, workplace wide committees and combines that are prepared to practically support workers under their banner and beyond, but given the state we’re in legally in the UK and much of the rest of the world, our experiences tell us that unions will be reluctant to participate in much beyond symbolic gestures, thus these committees will need to be independent of them.
Beyond the unions, we obviously also need to encourage the development of a wide range of initiatives to support the strikes, connect them with one another, and engage with broader social issues. Within the current wave we’ve seen a few encouraging developments. One is the growth and popularity of Strike Map, a website which aims to comprehensively map strikes in Britain and Ireland and coordinate picket line support. Another is Organise Now!, a “peer organising network” for sharing workplace organising skills. There’s also been the proliferation of local strike solidarity groups, often organised over Whatsapp, to coordinate practical support for the pickets. As time goes on we hope to see more of the same.
Running Aground – The state of the Labour Party and working class political representation
It’s not only the government throwing its weight around, but His Majesty’s Opposition is also showing its commitment to “respectability” by sticking it to the workers. Wes Streeting, Shadow Health Secretary, stated his intention to end the “something-for-nothing culture in the NHS” and accused the BMA of being out of touch, reminding us that “ultimately, it’s my job to be the patients’ champion.” While Keir Starmer has made it clear that the nurses’ pay demand is “more than can be afforded by the government”, Steven Kinnock MP also wasted no time in showing support for the Tories anti-worker stance, when endorsing the use of the army to break strikes. In the obvious absence of Labour as a serious contender for political voice of the workers, some of the unions involved in strikes have developed Enough is Enough in an attempt to politicise and unify the strikes around a working class program. Rallies and speaking events have given encouragement to some workers but little practical intervention beyond this has occurred.
The initiative appears hamstrung by organisational rivalries and legal and bureaucratic constraints. On one side, Unite, the UK’s largest trade union, refused to join the coalition, either due to concerns over democratic accountability or Sharon Graham’s personal jealousy, depending on who you ask. Meanwhile, inside the coalition, internal struggles over direction have allegedly presented a barrier to action. At the same time, securing consent from relatively large, bureaucratic, and public-facing organisations for anything particularly militant or controversial was always going to face obvious hurdles. This is an issue we will inevitably face for as long as our struggles are mediated by legal entities like unions and electoral parties. This is highlighted when Mick Lynch is forced in interviews to disavow the political element to the dispute and strictly demarcate the strike as purely economic in character, while also stating that the government are acting politically to break the strike and participates in Enough is Enough to attempt stop them. All strikes have a political dimension, to the extent that they implicitly or explicitly confront the law and the general organisation of society. If it’s to do with decision making in groups, then it’s a matter of political discussion and power. Breaking down the false dichotomy between political and economic issues will be a necessary step in our collective development. The more workers that are part of groups, organisations and collectives in which we can discuss the connections between wage disputes, rent rises and energy crisis and organise accordingly, the likelier we are to make the links required to enforce our demands and to free ourselves from this system and take control of our daily lives.
The lack of political clarity and direction is not caused by a lack of opportunity. Political and economic crises beset the UK government. With the disastrous “mini budget,” rampant inflation, rising interest rates and PPE fraud scandals, the Tories are losing political capital fast. In the nurses strike it looks like the government have somewhat backed themselves into a corner. On the one hand they’re saying that they won’t make a direct political intervention to interfere with the recommendations of the independent pay review body, which is clearly disingenuous when they have previously (2014) intervened in order to pay below the recommendation. At the same time the pressure in support of the nurses is strong enough that rogue MPs and officials are publicly arguing for this as a feasible and justified resolution to the dispute. It seems the pay review body itself isn’t allowed to improve its offer without direct government intervention (which would be justified by extenuating circumstances, e.g. the massive increase in inflation since the recommendations were issued earlier this year). If the role of the independent pay bodies is to depoliticise the issue of public sector pay and insulate the government from accountability, it’s a mechanism which is now breaking down under pressure because, it’s clear that a resolution is not only possible but also compliant with the existing framework. If they’d settled the dispute earlier (as in Scotland) they could have split the nurses off without so drastically exposing and politicising their own role. Now they’re forced to either commit to a politically damaging showdown with the nurses or concede and make the intervention, which will act as a signal to other workers that they could achieve the same result. Health workers in particular, but also rail and postal workers, could easily become a focal point for mass participation in acts of resistance. Workers are well aware of all this and have been discussing it on the pickets.
That said, the government will want to find a way of stamping their authority. The workers must pay for the current crisis. The interest rate hikes are designed to “cool down” (start a recession in) the economy and stem workers’ wage demands by creating higher unemployment, sacrificing our living conditions on the altar of profits.
What we can do
It’s clear that there has been an increase in the levels of worker’s militancy in the UK. It’s also clear that due to the historical context we find ourselves in, this militancy is currently manifesting in ways that are unlikely to produce major victories for the working class. However, the crisis-ridden state of national and international economies and the changing composition of struggles could provide opportunities for workers interested in advancing the interests of all, to positively alter the course of events.
Breaking through capitalist propaganda and union cheerleading is an important task. Workers’ voices involved in the disputes will need to be heard. We intend to continue interviewing militant workers that need the space to share their honest assessments of the struggles so far. As we said at the beginning, we believe developing forums for workers to critically self-reflect on the recent fights should be a priority. As well as conducting interviews, supporting picket lines, attempting to understand the internal dynamics of the current struggles and offering and encouraging practical support where we can, we will be attempting to build towards a Struggle Conference that could be used to consolidate and coalesce the experiences and knowledge formed during this cycle of struggle. If this sounds like something you would be interested in developing, get in touch. If you’re a worker or know any workers that have reflections to share on recent events contact us on: firstname.lastname@example.org
To compare the two sectors, days lost began much higher in the public sector in June (68,000 vs. 26,000) but were then massively outstripped in August (84,000 vs. 271,000) and have continued to do so until the latest data in October (48,000 vs 369,000). The public sector generally tended to have more active disputes at any one time than the private sector (55 vs 20 in August), until the private sector stoppages consecutively rose sharply and overtook the public sector (26 vs 53 in September and 46 vs 78 in October). And in terms of the numbers of workers involved, the public sector again outnumbered the private sector to start with (29,000 vs 2,000 in June), but was then quickly dwarfed as time went on (33,000 vs 116,000 in August, 3,000 vs 95,000 in September and 26,000 vs 121,000 in October). Overall this gives a picture of more widespread, frequent, and short strikes in the public sector, accompanied by a massive uptick in the private sector, featuring longer strikes and more workers involved.