For our first 2023 Reading Group we welcomed new attenders and broke new ground discussing some of our own texts around the current stage of class struggle in Britain and the ongoing “strike wave”, amongst others, in the NHS. Since then we have also added a reflection on the Don’t Pay campaign – . And there’s plenty more to come!

Three main themes emerged as we discussed around the texts:

  1. Background in Britain to the current phase of crisis
  2. Issues around the strike wave
  3. Comparisons with other historic experiences in Britain particularly 1970s.

Hopefully our discussions will continue alongside the strikes and struggles. Many thanks to L. for introducing the texts and leading the meeting and to comrades who contributed during the meeting and since.

  1. Background

Level of inflation in UK not seen since 1970s – including sudden sharp rise in energy prices.

The UK’s internal situation is interconnected with UK position in the global market – a declining power with Brexit exacerbating its problems
Declining profitability and appearance of “zombie firms”
Increasing role of finance capital away from manufacturing and “heavy industries”
Firms e.g. Amazon, Daily Mail, Goldman Sachs have carried out cost-cutting exercises
There is a patchiness in the supply and demand of labour across different sectors . We need to research it. What sectors are actually making people redundant at the moment (tech, automobile, platform services?). There are also short-term demographic fluctuations in the class composition e.g. a tranche of post-55s who had left the labour market had now re-entered .

  1. Strike wave and the ruling class response

The strike wave

Strategy of TUs is controlled from the top down and the plan is for “more of the same” in the next months
There are stresses and strains in Union leadership e.g. handling of ballots in UCU
Moves towards legislation on Minimum Service Level Agreements and threats of sequestration of TU fines and sacking of strikers a significant step in the ruling class “counter-offensive”
How far are TU leaderships concerned about their ability to keep their position and how far by the threat of sequestration?
“Enough is Enough” and focus on proposed legislation is part of a strategy of channeling energies towards propping up the reformist/corporatist tradition of the UK official Labour movement (not to be confused with the movement of the class!)
Particularly aggressive response of Royal Mail – hundreds of TU militants suspended, threat of restructuring and mass sackings during 2023
The level of strike resistance in UK has not been replicated elsewhere in Europe. We barely touched on the situation in France where there are signs of ongoing resistance. Since the meeting, there have been strikes and mass demonstrations, estimated at 1 million, on January 19th against changes to pensions that would mean many workers having to work an extra two years. The next action is planned for January 31st.

The crisis in the political arena and the government’s reaction

Internal situation is interconnected with UK position in the global market – a declining power with Brexit exacerbating its problems
Still tensions around resolving backwash from Brexit – Conciliatory “Swiss style” or similar v populist free market trade deals May government unable to drive through a “softer” post-Brexir arrangement.
USA had not bailed out UK during the mini-budget crisis -“special relationship” now become a myth – UK role as a bridge between USA and EU no longer viable. The US turned their back on the attempt of the mini-budget to transform the UK in a more deregulated investment region and left it to tank.
The Johnson government aligned themselves more clearly with the US, e.g. when it comes to Ukraine. The US had major influence in turning Ireland into a deregulated trade platform with considerable US investment. Perhaps the possible ripple-effects of collapsing pension funds in UK were actually too big.
Johnson, Truss and Sunak administrations all products of factional in-fighting.
The Sunak Government is also having to deal with effects of Truss/Kwarteng mini-budget. This further restricts room for manoeuvre by Government/Bank of England
Government resistance to strikes flows from both political and economic considerations
Government is currently trying to split the sectors – NHS was the first target. Since meeting there were also attempts at Rail Workers but none of these seemed to have included any significant concessions by the Government.

We also asked ourselves whether the current legal tightening of the strike laws are more of a populist Tory show in order to stick to election pledges and to satisfy a certain social strata or whether it is an actual attempt to prevent a re-emergence of ‘the labour movement’.

  1. Historic comparisons

It seems the government wants to increase their power to fine unions and attack them financially also because
Attempts to penalise Trade Unions for allowing effective strikes mirrors legislation from before the First World War
During 1970s the working class evidenced some of its potential as a revolutionary subject – inspired by France 1968 until the Miners Strike “end of an era”
During that period the working class defended themselves against the employers and the state e.g. mass strike to free dock militants jailed under the Heath Government’s Industrial Relations Act, Miners strikes that then brought down the Heath Government and the Winter of Discontent that shattered the TU/Labour Party pro-bourgeois corporatist “Social Contract”
It’s perhaps also worth it to re-examine the mass strike of 1972 against the jailing of dockers under the Industrial Relations Act.
That level of consciousness and combativity, allowing for degrees of self organisation, does not currently exist
After the mid 1980s the Trade Unions reestablished their role as trusted mediators in the process of exploitation
The situation is dissimilar from the big “set pieces” such as the 1984-5 Miners Strike which the Government was able to defeat by preparing everything from coal stocks to organised police thuggery