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UK workers strike back

Daniel Randall reports on the strike wave in Britain and analyzes the dynamics and lessons from the biggest labor upsurge in a generation.

The strike wave currently taking place in the United Kingdom (UK) is of generational significance. This past year witnessed the highest level of strikes in the country since 1989. Groups of workers who have not struck for decades have taken action. The wave has spread beyond the British labor movement’s remaining strongholds in the public sector and privatized public services such as transport and the postal service, and into private sector workplaces—including, in an echo of a major development in the U.S. labor movement, Amazon warehouses.

The wave has involved railway workers, including on the London Underground, bus drivers, postal workers, telecoms workers, civil servants, ambulance workers, nurses, education workers in colleges and universities, charity workers, dockers, trial lawyers, food production workers, oil refinery workers, and many more. Yet more groups of workers, including teachers and support staff in primary and secondary education, junior doctors, and firefighters, will conclude industrial action ballots early in 2023 and could join the wave.

For anyone who has grown up since the defeats suffered by the trade union movement at the hands of Thatcherism in the 1980s, the current wave represents the re-emergence of organized labor as a visible social force. For socialists in the labor movement, those of us whose political worldview is structured around the belief that the working class is the primary agent of social change, the struggles in which we are now participating and hoping to help to victory are also an opportunity to educate a new generation of activists in that worldview.

For decades, trade unions have retreated into various forms of service provision, emphasizing individual representation and “protection,” presenting themselves as insurance providers, and developing an essentially transactional relationship with their members. The strike wave can transform that and begin to rebuild a conception of union membership as a weapon in workers’ hands rather than a service we are purchasing.

Most, although not all, of the current strikes center around demands for higher pay. Some, like the disputes on the railway and in Royal Mail, are also defensive struggles against attempts by employers to cut thousands of jobs and radically restructure working arrangements. The immediate backdrop, which has given the strike wave much of its social impulsion, is skyrocketing inflation and living costs that have seen the value of workers’ wages plummet, even as top bosses’ pay has gone up, and the rich have continued to increase their wealth.

A further key context is the experiences of workers, especially those in frontline services, during the pandemic. Workers such as nurses, postal workers, transport workers and others were lauded as heroes for working through the health emergency, and have been rewarded for our efforts with below-inflation pay increases (i.e., pay cuts) and bosses using the pandemic as a springboard for restructuring and reductions in staffing levels.

Picketing British health care workers.
Picketing British health care workers. Photo by Roger Blackwell.

The wider historical backdrop is a decade-plus period of wage stagnation that, according to the think tank Resolution Foundation, has cost workers around £15,000. On current trends, real wages are not expected to return to pre-2008 levels until 2027. A Financial Times analyst has called the strike wave “the inevitable result of a decade of Tory austerity,” including underfunding of the National Health Service that has seen services decline and health workers’ pay fall. This is the capitalist normality that the strike wave seeks to challenge: the orthodox assumption that economic crises should be “paid for” by workers via wage depression and cuts to jobs and services.

For all its immense hope and potential, as a first resurgence of sustained workers’ struggle in decades, starting from a low organizational base (the trade union movement in Britain is around half the size it was at its peak in 1979), the wave also contains faltering and missteps. Although the wave has seen the reappearance of the indefinite strike as a tactic, many union leaders have argued for a view of disputes as “a marathon, not a sprint” that require a “steady hand.”

They have preferred, at least initially, sporadic strikes of 24 or 48 hours, often with weeks in between rounds of action. But where workers have made gains in the current wave, it has not been through this more cautious approach, but through sustained, harder-hitting action, including indefinite strikes, which have seen bus drivers and dockers win substantial pay increases.

Each strike contains a debate, more or less explicit depending on conditions in a given industry and union, about its direction and strategy. Some unions that initially pursued strategies of sporadic strikes have been forced to intensify their action. The Communication Workers Union in its dispute with Royal Mail and my own union, RMT, in disputes on the national railway, both escalated strikes in December and January. This was, in part, a response to employers’ own militancy in pursuing programs of job cuts and attacks on terms and conditions even after the unions called off rounds of planned strikes to allow for “intensive negotiations” to take place.

In the University and College Union’s strike in Higher Education, tension between a radical approach proposed by a section of rank and file members and a more cautious one favored by the bureaucracy has come into the open, with the union’s general secretary maneuvering to undermine the vote by its Higher Education Executive Committee to call an indefinite strike.

On the whole, however, the present dynamic is not one of a consciously and consistently militant rank and file being constrained by a conservative bureaucracy determined to sell out or sabotage disputes. Union officials and leaders are undoubtedly sincere in their desire to make gains from the strikes, even if some are reticent to make specific, concrete demands, preferring to give themselves “room to maneuver” in negotiations. Their cautiousness makes gains less likely, and there is an urgent need to develop rank and file workers’ confidence and conception of themselves as conscious organizers of their own strikes, rather than loyal foot soldiers for a strategy determined by someone else.

Previous eruptions of worker militancy in Britain, such as the strike waves of the 1970s, were characterized by high levels of independent rank and file organization. That is an element almost entirely missing now. Rank and file confidence receded in the wake of the major defeats of the 1980s, and Thatcherism consolidated its victories over the labor movement by developing a restrictive legislative regime which made rank-and-file action more difficult.

The bureaucratic and administrative hurdles over which unions are required to jump to call legal strikes have the effect of entrenching the internal power of union bureaucracies. Many of the current national strikes are substantially top-down affairs, with the strategy almost entirely determined by union leaderships, with the mass membership’s role being to dutifully carry those strategies out rather than to direct them.

Changing that implies, in the first instance, a struggle for democratic reform within unions, to establish structures such as rank and file strike committees. If we cannot persuade our workmates that our own unions are something we can actively, democratically control, then the claim that workers could democratically control the running of society will always seem like an impossible horizon.

Tory governments have typically responded to waves of workers’ action by tightening the legal shackles placed on the right to strike. The present government, and its chaotic predecessors, is no exception. It plans to introduce new laws imposing minimum service levels in a variety of sectors. The new laws would also give employers the power to compel workers designated as part of the minimum service complement to work, on pain of dismissal.

Various senior Tories, including former Prime Minister Liz Truss, have made comprehensive proposals for further restrictions in other industries. Union leaders have spoken stirringly about mobilizing “fierce resistance” should new laws be imposed, but the labor movement has done little to organize against the threats in advance. Assertive campaigning will be needed if we are to stand any chance of heading the laws off, or of developing the confidence to defy them if they are implemented.

Throughout the wave, the sheer volume of strikes has meant that workers in different industries have inevitably struck on the same days. Union activists attend and support each other’s picket lines; union leaders speak at other unions’ strike rallies. More comprehensive, conscious coordination has been harder to achieve, sometimes even between striking unions in the same industry. For example, in the dispute on the railways, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF), the craft union representing train drivers pursues, as far as it can, a policy of striking separately from the RMT, the larger industrial union representing all grades of rail workers.

Nevertheless, there is now burgeoning discussion about the possibility of a coordinated strike in early February. Such a strike would be a significant development, the closest thing Britain has seen to a general strike for nearly a century. But it must avoid a repeat of the last coordinated mass strike in Britain, a 2011 walkout against cuts to public sector workers’ pensions, which functioned as a set-piece protest rather than a launchpad for more sustained action that could actually force concessions from employers.

Throughout the strike wave, the Labour Party, the only immediate governmental alternative to the Tories and a party founded by and based on organized labor, has, at best, dithered. It has called for negotiations to resolve the issues, and said it backs the right to strike, without supporting strikers’ demands. At worst, leading figures in the party have positioned themselves against the strikes, maintaining a long and ignoble tradition of Labour leaderships siding against workers’ action.

Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing leadership from 2015-2019 used warmer words about trade union action, but did little to actively organize the energies it inspired into any effort to revive struggles on the industrial terrain, to make Labour into “the party of strikes.” Indeed, it did little to actively organize those energies into much at all beyond electoral work. Since the ascension to power of a leadership that is, in Labour Party terms, right-wing, much of that energy has dissipated in despair. Labour leader Keir Starmer has sought to prevent shadow ministers from attending picket lines and dismissed one for doing so.

The question of whether socialist activity within Labour is desirable, or even possible, remains a point of contention within the far left in Britain. And a broader, equally perennial, debate on the relationship between industrial organization and politics continues within the wider labor movement, with some advocating union disaffiliation from Labour, or at least a deprioritising of activity within it. Three unions — the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), the Bakers, Food, and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU), and ASLEF — have held votes on Labour affiliation in the past 18 months (although none since the strike wave began in earnest), with BFAWU disaffiliating and FBU and ASLEF voting to remain affiliated.

My own view is that Labour and its union link remain a key terrain of struggle, and sustained self-assertion by Labour-affiliated unions within party structures to demand the party backs strikes could lead to a transformative ferment. A failure to consistently contest the political terrain is part of what limited the upsurges of the 1970s, meaning the primary beneficiaries of the potential for social transformation opened up by those strikes were centrist Labour governments that pursued the economic policies that presaged neoliberalism and laid the foundations for Thatcherism.

Without an active confrontation within Labour, aimed at contesting and seeking to shape the programme of the next Labour government, Keir Starmer will be the prime political beneficiary of the strike wave in the same way Harold Wilson and James Callaghan were in their time.

Although some union leaders have stressed current disputes as “industrial relations matters,” emphasizing them as primarily economic struggles over immediate workplace issues such as pay, the strike wave has had an inevitably political character from the very start. At root, it poses questions of social inequality, questions of how public services such as health care, transport, and education are organized and funded, and, ultimately, the fundamental question of whether the logic of the bosses’ bottom line should hegemonize economic and social life. These are questions that cannot be resolved solely around the union bargaining table; addressing them requires political action and social transformation.

On the railway, the government subsidizes and compensates private train companies to offset revenue lost via strikes. The strikes must therefore address the question of how the industry is organized and run, and seek to impel a wider movement for real social ownership of public transport. Similarly, in the NHS, which now faces its “worst ever crisis”, an upsurge in political mobilization to demand the full renationalization and proper funding of healthcare must accompany and fuse with NHS workers’ strikes.

Strikes in Britain must be based on a “trade dispute” between unions and employers, a legal requirement designed to outlaw strikes for explicitly political demands and limit them to narrower workplace issues. Nevertheless, the strike wave can clearly be seen as a movement for reshaping British society. Sometimes, union leaders have articulated that relatively explicitly (ironically, sometimes the same union leaders who, on other occasions, insist on the strikes as “industrial relations matters”), explaining their members’ strikes not only in the immediate context of conditions in their industry but in the wider social context of wage stagnation and falling living standards faced by all workers. That way of contextualizing the strikes could also, if developed, test the limits of the legal prohibition on strikes in solidarity with other workers.

For socialists and other radicals active in the strike wave—in our own workplaces and unions, and in our wider political work—our first duty is to fight every battle through to its conclusion and seek to help it win. But it is also up to us to help develop the rank and file organization that can underpin a sustained revival of democratic, class-struggle trade unionism, and, wherever possible, to expand the horizons of the strike wave towards a confrontation with the rule of profit, and the struggle for working-class political, economic, and social power.

That horizon remains far off, and the current wave may recede before anything like it is reached. But the prospects and opportunities for building towards it are better than they have been for a generation. Socialists in the labor movement must do whatever we can to realize those opportunities.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Midnightblueowl. Modified by Tempest.

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Daniel Randall View All

Daniel Randall is a railway worker and a rep for the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport workers (RMT). He is the vice chair of the RMT Bakerloo line branch, a member of the Labour Party, and a supporter of the revolutionary socialist group Workers’ Liberty. He writes in a personal capacity.