“Inflation’s at its highest level for a generation” we’re told... Accordingly, last Saturday thousands of workers from across the county - in every sector, private and public - marched through London demanding a pay rise. And by the way, they expressed their 100% solidarity with the railway and tube workers’ strike over wages, job cuts and the erosion of their working conditions and pensions!
On Tuesday this strike effectively stopped most trains across above and below-ground, in London and in the rest of the country! And yet this was the result of just one transport union’s action - the RMT, on its own, calling out workers in only 13 out of 22 rail companies, including London Transport.
But that says it all. For the first time in 30 years, transport workers demonstrated, by their collective action, the fighting power of the organised working class: without workers, nothing moves!
These workers are, in effect, acting as the vanguard of the strike movement of the whole working class - against the current job cuts, against the attack on pensions and conditions, demanding wages that working class families can live on! Because it’s precisely a strike by the whole working class which is needed, not just to beat the 12% cut in wages which inflation inflicts on everyone, but to turn the reactionary tide which is pushing this society backwards, so luridly reflected by Johnson’s antics in Westminster...
These most ignorant and petty of politicians, Labour and Tory, spend their time point-scoring off each other, fiddling, “while Rome burns”, and literally so, in the case of the fire at Grenfell tower, which 5 years later has not led to any of the required life-saving reforms.
Their “progress” means lethal cuts
And on the subject of safety, RMT leader Mick Lynch (who the infantile Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Boris Mophead call a union “boss” and a union “baron”!) has made clear that the rail strike is not just about wages, but also about the cutting of more than 2,900 safety critical track maintenance jobs.
Older workers will remember the horror of the train crashes in the run-up to the Conservatives’ privatisation of British Rail - directly caused by the cuts to track and signal maintenance. Today, the renationalised, government-owned Network Rail wants to make its skilled workers redundant and increase the hours of work of those who remain - in fact it’s a lethal version of “fire and rehire”! These bosses (along with their train operator counterparts), also want the closure of ALL rail ticket offices. So much for giving a damn about assisting the “travelling public”!
The top boss of Network Rail calls these cuts “facilitating reform and modernisation”. Workers are accused of hanging on to ancient practices which prevent “progress”. When it’s not progress for society these robber barons are talking about, but the “progress” of their profits and dividends for shareholders! It’s simple maths: lower labour costs, higher takings! And the scandal underlying profits on the railways is that the companies and their shareholders have paid themselves directly out of government subsidies, i.e., taxpayers’ pockets.
The summer of discontent we need
Shapps accuses the union leaders of harking back to the “beer and sandwiches” of the 1970s when ministers met union leaders to negotiate deals... But in fact quite a few commentators are currently time-travelling back to the 1970s and in particular to the 1978-9 “Winter of Discontent”, when in the midst of (mostly!) wildcat public and private sector strikes, a general strike seemed to be on the cards.
There are lots of similarities with today. In 1975, inflation had peaked at 26.9%. There was same lying hype about a wage-price spiral “caused” by workers’ wage demands. So the Labour government eventually, in 1978, imposed a 5% limit on pay rises - at which point inflation was 8.3%. Far be it from them to place a limit on price rises and profiteering, of course!
It was the Ford car workers who smashed this “pay restraint” - by going on all-out strike for 9 weeks, and winning a pay rise of 17.5%! Yes, it can be done! However this success was not replicated among public sector workers, who were defeated, not helped by the state of emergency declared by the Labour government. It lost the election a few months later.
What was different at the time, was the “crisis of leadership” in the unions: the leaders were afraid of going against a “Labour” government even though it was attacking the working class. So the rank and file workers, and not just in the public sector, but also at Ford, walked out on unofficial strike - organising their own strike committees.
Today, the context may be different, and the union leaders, worried about the future of their own union machineries are re-styling themselves to sound more appealing to a shrinking membership. But workers need to find the means to take their own collective decisions about their action today, just as they did yesterday! For the working class, contrary to what Baron Shapps claims, the world has not changed. It is our class against his - and this time, we should ensure that on our side, we all win!