Britain: the strike wave is still growing...

Winter 2022

With new strikes being announced daily, charts appeared in the media in the first weeks of December to show that on almost every single day of the month, one or other section of workers - in both public and private sectors - would be taking strike action.  It should be added that the strikes look to be continuing into the new year, with thousands of teachers currently being balloted for industrial action.

    If all of the strikes actually take place, it will mean that 1.5m workers will have withdrawn their labour in the course of this month.  That seems impressive - and indeed, it needs to be impressive!  The working class is under attack as never before.  Not only has the cost of living shot up beyond everyone's means, but conditions are being systematically overturned, with the bosses in the public sector and “foundation” sectors of the economy trying to generalise the degraded “contracts” which have become normal in the “gig economy”.  Once more, the capitalist class expects workers to pick up the tab - and this time, for what economists are describing as the worst recession in 50 years.

    And there's the problem: because union leaderships in almost every case - and no doubt by deliberate choice - have selected their own days for action, without trying to co-ordinate them with their “fellow” machineries.  Obviously, it is a profound mistake from the point of view of the working class - and all the more so, because many of the workers involved in the strikes have become convinced that the fight they are engaging in must be generalised and that it is indeed, a political fight.

    If railway workers' leader, Mick Lynch proclaimed that “the working class is back” in June this year, it was because he knew he was reflecting the mood and feelings of the workers he is elected to represent.  And for sure, after having to deal with the destructive and degrading effects of privatisation, many workers from the two main battalions - postal and railway workers - see the restoration of public ownership under “workers control” not as a mere abstraction, but a tangible alternative worth fighting for.

    In the meantime hysteria over the unions “ruining Christmas”, etc., continues to be whipped up, with Mick Lynch named the “Grinch”...  even though the main rail strikes are well before Christmas, on the 13 and 14 December and 16 and 17 December…  And even though railway workers always have a holiday on Christmas Day and Boxing Day - when stations are locked shut.  And even though, between Christmas and New Year, trains never run normally anyway, because of scheduled engineering works.  It says everything about the way the understaffed railway functions if an overtime ban - which had been scheduled in the week between Christmas and New Year - should have threaten to disrupt Network Rail's planned engineering works...

    But it is obviously a bit too much to expect from the politicians, government and media that they should actually know their facts...  or care a damn about them.  Anyway, this over-the-top anti-striker rhetoric is only to be expected from the government, the bosses they defend and their media parrots, none of whom have ever been friends of the working class.  Whether the threats to tighten already-tight anti-union laws - as Rishi Sunak has threatened - come to fruition, is yet to be seen.  If so, these laws could only be enacted late in 2023, at the earliest.

    These strikes, which have seen workers actually withdrawing their labour for several days, and even more than a week, in the case of the dockers - have been a very long time in coming.  Pre-pandemic, the unions' “partnership" with the bosses was still the name of the union bureaucracies’ game.  Ballots for industrial action were seldom acted upon and were almost always used as a mere bargaining tool.  But now, to steal a quote, “with prices exploding, workers’ anger is exploding” and union leaders, despite their bubble-existence, cannot avoid it.  They have had to respond, uncomfortable as it may be for many of them.  In fact, in acknowledgement that striking is a long-forgotten tactic in the class struggle, the leadership of the civil service union (Public and Commercial Services, PCS) has been enrolling its shop stewards into “strike schools”, so that they will know what to do!

No, it's not a general strike, at least not yet!

Looking at the “strike calendar” - it is noticeable that, according to what is planned, there are only two out of the 31 days of December when two substantial sections of workers are meant to strike together: the postal and railway workers will be out together on 14 December and the nurses and postal workers out together on the 15th...  Nevertheless, among the strikers, co-ordination of their strikes is the big question of the day - since this is obviously a more effective way for workers to win their demands.

    Union leaders were asked by TV presenters: “Are you and the other leaders calling a general strike?” and Dave Ward - of the postal workers (Communication Workers’ Union, CWU) - answered, “Well, it amounts to one, doesn’t it?” But no, really, it does not!  Up to now, co-ordination between sections of workers has been a matter of chance.  So far, since June when the strikes first started, there has been only one occasion when postal workers and railway workers struck on the same day.  Train drivers, in the separate Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) union who have (only!) had 5 odd strike days so far, in 5 months, coordinated only one of these with other railway unions* and one, by accident, with postal workers...

    Then again, one has to wonder what the logic is, of calling one-day strikes several weeks apart in the first place, as has been the case for the RMT and ASLEF, which have been organising strikes on and off for a very long 6 months.  The workers themselves tend to agree with the argument that it would be better to have an indefinite strike - all out until you have achieved your demands...  Drawing things out as the union leaders have been doing is clearly inefficient and to the strikers may even seem futile.

    So why do the union machineries go for these intermittent one-day affairs?  The only answer can be that they do not want to hurt the business, the service, the company in question - and that despite what they may say, it's not about “hitting the bosses where it hurts, in their pockets”, after all, but about hoping to preserve a relationship with these same bosses so that they can be regarded as reasonable and in the end, agreeable partners.  In other words, the anger and dismay of workers under attack broke through the leaders’ resistance this year, and they have called real strikes, but they haven't given up on their partnership policy.  For them this remains class collaboration, not the class war which will be needed if the working class is to beat back these attacks and build a better future.

    There is evidence for this in the words of CWU leader, Dave Ward, who not only got all CWU branches to organise a massive rally outside parliament on 9 December, but offered only one slogan: “Sack Simon Thompson” (the CEO of Royal Mail).  This is obviously empty and useless.  He says time and again that the issue blocking everything is the thousands of “compulsory redundancies” - as if voluntary redundancies, without equal replacements, were not an attack on the workforce, since they are job cuts, pure and simple.  But that's the problem: Ward does not mind job cuts as long as they are voluntary.  It is his get-out clause. 

    The door is open for the sell-out already: on 9 December CEO Thompson released an “Open letter to our customers” justifying bringing in the new recruits on new, lesser contracts “Which would still be the best in the industry”, and maybe they are, when compared to Amazon!  But more importantly, he stated: “This is not the gig economy. We have a generous voluntary redundancy scheme and are NOT making compulsory redundancies”.  So now all that Ward has to do is claim a victory - having got Thompson to back off making compulsory redundancies and sign the jobs away “voluntarily”.  Partnership will be back.

    By the way, the railway workers’ union, led by the new star of the strikers, Mick Lynch, has exactly the same position, clearing the path to an “agreement” in the same way, over the “primary” issue of “compulsory” redundancies!  At the time of writing, on the eve of its latest rail strikes, Lynch has demanded a meeting with the prime minister to avert the action.  Of course he is right that the transport minister wants a show-down so as to cut radically the expenditure on what is a failed privatisation experiment. So yes, the government is behind the rail bosses and their refusal to back down.  But so what?  That doesn't change the nature of the fight.  Unless of course, you have reformist illusions in “partnership”.

So what is “maximum impact"?

Nobody can disagree that this is a huge strike movement and that already the postal and railway workers have made big waves on their own.  It is certainly the largest strike movement the working class has mounted since the 1978/9 Winter of Discontent and most recently since the strikes of 1989, which were rather special, since at the time, the strikers on the Underground took control of their strike right out of the hands of the union leaders...

Andy Prendergast, who leads today's GMB union, and which has just called on 10,000 ambulance workers to strike, was quoted by Sky News as saying that union leaders “could” coordinate industrial action across the NHS this winter for ‘maximum impact”, adding that health workers have had enough of “public school boys who run the government and simply don’t care” about their pay demands.  On that point nobody would disagree!  But in fact the Royal College of Nursing had already called strikes on the 15 December and 20 December.  So, why are the ambulance strikes called for the 21 and 28 December?  That's hardly co-ordination!

    Co-ordination has to be a policy, not a flippant suggestion.  The union leaders have, in the past few months said that they are “talking to each other” about this.  The soon-to-retire Trades Union Congress (TUC) leader, Frances O'Grady certainly hinted at it, even using the words “general strike”.  However if there have been any inter-union talks, they must have been held in secret because nobody has heard about them...

    It is a very, very, long time since the TUC played the role for which it was founded back in 1868 - that is, bringing unions together to fight in solidarity with each other.  This has really only happened once, in 1926, when there truly was a “General Strike” involving 1.5m workers - the same number who could potentially be out together today...

    As is well known, in 1926, the strikers were scurrilously sold out by the General Council of the TUC which called off their strike after 9 days and it ended in defeat.  However, more importantly, this general strike was “secondary action”:  it was in support of a pay rise and against an increase in hours of work for 1.2m near-starving coal miners who, after striking for months, were locked out by the mine bosses.  In other words this general strike was organised entirely on the basis of sympathy action - solidarity with the miners!

    Today there is a law against secondary strikes.  It is meant to prevent one group of strikers providing support for the pickets of another, so-called flying pickets, as were used in the 1985 miners’ strike and also all sympathy striking, for instance train drivers going on strike on behalf of nurses who have little or no “industrial muscle” - and then refusing to drive their trains until the Department of Health and Social Care coughs up...

The NHS has been “on strike " for a long time already

It was apparently a shock to government ministers when the “respectable” Royal College of Nursing declared that it was calling a strike in England and Wales - for the first time in its history - although in 2019-20, RCN nurses in Northern Ireland, led by current RCN general secretary Pat Cullen, had already been on strike (for their first time ever) winning pay parity with nurses in the rest of Britain. But low and dangerous staffing levels and the inability of Northern Ireland's NHS to recruit or retain staff were in fact their main issue, pre-pandemic.  And post-pandemic the situation is far, far, worse.  But then, on top of the declaration of a nurses strike, came the additional “shock” announcement of the ambulance workers’ strike...

    Of course, the fact that NHS workers can decide to strike when the service they provide is already de facto in a “strike" situation, because there just aren't enough staff - there are 130,000 vacancies and 40,000 nurses have resigned in the last year - is bound to be exploited by the right-wing media, their employers and government ministers.

    The NHS isn't just failing.  It has already failed. Nevertheless, NHS bosses continue to pretend they are in control of the situation.  This is what “NHS Providers” (a sort of voluntary board of governors which includes all NHS trust executives) had to say about the staffing situation on 30 September (quoted by the BBC): “...the squeeze on pav amid rising inflation is forcing nurses and other staff out of the health service or into making desperate decisions, including stopping contributions to their pension, skipping meals and taking on second jobs.  (...) The sad fact is some can earn more working for online retailers or in supermarkets”.  It added that “the NHS was reaching a ‘tipping point’ when it comes to the workforce, and the shortage of staff threatened to hamper the ability of the health service to tackle backlogs in treatment”. At that point, one in ten nursing posts were vacant.

    By early this December, NHS waiting lists had crept up to 7.2 million.  Waiting times in ASE departments and for ambulances are so lengthy that one can only conclude that there is no actual emergency service any more.  Ambulances are backed up waiting to hand over patients for an average of 9 hours in most regions, some for 15 hours.  Waiting times in ASE can be 19 hours or more.  The average is 6-8 hours.

    West Midlands ambulance service, as verified by the BBC's Newsnight’s Freedom of Information request, arrived too late to save the lives of 37 people over the period January to September this year.  Yet for the whole of 2020 in the West Midlands, the number of deaths while waiting for an ambulance was only 1.

    The NHS director asked to comment on this, said it was “disappointing”!  Nobody is even questioning why this might be.  Is it because patients are more ill?  Or is it because the struggling NHS staff who were there in 2020 - already depleted because of Brexit - have left the profession because they cannot carry on working 12, 14, 24-hour shifts, covering for the inadequacies of the deteriorating system?  Even pre-Brexit, the situation wasn't hunky-dory.  The NHS has suffered from chronic underfunding since its inception and the fairy tales of how “wonderful” it is, are tales which apply only for the select few who happen to live near prestigious teaching hospitals in wealthy parts of the country.  Under Britain's “welfare-capitalism” every kind of inequality, including in health, has always remained intact.

    In fact the top bureaucrats in the NHS, while blaming everything on their predecessors, are a remarkable bunch.  They remain totally complacent in the face of this unprecedented NHS crisis, on top of a social care crisis.  So we are told that the problem with A&E waits and the ambulance tailback is all to do with bed-blocking due to patients who are well, but have nowhere to go because there aren't any social care beds...

    The figure the bureaucrats give for “bed-blockers” varies from 13, 000 to 21,770!  And they say they are intending to fix this by adding 7,000 hospital beds - ‘both real and virtual”. And then they smile and tell the public that it's all good, they are working flat out...  and coping with the crisis!  These numbers obviously don't add up - and what on earth is a “virtual” bed?  Anyway adding NHS capacity is all very well - and needed - but this doesn't tackle the cause of the problem.  To deal with that, social care privatisation would have to be reversed; “nightingale” emergency social care homes would need to be built with staff recruited at pay equivalent to NHS nurses...  And that, of course, is politically out of “their” question.

    So today the government is digging its heels in.  Its official position on the state of the NHS is one of denial.  Health Secretary Steve Barclay says there is no way the health department is going to “afford” the nurses’ pay demand, at RPI inflation ie., 14.2% + 5% - a ~20% rise.

    By taking these few days of strike while covering emergencies (which, ironically, may well mean much better cover than “normal") NHS workers can only make a strong protest over their situation.  For a strike to deliver their demands on pay - which undoubtedly could also attract the discouraged nurses and paramedics back to work (provided shifts could be cut) - it is obvious that these workers need the rest of the working class to take action alongside them and to add NHS workers’ demands to their own.  It requires reinventing the working class ethics of 1926.  And breaking the law...

More laws?  Made to be broken!

On 7 December, when the PCS union announced that members employed by the Home Office on passport control would take action at all main airports and the port of Newhaven from 23 to 31 December (not on the 27th), a crucial travelling time, PM Sunak announced that he in turn, was working on “new tough laws to limit the impact of strikes”.

    It's absolutely predictable.  He and his ministers - the third “set” of beauties in 5 months – have been digging their heels in, playing tough, but at the same time without having any real clue about what they dealing with.  When Truss had her 45 days of fame, it was a case of the lunatics taking over the asylum.  This time it's the wet-behind-the-ears amateurs - who their own fellows in parliament do not even trust...

All along Sunak and his fox-like chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, notorious for causing the first junior doctors’ strike in 40 years, in 2016, have argued for pay restraint and use the argument that wage rises will fuel inflation.  Never mind that far better brains than theirs (although no less reactionary!), argue that this recession is due to a price-price spiral and that on the contrary, increasing wages could tackle economic stagnation...

    But what about these new anti-union laws?  In fact Boris Johnson's 2019 manifesto already proposed a “minimum service guarantee” that is, that 20% of trains and other public transport had to run during a strike.  It would also apply to public services like the NHS - which of course would probably have to be boosted to run at 20% of its service level because it's probably way below that, strike or no strike!

    The threshold for a yes vote for a strike would be 50% of all members whether they voted (turned out) or not.  The right of employers to bring in temps to do the jobs of strikers has already been passed into law.  So what are the “tough new” laws?  A ban on all strikes by emergency workers?  That has been mooted.  However for the time being, fearful of provoking yet more anger among workers, Sunak is not saying very much.  And as was said above, legislation takes at least a year to put into place...

    As has been proven over these past months, the current anti-union laws which are not exactly liberal, have never been an obstacle to effective strikes.  The immediate here and now obstacle is not the law.  It is the union leadership's pussy-footing, their drawing out strikes over months and months, one day at a time, while flirting with strike co-ordination, but never putting it into practice.  If emergency workers like firefighters and NHS staff are banned from striking, then the rest of the working class will no doubt have to act according to its own instinct for solidarity - regardless of any law and regardless too, of the remonstrations of the union leaders.  It would mean turning the next strike wave into one where the strikers themselves set the agenda - an agenda for political change from top to bottom - and in so doing, forge the kind of revolutionary political party which is so sorely needed.

9 December 2022


* The divisions which exist between unions also militate against collectivity and coordination. For instance, the railway workers are organised in 3 separate unions.  Those who man the trains, stations, ticket offices, signals and who do the maintenance of tracks and signals are mostly in the RMT, while the train drivers are mostly in ASLEF.  The third union on the railways, the Transport Salaried Staff Association (TSSA) organises white collar workers.  Rivalry between these union machineries - chiefly between the RMT and the two others, since the RMT is a general union for all railway workers, blue or white collar and drivers - means they are not always engaged in friendly relations, although today, they claim to be.  Nevertheless they are not organising their strikes together!