Editorial: A balance sheet of Britain’s strike movement

22 May 2023

The strikes which have taken place over the past 12 months have resolved very little for the workers who have taken part.  On the one hand, the bosses and the government still refuse the inflation-proof pay rises which strikers, right across the board, have been demanding.  And on the other, union leaderships maintain their narrow and sectional approach to industrial action.

    If strikes continue, for instance, among part of the railway workforce and train drivers, or among small sections of factory workers in the Unite union, it is in the same haphazard fashion as before.  And in some cases, despite the fact that strike action is “live”, with unions officially still in dispute, the bosses are going ahead with implementing the very changes that workers have been striking against.  This is particularly the case for postal workers.

Selling out “in process” at Royal Mail?

After 18 days of strike action over the past 12 months and a 96% vote to renew their strike mandate in February, these workers are currently waiting for their chance to vote down Royal Mail’s “final offer”.  Nevertheless, the country’s media is reporting that this deal has been “accepted” by the Communication Workers’ Union!

    The union leaders have indeed recommended a “yes” vote for the deal, but at the time of writing, this vote still has to take place.  It has already been postponed once.  It will now be held over 3 weeks, between 25 May and 14 June, by which time the leadership hopes it will have convinced a recalcitrant membership to agree to what is rightly perceived as a rotten agreement.

    Besides taking a carving knife to jobs and conditions, the strings include flexible shifts, an end to the possibility for part-time workers to increase their hours in order to make ends meet and an increased workload for everyone.  The pay rise remains way below inflation.  The company already imposed a 2% increase last year - for April 2022 to April 2023. It has added a 6% increase from April 2023-4 and another 2% for 2024-5.  To call this 3-year spread of what amounts to a real pay cut, a “10% salary increase” as RM does, is simply lying.  The one-off lump sum of £500 (unconsolidated) does not add the missing 7.5% which would be needed, just for this year, to compensate for a cut in real pay of 13.5%, taking today’s inflation into account.

    What surprises everyone is how determined the union leadership has been in trying to sell the deal to them.  Meetings have been held with representatives all around the country and they have been sent back to their offices to tell their workmates that it’s a good deal and to make the company’s argument on its behalf, about competition from rivals and the difficult financial climate...  They then ask “and what if you vote ‘no’?” implying a doomsday scenario, as if the union has already ruled out another strike.

    Delivery workers - the “letter carriers” - are particularly hit by changes in their hours of work and heavier loads.  They would have later start times, with longer hours overall in some weeks (a version of annualised hours will apply to all workers) and in winter it would mean delivering post in the dark. What’s more a huge cut in redundancy pay has already been made.  Royal Mail says it has by now, cut the 10,000 jobs it wanted to axe - on the cheap! And more job cuts are to come.

    The growing campaign among rank and fi le workers to go against the union leadership’s advice and “vote no”, seems to have caught the union leaders off-guard, however.  It remains to be seen what will happen next.  But many workers are angry that their 18 strike days have been squandered. They are even more angry that not all of the over 400 workers who were suspended during the strikes have been reinstated.  These suspensions pending the sack were a conscious strategy by management to target shop stewards or any other activist, accusing them of “misconduct” if they tried to discuss with workers crossing picket lines, or if they made the odd disparaging remark about management.  CWU leader, Dave Ward, said that their reinstatement would be his personal priority and would come first, before any agreement.  It has not.  Over 200 remain sacked.  Yet on 21 April, Ward shook hands with Royal Mail bosses, agreeing to end the strikes!  We can only hope he will be rewarded by a big shock from the workforce, come 14 June, if not before.

Strikes off track

Also at the time of writing, railway workers belonging to the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, the RMT, are meant to go back on strike - but only for 24 hours - on the eve of the Football Association’s cup final match.  The union leadership is obviously taking some flack for this.  But the strike is hardly the big deal that the media makes out.  It is confined to those who work for 14 out of 25 train operating companies.  And these potential strikers are mostly not even crucial to train operation.  So some trains can run without them and managers, who have by now trained themselves up, can stand in as guards and dispatchers, where needed.  And signallers and track workers are no longer on strike...

    It was RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch himself, who laid the ground for this “divide and rule”, by negotiating a separate deal for state-owned Network Rail’s signal and rail maintenance workers, at the beginning of March, much to many workers’ disappointment.  After all, this was the guy who stood up at the Durham Miners’ Gala last summer to announce that “the working class was back”!

    And by the way, Network Rail workers did not even get the pay rise they wanted: the deal offered 9%, when RPI inflation was 13.5% (even the government’s preferred measure, CPI was more, at 10.1%).  Many signalling jobs are already gone, thanks to the “digital railway”, but now maintenance workers’ numbers are constantly being cut and/or degraded.

   Lynch’s capitulation to NR bosses leaves the station and train workers - now facing total rewriting of their conditions and radical job cuts - to fight on their own. They are already historically separated from train drivers in ASLEF, the old craft union which goes back to the days of steam.  When Lynch announced the RMT’s new strike day, ASLEF union leader, Mick Whelan, had already announced 3 of his own: Friday 12 May, Wednesday 31 May, and Saturday 3 June - the latter being the actual day of the soccer final.

    Workers are scratching their heads at this and asking the obvious question: why do we not strike together?  Especially since the RMT strikes are unable to stop all the trains.

    The union officials argue that having staggered strikes “causes more disruption” to services.  And perhaps it does.  However is that really the point?  The combined strength of workers is, as a result never felt - neither by the bosses confronting the strikers nor by the strikers confronting the bosses.  As a result, railway bosses feel they can get away with offering yet more cuts and crumbs in terms of pay.  After a 4-year pay freeze, a conditional offer has been presented, of 5% for 2022-23 and 4% for 2023-24 only if all strikes are called off for the duration and only if new contracts (including a lower-paid second tier workforce) are accepted.

    It is of course the government which has been the real adversary in these strikes, looming over all the negotiations.  As things stand it is “operator of last resort” of 3 former private franchises (LNER, Northern, Southeastern), and Wales and Borders, and Scotrail are in the hands of regional governments.  The third and latest Transport Secretary to hold this office in a year (thanks to 3 prime ministers playing musical chairs), is Mark Harper.  As clueless as they come, he has nevertheless revived the plan to launch a recentralised “Great British Railways”, while still refusing to admit the failure of a rail privatisation which has had to be propped up by state funding for the past 30 years.  He denies that this is renationalisation by another name, but that’s certainly what it amounts to.

    What he cannot be allowed to get away with, is the final eradication of the decent conditions which railway workers have fought for, and won, over decades.

Nurses and teachers in or out?

In the meantime, the unions organising teachers and NHS workers have received offers from their respective pay review bodies.  For teachers in England, a pay increase of 6.5% has been recommended (for the goverment to offer them) after 5 strike days - the last, on 3 May, having closed over half of all schools for the day.  It looks, however, as if the leaders of main union, the National Education Union - NEU - are going to recommend acceptance.

    In the case of nurses belonging to the Royal College of Nursing and ambulance and other paramedical staff in the Unite union, the 5% pay rise was turned down.  However the vast majority of other NHS workers, plus many nurses belonging to Unison (the biggest union in the country with 1.3m mainly public sector members), voted to accept the offer.  This is emblematic of the problem facing union members across the whole working class right now.

    The leaders of Unite, Unison and the RCN who are supposed to represent NHS workers’ interests each agreed to go into separate talks with the government’s NHS bosses! Even though they were discussing the self-same deal.  There was never any attempt to ensure that this was a collective “front” of NHS union leaders against the bosses.  And then these leaders put the offer to the vote of their respective members, union by union. The result was that only the RCN and Unite members voted - by a small majorities - to reject it, while the others accepted, also by small margins.  The leader of the RCN who, of all union leaders comes across as the most sectional (she says “I only care about MY nurses”), is now isolated and although she has threatened that strikes will “carry on until Christmas”, no new strikes have been called so far.

    As for junior doctors, they struck again for 72 hours in April, but so far there has been no resolution to their demand for pay restitution.  Just like the rest of NHS staff, their real pay has fallen - for doctors and nurses by 35% over the last 15 years.  Even the highly-paid hospital consultants are currently balloting for strike.  This has as much to do with the conditions under which they are working as it has with the fact that they have not seen real increases in their pay; they claim they are de facto working 3 months for free.

    However again, just as with other sections, junior doctors’ unions decided that striking on their own was the best way to prove that these doctors are the backbone of the NHS.  Their officials were not at all receptive to the idea that non-NHS strikers could reinforce their fight, while at the same time allowing them to provide effective emergency cover.  Or help to counter media “exposure” of patients as victims of the strike, due to cancelled operations and the accusation that they were making the ridiculously long waiting list of “7 million” even longer!

The meaning of “solidarity”

Of course it is illegal to take strike action “in sympathy” with other workers.  But the perfectly legal announcement of strike days which happen to coincide with those of nurses or doctors, by other sections of workers whose labour is less a matter of public health and safety does not appear even to have been considered.  Although there has been a lot of hot air about “solidarity” coming out of the mouths of union leaders and the almost moribund Trades Union Congress - the TUC - which was set up 155 years ago to represent the common, collective, interests of the unionised working class!  This is what Paul Nowak, the TUC’s current leader said about it, in an interview with “Left Foot Forward”: “Coordinated support doesn’t mean taking action on the same day, for some unions that absolutely is the right approach and a tactic that works well for them to amplify their voices, but for others it’s about saying we want our members to be front and centre on a particular day”.

   So striking is not about fighting and winning, but about how the strikers “look” - in order to stand out from the crowd! In this age of individualism, selfies and identity politics, maybe we should not be so surprised.  He goes on, “Solidarity is a two-way street and it’s about having respect for different approaches and different decisions”.  Yes, each to his or her own, forget about the collective and do not dare mention the words “general strike”!

    In the meantime, NHS services remain in crisis - with those same 7 million waiting for treatment.  And according to the latest figures provided by the House of Commons Library in May, but based on December’s count, there were 124,000 vacancies across the NHS in England alone.  Of these, 43,600 were nursing vacancies - 11% of the nursing workforce!

Already minimum service without strikes

The government has decided to go ahead with its “Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill” put to the vote on 22 May. It stipulates that vital sectors: health, fi re and rescue, education, transport, “decommissioning of nuclear installations/radioactive waste and spent fuel handling” and border security, must operate a “minimum service” during strikes.  This is anti-worker politicking, pure and simple.  In fact NHS staff and firefighters all provide emergency cover when striking.  What’s more, thanks to the sectional strategy of the union leaderships and the division of workers into different unions even if they do the same job, strikes are anything but solid.  So when the railway strikes have taken place for instance, certainly 20% of services run anyway.  That said, the government has not even stipulated in this bill what its idea of a “minimum service” is.  Which again exposes the real purpose of its newest law.

    The House of Lords amended the Bill so that strikers who refuse “work notices” to force them into work, would not lose their immunity from being sacked.  It also took out a clause holding unions responsible for workers’ compliance to these notices.  If MPs reject the amendments, the Bill will go back to the Lords, and to and fro, until both Houses agree to the wording...

    But whatever the outcome, the fact is that unions are already shackled by innumerable restrictive laws.  And the only effective way to challenge their legitimacy is to break them.  But while it is high time the full collective force of the working class went into action to do just that, there does not seem to be very much chance of it in the near future.

The Tories’ “small boats”...  and Starmer’s big ones

Faced with what is clearly a weak government, the working class strike movement, unprecedented though it has been, is not challenging the government’s mandate - certainly not as it did when strikes on this scale last occurred, in 1974 and 1978-9.

    The Tory Party’s problems - and more specifically the Tory government’s problems, keep growing, but largely thanks to the party’s internal strife.  Replacing the blustering Boris Johnson and then Truss, second in the race with a lettuce, with the former banker and millionaire Rishi Sunak, has not solved any of their problems.  Internal factions are again at each others’ throats.  Today the backstabbing comes from an ultra-right “National Conservatism” grouping, with Home Secretary “stop the small boats” Suella Braverman as their main comic and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former Brexit minister as runner-up. Speakers even denounced Rishi Sunak as a “socialist”! While not quite the cat-fight which the Brexit referendum in 2016 was meant to put a stop to, it has the same cause, that is, Tory MPs fearing the loss of their seats in the near future.

    In local elections on the 5 May, the Tories faced what the media called a “bloodbath” with the loss of 1,060 seats, a portent of things to come. Opinion polls show that 56% of the public “disapproves” of Sunak and that in a general election 45% would vote Labour and only 28% for the Tories.

    That said, expert opinion(!) says that Labour has still not assured itself a clear win in the coming general election, due in 2024-5, going by the local election results - where the Greens and Liberal Democrats took a lot of Conservative seats.

    Labour leader Keir Starmer has placed himself firmly on the right of the political spectrum (they call it “centre-left”!) in order to make sure he wins back seats which the Conservatives took from Labour in 2019 in the so-called Brexit-supporting “Red Wall” of northern England.  So Starmer supports the Tories’ anti-refugee and anti-immigrant policy: “Labour also wants to stop the small boats”, says Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary; it just wouldn’t go about it exactly the same way...  Apparently Labour assumes these northern former Labour working class voters are first and foremost anti-immigrant; never mind that such assumptions are patronising and defamatory.

    And of course Starmer continues to refuse to condemn Brexit, even if “Bregret” is now a majority sentiment, including among voters in the Red Wall!  According to a YouGov poll published in April, 53% of all respondents said Britain was wrong to leave the EU, versus 32% who said it was right; 45% of the population thought Brexit had made their daily life worse, versus just 11% who said it had improved their lives.  And then there is the economy, which is the worst performer in the G-20...

    The “big boat” Starmer is looking at, is, of course, a future coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, come the next election, since it is not 100% likely that Labour would win it outright, despite the unpopularity of the Tories.  This is because the British electoral system, both because of “first past the post” and the way constituency boundaries are drawn, favours Tory wins: of the 123 years of the Labour party’s existence, it has only been in power for just over 30 of them.

    Guardian journalist Martin Kettle argues that Starmer, despite his conservatism, is not “Tony Blair Mark 2”, and that he is not aiming for the middle class vote, as Blair did, but at regaining working class support. If indeed this is so, it is only because the working class is back on the political scene

thanks to the strike wave.  And Starmer, so far, is not likely to improve his ratings among workers, with his refusal to support the strikes.  When asked, he answers that if Labour were in power, there would not be any!

    It is perhaps no bad thing that the two parties which have alternated in power since the 1920s should appear as they always were - mutual defenders of this rotten system - and one which grows more and more rotten every day.  There may not be a workers’ party yet, fighting for the interests of the working class, but history shows us that such parties are often forged in the heat of the class struggle.  So let us hope this heat is turned up!

22 May 2023