The strike wave has raised the prospect of the weak and divided Tory government of Rishi Sunak, the third Conservative prime minister in a year, being forced out of office by mass struggle. But is the trade union movement capable of such a victory? What are the obstacles in the way and can they be overcome? What is the role of the militant unions in the fight for a united struggle?
The Covid pandemic was one in a series of crises that has beset global capitalism in the last decade and a half, starting with the credit crunch ‘Great Recession’ of 2007-08 and resulting brutal austerity. Each crisis has had profound effects on the confidence and consciousness of the main classes in society – the capitalists and the working class. In particular, they have revealed the historical weaknesses of British capitalism, provoking a crisis of political representation for the capitalist establishment, which reached a nadir in the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss governments last year.
Yet Sunak’s government is still attempting to hold the line on the pay squeeze. Not only is it doing this in regard to its own employees, public sector workers, but also appears to have been supporting the intransigence of the employers on the railways and in Royal Mail. However, this is because of the government’s weakness rather than its strength, desperate as it is to not open a door that other workers could pile through. The Tories have also finally announced their plans to implement new anti-union legislation. This move, along with the lack of progress on pay, has ratcheted up the pressure on the union leaders to call joint strike action.
The strike wave has comprised three main elements: a growing number of localised disputes; key national strikes such as the railways, Royal Mail and BT; and national public sector ballots and action. The motor-force for all three has been the historic cost-of-living squeeze resulting from the rapid spiralling of prices, especially of energy.
In 2020, when the economy sharply contracted due to the Covid-induced closing down of the economy, RPI inflation averaged 1.5%. It was still at about 4% in 2021 as the economy opened up. But by the end of 2022 it had climbed to 14%. Yet the Tories’ pay offer to NHS workers is 4%. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) estimates that workers are down by an average of £76 a month in real terms, and key public sector workers by up to £180 a month.
The Covid period and its effect on the economy has shown that there isn’t a mechanical relationship between the economic conditions and workers’ struggles. If a downturn is too deep, threatening workers’ jobs, it can sap confidence. On the other hand, a recovery can increase confidence and combativity. Actually, this is what has happened to some extent. In some sectors, where there have been shortages of skilled labour, such as HGV drivers, the balance has been tilted in favour of workers. So there has been a whole number of strikes amongst HGV drivers as well as bus and bin workers, many of them winning substantial wage rises.
With the economy teetering on the edge of recession, there could be a rise in job losses. This too will have an effect on workers’ action. But as this could come during a period when struggle is already taking place, there could be big defensive battles against major redundancies and plant closures. Also, such clashes could raise workers’ political consciousness.
But at this stage, the main driver for disputes is the need to win pay rises that keep the roof over the heads of workers and their families – or at least the lighting and heating on! In 2017, only 33,000 workers were involved in industrial action – the lowest in UK history. Yet in December of 2022 alone there are likely to have been up to ten times that number, with an estimated million days lost to strike action. And with more and more public sector workers passing the undemocratic Tory industrial action ballot thresholds, the prospect is looming in 2023 of mass generalised strike action. By the beginning of February, up to 400,000 teachers and education workers and 30,000 firefighters could join 300,000 nurses, 100,000 civil servants, 115,000 postal workers, 70,000 higher education staff and 60,000 railworkers in taking strike action. In addition, up to 50,000 junior doctors in the BMA are balloting, pushing the union’s membership to record levels. Added to this are the thousands of workers in localised disputes.
Prospect for coordinated action
The attempts by the Tories and their union-baiting media to divide workers have largely failed due to the shared experience of all workers of the cost-of-living crisis. In 2011, when public sector workers took mass coordinated strike action against the Tory-led government’s attacks on their pensions, the government tried to turn private sector workers against them by describing their hard-won but modest pensions as ‘gold-plated’. Such splitting attempts are now far more difficult.
There is a rising mood amongst workers, especially those taking action, to coordinate strikes. Union leaders have met at the TUC to discuss aligning action, but nothing is guaranteed. The dismissive comments regarding a general strike by the new TUC general secretary Paul Novak, although quickly ‘qualified’, show the need for militant unions and activists to build pressure on the union leaders.
The pace of events over the last year has been such that slogans have to be reviewed and modified if necessary. The repressive Tory anti-union laws, and in particular the undemocratic ballot thresholds in the 2016 Trade Union Act, have made it difficult to secure legal strike mandates, particularly on a national scale. The laws require unions to attain ballot thresholds of at least 50%, with an even higher additional level required for workers in ‘essential services’, where a minimum of 40% of those balloted also have to vote for action. Some prominent unions were able to take action in 2011 with 30% turnouts. The threshold has been used by the right-wing union leaders to argue that mass joint action is impossible, even before the Tories threatened more restrictive anti-union laws such as requiring a ‘minimum service’, which would effectively mean unions being forced to arrange their own scabbing operations.
Last summer, we correctly called for unions to strike together in mass coordinated strike action. But now, as more and more unions win their ballots, the call for a 24-hour general strike is seen by the most militant workers as both necessary and realisable. In particular, the unions must prepare to meet the new anti-trade union laws with a 24-hour general strike.
But in some of the key sectors where workers are in dispute there are potential obstacles to unity. There are four different unions on the railways. While nationally the three main rail unions, RMT, ASLEF and TSSA, have been taking action – although it’s not clear to what extent this has been coordinated – on London Underground the RMT has largely been on its own.
In Royal Mail, senior management have looked to use local mangers in the CMA section of Unite against the CWU. The actions of CMA reps is at odds with the militant culture being built by Unite general secretary Sharon Graham. In a letter last December with the union’s national chair Tony Woodhouse she said in response to a joint statement by Royal Mail and the senior CMA rep: “Unite does not recognise or agree with the recently circulated statement in any way. It has wrongly been interpreted as a negotiated agreement between the union and the company”. Many RCN members, who on nurses’ picket lines have supported calls for joint strike action in the NHS and beyond on pay, will be alarmed by the seeming opposition of its union leadership to coordinated action.
One particular controversial situation has developed in education. As a result of a merger in 2017 between the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) to form the National Education Union (NEU), the NEU has a significant number of non-teaching members in roles such as classroom assistants. The NEU doesn’t have negotiating rights for these workers and isn’t part of the union side of the national joint council (NJC) that discusses local government workers’ pay and conditions. However, the NEU has balloted its teaching members on pay, and also separately balloted its non-teaching members on the 2022 NJC pay offer. This offer was accepted by Unison and the GMB, and therefore imposed on Unite despite its members voting against. Unite is now moving towards localised council disputes. The seven-month-long struggle by bin drivers in Coventry, who successfully faced down the strikebreaking Coventry Labour council, have shown how determined localised strike action can win.
In particular, the Unison leadership has sought to deal with this situation in education by reporting the NEU to the TUC and urging its local authority branches to complain to the employers “and suspend cooperation with the NEU at all levels of the union… where this won’t have a negative impact on UNISON members or bargaining structures”. “We are asking you to temporarily put on hold any wider joint activity that is scheduled for the near future until this matter can be resolved” it wrote. Socialist Party members on the national executives of both the NEU and Unison produced a joint statement in November 2022, calling for both union leaderships to step back from this clash and look to resolve the issue through the methods of the labour and trade union movement – joint discussion. We raised that a joint meeting should be convened of both unions’ national executives, plus Unison’s local government executive, to allow such a discussion. This is a far better way of dealing with this issue than unions clashing openly and publicly in front of the employers – and behind them the Tory government – especially as Sunak is looking to slash over £40 billion from the education budgets of local authorities.
The Socialist Party’s statement said: “Given the massive school cuts that are looming, it would be a serious mistake to threaten the united front that will be needed by education unions to face down the Tories’ austerity offensive. The head teachers’ union, NAHT, has announced it will be organising a national industrial action ballot over pay and school funding. Instead of taking measures against the NEU, Unison members would want to see a major campaign of action for funding our schools to cover our pay rise. We need maximum unity not division. If not, the failure to organise a fight on all the key issues school support staff face could backfire”. We don’t support opportunist ‘poaching’ of members by unions. In general, we stand for the transformation of existing unions into fighting organisations, although we have defended the right of union members to join another union if necessary. In fact, this issue highlights the need for an ongoing struggle in both the NEU and Unison for fighting militant leaderships.
Fighting for workers’ unity
In Unison, in particular, there is a battle between the entrenched bureaucracy around general secretary Christine McAnea and the left which won a majority on the national executive council (NEC) two years ago. Unfortunately, despite warnings by Socialist Party members on the NEC, the left in the Time For Real Change (TFRC) grouping has made a number of crucial mistakes, particularly over the handling of complaints of bullying made against former president Paul Holmes. This now threatens to squander the left’s historical gain.
With regards to the dispute with the NEU, the TFRC group hasn’t seized the opportunity to put forward the strategy that is needed – bringing out their real differences with the bureaucracy in full sight of the members, and showing that they have a different way of operating. This would involve arguing that the most effective way of dealing with this issue is for Unison to take a fighting stance and show non-teaching education staff that they are in favour of a united front with all school unions against the cuts, including the NEU. In contrast, Socialist Party Unison NEC members have clearly posed a way forward to activists, and been attacked by the right wing for doing so. However, despite the mistakes by TFRC, Socialist Party members will continue to attempt to build a left bloc with it against the right wing, including in this year’s crucial NEC elections.
On London Underground, the RMT has won and re-won strike ballots for action against the cuts agenda the Tory government wants to implement through its agencies of Transport for London management and the Blairite London Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan. However, the train drivers’ union ASLEF has so far chosen to wait until the attacks on tubeworkers’ pensions are clearer. This poses the question of what is the best way for the more militant RMT union to approach ASLEF and, in particular, its members on London Underground. Whether it’s the RMT on London Underground or the CWU in Royal Mail, the approach should be one of appealing to rank-and-file members for practical unity against the attacks of the employers.
In 1931, Trotsky dealt with these issues in an article titled, The Question of Trade Union Unity. This related specifically to the split in the union movement in France between the wars into two national union federations – the CGT and the CGTU. Trotsky argued that “…as a rule it is not the Communist wing but the reformist wing that takes the initiative in splitting the mass organisations”. Even in those unions led by right-wing union leaders, rather than split or leave those unions Marxists should intervene, putting fighting demands forward and calling for the maximum freedom to discuss, debate and criticise. In France at that time, the Marxists had nothing to fear by calling for a unity conference of the two main union federations, as long as they advanced their fighting programme, policies, and demands openly in front of workers. This would allow them to be seen as wanting the unions to take a united, fighting stance, putting the right-wing union leaders to the test before their members. Trotsky described this approach of work within or between unions as the method of the united front. Part and parcel of this is the building of powerful lefts within each trade union.
It is in the interests of the more militant union in a particular sector to propose fighting relationships with fellow unions, openly in front of the respective memberships. This can be in joint meetings at executive or local rep levels, especially during a dispute, or in the form of a federation or an alliance, as the RMT has put forward in recent times against ticket office closures on the London Underground. It can also mean actually bringing unions together. But this should have an industrial basis. It is unfortunate, for example, that the TSSA leadership currently appears to be looking towards merger with the GMB rather than with one of the already-existing rail unions. A merger with another rail union, around a fighting programme, would raise the possibility of increasing the unity of rail workers.
Uniting to resist austerity
In Britain, the vicious cuts offensive that was launched in late 2010 by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition was met by major resistance which could have inflicted a major defeat on the government at the time. The decision to triple university tuition fees provoked the biggest youth movement for decades. Over 50,000 students demonstrated outside parliament, met by charging police on horseback. The National Union of Students, led in that period by the likes of pro-tuition fees Wes Streeting, now in Starmer’s shadow cabinet, shamefully buckled under pressure to repudiate students who had demonstrated at the Tory Party HQ.
The trade unions did not seize the opportunity to join with the student protests developing around the country. However, months later the potential power of the union movement began to be shown by the massive TUC anti-austerity demonstration on 26 March, 2011. Over 750,000 workers marched through central London. With the Tory-led government seeking huge public sector cuts, it was workers in that sector who would be in the immediate firing line, with pensions being the first big target. Eight months later, on 30 November (N30), two million workers in 29 unions walked out together in what was effectively a public-sector general strike. More than that, it was a day of workers’ mobilisation with big strike demonstrations and rallies in most towns and cities – 60,000 in London, 30,000 in Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham, 20,000 in places like Bristol and Brighton, even 2,000 in Taunton in Somerset! In Northern Ireland, it reached general strike proportions as transport there was publicly owned.
But was it automatic that the March demonstration would lead to the N30 strike? Like the present day, the union movement then was coming out of a period of a historically low level of workers’ struggle. Many of the union leaders were open supporters of partnership with the employers. Two of the main union leaders, the general secretaries of the TUC and the GMB, were subsequently knighted by Tory prime minister David Cameron, while the then Unison general secretary Dave Prentis in now in the House of Lords. The current right-wing Unison leader Christine McAnea was then the union’s national officer for health. At the time she justified Unison’s leadership leaving the struggle after just the one day of mass joint action saying “we always knew this would be a damage limitation exercise…”.
But there did exist a counter-point in the unions. In particular, the PCS civil service union at that time had a left leadership, with the critically important influence of the Socialist Party at all levels of the union, including in Left Unity, the rank-and-file broad left. Left Unity played the key role in the defeat of the old right-wing union leadership, but it was essential that it continued to operate after this victory in transforming the PCS into a fighting union, maintaining a check even on a left leadership. Similarly, members of our sister party in Northern Ireland played a pivotal role in 2011 in the left in public sector union NIPSA, the biggest trade union there, both in opposition and in leadership positions. Two of our members are currently in the positions of general secretary and deputy general secretary of that union. Before Christmas, NIPSA took action across Northern Ireland in the NHS along with Unison, and is now doing so again in 2023.
In 2011, PCS was able to act as a lever on the other public sector unions, even though it was appreciably smaller in size compared to the likes of Unison. It openly called for mass coordinated strike action against Cameron’s pension proposals, which would force workers to work longer and pay higher contributions for less pension benefits. Such a public call to the whole union movement, linking it to the need to combat the entire cuts offensive of the Tory-led coalition government, was crucial in giving a fighting programme to the memberships of all the respective unions.
Crucially, PCS was able to act in a joint strike on 30 June with three education unions, NUT, ATL, and the university union UCU. This was a big stepping stone, showing the rest of the public sector unions that mass coordinated action was possible. In the TUC congress that September, strike ballots were coordinated, leading to the November action. Importantly, that congress was lobbied by a demonstration of up to 500 union reps, members, and activists, called by the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), and addressed by union leaders such as Bob Crow of the RMT and Mark Serwotka of the PCS.
The NSSN lobbied the TUC’s committee for public sector unions that met in late December to discuss the Tory ‘pensions deal’, and it also played a vital part in helping to build the union-wide conference that was called by PCS Left Unity in early 2012, attracting over 600 trade unionists, and which attempted to retrieve the pensions struggle. That event did actually play a role in leading to the joint strike in May 2012, when 400,000 workers took action. But it proved to be the end of that struggle. The lack of militant broad lefts across the other unions was a crucial factor.
Facing up to stormy events
That major setback emboldened the Tories. Cameron and Tory chancellor George Osborne were shaken by the N30 strike but now unleashed their cuts programme. The setback also had a significant effect on the left union leaders, particularly in the PCS. The combined effect of the pensions defeat and the temporary boost to left reformism by the welcome victory of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, led many of the PCS leadership around Mark Serwotka to separate themselves from the Socialist Party. This was mainly as a consequence of a loss of confidence in the fighting capability of workers.
This trend was starkly revealed in the early stages of Covid from March 2020, which put all the union leaderships to the test. Many of them capitulated to the propaganda from the capitalist establishment about ‘national unity’ in society. For a few months, official disputes were suspended or called off. Serwotka infamously produced a video message for PCS members where he announced that he had “parked” the union’s full civil service pay claim because of the pandemic. This was before the PCS national executive committee had met! Only Socialist Party members and our allies stood out against this, while Left Unity, including the Communist Party and SWP, collapsed behind Serwotka. It showed the necessity of building a new fighting left in PCS, around the Broad Left Network.
This is the basis for the role that the PCS leadership has played during the current strike wave. It delayed its strike ballot, against the position argued by Socialist Party members at its 2022 union conference. And when last autumn the disaggregated vote managed to get 100,000 of its members over the legal threshold, the leadership refused to call its initial action on a national scale along with the railworkers, postal workers and nurses, instead calling small-scale, targeted action. Rather than act as a lever as it did in 2011, it has lagged behind events, endangering the dispute. While being to the fore in supporting members taking targeted action, Socialist Party members in PCS have consistently argued for national action as the most vital part of the union’s industrial action strategy, and supporters of the Broad Left Network, in which we participate, have voted for this on the union’s national executive committee. We welcome the fact that a national strike has finally been called for 1 February, but this must be part of a serious strategy in PCS, seeking to build coordinated action with other unions.
While many of the union leaders retreated during Covid, unlike the New Labour Party leaders they are susceptible to the huge pressure from their members. They were rapidly forced to lead defensive strikes against the ‘fire-and-rehire’ offensive of the employers. Some of the most prominent union general secretaries, leading the biggest struggles, wouldn’t have described themselves as ‘militant’ two years ago. But they have been pushed by the massive events which are now speeding up. And a number of the unions either have more militant leaderships, or at least the potential for this. However, it is essential that a strong socialist current is built in the unions, that can form the core of broad left organisations. Such a force is needed to be capable of facing up to the stormy events to come, putting forward at every stage the demands and slogans that point a way forward. This is posed right now in the coming months as the developing clash between the unions and the Tories and the bosses reaches a potential decisive point.
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