December 1, 2022
From CounterFire
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Unjum Mirza analyses the current situation with industrial action, and offers a strategy for a class-wide victory.

The wave of strikes responding to the cost-of-living crisis are reaching a crunch point. On the one hand, with ever more groups of workers joining in the struggle, particularly now with the nurses, the potential for a class-wide victory grows greater. On the other hand, some union leaderships are already in retreat in their approach to strike action, threatening sectional division.

There needs to be a clear and united strategy across the unions, drawing in wider mass forces of the working class to force a victory. To understand how this can be achieved, we first need to understand the dynamics of each particular struggle, and the extent of the discontent among union rank and file with the bad compromises offered in some instances. A key example comes from the situation with the BT workers.

The BT deal – alarm bells ringing

On Monday, the CWU announced ‘we have reached a final agreement to settle our dispute. We are making preparations for a consultative ballot and you will get to vote on the proposed agreement.’

Workers should reject the BT deal. Moreover, the deal needs to signal an urgent strategic shift across the unions in tackling the rising cost of living.

Amid the many reactions from the rank and file online, BT engineers shared this particular post with Counterfire from a BT/GPO site:

Are people really not seeing the maths in this deal??? Let’s go back to the start … April last year.

BT: Here’s £1500 and we’ll have another review next April. (Was always likely to be matched with another £1500). 

Employees: No, we want 10% (£3k).

BT: No.

Employees: We’re going on strike. 

Jump forward to now…

BT: Here’s next year’s £1500, three months early and we might have another review (not guaranteed pay rise) on September 23. 

Employees/union: Thank you very much, what a great deal. 

This is no better than what we already had/we’re going to get. Why can’t people see this?

£3000 is still the same as £1500 + £1500. 

We get it in January instead of April. So, we get an extra £375 in 2022/23 salary. £375! Not £1500. Is that what you went on strike for???

That £375 comes out of this 2nd £1500 so 2023/24’s pay rise is only £1125. 
That’s even worse than the deal we rejected last year. Is that what you went on strike for?

It’s still just a 4.5% pay rise for most of us. It’s still a real-terms pay decrease for two years in a row.

We may or may not get something again in September. Who thinks they’re getting another £1500 in September given how much we’ve had to fight for this one? Not me.

A BT worker explained,

“I’ve done the sums and it doesn’t add up. This ain’t gonna pay the bills, it ain’t even gonna come close. This is what ‘partnership’ gets you.”

Another BT engineer told me,

“I’m not impressed. We’ve had massive redundancies recently with the building closures, the vast majority of whom will be leaving on 31 December which will be their final day. These workers were asked to go on strike. These workers did go out on strike. They were solid for 9 days. And none of them will gain a penny from the so-called ‘pay rise’ which starts from 1 January 2023.”

There is a gap between the trade-union leaders’ rhetoric and the reality on the ground. They are too quick to negotiate a settlement well below inflation, rising food and energy prices and the cost of living generally.

Too often we’ve seen strike dates named, but disputes settled and, similarly, actual strikes settled for less than what they could have achieved, particularly if they had been coordinated to spread the action within their respective sectors, let alone across sectors.

Too often we’ve seen pay disputes make advances on employers’ initial offers only to settle below RPI, albeit offering a slightly greater percentage increase for those less well paid. Given the nature of the cost-of-living crises, neither end up keeping with prices. No amount of ‘creative accounting’ can disguise that fact.

The BT deal fits this pattern but, and this is important to stress and to flag-up the dangers, on a national scale. The BT strikes were the focus of a national solidarity movement. We simply cannot afford to allow it to happen again.

Lessons

What follows is a critical assessment of the trade-union struggle focused on the national disputes of which BT was one. While it is unlikely that the BT deal will disrupt the continuing upward trajectory of workers’ struggle and the growth of solidarity, urgent lessons must be learnt now to avoid any repeat.

The lessons are immediate for the current national disputes in the post, where the workforce is covered by the same union, but also on the railways (see below). Most particularly, the lessons are urgent in health where 300,000 RCN nurses have voted for industrial action over pay on 15 and 20 December across 176 out of 311 NHS organisations; we could witness the biggest health strike in UK history. The RCN demand is for inflation plus 5% and the strikes hold a massive political significance for us all. With the Tories planning to invoke emergency contingency plans in order to draft in the armed forces to break the strike, the solidarity movement will have to rise to the occasion and break the government.

In addition to the RCN, Unison balloted some 350,000 NHS employees working across England, Wales and Northern Ireland with early indications suggesting that huge ‘yes’ votes of over 90% for strike action have been frustrated by the anti-union laws that demand a 50% turnout as well as a 40% yes vote of those who vote. The Unite union strike ballot among members in the Ambulance service closes this week, while the union explains that thousands more NHS workers are voting in rolling ballots ‘before Christmas meaning that workers could walk out in January 2023’. The results of the GMB union strike ballot of 15,000 ambulance workers across eleven trusts in England and Wales can be found here.

Union leaders across the health unions should call members out on strike in all areas that have met the anti-union thresholds, while organising solidarity everywhere else for 15 and 20 December.

However, there are early warning signs from Scotland where Unison is recommending a below-inflation, revised pay offer, while Unite is consulting members without a recommendation, and the GMB are recommending that members reject the offer. Planned strikes by GMB ambulance workers were called off and the RCN and midwives’ RCM unions have not named any strike dates.

The Railways

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) and Network Rail threw down the gauntlet. The RMT picked it up and stepped up the action at a critical juncture of this increasingly bitter dispute over jobs, pay and working conditions.

On Monday 21 November, the Rail Delivery Group cancelled talks with the RMT and, alongside Network Rail, failed to deliver promised firm proposals. On Tuesday 22 November, the RMT National Executive announced a month-long schedule of action including four sets of 48-hour strikes across Network Rail and fourteen train operating companies (TOCs) during December and January. In between these strike dates, the RMT have announced an overtime ban across the railways from 18 December to 2 January.

The RMT previously called off three planned strike dates just hours before strike action was to commence on 5 November for ‘intensive talks’. It was a mistake to call off strike action. As one RMT rep said, “What do they mean by ‘intensive talks’? Does it mean they wave their hands about more frantically? In all seriousness, no one knows what it means? What were the nature of negotiations before then? It’s a cop out isn’t it? There wasn’t anything on the table from the RDG (Rail Deliver Group) and there won’t be now.”

But the mistake would not necessarily be decisive if the RMT were able to shift their industrial strategy, escalate action and regain momentum.

On 4 November, the Daily Telegraph ran a headline, ‘The unions are cracking under the cost of living crisis.’ On 16 November, the RMT rank and file answered emphatically with an impressive set of ballot results renewing the mandate for strike action for another six months across the Network Rail and fourteen train-operating companies with an average turnout of 70.2% and a ‘yes’ vote of 91.7%.

Following the strike announcement, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said, ‘We have been reasonable, but it is impossible to find a negotiated settlement when the dead hand of government is presiding over these talks.’

The TSSA too called-off planned strike dates in November for ‘constructive, intensive and detailed discussions’. The TSSA need now to name strike action and overtime bans in coordination with the RMT, wherever they hold a live mandate.

Aslef train drivers, who also await pay proposals, struck solidly on 26 November across eleven TOCs. However, strike action on London Overground was suspended following a pay offer of 6.5%: less than half of RPI which stands at 14.2%. Members should reject the offer and Aslef should name strike action and overtime bans in co-ordination with the RMT across all TOCs where live mandates still hold to help win this dispute for all rail workers.

The struggle on the railways is fast coming to a head. The employers read the acceptance of ‘intensive talks’ as a retreat by the union leaders, and used the hiatus to intensify their assault on workers.

The New Civil Engineer reported the address by Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, to the Rail Industry Association Annual Conference in November stating that Network Rail will cut 1,850 maintenance jobs. Haines added, ‘the implementation of the cuts will not begin until 3 December and negotiations with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) would resume until a deal was made or that date was reached.’ In other words, with or without RMT/TSSA agreement.

The Post

The dispute has sharpened in the post too, where the CWU entered an ‘intensive period of negotiations’ following the release of a joint statement with the Royal Mail Group (RMG) on the very same day the RMT called-off the November strike dates. The joint statement committed both parties ‘to a de-escalation of tension to avoid flashpoints and restoring calmness in the workplace.’

While bound by ACAS confidentiality rules, on 20 November, CWU released details of Royal Mail’s ‘take it or leave it’ document that wants ‘to turn the Royal Mail Group into a gig economy style parcel courier, resourced over time through a self-employed model’.

The CWU continued, ‘Royal Mail Group have refused to put in place any commitments whatsoever on job security and we believe they will now move ahead with compulsory redundancies.’ On pay, the union explains that RMG’s offer ‘remains inadequate and the 3.5% is not backdated.’ Parcelforce workers have been ‘offered’ nothing at all, while Fleet workers have been offered ‘3% not backdated, alongside a demand to outsource Fleet work, leading to compulsory redundancies’.

The CWU further listed the raft of attacks contained in the Royal Mail Group document that can only be described as a declaration of war on its workforce. Royal Mail Group is demanding that:

“the CWU withdraws support for members who have submitted employment tribunals for unlawful pay deductions during recent periods of strike action; that local representatives and members must fully accept their revision proposals without any opportunity for these to be negotiated at local level; the CWU be removed from the workplace and will only recognise us in the future as a company union – there only to help introduce their plans; Ill health and sick pay slashed; Allowances slashed; removal of Sunday premium payment; a combined proposal on flexibility and seasonal variations that means the company will be in total control of when you work and when you don’t; later start and finishing times that will see the company abandoning the AM delivery period, forever denying growth opportunities and new products and services being developed; technology being used to bare down on and monitor postal workers every minute of the day.”

So much for ‘de-escalation of tension to avoid flashpoints and restoring calmness in the workplace.’

Having previously called-off two strikes, the CWU did name strike dates for 24 and 25 November, the latter being Black Friday, and 30 November and 1 December, two days after Cyber Monday and, later, six further strike dates were added. Then on 23 November, following the announced RMT strike action, Royal Mail offered the CWU a new ‘best and final offer’ with what they call ‘a significant number of improvements’. Royal Mail added, ‘we have asked the CWU to call off the planned strikes. If they don’t, we have been clear with the CWU leadership we may need to withdraw the offer, look at further headcount reductions and restructuring and that the voluntary redundancy proposal of up to nine months could also become unaffordable.’

The CWU rightly rejected the offer. Apart from all else, it was a cynical attempt to isolate the rail strikes and return to take on the CWU at a later date (and at a time of deepening recession, further anti-union legislative changes and Bank of England recessionary measures to undermine workers’ capacity to fight). Additionally, the CWU have offered their own proposals to ‘Resolve the Pay and Change disputes’, which will be discussed further below.

Trapped

On the eve of the co-ordinated action on 1 October across all unions in the national disputes, cited above, we warned, ‘The current strategy of attrition and limited action finds the trade-union leaders trapped between intransigent employers and government – with whom they’d like to negotiate a settlement and meet some semblance of their demands – and the fear of escalating action in order actually to win these disputes outright.’

The fear the Tories and employers hold is that if a group or groups of workers succeed in breaking the employers’ offensive on jobs, pay, working conditions and pensions others will, following suit. Their fear is the nature of the generalised assault we face creates a much wider growth of class consciousness. This is a fear shared by trade-union officials as ‘managers of discontent’: the fear of escalation and the fear of more radical class strategies to win.

While the RMT strike announcement does represent a serious escalation in fighting the attacks on the rail, it is an escalation geared towards securing a settlement the union hopes will be acceptable to the membership. It remains to be seen whether this action alone will be sufficient. However, it is not an escalation geared towards defeating the Tory government which is clearly provoking the dispute. For that, an all-out strike is necessary.

The obvious danger here is that the settlement is something like the below-inflation deal RMT recommended members to accept on ScotRail, which revised its offer with an increase from £500 to £750, for acceptance of technology, consolidated into basic pay, on top of the 5% basic increase, resulting in an average pay increase of 7.5% for general grades and 8.5% staff on lower salaries.

The situation in the CWU is a bit more confused, and the union appears to be facing two ways at once. Even before the latest ‘best and final offer’ from Royal Mail, the CWU announced a series of strike dates on the one hand and spurred-on its members to support the strikes and join the picket lines. But on the other-hand, it seeks negotiations with the Royal Mail Group on its own alternative proposals to sustain the business, effectively a partnership.

The former stance seeks to fight the assault on workers, while the latter seeks to engage as a partner in managing the crisis within the business. It is the duty of every trade unionist and activist to deliver solidarity for the CWU strike dates announced. But we must be honest; on their own, they’re not sufficient to win. An all-out strike coordinated with the rail strikes and other groups of workers entering the struggle is crucial to victory. After the appalling deal cut on BT, covered by the same union, this cannot be stressed enough.

And the worries don’t stop there, the CWU’s ‘Resolve the Pay and Change disputes’ offers ‘alternative’ proposals which will only subordinate the strikes and the workforce, in partnership with Royal Mail and others, to a programme of rationalisation and sacrifice, wrapped in a heavy dose of appeals to the national interest (it is the Royal Mail after-all).

A cursory glance at the CWU document reveals some serious issues. For instance, it states: ‘CWU remains committed to discussing jointly with the company, the Government and Ofcom, how the USO should operate in the future given anticipated parcel growth and continuing letter decline’; agrees to look at ‘expanding the role of postal workers and adding social value to communities across the UK’; states there will be ‘no Compulsory Redundancies’, but adds, ‘this guarantee will be subject to review at agreed milestones’; argues ‘RMG will invest in a project with CWU to diversify and grow the business beyond letters and parcels, exploring new commercial markets,’ and, ‘We will also jointly approach the Government, Metro Mayors and local Councils with a plan to put RMG and its workforce at the centre of community wealth building projects and approaches to assist the UK economic recovery and levelling up agenda.’

The self-limitation of trade-union strategies

In an interesting article ‘Here is what unions can learn from this Scottish ‘smart’ strike’, Gregor Gall is without doubt right when he assesses the impact of refuse workers’ strike action which ‘was immediate and very visible, with rubbish piling up on city streets. The unions reckoned that although the disruption would affect the public, the public would support them. This is as the cost-of-living crisis was a generalised phenomenon angering many. And, they were right. It created political pressure on both local and national governments.’

Gall writes that this ‘was a smart, strategic strike.’ Gall’s ‘smart strike’ is one whereby ‘unions chose to selectively use their most high-profile and strategically placed members to create this hard-hitting leverage.’ Gall’s proposals hold an obvious industrial logic. Indeed, the CWU has previously called extensive ‘functional’ action as the RMT has (on London Underground) called out separate grades for strike action. It hasn’t worked. And given the scale of the employers’ offensive, such action would not be sufficient to win the national disputes.

Further, and I have dealt with this first-hand, it leads to confusion and demoralisation among union members as they witness fellow union members cross picket lines under union instruction, because they’re not on strike, and thereby undermining the tradition of solidarity (within and across unions) which needs rebuilding.

The ‘smart strike’ acts to limit the struggle to industrial aims and the trade-union struggle. It runs the inherent risks of fragmentation and collapsing along sectional lines, and opening up opportunities for the employers to favourably settle with a minority of workers while the majority get shafted.

The ‘smart strike’ runs the risk of reducing the trade union to a pressure group that accepts the political and economic status quo, does not seek fundamental changes in society, but to improve offers to workers as opposed to gaining offers won by them, and self-limits the possibilities of struggles within capitalism.

The self-activity of workers in struggle is controlled, constrained and contained to achieve trade-union goals while maintaining a corresponding fragmentation of the working-class along sectional lines and interests. It is precisely this debilitating sectionalism and fragmentation that we need to transcend and transform the working class as an effective agent of fundamental change.

Class struggle alternative

The possibilities for greater coordination and escalation as part of a generalised workers’ revolt are very real with the strikes in higher education, the strike dates announced in health and the civil service, and the strike ballots in the NEU and FBU to close early in the new year. With inflation at 14.2% and food prices rising higher still, combined with massive energy costs and now Hunt’s Autumn Budget attack on working people, a generalised experience across the working class has generated a broad level of sympathy and solidarity with strikes.

It is here that the present battle lines are drawn, with a tight labour market making it difficult for employers to resist an ascendant curve of trade-union demands and action coupled with the Tories’ class war on workers, and Hunt’s Austerity 2.0 of £55bn spending cuts and tax rises that will hit the poorest hardest.

Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt may try to portray the Tories as returning to kind of normality but they ‘are in disarray’. The budget tax increases are creating widespread discontent on the party’s right, especially the ERG, who saw little wrong with Truss’s plans and who are reluctant to back Sunak and Hunt.’ The Tory party remains internally at war, unstable and unpredictable, as the current split over onshore windfarms illustrates.

An industrial strategy that incorporates both coordination and escalation – an all-out strike – within and across unions and sectors can provide both the mass and acceleration sufficient to generate the necessary force to prise open the fissures and fractures among the government and employers.

The Liverpool dockers’ strike offers an important example of how to win. The combination of sustained strike action (five weeks), mass pickets and participation and solidarity from the wider working class, secured a pay deal of 14.3% to 18.5%. The original offer was 5%. Furthermore, the strike has scrapped the 132 redundancies announced by bosses during the action in a disgraceful display of bullying and intimidation.

On a national level, the coordinated strikes on 1 October across the rail, post and docks involving Aslef, RMT, TSSA, Unite and CWU offered a glimpse of our immense power. That is the model to which we need to return and escalate to an all-out strike.

Moreover, given the generalised attack on our class, co-ordinated and escalated industrial action needs to be combined with united protests on the streets to forge a co-ordinated national movement as a vehicle to fight for our wider independent class interests. That is why the People’s Assembly demonstration on 5 November was so important. The Tories fear the possibilities of generalised resistance. A united working-class movement on the streets against the cost of living, climate change and war can also deliver the solidarity to the picket lines necessary for the strikes to win.

Tories’ last will and testament

We have to win a shift in strategy away from limited, sequential 24/48hr strikes towards greater co-ordination and, crucially, escalating action. What is clear is that the depth of the crisis will provoke further industrial conflict, bitterness and workers’ struggles as well as protests on the streets.

New groups of workers entering the fray can skip the past six-months experience on the rail, post and telecoms strike in that they can learn the necessity of co-ordination and escalation immediately. Just as they can learn from the Liverpool dockers’ victory.

During these disputes, we’ve witnessed some brilliant local and sector rank-and-file activity and solidarity in delivering strike votes, picket lines and secondary action. Our weakness, however, is that nowhere have we been able thus far to transform short-term action into an independent and permanent rank-and-file political force.

This is a critical factor in the struggles taking place now and for those yet to come. The moments that we’ve got it right, the level of direct action and direct democracy, of solidarity, respect and dignity between and across groups of workers, has on occasion also spilt over from the workplace and into the streets. It is this that opens the possibilities for a restructure of society along more egalitarian, collective and democratic lines. In a word, socialism.

Here lies our power to write the Tories’ last will and testament.

Before you go…

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Source: Counterfire.org