Along with the nurses and the ambulance drivers, the university workers are one of the more recent sectors of the working class to join the current strike wave. In London on November 30, on the third day of strike action called by the University and College Union, there was a rally at Kings Cross station in London which the UCU billed as their biggest ever demonstration. Several thousand workers from up and down the country took part.
Despite the fact that over the last few months we have seen strikes in numerous sectors – trains, buses, underground, post, Amazon, health, schools in Scotland, in the North Sea oil fields and elsewhere – the trade unions have in general been very cautious about calling for unitary demonstrations in major cities. So the fact that the UCU invited leaders from a number of other unions involved in the strikes to speak at this rally – Dave Ward from the Communication Workers Union, Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, and in particular Mick Lynch of the RMT – is a sign that the unions are compelled to put on a show of working class solidarity and unity. Charged by the capitalist state with the vital task of keeping the class struggle under control, with taking the temperature within the working class, they recognise that they are faced with a growing understanding among “the membership” not only that the working class exists but that all workers are under attack and need to resist together.
This appeal to a recovering sense of class identity was most clearly expressed in the speech by Mick Lynch, who was given star billing at the rally, second only to Jo Grady, the UCU general secretary. The whole tenor of his speech was that workers cannot rely on the politicians to defend them – he said that when people asked why wasn’t the RMT affiliated to the Labour Party, his response was “why are we still shackled to the Labour Party?” – and that only the united, militant action of ordinary workers, overcoming all divisions between sectors, between male and female, between races and religions, could guarantee victory. And, of course, this unity could only be achieved through the trade unions, aka “the organised working class”.
It was significant that the biggest cheers from the audience came in response to these calls for unity in the struggle. The university workers at the rally no longer see themselves as a privileged elite of intellectuals, but as part of the working class, faced with job insecurity (the university sector being one of the pioneers of the “gig economy” with the majority of teachers and researchers on short term and unstable contracts), stagnating wages and rising prices. All this was played up again in Jo Grady’s closing speech.
It is certainly important that the university workers at this rally were coming together to express their solidarity with each other and with other sectors fighting for essentially the same demands. But it comes as no surprise that the organisers of this rally demanded nothing from the participants except to cheer in the right places and to go home when it was all over. Not a hint of workers coming together to discuss, to assess where they are in the struggle, to make concrete proposals for uniting with other sectors. The message of the unions boils down to this: leave it to your official representatives and all will be well.
But these “official representatives”, who in reality “represent” the capitalist state in the ranks of the workers, are precisely those who are keeping workers divided by calling them out sector by sector, on different days, and in different parts of the country. In a number of cases, the strikes are divided even within the sector: for example, in the post, there have been different days of action for sorters, drivers, delivery workers… The unions’ argument in favour of this tactic is that by acting in this way, workers can keep pressure on the bosses and not lose too much in their wage packets. And of course, no workers can afford to sacrifice their wages lightly in a time of deepening economic crisis. But what the union “tacticians” hide is that the ruling class fears, above all, the threat of truly massive, unified actions by the working class, and it is this threat which is the only factor that will force them to withdraw, at least temporarily, their assault on living standards.
And it is these “official representatives” who make sure that massive, unified actions do not break out by policing the state’s so-called “anti-union” laws, which are in fact laws designed to stop workers from struggling outside the unions, from making decisions on strikes in general assemblies, not ballots, from sending “secondary pickets” to other workplaces to call them out on strike, from taking strike action on the spot instead of giving bosses and the government weeks of warning.
And finally, it is with their false promises of victory that the unions systematically hide the reality of the situation facing the working class: a capitalist system at the extreme end of its tether, offering a future of poverty and destruction, where workers’ economic victory in the struggle can only be short-lived, and where the true victory is the growing capacity of the working class to unite and to recognise that the real aim of this unity is the overthrow of the dominant class and its dying order.
Amos, December 2022