After a serious setback in the struggle during the first year of the Covid pandemic, workers in Europe, the US and elsewhere, are beginning to react to the attacks on wages and working conditions. While the pandemic is peaking at new heights with the appearance of the Omicron variant, workers are facing even more severe attacks on their living standards through rising inflation and increasing energy costs.
In the UK, we have seen outbreaks of small but significant strikes during the autumn. Beginning in September with strikes of Uber delivery workers, strikes have continued in different sectors: health workers in nursing homes of SAGE, refuse workers in Glasgow, university staff on a national level. And strikes are continuing: distribution workers, tube workers in London, transport workers in the North West and Yorkshire, workers in the car industry, in supermarkets, food production and distribution.
Today all sectors of the working class in the UK – from traditional sectors like car workers to civil servants and university employees – are facing the same attacks on their living standards. As we have pointed out in our Resolution of the International Situation from last summer: “The working class is paying a heavy tribute to the crisis. First because it is most directly exposed to the pandemic and is the principal victim of the spread of infection, and secondly because the downward dive in the economy is unleashing the most serious attacks since the Great Depression, at all levels of working and living conditions, although not all will be affected in the same way.” 
The pandemic has, both directly and indirectly, created an apparently paradoxical situation: unemployment in some sectors together with a shortage of labour in others, combined with increased poverty because of rising prices. The result of two years of rescue packages, of “helicopter money” spread by all national bourgeoisies, desperately trying to save the economy from the worst effects of the pandemic – mainly through printing money – has led to a drastic rise in inflation throughout the world, and to higher costs for basic needs such as food and electricity. Moreover workers face a continuous lowering of their income, through restructuration and increasing precariousness.
The first new expressions of working class combativity, as we have seen in various parts of the world, are clearly illustrated by what is happening in the UK. In a growing number of sectors, workers’ discontent is being fuelled by pay cuts and worsening living conditions. It shows that the class is beginning to assert itself on its own terrain, not being immersed in the general chaos of the pandemic, the increasingly erratic behaviour of the ruling class, and the bourgeois terrain of “peoples” protests against lockdown measures.
Unions will only lead the struggles to defeat
Unions have systematically sabotaged protests and other workers’ actions, either by dispersing them in time, or by concluding agreements with the bosses even before strikes were due to take place. They have consistently forced striking workers to go back to work with cuts in wages and worse working conditions.
We saw this already in April 2021 when unions ended a six-week long strike at British Gas, where workers had to accept a wage cut of 15% or get sacked. In May, an eleven-week strike in Manchester bus garages was ended by the unions after a deal that meant unpaid meal breaks and reduced sick-pay. Workers at Douwe Egberts in Oxford had to accept an annual wage cut of £9,000 after the unions declared that this would prevent the factory being moved to another country. At British Telecom in July, the Communication Workers Union agreed to a cut of 13,000 jobs.
Over the autumn, the Unison union called for strikes to defend the state funded health sector, the NHS – instead of fighting for workers’ demands. Unions have been quick to stop potential strikes and walk-outs by concluding agreements that mean downright pay cuts. In public transport, twenty different disputes all over Britain at Stagecoach have been settled by the Unite union, leading to wage deals that were not enough to compensate for inflation. The same with distribution workers before Christmas, where the unions blocked strike action from thousands of workers at the big distribution centres for the large supermarket chains, to settle a payment deal below the inflation rate. For the moment, the RMT union, organising London tube workers, is the only example where the union has reached a deal which is matching the expected inflation – after threatening chaos in the London Underground in December.
The increase in trade union activity, whose role is to exhaust the workers’ combativity through separate and isolated actions, is a sign that the ruling class is taking into account the rise in working class militancy, knowing that the attacks today are only the harbinger of unprecedented attacks in the years to come. Up to now the bourgeoisie in the main countries has not launched massive austerity programmes, but it will certainly have to.
The unions are the watchdogs of the ruling class in the proletariat and have been so since the beginning of the last century. The true nature of the unions is shown both through their attempts to divide the class and through their attempts to stop the strikes and actions through quick deals with the bosses. This is their basic function, and all the various leftist arguments that blame this or that treacherous union leader are nothing but a way to strengthen union ideology, a real trap for the proletariat. They attempt to radicalise this union ideology through criticising the union leadership or calling on the workers to form rank and file committees, a classic strategy of mobilising radicalised workers behind union banners, deployed since the 1980s.
Rising inflation can be a unifying factor in the working class
“Even before the pandemic struck, British workers had suffered the worst decade for real wage growth since the Napoleonic wars. While 2022 will stand out for a particularly sharp hit to living standards, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reckons incomes will barely budge up until 2026. This means an unprecedented hit to earnings spanning two decades, and will leave household incomes 42% lower than would have been the case if wages had risen at pre-2008 financial crisis rates.”
The Observer (8/1/22), cited a university employee who took part in the three-day action in the beginning of December, saying that “there hasn’t been a pay award above inflation since Gordon Brown was Prime Minister.” This is the reality, for more than a decade, for all sectors of the working class.
At 5.4% the official level of inflation in the UK is at its highest level in almost 30 years. The Bank of England expects it to rise to 6% by April, with some analysts predicting 7% if billions aren’t poured in to the energy sector to cap rocketing heating costs. The Retail Price Index is already running at 7.5%.
The article in The Observer also cites an economist: “Until a few weeks ago, the incomes expert Ken Mulkearn was convinced a spike in inflation would pass without much reaction from Britain’s 32 million-strong workforce. (…) ‘Now I’m not so sure. There are signs rising prices are having an impact.’” The representatives of the ruling class have also noticed the rising discontent in the working class. They know the effects of rising inflation on the social powder keg.
Workers must fight against isolation
The more prominent actions of the unions are a clear sign that the ruling class is aware of the potential danger of working class struggle. The unions are present everywhere to prevent struggles from developing and extending to other workers. The actual task of the unions is focussed on the isolation and derailment of the struggles into dead-ends.
But the struggles must not remain isolated, sector by sector! All parts of the working class are under attack, and this demands a unified response! The struggle that took place in Cadiz in Spain is an important example for all workers: an attempt to spread their strike to other sectors and industries. The only way for the working class to struggle on its own terrain is to fight isolation, which the unions are enforcing.
Despite the fact that the unions still have a tight control of the situation, the recent struggles in the UK are a sign that the working class still maintains reserves of combativity. As in other parts of the world, its defensive struggle of to-day contains the seeds of the revolutionary struggle against capitalism of tomorrow.