The cost of living crisis isn’t the only reason for workers across many sections to be on strike. For sure, above-inflation wage rises are totally indispensable right now.
An 80% increase in already hardly-affordable energy bills, on 1 October, makes a victory for these strikes vital and urgent. They cannot be dragged out. It’s obvious that hitting hard with as much weight as possible - all out together - is what’s needed, for immediate results!
But wages aren’t the only problem. The bosses have been getting away with slashing working conditions for many decades. The strike of the dockers at Felixstowe is the first significant port strike in 30 years; railway workers hadn’t had a national strike in 40 years. Postal workers last took national strike action in 2009 - and even then, did not prevent the severe erosion of Ts&Cs, nor the end of their defined benefit pension scheme, helping to set the scene for the strike-free privatisation of Royal Mail 4 years later.
Murdering our working conditions
Over these 3 or 4 decades of strike-avoidance by union leaderships, the bosses have got away with murder. Above all, as anybody can see, they have all but killed permanent, full-time employment.
And now, due to Johnson’s emergency legislation, it’s precisely temporary workers, who, signed up under precarious “contracts” by today’s plethora of fly-bynight agencies, are meant to be used as a weapon by the bosses against strikes. As if bringing totally bewildered agency workers into railway stations and mail centres can prevent strikes from biting! As if skilled workers can be replaced at the drop of a hat!
But other conditions have been killed stone-dead too. Most significantly, workers have lost the “right” to an 8-hour day. The historic demand of founders of the workers’ movement, like Tom Mann, articulated back in the 19th century - 8 hours for work, 8 hours for play and 8 hours for sleep - is almost forgotten!
Instead of automatically opposing overtime-working and insisting that there are enough workers to do the work in a “normal” working day, and on adequate wages, union reps officiate over the allocation of extra hours of work, even arguing for overlap shifts and weekend working, to make up wages.
Indeed, despite being signed up to the EU working time directive (no longer, of course!) British workers still carried on working the longest hours in Europe: all that bosses had to do was place an opt-out agreement in front of union leaders. They dutifully signed it, thereby also signing a warrant for many workers’ untimely, early deaths...
However, by collaborating time and again union bureaucracies also finally undermined themselves. Bosses slashed workers’ numbers and incorporated casualised “gig” conditions even into the traditional bastions of trade unionism, like the large car factories... So, to quote the government’s statistical bulletin: “...the proportion of UK employees who were trade union members fell to 23.1% in 2021... This represents the lowest union membership rate on record”.
If union leaders were not going to make themselves totally redundant, something had to be done. And it has meant them “rediscovering” the one effective weapon which workers have: the collective withdrawal of labour!
The words of the new railway workers’ union leader, Mick Lynch - asserting that the “working class is back” - are now being repeated everywhere. And yes, the whole working class definitely should be back and fighting, so as to win back what it has lost, but more than that, to finally gain its rightful place in society!
For a start, there has to be an end to temporary contracts - not just zero-hours contracts, as the TUC demands - but all contracts which tie workers in to working as agency temps for 2, 3, 4, even 8 years, as, for instance happens in the car industry! And linked directly to adequate pay and workers’ jobs, is the need to impose shorter hours of work and thus an end, once and for all, to all “overtime” working.
This might seem obvious. And it might seem as if today, with this strike wave, there is an escalating “movement” which will achieve these aims.
But let us beware. Take Unite’s Sharon Graham, another “new” leader who claims to be winning pay rises on behalf of workers by getting them to take strike action. The increases gained, are, she admits, not always “enough”. In fact many of the workers involved feel a bit like the “10,000 men” who the “Grand Old Duke of York” marched up to the top of the hill and then marched back down again. “She” goes off on their behalf to the bosses, and then uses “their” leverage!
Winning a bit of a pay rise, or getting energy bills cut a bit, is all very well, but none of this is going to restore the working class to its rightful place in society. While workers might belong to the one social class which produces all necessary goods and provides all essential services, if they cannot control their own collective destiny, they control nothing. So the “comeback” has to go further. Today it means advancing a step, by taking the control of the current struggles into the hands of those who’re doing the struggling.