An unprecedented wave of strikes

Autumn 2022

The wave of strikes over pay and jobs not only continues, but appears to be growing. Strikers are demanding pay rises in line with inflation and an end to attacks on their jobs and conditions.  The general cry is “Enough is Enough!”, the slogan of an official union-led campaign against the new austerity (or the old austerity, to be more correct), led by the rising star of the strikers, leader Mick Lynch of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union and Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union, which has been leading a national strike of postal, British Telecoms and post office workers.  The reason for this unprecedented industrial action, the first such wave in 40 years in the case of railway workers, is straightforward: the working class faces the sharpest increase in its cost of living in 60 years.  RPI inflation was 12.3% in September.  Many of these workers worked through the pandemic as “second class” heroes (the nurses and doctors got the medals)… and as their unions have put it, now they are regarded as “zeros”!

    Everyone’s real wages have fallen compared to inflation, which suddenly began to shoot up last year.  And of course, particularly the price of energy, which has gone up by 93% in the year since October (but by more, if you have a pay-as-you-go meter), even taking government subsidies and the Truss price cap into account!

    On top of that, many workers in the public services, particularly the railways, have had their pay frozen for 3 years.  So it’s no surprise – in fact high time - that the 300,000 NHS nurses organised in the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) who were only offered a 5% rise, and the 150,000 low-paid civil servants who face massive job cuts (maybe 100,000) and were offered 2-3.5%, should ballot over industrial action.  Their results are due between the 2nd and 7th November.

Is this a real strike?

    So far railway workers have taken a total of 8 days of strike action, over a period of 5 months.  So despite all the fuss from bosses and media, this has caused negligible disruption and amounts to a token strike.  What’s more, while the government waves the threat of imposing “minimal service guarantees” on unions (among other threats), railway bosses are managing to do just that, provide minimum services, by driving trains, acting as guards and manning signal controls.

    So for instance, 1 in 20 trains were running on the 8 October.  But as can be expected, the media mouthpieces of the bosses and their government keep doing their utmost to turn public opinion against the strikers.  For good reason, apparently, because even in late August the polls showed that over two thirds of the public sympathised with the strikes.

    The media did not give up, though.  This is what was written on the BBC website on the occasion of the last RMT strike day on 8 October: “The Office for National Statistics has estimated the average salary of rail workers as £43,747, based on five different job categories. If drivers are excluded, its estimate is £36,800”.  They also include managers, of whom, as is the case in most workplaces, there are far too many!  So is it a lot?  Nationally, according to the ONS, the average monthly salary (all workers, including professionals) is £31,461/month.  But to live in London “comfortably”, it is estimated a single person renting his/her own place would need £50,000/year.  And what is the real average pay for the largest category of railway worker – those who man stations, gates, do on-board catering, portering and sell tickets?  In fact half of that; around £25,000!

Those who are sidelined by the union

It should be said however, that the workers on strike today don’t even represent all of the railway staff, nor even the most important.  Those who do the cleaning, tanking, provision of supplies, depot work - all tasks which are fundamental to the service - are actually employed by subcontractors, which is one of the many consequences of rail privatisation 27 years ago.

    Many of these workers are on the minimum wage, or, if they have had strikes, slightly more than that.  Meaning pay of £18,240 - £19,000 a year.  These workers are mostly unionised, and mainly in the RMT, but have been excluded completely from the current strike action led by this union, and have had to wait for separate ballots.

    That said, they are told that their union, the RMT “has not forgotten them”: after all, it has now mounted a “campaign” for a £15/hour minimum wage for all cleaners…

    However, it should be mentioned that some of these workers had already been taking strike action on their own, organised by the RMT, for 6 months.  This was to provide the union with what can only be called “advertising material” because the strategy employed by the RMT officials in charge of negotiations with the company was doomed to failure from day 1 and they surely knew it.

    This is what happened: the Churchill workers based at St Pancras Station in London, who clean trains for Eurostar and South East trains were sent out on strike.  The RMT mounted a highly moralistic campaign about their terrible hardship (leafleting the public) which was the truth, but could have no effect whatsoever on the employer.  In all, they were called out to strike for 22 days in total from 1-7 days at a time - while the Churchill bosses just shipped in workers from other stations (often also RMT members, but not asked to strike!) to take their place.  Now, after 6 months of this useless striking (but they had lots of photos taken, and were given strike pay for attending pickets), they have to be re-balloted since, under the current trade union laws, the official strike mandate only lasts for 6 months!  Whether the latest version of the £15/hour campaign, which is meant to pull workers from all the different cleaning companies together, will actually materialise is still an open question...

    But now the strike mandate of the RMT’s main battalion, the core workforce of the train operating companies and Network Rail (signals and track) is also running out.  So the RMT has to renew this by going through the whole expensive and time-consuming rigmarole of ballot notification to the employer, checking all members details, then 2-4 weeks later, posting out ballot forms, then allowing 2-4 weeks for the forms to be posted back, then announcing the result and then, giving 2 weeks notice of a strike date…  In the worst case it takes 12 weeks and in the best, 6!  That’s the result of wasting 6 months of strike mandate with ineffective 1- or 2-day strikes.  It does not win the fast and resounding victory which was within the strikers’ grasp, had they gone all out indefinitely.  The workers had the resolve.  The union leaders did not.

The case of the criminal barristers

The criminal barristers’ strike illustrates “what works”.  This unlikely bunch of top professionals have had a long dispute with the government’s Department of Justice which began with a 94% vote for strike action, on 11 April.  In fact they were the first section of workers to kick off the strike wave.  And now they are the first to end it, after a small majority (56.8%) voted to accept a 15% pay rise “plus extras” deal which is far short of their demand for 25% but will still amount to an extra £7,000 a year for most.

    As most of their earnings come out of the government’s “legal aid” which cover the costs of defending criminal offenders, their pay is anything but “top” - for many, it is less than £30,000 per year.  And to make matters worse, legal aid has been systematically cut with every new government, so that these barristers’ real earnings have fallen by 28% since 2006.  They were therefore demanding a 25% increase in pay.  They also faced a backlog of 60,000 cases but were told that a pay increase would apply to new cases and not the backlog.  So, after staging week-long strikes interspersed with periods back at work, they announced on 5 September that they would go out on an all-out, indefinite strike.  Yes indeed, the only union to “dare” to take such action, even if it’s the most obviously effective and efficient way to win a strike!  And it seems to have forced the government’s hand.  Because now they will get an above inflation rise (but sadly not 28%) and be paid for most of the backlog as well.  Perhaps a refusal to compromise was too much to expect from this collective of lawyers.

The “working class is back”?

There has been much publicity given and many hopes have risen, after the RMT’s Mick Lynch not only decided finally that all train companies (well nearly all - 15 out of 22) should be balloted for simultaneous strike action, but also announced the “return of the working class” from the platform at the Durham miners’ gala.  He has since repeated this many times.  And it is being taken by many on the left as reflecting the union leadership’s resolve to revive the working class movement.  As if that’s where the revival of the class struggle will come from!

    Anyway, words, like appearances, can be deceiving.  Unlike the strikes during the so-called Winter of Discontent in the 1970s or even the strikes which helped bring down the Heath government in 1974, today’s strikes remain “push-button strikes”, that is, controlled and managed exclusively by the union bureaucrats: workers are called out for one or two days, or exceptionally, for two weeks, as in the case of the Liverpool dock workers, but then told to go back to work, while they await further instructions from the same leaders.  Everything is decided above their heads.  And the government is taking opportunity of this obvious democratic deficit and twisting it in their favour in order to cripple the unions further with new anti-union laws.  It now wants them to ballot strikers on every new offer a boss makes during negotiations.  When of course, there is a case for open and fully transparent negotiations, in front of the workforce.  But this isn’t it!

    By comparing today’s strikes with the 1970s, it is not to say that everything was better in the old days, of course.  The context today is very different.  On the one hand, the decline of British industry, outright closures of mining, steel and shipbuilding, plus serial privatisations and work casualisation has changed the nature of the workforce, with union membership shrinking drastically.  And on the other hand, union machineries adapted to the situation, particularly after the defeat of the one-year-long miner’s strike in 1985, after which harsh antitrade union laws were passed.

    They abandoned any pretence of engaging in class struggle and entered into “partnerships” with the employers.  Over the past decades these have been spelt out and explicitly codified, as if workers and bosses had the self-same interest, i.e., together to ensure that business was competitive and profitable.  The “minor detail”, which is dismissed by the union bureaucrats is that when workers’ wages go up, the bosses’ profits go down and vice versa; a fundamental antagonism between labour and capital, which the true working class advocate, Karl Marx, exposed 170 years ago.

    So for the past several decades, if strike ballots were held they were used chiefly as a bargaining chip in negotiations and if strikes took place at all, these were mostly token, 24-hour walk-outs at most, of one section of workers at a time, protracting a dispute endlessly and uselessly and usually ending in defeat.

    In this issue of Class Struggle we discuss the union Unite, and whether the supposedly “new” picket-line approach of its General Secretary Sharon Graham represents a qualitative change in this respect.

    Because today we have to ask whether these strikes which are being promoted under the heading of a new militancy, both by the capitalist class and its media, and the union machineries themselves, are qualitatively different from the sectional and token push-button strikes post-1980s?

    There is no doubt that the hand of the union leaderships was pushed by the mood of workers.  The workforce was talking about the need to strike against the bosses, months before the ballots.  On the railways in particular, workers who had been promised a national strike ballot over pay when the pay freeze was first announced 3 years ago, were literally demanding “their” strike ballot.  The same can be said for postal workers, who are not only low paid but facing the “Amazonisation” of their working conditions.

    And the problem they have (they do not remember how things went last time, as it was too long ago!) is that now that they have their strikes, they are faced with the same bureaucratic machinery which treats them like tin soldiers!

    So they have no say on how they strike, where they strike, or when they strike and with whom.  The idea of having their own ad hoc strike committees to take control of such decisions into the hands of the strikers themselves may even be there.  But there is not much opportunity to even organise such a committee, since the majority of strikers are not mobilised to come to a picket line.  The officials and shop stewards man the pickets, but only a few others turn up and it’s the same faces every time.  When the local officials are asked about mobilising more support for picket gatherings, they resist.  Which, of course, prevents anyone usurping the control of the bureaucratic machineries above everyone’s heads - including their own, often very dedicated, heads.  And of course the longer the strikes drag on, one, two, or even more days at a time, the less enthusiastic the strikers feel about it.  The bosses know this very well and try to encourage them to come back to work.

    The strikers themselves understand, however, that it is an all-out indefinite strike which is the best way to win - and moreover, that the more generalised the action, across all sectors, the better.  The criminal barristers’ success may well have opened more minds to this, even if theirs is not an outright victory.  Can this step can be taken at this stage by other sections of workers, so that the strikes do not slowly wind down?  We can only hope so.

10 October 2022