Britain’s historic strike wave
Britain’s historic strike wave)

The class struggle in Britain is undergoing a momentous transformation. After decades of low strike rates and declining union membership, workers are now engaged in serious and wide-ranging confrontations with bosses. 

Last June, a series of mass strikes on the railways smashed through years of industrial quiescence and put class struggle back on the agenda. The strikes garnered huge public support. As inflation and rising prices ate away at purchasing power, British workers’ real wages had fallen at the sharpest rate in two decades. Years of austerity and public spending cuts under Conservative and local Labour governments had generated a mass of combustible resentment. When rail workers walked off the job, they provided the spark to set it alight. 

By September, 40,000 British Telecom (BT) employees had struck alongside 115,000 postal workers and 50,000 rail workers. Trade unions organised mass rallies and picket line visits to support the fight on the rails. Dock workers launched five weeks of rolling strikes while wildcat strikes rocked offshore oil rigs and Amazon warehouses. Ballots were out for industrial action across the public service as new layers of teachers, nurses and council workers joined the growing revolt. 

This strike wave has now generalised into the most prolonged revival of industrial action in Britain since the end of the Thatcher era. A single rail walkout in July 2022 involved more workers than an entire year’s worth of strikes across all industries in 2017. The figures for August 2022, when BT and postal workers also took action, were more than double the total annual strike days for the whole of 2015. 

The last significant uptick in strikes in Britain occurred in 2011, when public sector unions held coordinated days of action over proposed pension changes. But the current wave is far broader and long lasting, extending to many branches of private industry and involving protracted disputes as well as one-day strikes. And while workers today are mainly organising around economic demands, these strikes have taken on their own political character by decimating ruling-class narratives about the “cost-of-living crisis”. Trade unionists in Britain have made it plain for all to see that inflation is class-war-from-above and that bosses are lining their pockets by withholding pay rises. 

The biggest disputes are taking place in the public sector, where the bosses negotiating pay deals are themselves Conservative Party heads of ministry. The railways, the post and the National Health Service (NHS) are all treasured services devastated by spending cuts and privatisations. This only heightens the sense that the organised working class is going head to head with a hated and unstable Conservative government, taking revenge for decades of Tory and Blairite “restructuring”.

When Red Flag last reported on Britain’s new strike wave, a number of questions remained unanswered. Would the millions of workers eager to fight really overcome draconian thresholds to win new strike ballots? Would key unions continue to act on existing mandates to strike, or embark on an orderly retreat? And how would union members respond when leaders tried to wind down action?

Today we can begin to answer these questions, albeit tentatively. We should first remind ourselves that Britain has some of the strictest industrial relations laws in Europe, and it was hardly a fait accompli that unions would be able to generalise the struggle beyond the railways in the way we have seen. 

Yet workers did crash through restrictive balloting thresholds in sector after sector and return overwhelming mandates to strike. Then, following the death of the queen in September, unions called off actions in rail and communications. Some union leaders began to speak of “getting around the table with the bosses” to wind up their disputes. For a moment, it seemed like the momentum could be pissed up the wall. But getting bosses “around the table” proved harder than the union officials might have hoped. Workers rightly rejected September’s below-inflation pay offers, and in rail and the postal service, bosses dug in their heels and refused to negotiate further. Simon Thompson, chief executive of Royal Mail, even threatened to tear up existing union agreements, unilaterally impose “productivity” measures on workers and cut 10,000 jobs. 

This intransigence forced union leaders to prolong their disputes, and strikes continued on the railways and in the post. Then came the massive mandates for strikes in the NHS and other public services around Christmas. By 1 February, half a million workers were out in a day of united action that shut down schools, hospitals and train stations. And they didn’t just stay at home—strikers took to the streets around the United Kingdom, with 40,000 marching in London alone. Another day of coordinated strikes on 15 March brought similar scenes – this time workers also closed universities and even stopped regional broadcasts by the BBC. 

In a historic development for the British labour movement, workers covered by the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) union have been striking since December—the RCN had never before called for walk-offs since its founding in 1916. 

Today, more than 1 million workers in Britain have a mandate to strike, with actions planned across schools and universities, in the civil service from local councils to the British Museum and in health from the ambulances to physiotherapy suites. Strikes continue in transport and communications. The momentum clearly hasn’t been lost, but there are troubling signs that union leaders are once again preparing to waste it.

A huge blow to the movement was delivered by the rail union leaders’ decision to settle with Network Rail. The deal provides 4.5 percent wage increases for 2023 and 2024 – a massive pay cut for rail workers when retail price inflation still runs at 13.5 percent. Though some rail strikes will continue at smaller private transport companies, the Network Rail deal sets a dangerous new benchmark for what union leaders are willing to accept. 

The union’s general secretary, Mick Lynch, for a time was an intransigent public spokesperson for above-inflation pay increases. His retreat signals to other unions that substandard pay deals to end the strikes are both possible and desirable. 

Unions entered this fray in order to reassert themselves as important social institutions, and to regain some legitimacy with workers after decades of traitorous inaction in the face of government cuts. Those aims have now largely been achieved, with union leaders regularly interviewed on the nightly news and tens of thousands of British workers joining their unions for the first time. For the Mick Lynches of the world, it’s time to wrap up the strikes and get back to a comfortable social peace on a slightly stronger footing.

Outside of the railways, days of action are being called off quite regularly as union officials seek more time to negotiate in back rooms with bosses and governments. The RCN called off major strikes at the beginning of March to enter new talks with the government, emerging from the negotiations with an insulting 5 percent pay offer for nurses. RCN union leaders recommended that members vote to accept the deal. 

Nurses knew better. Last week it was announced that RCN members had rejected the pay offer and are now gearing up for new strikes. This heroic “no” vote by nurses should be an inspiration to every worker feeling demoralised by their leaders’ weak and compromising stance. But it didn’t come out of nowhere—for months, nurses have been organising through the campaign “NHS Workers Say No”, discussing ways to win solidarity for their strikes and drawing attention to the systemic crisis in health funding. 

When details of the 5 percent offer and the RCN’s recommendation were released, this rank-and-file group launched straight into a “vote no” campaign. They leafleted hundreds of hospitals with information about the attempted sell-out and held meetings with nurses and socialists from other industries who could offer a political analysis of the officials’ actions. 

The RCN responded by calling in the police to investigate accusations of “fraud” against NHS Workers Say No members. That nurses were willing to reject the pay offer, against a campaign of intimidation from their own union leaders, is testament to how effective rank-and-file campaigns can be when they are well organised and militant. It is the latest “historic” moment in a year of historic turning points for the British labour movement. 

Elsewhere, the same tensions between union leaders and the rank and file are playing out as officials try to push through shoddy deals or end strikes. In the University and College Union (UCU), leaders have persistently tried to call off strike action, but a strong socialist bloc in the union’s Higher Education Committee has defeated them every time. UCU members are now engaged in an assessments and marking boycott and are looking to escalate industrial action. 

Members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), so far engaged in a ten-month battle against Royal Mail, are simmering with rage at leaders’ attempts to pause strikes and keep details of negotiations secret. One anonymous postie interviewed by Socialist Worker articulated the anger: “They’re chucking the strength of the union down the bloody drain ... Look back at the rally we had in London. Look at the big ballot for strikes we had ... Why are they wasting that momentum?”

The question now is whether postal workers will follow the nurses’ lead and organise on the ground. Only a coordinated network of militant union members would be able to confront the CWU’s well-oiled bureaucracy in any future fights to reject a deal or stage further strikes. Building rank-and-file organisation in every union is an urgent task today as officials seek to wind up disputes. 

In Australia, we should take heart from the struggles of British workers. They have shown us what is possible when one section of the class gives a lead. The revival of the labour movement in this country is no longer a fantasy or nostalgic daydream about the past. It is possible, after decades of dwindling union membership and suffocating silence from union leaders in a Western capitalist country, to break the trajectory of decline. If they can do it over there, we can do it over here. The first step is to get organised.

PHOTO CREDIT: Steve Eason (Flickr)

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