Britain’s summer of industrial discontent

7 August 2022
Ruby Healer

Chants of “Victory to the RMT” echo through Britain’s major cities as 40,000 rail workers continue their resolute campaign for better pay. Their actions have ignited the confidence of a working class facing wide-ranging assaults on living standards. Headline inflation is running at 9.4 percent in the UK, and ordinary workers are being hit hardest. Housing, water and fuel costs have risen by 19.6 percent since June 2021, and real wages are falling at the fastest rate in two decades.

Since the magnificent three-day rail strike in June, more and more workplaces are being rocked by industrial action. 40,000 British Telecom workers walked off in early August following a second round of rail strikes, and 115,000 postal workers are expected to go out in September. As Red Flag goes to press, dockers are gearing up for disputes at Britain’s major ports, and ballots are under way across the public service. What began as a potentially isolated battle on the railways has turned into a torrent of class struggle, with rail workers giving the lead.

Unjum Mirza is a train driver and union activist on the London Underground, where 6,000 drivers from the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen have joined Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) members in strikes across the transport system. Unjum tells Red Flag the RMT’s large, coordinated actions have generated “a gravitational pull that draws in far wider layers of our class, irrespective of union, irrespective of sector”.

The eruption hasn’t come out of nowhere. Britain has seen a modest uptick in strikes over the past two years. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, bosses and government have insisted on wage suppression as a necessary sacrifice. Despite growing profits, Unjum says, “We’ve had workers doing their third year without a pay rise at all. So there was a general thrust towards disputes and ballots anyway”.

The turning point came in late June, when rail workers launched national rolling strikes over pay. “What we’re starting to see out of a number of local disputes”, Unjum says, “with the rail disputes and indeed with BT [formerly British Telecom] and possibly the postal workers dispute, we’re starting to see the first national confrontations between capital and labour”.

This momentum has led both sides of politics to speak of a “summer of discontent” in British industrial relations, a reference to the “winter of discontent” in 1978-79, when similar inflationary wage pressures triggered major cross-sectional union battles. Many hope the current strike wave could mark the beginnings of an equally historic moment for British workers.

The labour movement has certainly embarked on a series of substantial political and industrial fights over summer, and the RMT’s unapologetic stance has shattered the deafening silence emanating from most trade union leaders over decades of neoliberalism, falling wages and skyrocketing profits.

But these years of quiescence mean that workers today are starting from historic lows in terms of strike experience, union membership and pay and conditions at work. According to the Resolution Foundation, only 23 percent of workers in the UK were members of their trade union in 2021. Membership rates in the private sector sit as low as 10 percent. In 1980, by contrast, at least 53 percent of the British workforce were organised in trade unions. Many were engaged in robust rank-and-file networks capable of sustaining prolonged wildcat actions over the winter of discontent.

Today, it’s the degradation of working-class living standards and union power that provides fuel for the industrial upsurge. Unjum tells me he often invokes the words of writer Oscar Wilde at union meetings: “If you’re in the gutter and you look down, all you’ll see is shit. So look up, you know, and unite our struggles. And it’s quite easy to unite those struggles, because we are literally all in the same shit”. In this context, the RMT’s basic call for wages to keep up with inflation offers a unifying demand that workers can put forward across the board.

Workers in Britain face a long road ahead in rebuilding their industrial strength. The return of major and defiant strike action is the first, crucial step along this path. “There’s definitely been a shift in the mood since the strikes in June”, says Unjum. “There’s a greater confidence to fight, to join a union, have pride in the union, to go on strike and join a picket line.”

Rank-and-file activists are jumping on the combative mood to link up struggles across workplaces. Since early June, Unjum and a group of militant rail workers have been visiting striking cleaners at London’s St George’s Hospital. “The cleaners, hospital staff and other key workers were essential to saving lives in the pandemic”, he says. “They’ve been rewarded with a pay cut.”

On the last Saturday of rail strikes in June, the cleaners organised a demonstration at the hospital. “Myself and a couple of RMT members went down to show some solidarity at their picket line in South London”, Unjum recalls. “And then we got the entire strike and the entire protest onto the London Underground! Onto the Northern Line, continued the protest on the Northern Line and up to King’s Cross. We took over Euston Road, and we joined—very noisily—joined the RMT picket and the mass rally there. It just showed you a glimpse of the potential in our class ... The dynamic, how it can generalise so quickly ... It was just electric.” With significant ballots on the way in the National Health Service, in the postal service and across private industry, this generalisation is unfolding in real time.

Political factors are further escalating the situation. A crisis at the top of the ruling Conservative Party has already led prospective leaders to raise the spectre of Thatcherism in response to the strikes. Leadership contender Liz Truss’ imitation of the hated former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is disturbingly accurate, while rival Rishi Sunak, for his part, has been unambiguous: “My values are Thatcherite ... I am running as a Thatcherite and I will govern as a Thatcherite”. Both candidates are promising all-out attacks on the workers’ movement in an attempt to win back the confidence of British capital at large.

The government’s uncompromising stance has prompted some union leaders to table the possibility of a general strike. Unjum says this sort of offensive action is exactly what workers need:

“My own preference would be joint dates between all three [rail] unions ... This government simply couldn’t sustain an all-out strike on the railways. You know, we prise open the fractures among the ruling circles, we go out and we don’t tell them when we’re coming back. That’s how we’re going to win.”

But peak union bodies are yet to deliver anything close to this level of coordination and resolve. Among the official representatives of the labour movement, trouble is brewing. Opposition frontbencher Sam Tarry was sacked last month for appearing on RMT picket lines, and Labour leader Keir Starmer has promised he will fight the next general election on a platform of “economic growth” involving public sector wage caps. A growing number of union officials have slammed Labour’s positioning around the strikes, many signalling they may pull funds and affiliation from the party. Whether these threats are made in earnest is yet to be seen, but Starmer is unlikely to experience smooth sailing on the way to Labour’s national conference in September.

What’s clear to workers like Unjum is that parliamentary politics offers no way out of the present crisis. “Frankly speaking, most people know. Everybody hates the Tories, of course, but no one’s got any illusions or holding any reliance on the Labour Party.”

“Politics”, Unjum explains, “is about power. And here you’ve got on one side the arrangements of power on a parliamentary level. I think the key issue is, how do we now organise, demonstrate and mobilise an alternative power? That has to be extra-parliamentary, and it’s got to be in terms of the trade union rank-and-file”.

Reflecting on the tasks to come, Unjum says the situation is still highly unpredictable. “There’re all sorts of dangers ahead in terms of strategies in taking this fight forward, in terms of what [the union leaders] negotiate and settle on, and in terms of the bigger political fight.”

But the next few months in Britain will be rife with opportunity. Beyond the next round of rail strikes in August, unions will be engaged in fights well into the autumn. On the political front, a new prime minister will be installed on 5 September, and will likely bring with them a raft of anti-worker legislation demanding a clear response from the labour movement. Simmering tensions inside the traditional party of the trade unions could erupt, raising new possibilities that may serve equally to dampen or to inflame workers’ confidence.

“In terms of how this crisis unfolds, we’ll see”, Unjum says. “We don’t have a crystal ball on that, but we can try and shape the trajectory of where this goes. We are amidst a crisis which is global ... one thing that we can do, and that we must do, is organise the balance of forces in our favour.”

British workers have shown us that solidarity, strikes and class struggle are back on the agenda in the developed capitalist world. Even where unions are relatively weak and their parliamentary organisations hopelessly bankrupt, the working class still hold immense power. Let’s hope they can turn this summer of discontent into a boiling hot autumn.

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