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Are we seeing the dawn of a new era of strikes?  

After long years when days ‘lost’ to industrial action dwindled, workers are now stirring amid a cost of living crisis. Charlie Kimber asks whether a spate of walkouts marks the beginning of a new period
Issue 2808
strike workers

Workers strike at St. George’s hospital in south London (Picture: Ben Windsor)

There are more strikes in Britain than for several years, and more of them are winning at least some gains. There is still a very long way to go before there is a real upturn in struggle, but the new developments matter. GMB union members were in dispute—not necessarily on strike—with 42 employers between October 2021 and March 2022. That was seven times the number of disputes in the same period in 2019-20.

Disputes involving Unite union members are at about four times the number three years ago. Until recently the typical dispute was a desperately defensive struggle against pandemic pay cuts or fire and rehire assaults. Most of these battles were lost, or saw a rotten outcome where the union leaders accepted big concessions so long as they were negotiated rather than imposed. 

Often using the excuse of the pandemic, bosses slashed workers’ pay and demanded “flexibility” to fit in with ­whatever the company demanded. The worst example was the defeat at British Gas, but there were many others such as at JDE coffee in Oxford. In the public sector the ­government also imposed pay rises lower than inflation—even for the supposedly venerated health workers.

Three developments have changed the scene. The first is the return to full production as governments lifted all the ­pandemic restrictions. Many bosses are trying to expand and fill markets. The second factor, linked to the first, is a shortage of ­workers, particularly in areas such as heavy goods vehicle drivers.

Thirdly, inflation has soared to heights not seen for decades, and it has happened at a ­dizzying pace. In November 2020 the RPI rate of inflation was 0.9 ­percent. Now, 18 months later, it’s 11.1 percent. Nobody can miss it—every time you shop something else has gone up and there’s a nasty shock when you see the total at the checkout.

Above all there’s a shattering increase in the price of gas and electricity. This hits virtually everyone, and you can’t avoid it without sacrificing your health. It amounts to a generalised assault on working class people. This combination means there are now more strikes, most of them over pay.

If you are a bin lorry driver and you know your boss can’t easily replace you, now might seem a chance to have a go for a real pay rise. The alternative is to turn off your heating next winter, tell your children they can’t have new clothes, and ­perhaps risk eviction. There’s a wave of bin ­workers’ strikes, and others from Wincanton B&Q to Chep UK to the Rudolph & Hellman ­workers at the Mini plant in Oxford. 

In the best cases, workers win far more than the bosses’ original offer, or even win slightly over the inflation rate. Even more interestingly, quite large sections of strikers reject the final deals and want to fight on. The Rudolph & Hellman agreement just went through only by 111 votes to 102. There have been a handful of unofficial strikes, most notably on the North Sea rigs. 

These showed a willingness to ignore the anti‑union laws, and were conducted without the agreement of the union bureaucracy. There are some ­glimmers, among bin workers, for example, of union reps in one workplace beginning to talk to those in others. They begin to create ­networks of support and to learn from each other’s struggles. 

The specific outbursts in some workplaces come at the same time as a more general mood against the Tories, and bitterness at the cost of living crisis. Millions of ­workers now see Boris Johnson as a corrupt liar presiding over the strangling of living standards. This has not yet produced big campaigns, even though the pressure is behind all the class battles.

The signs of change and hope coexist with the continued ­deadening pessimism and obstruction from the Labour Party and most trade union leaders. This is still the ­dominant factor. The sharpest example was P&O’s sacking of 800 of its workers. This wasn’t fire and rehire—it was fire and get out, with the boss brazenly ­admitting he was breaking the law to boost profits.

The union leaders, cravenly refusing to challenge the law, utterly failed to mount any sort of serious opposition. The last six months has seen the leaders of the UCU union systematically hobble, obstruct and then betray the university workers’ strikes. Unite’s leaders speak strongly about the need to defend living standards. Yet recently, despite a well-supported strike, Unite officials pushed through a deal at Arriva buses in south London that was half the rate of inflation.

We have been here before. In 1988, Tony Cliff, the founder of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), analysed what he called a “new mood.” This ­flowed from anti-Tory feeling and some examples of resilient and successful strikes. He contrasted this to the “new realism” that had followed the miners’ defeat in 1984-5. This had led union leaders—and many workers—to accept that struggle was ­virtually impossible. 

“It is like a very dark cloud with a silver lining,” said Cliff. “The real question is not whether the cloud or the silver lining exist—they both do.” He urged socialists to be “part of the movement”, to learn from the struggle, and identify with the fightbacks—even if they didn’t promise a transformation in the overall situation.

The key was to be ­wherever resistance was happening but also to argue against the miserable defeatism of the new realism. Activists had to win more workers to socialist ideas through sales of Socialist Worker and recruiting them to the SWP. The situation Cliff described didn’t end with an explosion of strikes. But it did see the poll tax movement that skewered prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990.

And politically 1989 saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, which generated tumult on the left. Now elements of the new again contest the old. The shift so far is limited, but important. Writing in 1929 the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky said, “You cannot deny a ­beginning of radicalisation because strikes have not yet embraced the main sections of the workers. 

“Leaders who wish to begin only when everything is ready are not needed by the working class.” There are major ­differences to 1988. Workers have not recently gone through a set‑piece defeat like the miners. The economic squeeze is sharper.  The pull of the Labour Party under Keir Starmer is less than it was under Neil Kinnock, let alone what it was under Jeremy Corbyn.

Cliff argued it was a ­volatile situation and hard to judge where the next revolt would come from. That’s even more true today. We are unlikely to see a smooth rise in strike figures until there’s a qualitative shift. The elements of explosive struggle may well come from outside the ­traditional structures.

We saw the potential in the Black Lives Matter movement, the school climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion actions and the Cop26 mobilisations. Future examples could feed into organised workers’ activity in the way the Yellow Vest revolt touched parts of workers’ resistance in France.

Two major tests are looming. Rail workers have voted ­overwhelmingly for strikes across Britain. If that’s turned into action it could inflict a big reverse on bosses and a government that is already in deep crisis. An above-inflation pay deal and defeat of redundancies could inspire others to fight.  

And soon the government will announce pay deals for millions of public sector ­workers. Ministers have already suggested only a 3 ­percent rise to the NHS pay review body, and that means a big pay cut. Civil service workers will launch a national strike ballot in September. Will others join them in action? Or will there be a repeat of the fibre-sapping series of consultative ballots?

We have to use the 18 June TUC demonstration to mobilise and to push for more strikes afterwards. But as new opportunities open up, every socialist has to be part of local struggles, build solidarity and argue for more resistance where they are and nationally.
An absolutely necessary part of this intervention has to be political arguments over the war in Ukraine, racism, climate change and other issues—and winning people to socialist ideas and organisation.

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