Something very unusual happened in Britain earlier this month. Large numbers of workers refused to return to their workplaces in defiance of clear instructions from the government. And the mass action helped to inflict a humiliating defeat for the government.
The Tories had insisted that it was safe for primary schools across England to reopen from Monday 4 January.
But in school after school, head teachers were forced to close to most children after workers refused to attend. The same evening, Boris Johnson announced the closure of schools as part of a new lockdown.
It’s one of the few times during the pandemic that workers have made their voices heard. There have been other smaller-scale examples—involving post workers, distribution staff and council workers.
But the primary school action has been the most significant—and shows that workers have immense power.
Workers are often seen as relatively powerless, a group on the bottom rung of society. Bosses and the governments they influence make the big decisions that affect our lives.
In fact workers are the most powerful group in society because they play a role that no other group does. The entire system relies on them.
For instance, deliveries have expanded during the coronavirus crisis as more people avoid visiting shops.
People working for firms such as Deliveroo are often on insecure contracts and low pay. They might be dismissed as “precarious” and seen as too weak to fight back.
But if delivery drivers got together and decided to refuse to work until a demand was met, bosses would have a big problem. They can’t simply get on bikes and do the work themselves —there’s too much of it.
Capitalism is a highly-integrated system. This has made it more vulnerable because a strike that hits one area can quickly have an impact elsewhere.
When lorries queued for miles at Dover last month there was panic. Shops couldn’t sell products because they were trapped in trucks.
Honda closed its plant in Swindon temporarily, blaming problems in getting parts. Food began to rot in lorries instead of getting to supermarkets.
Workers’ action didn’t bring about the gridlock. But the chaos showed how fragile the system is —and how easy it is to bring it grinding to a halt. Similarly, when pubs and restaurants have closed during lockdowns, there are howls of outrage from bosses.
The bosses are furious that they have paid for stock only to be prevented from making money from it.
Imagine if instead of a lockdown, it was a workers’ strike that closed pubs and restaurants. It would cause exactly the same problems for the bosses. Workers who don’t directly produce profits have power too. Governments panic when school workers threaten strikes because they know that, if parents have to look after children, they may not be able to work.
It matters if health workers take action because bosses need some level of health care to keep their staff fit enough to work.
Workers are in a unique position under capitalism. Exploiting workers— employing them but not paying them the full value of what they produce—is how bosses make profits. And the whole system is based around bosses competing with each other to make the most profits.
Strikes matter because they expose a fundamental truth about the divide that lies at the heart of the system—that between labour and capital.
On the surface it seems that bosses make all the decisions. But the truth is that workers have the power to decide whether production keeps going or not, and in what way.
For instance, workers staging mass strikes in France in 2019 targeted businesses but helped ordinary people. Electricity workers cut power to big firms while deactivating payment meters that limited the energy supply to households behind with the bills.
The activity and organisation involved in taking action can help workers to see their own power. That’s partly why socialists fight for workers to be active in disputes and take control of them, instead of leaving things to union officials.
Of course it isn’t only workers who fight back. Strikes aren’t the only form of resistance and others, such as protests, are important too.
Recent mass movements and protests in Poland, Guatemala, Belarus, Thailand and other places have rattled states and inspired ordinary people.
But workers have a power that others don’t—they can stop the flow of profits and shut down the system. They are in a position to strike the strongest blow against capitalism. And they can build an alternative to it.
The revolutionary Karl Marx called the working class the “gravedigger” of capitalism. It has the numbers, skills and experience to run society without bosses. It is the only class with the social weight to make a revolution and create a socialist society.
The need for such fundamental change becomes clearer by the day.
Before the pandemic, we faced a barbaric system that generates war, poverty, oppression and climate change. Capitalism harms the vast majority of people in one way or another.
Coronavirus has highlighted the failings of those at the top of society. They are overseeing a devastating crisis and tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
As with the financial crisis of 2007-09, more people can start to see that the system doesn’t deliver for them. Socialists need to organise to turn the bitterness at the system into action that can stop the horror and transform the world.
The action in primary schools followed a call from the NEU union. But it was delivered by activists on theground.
Nursery teacher Paula said half the nursery schools in her city were affected after workers cited Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act.
This says that workers have the right to refuse to work in unsafe environments.
“We would not have closed if union members had not organised,” she told Socialist Worker. “It’s really good.
“People were really anxious about coming back. We can’t social distance. We have lots of adults across the classroom.
“The head did a risk assessment and we said it’s not enough. So we went straight to setting up vulnerable and key worker bubbles.”
Venda, joint district secretary of Redbridge NEU in east London, said two schools there used Section 44 letters. “I never thought people would be doing this,” she told Socialist Worker. But fear drove people to act.
“In one primary school, eight teaching assistants (TAs) got together and lobbed in Section 44 letters,” said Venda.
“Normally TAs are treated abysmally. The head thought they would do as they were told. So this was really extraordinary.”
Venda said, “People feel bold and empowered”. “They’ve overcome the fear factor,” she said. “They will be going back on their terms. That’s so different—it’s resistance.”
Paula explained the difference this resistance has made in her workplace.
“We have two teams on a rota.
“Today we had nine children usually we’d have 40-odd. Another bubble has six children.”
Paula warned there is some uncertainty over where to go next. But Venda said that union leaders should not retreat.
“There’s a real mood to do things,” she said. “To pour cold water all over that is really sad.
“But for some union leaders it’s almost like workers are too confident.”
Paula also added, “People are taking action. Our organisation is getting stronger. We’ve got a big battle on our hands and the union has got to be decisive.”
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