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Unions shouldn’t bemoan a lack of strikes—but get organising them

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Issue 2557
The junior doctors tapped into political questions
The junior doctors tapped into political questions (Pic: Guy Smallman)

There were some grim statistics out last week about strikes and unions.

The number of working days “lost” due to labour disputes in 2016 was 322,000. This is almost twice the number of the previous year—but that was a very low figure.

Is this the end for national strikes?
Is this the end for national strikes?
  Read More

The figure for 2016 is the eighth lowest annual total since records began in 1891.

Around 40 percent of the 2016 strike days were due to the junior doctors’ strikes.

This was organised by the British Medical Association, an organisation that is not part of the TUC union federation.

In addition, the number of workers in trade unions fell by 275,000 to 6.2 million.

Need to be depressed more? The number of ballots last year was the lowest ever.

But it is wrong to respond to this with despair or say that workers are now apathetic.

More than six million trade unionists are still a very powerful potential force.


There are plenty of reasons workers feel angry about their employer, but the problem is winning a collective response.

Unions having systematic membership drives would help. A high-profile campaign to organise Amazon workers, for example, would act as an example to others.

But the lesson of history is that the most effective way to build is for unions to be seen as fighters, to take action—and win.

Strikes must be boosted with solidarity, not limited by bureaucratic inertia or sabotage.

Look at the publicity and hope from the Durham teaching assistants’ battle.

But they had to overcome the defeatism of their union leaders.

Recent weeks have demonstrated that there are millions of people in Britain open to a radical agenda.

These include many young people, the ones that the unions find hard to recruit.

Unions need to tap into political questions. The junior doctors rightly stressed that they were at the forefront of the defence of the NHS.

Anti-racism, climate change, women’s and LGBT+ rights must be union issues.

If the unions are to grow they need to be much more militant.

They need to be much more open to members’ participation and much more prepared to resist the bosses and the anti-union laws.

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