By Charlie Kimber 
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What do the new strike figures show?

The number of working days ‘lost’ in January was lower than December, but rank-and-file activists can push up the figures 
Issue 2847
Teachers on strike in Trafford. Neu members are holding blue NEU union flags on a picket line

Teachers on the picket line in Trafford, Manchester on 1 February

Bosses and Tories will be hoping that the latest strike figures are a sign of better days to come for their side of the class war. But they shouldn’t get carried away with the false belief that workers don’t want to fight. What matters most is looking forward to the potential now.

The number of working days “lost”—in reality, gained—due to strikes was 220,000 in January. That’s according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) data released on Tuesday. In the first month of this year, strikes included rail workers, teachers in Scotland, driving examiners and other civil service workers, bus drivers and NHS workers.

The number is down from 822,000 strike days in December 2022. But it isn’t a return to the ultra-low numbers of the last decade. In 2015, for example, there were 170,000 strike days for the whole year. And when February’s figures are released they should be higher. They will include, for example, a series of national strikes by university workers.

Darren Morgan, ONS director of economic statistics, said, “The number of working days lost to strikes fell in January from the very high level seen in December. Nevertheless, many days were still lost, with education the most affected sector.”

The latest figures came on the eve of a day of strikes that was expected to see half a million workers strike. Falling pay is a huge driver of that action—and hardship isn’t going away. 

Other figures released on Tuesday showed living standards for millions of workers plummeted at their fastest rate since 2009 over the winter. Profiteering and the failings of the system meant rampant inflation.

Total average wages including bonuses dropped by 3.2 percent in real terms in the three months to January. That’s the biggest decline since the February to April 2009 quarter, according to the ONS. It’s among the largest falls seen since detailed records began in 2001. 

In cash terms, total pay with bonuses rose by 5.7 percent and regular pay by 6.5 percent. But this was outstripped by soaring price rises which have been at or above 10 percent since last summer, peaking at 11.1 percent in October.

And these are the government-sanctioned CPI inflation figures. If the more-accurate RPI ones are used, the fall in wages in the three months to January was over 6 percent  That’s a big squeeze, and, because it’s an average, for many workers it will be more than that.

Strike figures underplay the level of strikes anyway because they exclude some action and are based mainly on bosses’ reports. But they don’t fall from the sky. 

They reflect whether companies and governments are on the attack, workers’ fighting spirit and union leaders’ decisions to pause action for talks or call it off entirely. Activists have to push up the strike figures by organising resistance at work and challenging union leaders when they try to strangle the fightback.

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