Photo: Lukasz Bemka
Trades unions and working class struggle are well and truly back on the agenda. A Summer of struggle has already turned into an Autumn of discontent. Action over recent months has included the RMT, ASLEF and TSSA in the rail industry. Communication Workers Union members have taken action in Crown Post Offices, Telecoms and Royal Mail. Unite members in Felixstowe have been on strike and Liverpool dockers have also come out.
Barristers belonging to the Criminal Bar Association began all out action in September. Amazon workers, the majority of whom are not yet organised in a union, took inspiring action in the form of walk outs and canteen sit-ins. In Coventry, they are balloting for strike action, raising the possibility of the first Amazon strike in the UK (ballot ends 15 October).
A big feature of many of these disputes has been visits from other unions to the picket lines. This solidarity will need to be stepped up even further in the coming months.
More unions looking to take action
Many more unions are balloting for action, or are being consulted about offers on pay. Health workers, teachers, university workers, civil service workers and council workers are going through the processes towards industrial action. Union leaderships who have often been slow to act, are being forced to respond to pressure from below due to the situation facing working class people.
That there is an upsurge in trade union struggle is of no surprise. Despite the government announcement of the energy price cap being frozen at an average of ‘only’ £2500 per year, workers are continuing to be hammered with double digit inflation. The employers will hope that they can peel off particularly unions from the struggle. But even if they are successful, we will soon arrive at the pay negotiations for 2023.
Momentum is crucial
Over the Summer, serious momentum was being built up. The action being taken by the CWU and RMT in particular was, and is, giving great confidence to other sets of workers – that they could also think about taking action. The TUC Congress 2022 due to take place in September was also set to discuss a number of motions regarding linking up and coordinating action.
Mistake to postpone action
In that context, we think it was a mistake by the leaderships of the unions to call off industrial action due to the Queen’s death, and for the TUC to postpone its annual conference. This postponement need not be fatal, but it is important for the lessons to be learnt.
Not only did the calling off of action risk losing the momentum built up, but it also fed into the ‘national unity’ being forced on us by the establishment. This ‘unity’, where the country is expected to come together in times of crisis, is a dangerous myth. There can be no unity between the exploiters and the exploited. This was shown graphically by none other than King Charles who announced that 100 members of his household staff would face redundancy!
Working class people had funerals and medical appointments cancelled, Food banks closed – some unity! There were genuine fears that continuing strike action would lose public support – but this underestimates the level of support for the strikes and the depth of feeling about the cost of living crisis. It also appears the strikes were called off without the involvement of union activists from the shop floor.
How can the disputes be won?
Whilst winning public support is an extremely important part of a dispute and should be taken seriously, it is not the ultimate determining factor. The ability to stop the job, and if necessary escalating and widening the disputes, will be what forces the employers and government back. Given the scale of
the crisis facing working class people, unions taking resolute action can help increase public support whilst also showing collective action as the key way forward.
Escalate and coordinate – 1 October a big step forward
With many disputes taking place, a question that comes up repeatedly is the need to coordinate action, linked up within and between sectors. We saw how powerful the pensions strike in 2011 was, with over 1 million workers taking action in what was in effect a general strike in the public sector. Though the current situation is different, it has the potential for far greater unity of workers across sectors given that the cost of living crisis is hitting everyone.
If the unions were to coordinate their action it would be a massive blow against the employers agenda of forcing working class people to pick up the tab for the crisis. The actions which took place across the country, involving tens of thousands on the streets and involving the RMT, TSSA, ASLEF and CWU represented a significant step forward. Despite being built for on a last-minute basis with minimal preparation (meaning it could have been much bigger had it been prepared well in advance), it still revealed the potential for further coordination.
We need a general strike
At the reconvened TUC Congress from 18-20 October, all motions that talk of coordination should be supported and acted on. However, pressure will need to be built at all levels of the unions for the joint, coordinated action that is talked about. This means, at a workplace level, building up shop stewards committees and solidarity for disputes and local demonstrations.
What isn’t talked about at the TUC, but implicit in the situation, is the need for a general strike. A 24 hour general strike, which would bring workers together from all sectors, would be a massive blow against the attacks we face. Whilst the TUC should be organising such action, the reality is that this will need to be built from below to force the leaderships of the unions to act, particularly given the role of the TUC leadership in 2011.
The situation facing working class people cries out for a determined and militant lead, with a clear plan to escalate and win the disputes. Socialist Alternative will be there in the unions and on the picket lines fighting for the tactics and strategy necessary for victory.