The record-breaking results by the NEU in its consultative ballot will give heart to workers elsewhere. The unofficial strike action taken by dockworkers continues the example set by Amazon warehouse workers earlier in the autumn. As it is clear how many different sections of workers could be brought into a unified strike movement for decent wages and working conditions, the idea of the general strike is increasingly popular.
The ruling class are worried and divided. Some advocate concessions. Local government workers in Unison voted to accept the £1,925 pay increase they received this year, which falls short of inflation but is significantly higher than recent years of minimal increases. Health workers had a similar award imposed, against which the unions are balloting to demand more.
There will be real fear among more astute Tories of popular ‘key’ workers such as nurses, firefighters, etc, taking action. So it is possible that further concessions may be offered. Every concession is a sign that victories can be won, but all concessions should be accurately valued – a below-inflation pay ‘rise’ is still a pay cut!
For many, no concessions are on the table, just more attacks. The Royal Mail bosses followed their plans to smash workers’ terms and conditions and effectively derecognise the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), with a further announcement of 10,000 job losses. Rail industry chiefs and government ministers will be considering something similar to crush the rail-workers and their unions, especially the RMT.
Decisive action can beat employers’ offensive
Socialist Alternative have consistently argued for the disputes to be coordinated: joined-up so that strike action has maximum effect by being taken on the same day or in a worked-out schedule of strike days which reinforce each other. We have argued for the action to be escalated, going beyond a handful of days in a month by a small number of unions to a decisive programme of action with increasing numbers of strike days every month and more unions brought into the struggle.
We said that the public sector union leaderships and Unite should be approached by the CWU and RMT to coordinate dates on which they will act. We proposed that steps towards a general strike can be taken through this coordination, which can appeal to other groups of workers looking to fight back such as the dockers, warehouse workers etc. Unfortunately, these steps have not yet been taken.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch argued during the summer that the rail dispute was a ‘long dispute’, echoed by CWU leader Dave Ward, while also proposing that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) conference scheduled for early September should discuss organising a general strike. While it is always necessary to be prepared that a struggle might by necessity be drawn out, making the ‘long dispute’ into a kind of strategy approach has proved to be insufficient and miscalculated. In Royal Mail the employers went on the offensive, and the CWU has now called a more extensive programme of industrial action.
Meanwhile, as we warned, the TUC leadership has proven useless. The current leader is set for the House of Lords and the conference itself was postponed to October because of the Queen’s death. In a situation such as the one we are facing – turmoil at the heart of government and mass anger across society – were the TUC to make a decisive call to arms and name a day for a 24-hour stoppage, for example, millions upon millions would answer the call. But absolutely no trust can be placed in the current, right-wing TUC leadership – at best it will sanction what individual unions are already doing, reluctantly, and with a view to demobilising action as it did in 2011 with the public sector pensions dispute.
Solidarity in action is essential
The CWU cannot be left to fight alone! Other unions including the RMT need to announce a plan of escalating and coordinated strike action. Joint local demonstrations in every town and city, and solidarity demonstrations to reinforce picket lines against widespread use of agency workers (likely at Royal Mail), can be taken up through ‘Enough is Enough’ or other channels.
As Mick Lynch and others including ourselves have said, picket lines in these circumstances cannot be small passive protests but need to be deterring strike-breakers from going in to work. Stories about scab mail centres to break the mail strike underline the importance of this. Where protests cannot be called by the union on strike, Enough is Enough or other campaigns should step up and organise them instead.
Recent strikes have seen solidarity visits by different groups of workers to each-others’ picket lines. The next step is for the ranks to discuss coordination of strike dates and picketing, demands to place on leaderships for the most effective programme of strikes, and how to raise the resources for strike pay.
Within each sector, there are more and less militant trade unions. Those at the forefront will be most effective in pulling the other unions into the necessary scale of action where this is built from below in the workplaces, between RMT and ASLEF reps for example, or NEU and NASUWT reps, and campaigns by the more combative leading union appealing to members of all unions in those workplaces. The current action ballots offer major opportunities for this.
Don’t wait – escalate!
Some will be looking at the Tories and thinking a general election can’t be far off. This may be true, but to rely on Labour would be a huge mistake. Tony Blair came to power in 1997 promising to renationalise the railways. 13 years later Labour lost power and the railways were still in private hands, none of the anti-union laws were repealed, and winning union recognition was more difficult.
There is no reason to expect Starmer to do better – and the economic conditions Labour is set to inherit means fresh attacks on living standards are already being hinted at by front bench shadow ministers. Of course, the Tories will also cling on to power for as long as they can.
On 9 November, the trade unions in Belgium are on 24-hour general strike following months of mobilisation. With the necessary push from below, the British workers’ movement can follow, delivering the action necessary to beat back the likes of Royal Mail, shake inflation-plus pay rises out of the bosses and the Treasury, bring down the Tories, and put the working class in a strong position to face what follows.