England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Winter strike wave looms as workers ballot for action

Britain is facing a winter of strikes, unprecedented in recent history. Commentators are harking back to the Winter of Discontent of 1978-9, probably the most turbulent period of trade union militancy since the Second World War, when over 30 million days of strike action took place in 8 months! As yet, we have not reached those levels but there is a huge wave of upcoming strikes which has the establishment very worried. 

For the first time in its history, the Royal College of Nursing has secured a yes vote for industrial action across most of the NHS Trusts. Unison’s ballot of its 400,000 health-care-worker members closes on November 25th which is expected to return another yes vote for action. The Royal College of Midwives will launch one on November 11th. The GMB union is balloting more than 15,000 ambulance workers. They are being joined by the British Medical Association (BMA) which represents GPs and junior doctors. 

A recent BMA survey showed that 83% of responding junior doctors in England believe that this year’s 2% pay award is ‘completely unacceptable’, and 72% would be prepared to take industrial action if the Government does not commit to full pay restoration. Doctors at the BMA annual conference in Brighton earlier this year urged their leadership to channel their “inner Mick Lynch” with calls for strike action. 

For the first time in the 74-year history of the NHS, this Winter could see every NHS union taking action. It is no coincidence that these are the same workers who were clapped and applauded during the pandemic and continued working every day through horrific conditions.

As a result of chronic underfunding, the NHS is now on its knees and NHS staff realise they are not just fighting for more pay but for the future of the NHS. There is a feeling amongst all the staff that they have no alternative but to take strike action. There will be huge public support for their stand. 

Wider sections joining the struggle 

Teachers, too, are also gearing up for industrial action. The two main teacher unions, the NEU and NASUWT, are balloting their members, with the NEU having already secured an impressive yes vote for action in their recent indicative ballot. They are being followed for the first time in their history by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) which is seeking a mandate for action.

The University and College Union has announced overwhelming support for strike action meaning that more than 70,000 staff at 150 institutions are walking out this month in a dispute over pay, conditions and pensions. 

They are now being joined by 100,000 civil servants – members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union – who have voted overwhelmingly for strike action. The average ‘yes’ vote for industrial action over pay, pensions, jobs and redundancy terms across the areas balloted, 86.2%, is the highest percentage vote in the union’s history.

The legal turnout threshold of 50% has been achieved in 126 employer areas allowing for major industrial action, including in the Home Office (Border Force officials, passport workers), Department for Transport (driving examiners) and the Department for Work and Pensions (those working in job centres and processing benefits). 

Firefighters and control staff have voted to reject a 5% pay offer in a result that the FBU leadership say displays “remarkable strength of feeling”. 79% voted to reject the 5% offer, with 78% of eligible members voting in the ballot. The ballot was a consultative ballot of union members on the 5% pay offer but the union has a mandate to move to a ballot on strike action, which it must do urgently. 

Every announcement of ballots and strike action is giving other workers confidence to consider the same in their industry. Even workers in the Environment Agency are taking action. However it is victories which will inspire this movement the most and the recent pay victory for the Liverpool dockers who have won a pay award of between 14% and 18% is significant. They embarked on a round of prolonged strikes which paralysed the port and brought the employer to the negotiations. 

There are important lessons to be learnt from this tactic, which should give heart to the pre-existing disputes at Royal Mail and Network Rail. Here the RMT, ASLEF, TSSA should coordinate with the CWU to ensure maximum impact on the days of their proposed strikes.

As the winter bites, it is vital that all the unions considering or taking action work out a detailed plan of coordinated and escalating strikes between them. The Tories are saying they cannot afford above inflation pay rises, nor have the funds to sustain public services. 

Taking the strikes forward 

Scandalously the Labour Party has echoed these comments saying if they were in government, they would not meet the unions’ pay demands. These sanctimonious comments completely fail to recognise that workers cannot afford to live, have shouldered the biggest fall in living standards since records began and can’t take any more.

A major confrontation is now on the cards and the trade union leadership cannot afford to blink first. As the ballots are counted and trade union executives consider their next moves, it is vital the combined union leaderships come together in a Conference of Resistance to come up with a detailed plan for the beginning of 2023. 

Socialist Alternative stands in complete solidarity with all the strikers. This movement has the greatest potential for a successful fightback for decades. Public sympathy is at an all time high for the unions and the government is severely wounded. It coincides with a growing mood of resistance across Europe in France, Greece and Belgium where we have already seen partial or one day general strikes.

A breakthrough for the unions at this stage will open up a completely new chapter of British trade union history where the working class starts to win back all that has been lost over the last 30 years of attacks and setbacks. That can only happen with a clear fighting approach. 

Socialist Alternative fights for:

  • An immediate trade union conference of resistance to plan and coordinate the strikes
  • Coordination and escalation of existing disputes at local and national level
  • Building rank and file coordination within and across every workplace and union
  • A massive trade union national demonstration in January 2023 as a call to arms for the action
  • A general strike to topple the Tories!

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