By Paul Callanan
The first months of 2023 have seen a continuation of the strike wave, which started last summer over the cost of living crisis. As inflation has skyrocketed we have seen growing numbers of workers take action to secure a wage which can keep up with the cost of essentials like energy and food. Nurses, ambulance workers, teachers, lecturers, civil servants and transport workers are among those who have been out on the picket lines.
Support for those workers has been high, with most people agreeing that we should not be paying for a crisis of the bosses’ doing. This has come after a decade of austerity and after three decades of relatively low levels of industrial action. In the words of RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch, “the working class is back”.
On the pickets and on solidarity protests, there has been a growing desire to see the struggle escalate and broaden in terms of the numbers taking part. Calls, like the one made by Socialist Alternative, for a general strike are increasingly gaining an echo. With the government refusing to engage in negotiations, and in the case of transport actively blocking them, to many workers, taking this type of action seems like the next logical step to take. For the first time in many years, the possibility of a general strike has been talked about in just about every mainstream media outlet in the country.
Strike to win
Unfortunately this message does not seem to have gotten through to all those in leading positions within the trade union movement. For many General Secretaries and full time officials, the tactic of the day seems to be calling off or pausing action in exchange for ‘intensive negotiations’. Just at the moment when the strength and determination of workers taking action is getting results, forcing the government to the table in health and education, strike days have been paused. In the case of health, an improved but deeply inadequate potential deal is now being recommended to members by three of the four major health unions.
This month the NEU, UCU, UNISON, RCN and Unite all called off strikes to allow for talks. This is a profound mistake. The aim of workers’ action is not just to get the government or the employer to talk to them. The aim is to fight for a deal that will allow workers to live on the wages they receive. Many union leaderships are taking the Grand Old Duke of York approach to struggle – marching up to the top of the hill and down again.
To negotiate effectively, we need some kind of leverage. Striking means we go into negotiations without services running and businesses making a profit. Continuing to strike while negotiations take place can help maximise that leverage. By calling off the strikes just at the key moment, and before offers have been put on the table, union leaders can send their negotiators into a duel with one hand tied behind their backs. And the result is that the employers have sensed weakness.
A chaotic retreat
In no small part as a result of this approach, offers are now being made that fall well short of workers’ demands for pay to keep pace with inflation. The details of several of these deals are taken up on our website. But nowhere have workers been offered the assurances they fought for on pay and other conditions.
In the NHS, for example, workers are being offered an improved, but still completely inadequate potential settlement. This includes one off bonus payments for 2023-2023, which means workers will earn around 10% extra this year compared to last. But this is largely based on non-consolidated one-off payments, and the offer for 2023-24 is just 5%. This is asking workers to work for less next year! And this comes off the back of real terms pay cuts of £5,000-£7,000 over the past 10 years. The deal being proposed for acceptance by RCN, Unison and GMB clearly falls well short of what is required.
UCU General Secretary Jo Grady has played the most egregious role in attempting to bypass democratic structures and undermine elected reps to ram home a sellout deal. Grady called on university workers to cancel strike action on the basis of vague assurances around pensions and zero hours contracts. The issue of pay has not been dealt with. This comes after she locked elected UCU negotiators out of talks to conduct them personally.
The dodgy deal did not then go through the democratic structures of the union, but instead through an online plebiscite, organised at a moment’s notice and with the question loaded in such a way as to get the outcome that she and the union’s bureaucrats wanted.
This craven approach has led rightly to outrage with the union. At the time of writing, both a branch delegate meeting, as well the Higher Education Committee have voted to continue with planned strike action.
No to ‘seats at the table’
There is a danger that some union members go back to work without deals that do not make them significantly better off than when they started action. This could potentially knock the confidence of workers to struggle going forward. Workers have made sacrifices to take the action that they have so far. The action of some union leaders in calling off action and recommending poor deals will inevitably feel like a betrayal to many.
Each union calling off action and going back to work without inflation-busting pay offers breaks up the strike movement and undermines the developing solidarity we have seen over the past year. It allows the employers, be they the government or otherwise, to pick groups of workers off one by one and leave those still fighting increasingly isolated.
Many union leaders have steadfastly refused to make a clear call to organise a general strike. This is because their goal is not to defeat the employers or the government, but to simply gain a seat at the negotiating table. Their strategy is based wholly around getting the employers to talk to them. Rather than fighting for political change through industrial action, most union leaders pin their political hopes on persuading a future Labour government. A workers’ movement confident and increasingly militant is a barrier as they see it to achieving this.
Ultimately the question now has to be asked: who is in control of the strikes and unions in general? Is it union bureaucrats and full time officials, separate from the workplace and with their own political interests, all the while being paid quite handsomely? Or is it the members, the ones making sacrifices to take action and being hit the hardest by the cost of living crisis?
The rebellion of UCU members against the leadership’s attempts to sell them short is a great example of what can be done. It shows that once workers have been given just a small taste of their potential power we can be very hard to hold back. A conscious and fighting rank and file and activist base can overturn a leadership that is out of touch.
But we also need to look at what structures can be built within the unions and across unions to hold leaders’ feet to the fire and to put members in control of disputes. Socialist Alternative fights for the maximum independent organisation of fighting rank-and-file workers in every union where we have a presence. We support shop stewards’ committees and combines being formed in order to democratically decide what tactics and strategy should be employed during disputes. Such committees should also be organised at workplace level to bring together groups of workers represented by different unions, and ultimately to give workers the final say in what is and isn’t an acceptable deal
We also call for the election of all union officials in order to end the hold of bureaucracies over unions. If unions are to be fully democratic organisations then all those who claim to represent workers should be directly accountable to those very same workers.
We demand that all those officials should be paid in line with the average skilled wage of the workers they represent. It is difficult to represent groups of workers when you have no shared experience of the hardships that they face and the impact that the cost of living crisis is having on most people.
We need to see genuine collective bargaining as an alternative to the so-called ‘independent’ pay bodies which the government hides behind.
If workers are to win what we deserve, it will require that we have a common approach across all groups of workers to take on the bosses and government. But in order to achieve this it will mean ordinary union members organising to take control of their disputes and their unions.