By Socialist Alternative
We are on the cusp of what could potentially be another huge turning point in British history. The strike wave that began last September has re-established the mighty and potentially transformative role of the workers’ movement in society. The right’s preferred strategy of contemptuously ignoring union demands and refusing to negotiate is increasingly being abandoned wholesale.
But their second-preference approach – attempting to lean on right-wing union leaders and divide and rule tactics to split the unions – is also now falling apart. The result is that a strike wave which the Tories had hoped was beginning to wind down, now has the potential to enter a new and more combative phase. A Spring/Summer offensive of the working class is on the cards, and its potential is enormous.
The historic vote by Royal College of Nurses (RCN) members to reject the government’s inadequate pay offer is a particularly important development. The NHS strikes have been a touchstone for working people across the country. The public support for these workers is massive. And the rejection of the deal is a huge victory for rank and-file union members.
The Tories’ strike strategy relied on the collusion of right wing union leaders in the NHS. They hoped these leaders would be able to force through a poor deal with the minimum of democratic input by union members. Leaders or officials in RCN, Unison and GMB obligingly attempted to play their part. So the RCN result was a stunning rebuke to all the NHS union leaders who so eagerly attempted to sell workers short.
Such was the strength of feeling expressed in this vote, that despite a vicious, witch-hunting campaign against their own members who supported ‘reject’, the RCN’s leadership has been forced to immediately call new strike action – the first round of which took place from 30 April – 2 May. It is vital that the workers’ movement more widely mobilises to support this historic action with huge turnouts on pickets.
Nurses in RCN organised themselves semi-spontaneously to push back against this deal, making use of important ad-hoc networks like NHS Workers Say No. But this result shows what enormous potential there would be should genuine, democratic broad lefts be built around clear demands for militant action across the union movement.
There’s an urgent need for forums based on real engagement by fighting union reps and activists which can act to challenge the role of the right in the unions and hold those elected on a left platform to account. What has happened in a union with such deeply conservative traditions as RCN shows what will potentially be possible across the union movement in the next period.
There is a perfect storm of factors which is currently driving workers towards an increasingly militant approach. They range from the intense cost of living crisis, to the effects of a decade of wage cuts, the self confidence gained through striking and the decisive way that Covid had already affirmed that workers are the ones who keep society running. Yet the union leaderships that currently exist, by and large, do not yet reflect this shift. This reality points to a period in which intense battles can develop within trade unions over the way forward. Socialists have a vital role to play within this in helping to push for militant action and, crucially, to help those who want to fight get organised.
In the health unions, what is needed is a programme of escalating action based on maximum coordination across the NHS, especially with the junior doctors, as well as with workers striking back more widely. The NHS Workers Say No campaign could take a lead in pushing the momentum gathered in the reject campaign further by calling a national conference open to all health workers across all the unions, to discuss the way forward for the disputes and how to change the unions. Other groups like Health Campaigns Together can also have a potential role in organising solidarity. There is now a strong case for a national demonstration called to support the NHS strikes and fight to save the service.
The health unions who have voted (albeit not necessarily convincingly) to accept this offer, are all ones in which the majority of those balloted have not had the empowering collective experience of taking strike action. Union members have instead been presented with a recommendation to accept a poor but improved offer, without any suggestion of the potential that exists to build and escalate a fightback.
But with RCN members now once again taking to the picket lines, the question of reballoting for action across the NHS must be posed. The RCN’s rejection of the deal creates an entirely new scenario. It is only right that NHS workers are given the democratic opportunity to vote to join their colleagues in once again taking strike action. The momentum created by both the strikes and the reject campaign must not be squandered.
A generation of workers are in the process of rediscovering their collective strength. This is setting the stage for a whole period of intense class struggle, the outcome of which will determine the kind of future that exists for society. Alongside increasing industrial militancy, it is clear that the development of mass left political organisations rooted in struggle will also be possible.
A figure like Jeremy Corbyn, now banned from standing as a Labour candidate by the anti-strike, anti-worker Labour Party leadership, should see in this strike wave the potential for the mass mobilisation that could win his seat back. On that basis, Corbyn could play to his best strengths and act as tribune for workers and oppressed people in parliament. Crucially, he could play a decisive role in helping to develop a new left party of struggle.
- Step up the strikes! For maximum coordination across the NHS and more widely. Fight for a general strike to bring down the Tories
- No sell-out deals! Fighting workers must get organised now within every union – the need for democratic broad lefts and rank-and-file networks has never been greater. Fight for real, above-inflation pay rises for all
- For a national conference of health workers to discuss the way forward across the unions
- For the regular election of all senior paid union officials and negotiators. For the right of recall over all elected positions!
- Jeremy Corbyn: Don’t delay! Run independent of Labour
- For a new left party of struggle to give a real political voice to working class and oppressed people
- For socialist change! Capitalism is broken for people and the planet. Only a socialist society, based on public ownership of the big monopolies and an economy planned democratically by workers, can meet the needs of all while safeguarding the environment for future generations.