By Terry Williams
This year’s wave of strikes in Britain is deepening and broadening. Currently a number of national industrial action campaigns, including mail and rail workers, are taking place, in addition to a host of local strikes, all in defence of pay and working conditions. Such actions are spreading, as a growing number of unions are consulting their members on whether to strike.
The Communication Workers Union’s (CWU) Royal Mail members, who have already held a number of strike days, will be further striking on more than ten days in November and early December. Employees of National Rail and other rail companies in the Rail Maritime Transport (RMT) union, who have also already struck on several days, will next be striking on 3, 5 and 7 November.
In higher education, University College Union (UCU) members will be taking action over pay and working conditions and pensions, following their recent ballot. There are also a whole range of smaller strikes taking place. In particular, Unite members are involved in a number of battles with employers across the private and public sector. Other groups of workers, including CWU’s telecoms member, remain involved in ongoing disputes which may lead to further industrial action this year.
In October, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) accepted a revised pay offer from the government. Its barrister membership only achieved an improved offer after it escalated its action to an indefinite strike and had carried out a month of continuous strike action.
Meanwhile several unions are now balloting a large proportion of their national membership which could lead to actions extending well into next year. The RMT is re-balloting its members seeking their agreement to extend their action till next Spring. They are doing this because strike ballots legally provide a mandate for a union to take action for up to six months and the RMT’s strike mandate runs out on 24 November. ASLEF’s current strike mandate runs till January.
In the education sector, an indicative ballot of National Education Union (NEU) members has demonstrated that there is overwhelming support for strike action. So the NEU is now conducting an official strike ballot, which will close in January. Another education union, NASUWT, the Teachers’ Union, is also conducting an official strike ballot between now and January. If education workers decide to strike their mandate for action will cover from the six months from January through to next summer’s school holidays. In the health service Unison is balloting its members on whether to strike over pay and for the first time ever the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is balloting nurses on whether to strike.
In response to the sheer scale of attack on workers’ living standards, groups of workers who have traditionally not taken action or only taken occasional one day strikes are considering, and taking, more profound action than in the past. The barrister’s indefinite strike and the RCN ballot are examples of this. In addition the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) is conducting its first ever strike ballot. Plus, in October GMB union members working for Amazon in Coventry held the first strike ballot at a British Amazon warehouse and only just failed to achieve the legally required minimum turnout of 50%, although 99% of those that voted supported strike action.
Given the government’s economic priorities they will be determined to resist pay concessions. The government effectively controls public service workers’ pay levels, including the pay of those employed by the private companies that operate in the public sector. The government’s policy is to cut real wages, not increase them. As a result public sector workers have suffered the greatest real pay cuts. The government is pressing, or directing where it can, all employers in the public sector to conduct a determined fight against the unions.
The employers of both rail and mail workers are stepping up their attacks on the unions and are demanding huge changes to jobs and working conditions before they will consider any pay deal. So despite Network Rail previously promising to improve its pay offer the RMT now reports the company has reneged on such a pay offer and instead is seeking to impose job cuts, more unsocial hours and detrimental changes to rosters. Similar tactics are being followed by Royal Mail, which has shifted from discussing a pay offer to announcing new plans to cut 10,000 postal worker jobs by August 2023, which is more than 6% of the workforce.
The government is planning to reduce the ability of unions to take effective action. New anti-union legislation has been tabled in parliament which would restrict strikes in the transport sector by requiring workers to provide a ‘minimum service level’ during industrial action. When this legislation is agreed, train operators will specify the workforce they require to meet an adequate service level during strikes. If any ‘specified staff’ then walk out they can be legally sacked – employers will effectively have the power to instruct union members to strike break on pain of losing their jobs. With the current level of vacancies in the rail industry, this legislation may not prove as effective as the government would like because even providing the current level of service requires overtime, which workers could refuse to do as an alternative to striking. However, the government will no doubt consider extending such anti-union laws beyond the transport sector at a later date.
Given the government’s determination not to make any significant concessions, workers need a long term overall strategy. As an earlier article on this website explains, this strike wave is objectively political because it confronts the general ruling class offensive project head-on. That project is the Americanisation of British economy and society, in which the lowering of real wages, worsening of working conditions and breaking the power of trade unions are some, but not all, of the key components. The goal for workers and the oppressed must be to halt and reverse this entire offensive. This in turn requires a political and economic struggle. A change of government – general election now – should be a focus of the current political campaign. The more that strikes help build political support for an election, the better.
The greatest possible scale of industrial action is necessary, as close to a general strike as can be achieved, with the aim of kicking the Tories out. That requires significant coordination across the union movement. Some very initial discussion on coordinating industrial action is already taking place, reflecting the radicalisation taking place within the unions. At October’s TUC Congress, the RMT in particular stressed the need for coordinated action. Other unions, including Unison, and the TUC General Secretary raised the possibility of greater coordination this winter.
Away from the discussions at the TUC Congress, when it comes to the actual individual strikes taking place, union leaders are generally not raising the issue of coordination. Each strike is presented in terms of the specific dispute taking place between a precise group of workers and their particular employer. Trade union leaders need to maintain the support of their members for action and need to conduct each dispute so that it avoids falling foul of various anti-union laws and any consequent risk of seizure of union funds.
The anti-trade union laws introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s Tory governments and the added restrictions in the Trade Union Act 2016 place significant constraints on unions. Strike action is only lawful if organised in furtherance of a trade dispute between workers and their employer and must concern the objects of collective bargaining. Industrial action outside of these purposes is not lawful. For example, ‘secondary action’ – in support of another group of workers – is banned. Strikes officially called in order to change the government would likewise be deemed unlawful. The official purpose of every strike needs to be lawful, while at the same time it contributes to an overall strategy aiming for a clear political goal. A clear guide to the constraints placed on trade unions by since 2016, published by the Institute of Employment Rights, can be read here.
Progressive people should be engaged with and support this growing resistance to the austerity offensive. Everything possible, both within trade unions and from outside, should be done to build and support the wave of strikes. Those who are not directly taking strike action need to work out how to encourage the maximum of solidarity with the strike wave. The Labour Party, at national and local levels, needs to be drawn into this campaign as far as possible and support built amongst the population.
Some forthcoming campaigning actions that should be publicised are set out below.