By Terry Williams
The wave of strikes, against continuing cuts to real wages, is currently growing and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) is calling a day of national action on 1 February, in opposition to the government’s proposed new anti-union law.
From January, and through February, a wide range of unions have announced strike days. These include unions representing workers in the following sectors: rail, buses, tube trains, nursing, ambulances, other health work, the civil service and education. Some of the actions taking place are not just about pay levels, but in defence of pensions and working conditions. The effect is also to defend public services, as many workers have been forced to quit because of low pay and sharply worse working conditions. Below is some of the forthcoming industrial action that has already been announced.
Following the recent ballot of members of the National Education Union (NEU), teachers will begin their strikes on 1 February, to coincide with the TUC day of action, and then follow that day up with regional stoppages through February and March.
Teachers in Scotland, in the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), who have been taking strike days since December, have a rolling programme of strikes from now to the end of April. Plus head teachers in Wales have also agreed to strike.
More than 70,000 staff at 150 universities, members of the University and College Union (UCU), will be striking on 1 February, with further actions planned in February and March.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is co-ordinating the biggest wave of strikes the NHS has ever seen, involving 100,000 nurses in 65 NHS organisations. Already in January, nurses in England and Wales have been taking action. This will escalate as nurses take their fifth and sixth strike days on 6 and 7 February. These will be the biggest walk outs so far, with more than a third of NHS trusts in England and all but one Welsh health board affected.
In rail, more than 40,000 National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) members took strike action at the beginning of January. The Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF), the train drivers’ union, is planning its next strikes, of approximately 20,000 workers, for 1 February and 3 February.
The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which organises civil service workers in government bodies and agencies, is planning a mass walkout of its members who have voted to strike, on 1 February. 100,000 workers, including staff from the Cabinet Office, the Department for Education, the DVLA, Ofgem, Ofwat and the Independent Office for Police Conduct are expected to take action.
In addition to the above public sector strikes there are some taking place in the private sector. Of note, Amazon workers in Coventry represented by the GMB are set to have their first ever strike on 25 January.
Tory priorities: reduce pay levels and defeat the unions
The government is facing mass active opposition to its pay policy. According to official figures released on 17 January, from June to November 2022, more than 1.6 million days were lost to labour disputes, the most in any one year since 1990. The Tories’ response is not to try to settle the pay disputes, but to wear down the resolve of the workers and introduce authoritarian measures that restrict workers’ rights to strike.
The government is determined to maintain this intransigent approach even where it is demonstrably more costly than settling a dispute. In the rail industry the government has indemnified the private companies so that they are not liable for any loss of revenue arising from the strikes. Tory rail minister, Huw Merriman, has told a parliamentary committee it would have been cheaper to settle with the train workers months ago by offering big pay rises than to lose hundreds of millions of pounds in passenger revenue as a result of the industrial action. He said that a walkout costs the railway £25 million on a working day, and £15 million a day at the weekend.
The Tories’ Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, is working its way through parliament. The aim is to hobble the unions by limiting workers rights to withdraw their labour. The bill proposes that employers are given powers to force workers to work on strike days, to provide what the government deems an appropriate ‘minimum service level’. The eight sectors where strikes will be restricted in this way are: railways, fire service, ambulances, education, border security, nuclear decommissioning, other health services and other transport services.
The Bill allows for the government minister to unilaterally determine the ‘minimum service level’ without any requirement of trade union and employer involvement. Employers are only required to consult unions as to the service levels required, and then only within a framework determined by the government. As a result, there is no obligation on employers to negotiate any agreement with unions about minimum service levels in advance of any strike.
The bill will allow employers to sack workers who fail to work on a strike day when instructed to work and it allows employers to sue the unions if they are not considered to have taken ‘reasonable’ action to ensure their members work on strike days when required by their employer to do so.
Rishi Sunak has been falsely claimed this proposed legislation on minimum service levels is authorised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) – the UN’s agency for workers’ rights, but that is not true, as confirmed by the ILO’s Director General. For a briefing on how the bill breaches ILO conventions see the response to Sunak’s claim published here by the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom.
1 February TUC Day Of Action
In addition to the trade unions’ preparations for the day of action a number of campaigns are working together to build up support for the day. The Campaign For Trade Union Freedom and Strike Map have called an action planning meeting and rally in London for 6pm Tuesday 24 January, supported by Enough is Enough, the People’s Assembly, Peace & Justice Project, Institute of Employment rights, Arise, and War on Want. The meeting is at National Education Union HQ (London WC1H 9D) and activists are encouraged to register for the event here.