By Terry Williams
On Wednesday 15 March, Budget Day, trade unions have called a further nationwide day of strikes and demonstrations in opposition to real cuts to pay and public services being imposed by the Tories’ austerity offensive.
As the government announces its spending plans, school and university staff, civil service workers, transport workers, doctors, and others will be taking strike action. The London Underground is expected to grind to a halt. There will be a national march in London, from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square for a large rally. The NEU, a key union involved in organising the demonstration, is mobilising with the slogans ‘Pay Up’ and ‘Save Our Schools’. There will be various blocs on the march, including one that CND’s ‘Wages Not Weapons’ campaign is mobilising for.
In the run up to Budget Day there are various strikes taking place and there will be further strikes throughout the rest of March.
This strike wave that started last year, and has progressed across a wide range of sectors, is continuing to develop, with no end in sight. The turnout in strike ballots and votes in support of industrial action have been high. Large groups of workers have been taking action and demonstrating a willingness to escalate. This has already become the biggest outbreak of industrial action in a generation. The number of days lost to strike action in 2022 was the highest since 1989. From the beginning of the strike wave in June through to the end of the year 2,471,000 days were lost to strikes.
The unions are trying to restore their members’ previous real pay levels, follow several years of real pay cuts. They are fighting to defend pension arrangements, working conditions and the overall provision of public services.
The scale of resistance from the unions, with its widespread popular support, has been placing pressure on the Tory government. Whilst it is determined to stick rigidly to the initial real pay cuts it proposed for this current year (2022-23), it has been forced to make some concessions. The Tories are still trying to impose defeats on the unions, as far as possible, but they have had to adjust their most confrontational rhetoric and make some shifts on pay.
The government has had to drop its flat-out refusal to revisit the current year’s pay ‘settlements’. It and other employers in the public services have shifted to making improved offers for the current year.
The FBU, by deciding to strike, has managed to win a significantly improved pay offer, which its members have voted to accept. Their employers raised an original offer of a 2 per cent pay rise to a 7 per cent rise backdated to July 2022, with an additional 5 per cent from July 2023. This still amounts to a real pay cut for this year, but it is a significantly smaller pay cut than the original proposed by the employers.
The FBU is in a strong bargaining position due to the militancy of its members and the likely consequences of a solid withdrawal of fire fighters’ labour. Any concessions being offered to other unions are in general smaller than that secured by the FBU.
The approach the government and employers are now taking is that they are will only talk to the unions about this year’s pay offer, if those unions suspend their planned strike actions. Added to which, they are making selective offers to specific unions in sectors where there are several unions organising groups of workers. These and other attempts to divide the unions aim to undermine the unity and determination that has been achieved across a workforce.
A number of unions have suspended their strikes to engage in talks and it remains to be seen what the outcome of these talks will be. Other unions, most notably the NEU, have not suspended their actions and will only consider doing so if they receive a better pay offer.
The political pressure the unions are managing to exert, aided by widespread public support, is interfering with the Tories’ pursuit of their economic agenda. They want to be able to lower taxes on businesses and ramp up military spending, and to do that they need to make more cuts to public services and to pay levels. Mass resistance to the Tories’ economic policies is constraining the government, restricting its ability to transfer more financial resources to business and the military.
The Tories want to crush this capacity of the unions to resist the austerity offensive. This is why the government is rapidly moving its latest anti-union bill through the legislative process. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill proposes to force workers to work on strike days, in sectors including: health, transport, fire service, border force, nuclear and education. It will make it easier to sack striking workers and leave unions risking huge fines.
Parliament’s joint committee on human rights says that the bill clashes with the requirements of Article 11 of European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of association for workers. The Tory government will, however, take no notice of that. It is determined to weaken the unions.
Labour’s leadership have said they will repeal this bill, as well as the Tories’ 2016 anti-union law. However, to ensure such pledges are honoured, pressure will need to be mounted on the Labour Party. Supporters of trade union rights should campaign for Labour to include in its next general election manifesto a commitment to repeal these laws within its first 100 days of office.
There will be a useful online meeting on 27 March, about the anti-union laws and their economic consequences. It is being organised by the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom and Socialist Economic Bulletin, with speakers including: John Hendy KC, Diane Abbott MP and Michael Burke, and chaired by Sarah Woolley. To register visit here. For further details see here.