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Britain’s strike heatwave

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Britain is having a record hot summer - not just in terms of the 30-40 degree temperatures that have turned normally green lawns and pastures into brown scrublands – but in terms of a “hot summer” of strikes in which workers are rebelling against sudden rises in prices on top of a long period of stagnant real wage levels. While annual pay increases in the private sector average 5.9 per cent, public sector wage growth is an appalling 1.8 per cent

The spur to action by workers is the UK’s galloping inflation, at the fastest annual rate for 40 years. The consumer prices index, CPI, rose 10.1 percent in the year to July 2022, up from 9.4 percent in June. The Office of National Statistic shows food price rises, a higher proportion of total spending in working class families, hitting 12.7 percent. The Bank of England is predicting it will breach 13 percent later this year.

At present, the average household in the U.K. pays just under £2,000 annually for electricity and gas but after the current cap on price rises is lifted, this will rise to £4,266 on October 1 and there could be another rise on January 1.

This has provoked a response that recalls the anti-Poll Tax Movement of the early 1990s. A campaigning group - Don’t Pay UK - has called for mass direct action to force to reduce the cost of gas and electricity, including calling on people to cancel their direct debit payments to the energy companies from 1 October, when the regulator Ofgem will lift the price cap.

Big unions, like Unite with 1.4 million members and GMB with 460,000, are securing significant pay awards at company and workplace level as a result of industrial action or the threat of it. Most recently, 1,800 Arriva bus drivers in North-west England won an 11.1 per cent pay deal.

According to the Liverpool Echo, there were shouts of “Up the Workers!” from the crowd of pickets as the deal was announced. Other private sector workers, including garbage collectors, have been taking all out action and quickly winning increases. Workers at Amazon, in the construction industry and at an oil refinery have all walked out on wildcat strike recently.

More than 1,900 dockers at Felixstowe, the country’s largest container port, are due to strike for eight days from Sunday 21 August. Unite the Union reported that the employer, Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company, had failed to improve on its offer of a 7 percent pay increase, which would mean a real wage cut.

In the public sector, things are more difficult because of central government pressure to keep wage increases to a 2 per cent limit and the fact that municipalities have had their budgets frozen or cut for years on end. But union conferences are voting for at least indicative strike ballots and decisive ones are due in the autumn. These include in the NHS, where there is widespread anger over pay offers that do not reflect the huge workloads and personal sacrifices made by workers during the pandemic.

The real struggle in public services is to meet the stringent requirements of the Tories' anti-union laws. These lay down that strikes are only lawful if there is a majority for action in a postal ballot in which over 50 percent of all those eligible to vote have actually voted. Challenges to the accuracy of a union's figures for membership can invalidate a ballot or delay its implementation. A veritable obstacle course exists, especially for national strikes by large unions.

It is no surprise that it is the traditionally more militant rail workers who have been the largest sector, so far, taking one and two day strike actions. Strikes across Network Rail and 14 train operating companies shut down at least 80 percent of train services. On August 20, 40,000 rail workers on the national network and 10,000 on the London Underground (the Tube) and London Overground struck, bringing virtually all rail traffic to a halt.

In the forefront have been the militants of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, RMT, an all-grades industrial union with 83,000 members. But alongside them has been the train drivers’ union, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, ASLEF, with 22,000 members and the clerical staff union, TSSA, with 18,000 members.

The old state company, British Rail, was denationalised by the Conservatives in the 1990s but they had to renationalise the network operating company, Rail Track, because of the complete mess the privatised companies made of it. Now, the Tories are once again trying to “reform” the system, by cutting guards on trains and thus increasing threats to safety and security of both passengers and workers.

The RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, has won great public support with his straightforward rebuttals of journalists' attempts to present the strikers as enemies of the travelling public. Explaining the situation, he said: “There is a wave of reaction among working people to the way they’re being treated. People are getting poorer every day of the week. People can’t pay their bills. They’re getting treated despicably at the workplace. I think there will be generalised and synchronised action.”

The rail workers' action has provoked a sharp response form the Tory government, especially at a time when their party is electing a new leader and prime minister to replace the disgraced Boris Johnson. Tory transport secretary Grant Shapps told the right wing Daily Mail that “the days of union power are numbered” and that he “has been quietly working on a multi-pronged plan to crush hard-Left union barons for good”.

He proposes to impose even higher thresholds for participation in strike votes and to double the time that unions must give employers notice of strikes. He will also further limit the numbers of strikers allowed to be on a picket line. Against rail workers and their unions, Shapps is also threatening to issue legal warnings under Section 188 of the TU and Labour Relations Act (1992) to impose “reforms” to remove guards from trains and cut over 1,900 jobs.

He has also claimed that laws to impose minimum service requirements, effectively strike bans for sections of the workforce, making them break their own strikes, are “written and ready to go” when a new prime minister is chosen by the 160,000 Conservative Party members on September 5.

Next in line for action are, 115,000 postal workers. They will strike after Royal Mail management imposed a 2 percent wage “rise” that amounts to a double-digit wage cut, given the rate of inflation. Also, Royal Mail’s proposals for “restructuring” are a cover for a further attack on negotiated working hours, sick pay and Sunday pay. There is also a threat to hive off the profitable parcels business from letter delivery, which will threaten the end of the universal service obligation.

The “posties" will be joined by 40,000 British Telecom and Openreach workers on 31 August. If the three rail unions come out at the same time, that could mean over 250,000 on strike. This will give a great opportunity for joint rallies and demonstrations that could link up with the bus workers, bin workers and health workers who are balloting for action. Even barristers – the lawyers who can represent clients in the higher courts - could be taking action.

The RMT and the CWU have taken the lead in launching a major campaign called “Enough is Enough”, demanding “real pay rises, nationalisation to combat rising energy bills, an end to the need for food banks and skyrocketing rents and a policy of taxing the rich”. Postal workers' leader Dave Ward announced that already 400,000 people had signed up for the campaign which will hold 70 rallies across the country in coming weeks. There are plans to create regional organisations, including four in London, to mobilise public solidarity with the strikes and coordination between the sectors on strike or balloting for strike action.

Some 1,250 people attended a launch rally in Clapham Junction, a big railway hub in south London, on August 17. Though it was only announced a few days before, hundreds who queued round the block had to be turned away because the venue was full up. Under the slogan “It’s time to turn anger into action” a largely young and enthusiastic audience heard, Mick Lynch, Dave Ward and Jo Grady from the University and College Union, UCU, denounce the rise of fuel poverty, the numbers resorting to food banks, and demand wage rises at or above the rate of inflation, a cap on energy bills, nationalisation of the utilities, and taxing the rich.

The fact that the unions have to organise their own political campaign highlights the absence of the party that they pay millions to support - Labour. Instead, its leader, Keir Starmer, sacked a Labour shadow cabinet minister who appeared on an RMT picket line. No wonder when Dave Ward said “People say where is Labour? It’s up to Labour - this campaign goes on with or without it” it was met with roars of approval. However, this is too passive an attitude. Starmer needs to be named and shamed for his hostility to strikes and to local Labour parties joining the movement.

Mick Lynch also said: “Unions must lead, we can’t wait for the politicians. We need to get out into the communities and the former red wall to assist them to campaign. We need to show them how to organise. Our job as activists and trade unionists is to lift them, give them hope and get them out on the streets.”

He added; “Join a union and join a campaign. Move the workers into campaigning and convert it into a wave of solidarity and industrial action across Britain.”

Good words but it is up to rank and file militants in the unions and socialist activists to put it into action by organising demonstrations to reach out to other workers and the general public for support. To do this in town and cities, activists are already forming solidarity committees. When a mass strike wave develops, especially if the government or employers invoke the anti-union laws, these can be the basis of councils of action with delegates from the unions and community campaigns able to bring down a government that is trying to “break the unions”.

The size of the turnout shows a growing mood for radical change, to say no to growing poverty and falling wages. Indeed “Enough is Enough”. It is time to prove, as some journalists have said, that “the class struggle is back”