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Britain’s Winter of Discontent

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Britain is facing a “winter of discontent” in the shape of the biggest wave of strikes for many years. This is despite the serious legal obstacles and restrictive balloting rules on taking industrial action and even the threat of a new law to impose minimum levels of service during a strike.

The wave began as a ripple of one day actions by rail workers in the summer and grew in the autumn. The Office for National Statistics reports 417,000 working days were lost to strikes in October, the highest monthly tally since November 2011. Between June and October, more than 1.1 million working days were lost, the highest in a five-month period since early 1990.

Strikers ranged from rail workers to teachers and lecturers, postal staff to civil servants, border force staff to barristers, bus drivers to dock workers. No wonder, since inflation hit a 41-year high of 11.1% in October and most of these workers had had below inflation settlements for years. A wages explosion was inevitable but could it shift a government pledged to clawback the sums expended in fighting covid?

The rail workers start it

Rail workers took the lead back in June when they launched their campaign under the slogan Bust the Transport Workers' Pay Freeze, with a series of one day strikes by 40,000 rail workers. Early rallies, in which General Secretary Mick Lynch said the union was engaged in a class battle and encouraged other workers and unions to join them, began to develop into a movement.

There was then something of a hiatus as the union went into negotiations, although the settlement it was seeking, around 8%, would still have meant a cut in real pay. But Network Rail and Transport for London were obdurate so, after RMT members rejected the latest pay offers, the union vowed to fight on. More frequent stoppages are set to bring the UK rail network to a standstill during the pre-Christmas period, raising howls of protest by retailers, who fear their usual sales bonanza being disrupted.

The separate train drivers' union, ASLEF, is balloting for strike action over the imposition of new work rosters on the Avanti West Coast train service, a company notorious for its failure to provide the statutory level of service, because of its failure to employ enough drivers.

Postal workers pick up the gauntlet

Royal Mail workers struck for the 14th time on 13 December following their 20,000 strong rally and march in central London the previous week. CWU members see it as a battle to save their jobs against a CEO, Simon Thompson, determined to decimate and casualise the workforce and reduce it to a parcels courier service. Management have begun by drafting in agency “strike breakers” and suspending 100 union members and reps during the dispute.

A new series of strikes in December and the New Year comes after deadlock in negotiations between CWU leaders and Royal Mail bosses. The reason for the failure is that the bosses are determined to transform Royal Mail into a casualised workforce thus breaking union representation at workplace level. Union leaders Dave Ward and Andy Furey wrongly offered to call off strikes for talks and said they’d be prepared to accept a pay deal of 9 percent over 18 months, a real-terms cut, in return for no compulsory redundancies and retaining morning deliveries. Management showed them the door.

The CWU now faces a life or death struggle which only an all-out strike, alongside the huge range of other workers taking or planning action, can win and can ensure the survival of these public services and the jobs of their members.

Nurses take historic action

On Dec 15, National Health Service nurses in Britain, members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN ) took their first national strike action in their 106-year history. The RCN intends another walk-out on the 20 December with further action in the New Year. An estimated 100,000 nurses will strike at 76 hospitals and health centres. A strike by more than 10,000 ambulance staff is due on December 21.

The union has put in a claim for 19 per cent, pointing out that, despite this year’s pay award of £1,400, experienced nurses are worse off by 20 per cent in real terms, because of successive below-inflation awards since 2010. Low pay has led to growing staff shortages and unsafe levels of care for patients.

The government has offered them 4.5 per cent, which would mean a 6 percent drop in real wages over the coming year. The government claims the NHS budget cannot afford such an increase, yet the refusal to pay a living wage sufficient to attract and retain doctors and nurses means spending huge amounts on agency workers. Hospitals in England have paid doctors as much as £5,200 a shift. It is at best a false economy but, in reality, it is part of the handing over, by stealth, of the entire health service to private companies and agencies. .

Despite the fact that the union has put in place extensive emergency cover and excluded Intensive Care and other departments like chemotherapy and dialysis, Tory Health minister Steve Barclay has denounced the strike for presenting serious risks to patients. The RCN leaders even offered to suspend the strikes over Christmas and the New Year if only the government would negotiate, a foolish display of weakness, which the government, nevertheless, spurned.

So far, it has adamantly refused to discuss pay on the grounds that the “award” comes from an independent body, whose members are hand-picked by the government and just happened to come up with what the Health Ministry says it can afford. Meanwhile, the devolved government in Scotland avoided a nursing strike precisely by holding talks on pay, though the GMB union, which organises ancillary staff, has rejected its 7.5 percent offer.

Polling ahead of the strike showed that 52 percent of the public “strongly” support the action. The government will obviously do all it can to shift this but it has not got off to a good start with the right wing Daily Express headline shouting “Give Nurses a Deal and Stop this Madness”. Ever reliable, however, the Daily Mail has “Week of Strikes Holding Britain Hostage!”

And others…follow suit

1,000 Unite members, who work on 59 bus routes for the Abellio bus company in south and west London are striking this December. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 Metroline bus drivers in London called off industrial action after accepting an 11 percent pay rise deal, with a 10 percent increase in back pay. They were originally offered a 4 percent increase on 8 Dec 2022

Thousands of university workers, in the UCU, struck on 24, 25 and 30 November. They struck alongside 4,000 National Education Union (NEU) union members at sixth form colleges. On the latter date they were joined by students and other trade unionists in a militant mass rally outside King’s Cross station before setting off on a march into central London. It marked the third day of strikes by 70,000 UCU union members at universities across Britain in their fights over pensions, pay, casualisation, workloads and equalities.

Coordinate and Escalate

A whole series of unions, including sections of Unison and Unite, the country’s two largest unions, are balloting for strike action in the New Year. As picket lines have multiplied and other union members, students and campaigners have joined them, as the size of marches and rallies have grown, the possibility is growing of all the separate wages struggles coming together. Although union leaders raise the slogan, “coordinate and escalate” from their platforms, they have done little to ensure that happens.

The Enough is Enough campaign and the People’s Assembly, seemed as though they might do this. But their unexplained rivalry and unnecessary duplication seems to have frittered away this early promise, although the PA is holding a conference in January. The danger is that the rival union leaderships and political groups are fearful of losing control to democratic gatherings of delegates from local and rank and file bodies that could decide on alternative courses of action. Militants from the various disputes, meeting up on the picket lines, can and must build solid links with one another. They need to build local coordinating bodies at a grassroots level.

Another dark cloud is on the horizon; Rishi Sunak’s threat to rush another anti-union law through parliament which would cripple the power to strike of nurses, posties and rail workers alike. As soon as this is presented, we need to launch a massive campaign to defend our unions. This must aim at mobilising direct action, that is, strike action, to Kill the Bill, as our grandparents did in the 1970s. Its aim should be not just to avoid this new set of chains being fastened on us but to break off all the others, dating back to the time of Thatcher.

All these issues – fighting inflation with wage increases that match its rise point for point; making the employers pay for them out of their stupendous profits; defending and restoring the NHS; renationalising the rail and other services and utilities and freeing our unions from forty years of anti-union laws, will require mass political strike action. To get this going it is no use waiting for the union leaders left or right. We will need to build councils of action with delegates from the workplaces, the communities, the young people. If we do this, we can drive Sunak and his feuding Tories from power, once and for all.