Drawing lessons from the strike wave

The current strike wave, which erupted more than a year ago with national strike action by railworkers in the RMT union, marks the beginning of a new era in the class struggle in Britain. ROB WILLIAMS gives an overview of the strike action so far and draws vital lessons for the workers’ movement for the battles to come, especially under, as looks likely, a future Starmer government.

At last year’s TUC Congress, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was unabashed in facing the leadership of the trade union movement. He would not apologise for his refusal to support strikes and made no promises: “There will be tough times during my Labour government”. The crises in the Tories, which reached a nadir as Congress ended, with the resignation of the disastrous then prime minister Lizz Truss, buoyed Starmer’s confidence.

As the general election nears, Starmer and his team will be hoping that 2024 will be a repeat of 1997, when Tony Blair’s New Labour won an historic landslide against another Tory government which was also clearly out of time. But it’s not merely the electoral arithmetic that he hopes will be similar, he also hopes he can inherit the same ‘industrial peace’.

Blair didn’t face his first major national battle with a trade union until the seven-month-long firefighters’ pay strike that started in November 2002, and during which the New Labour government used army ‘Green Goddess’ fire engines to try to undermine the action. The dispute had huge consequences for the FBU firefighters’ union, causing a shift left and leading directly to it disaffiliating from Labour.

But the period before the upcoming election is far different from that prior to Blair’s victory in May 1997. Blair and Brown were able to take advantage of a much more benign economic position than the one that faces Starmer. And the industrial situation is also much different.

In 1995, the proportion of workers who were organised in trade unions stood at 32%, falling sharply from the peak of 53% in 1979. In 1997, the total number of days lost through strike action totalled 235,000. While union density has fallen further to 22% today, the level of struggle is at a far greater pitch. In 2022, over two and a half million days were lost due to strikes, ten times the number of 2019, the last full year before the Covid pandemic. This is the highest level of strikes since 1989.

Margaret Thatcher famously declared that Tony Blair and New Labour were her greatest achievement, referring to the political counter-revolution that transformed Labour into a US Democrat-style capitalist party. Central to that process were the defeats suffered by key sections of the workers’ movement in the 1980s such as the miners and the printworkers at Wapping. On top of this, the collapse of the Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe in 1989-91 – a bureaucratic distortion of socialism, but nevertheless an alternative social system to capitalism – further underpinned and cemented the shift right, not just in Labour but also by much of the trade union leaderships. It also undermined the confidence in the possibility of building a new society of many of even the most active and politically conscious workers.

Situation transformed

It has taken a whole period for the working class to recover its fighting capacity. The strike wave that has developed since Covid, and especially over the last 18 months, represents a new era of struggle. It will have its ups and downs, as we have already seen, but it is of a fundamentally different character to anything in the post-Stalinist period, bringing into action a new generation of workers, many of them young, who have quickly become absorbed into the union movement, not just as union members but as reps and activists, strike leaders, and picket organisers.

This transformation of the situation means, for example, that currently Rishi Sunak faces a far greater challenge in the implementation of his anti-union Minimum Service Levels Act than David Cameron did in 2016, when he brought in his Trade Union Act. This stipulated that industrial action ballots would only be legal if the turnout was at least 50%, with an additional higher legal bar for balloted workers deemed to be in ‘essential’ services or industries, such as transport or the NHS, at least 40% of whom had to vote yes to action. The Tories believed that the new law would make it virtually impossible for unions to win national industrial action ballots, especially in the public sector, where hundreds of thousands of workers are grouped together in national agreements on pay, and terms and conditions.

This was the most serious anti-union law passed since the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act under John Major, which introduced compulsory strike ballots and removed protection for secondary picketing. Shamefully, Cameron’s Act was passed into law virtually unchallenged by the trade union leaderships. Not one national Saturday demonstration was called, let alone any industrial action.

The main driver of what is the biggest, broadest and most persistent strike wave for a generation has been the unrelenting cost-of-living squeeze. In reality, it has been a number of strike waves, generally coming together or at least developing in parallel, some starting while others have ended, with some individual characteristics but also with common causes. On a whole number of occasions, workers have voted in re-ballots to extend their six-monthly strike mandates, as well as voting down offers.

In other periods over the last few decades we have seen, at different times, national public sector strikes, a wave of localised private sector action, or important national disputes. But over the last two years or so, and particularly the last 12 months, all three have developed alongside each other. Such has been the scale of action, some disputes that would normally have been of key significance have not been viewed as central. For instance, the first ever UK strikes in Amazon which were called by the GMB. Also Unite has organised action across the North Sea in the oil and gas industry, winning double-figure pay rises.

Recovering strength

This is all a far cry from 2015, for example, which recorded the second lowest annual total of days lost through strike action since records began in 1891, and the Covid lockdown, when virtually every union suspended disputes or called off action in the name of national unity. But Covid and its bitter aftermath have shown how, unlike the right-wing Labour leaders, even the most conservative trade union leaders can be put under pressure by their members.

The bosses’ class cruelty was on full display as they used brutal measures such as ‘fire and rehire’ to exploit the sharp economic downturn to seek to slash workers’ pay and conditions. The obvious targets were the likes of workers who were employed by grounded airlines and airports. These led to the first phase of the recovery of trade union struggle, with brave defensive action against the bosses’ offensive. Unite estimated that one in ten of their members were affected by fire and rehire. The GMB called 43 days of strike action of its 7,500 members at British Gas – out of a total workforce of 20,000 – between January and April 2021, against cuts to their wages of up to £15,000 a year. Hundreds of workers refused to sign new contracts and were sacked by privateer owner Centrica.

But as the economy recovered, so too did workers’ confidence. Aided by labour shortages, especially of skilled workers, as decades of under-investment and de-regulation was exposed by the Covid crisis, workers in certain sectors such as HGV drivers suddenly became aware of their improved bargaining power. This was undoubtedly helped by the election of Unite’s industrial action national organiser Sharon Graham being elected as the union’s new general secretary in August 2021. The coming together of more beneficial conditions with a far more systematic approach to bargaining and industrial action took the level of action to another league in Unite, and also raised the sights across the whole union movement. At Unite’s policy conference in July 2023, Sharon Graham stated that under her leadership Unite has conducted over 850 individual disputes, involving 150,000 of its one million members, with an 80% success rate.

It’s clear from this that there is not a simple relationship between economic conditions and workers’ combatitivity. The reality is far more complex. If an economic downturn is too severe, workers can be stunned and cowed for a period, concerned about keeping their jobs. But an improvement in the economy can increase struggle as workers regain confidence about their employment stability and look to recoup what they have lost in terms of pay rises. However, on the back of an upturn in struggle, while a recession may well affect the number of strikes, it could also lead to big defensive industrial struggles against workplace closures and redundancies. It could also contribute to a raising of political consciousness.

The Covid pandemic itself has also been a big driver of the determination and willingness of workers to fight. It revealed all too clearly the class inequalities in capitalism and made workers aware of their worth and value to society. When the danger from the virus was at its height, it was workers who were on the front line, showing to themselves and everyone else that it was they who made things happen, and that they should get their just rewards or, at the very least, not have to shoulder the price in terms of cuts to their living standards. It is no accident that as early as the summer of 2020, before prices started to rise, nurses were demanding a 15% pay rise. This was also to recoup some of the estimated 20% decline in their wages since the Tories regained office in 2010. The junior doctors have since demanded a 35% pay rise.

But the subsequent spiral in inflation has created a ‘perfect storm’ in the conditions for action. Workers were faced with an accelerating squeeze on their living standards at a point when the recovering economy had taken away, for the moment, the immediate threat of serious job losses. In August 2020, in the depths of the Covid lockdown, the more realistic RPI inflation was 0.5%; just over two years later it was over 14%. It is still in double figures now, with food inflation near 20%, while even the Tory government’s preferred inflation measurement of CPI is still almost 8%.

Rhythm of struggle

In any period, there will be victories as well as defeats. But setbacks suffered by workers can appear more decisive in some times than in others. In March 2022, just before the strike wave began to gather speed, 800 members of the RMT and Nautilus International seafaring unions were brutally sacked by P&O and its parent company DP World. The CEO even brazenly admitted to MPs in a select committee that they knowingly broke the law to protect the profits of the company, and yet they went unpunished, revealing to workers the class hypocrisy of the law. But because the general trajectory of struggle was upwards, while these sackings rightly embittered many layers of the working class, especially in the affected port areas, they did not cower other workers from taking action.

Following on from localised pay strikes, mainly in the private sector, the level of struggle went up a scale with the national strikes called by the CWU in Royal Mail and British Telecom, and the RMT on Network Rail and the Train Operating Companies (TOCS) as well as in London on the Underground. The train drivers’ union ASLEF has also been heavily involved in the TOCs dispute. These battles have been very significant. The first national rail strikes for 30 years have demonstrated the power of rail and transport workers to effectively shut down or, at least, help gridlock the transport network. The BT strike was the first since 1987, and the action in Royal Mail the first national strike since 2009. When these and other strikes were co-ordinated, we saw days of hundreds of thousands of workers taking action together. This was added to from autumn 2022 onwards by national strike action in parts of the public sector, particularly health, education, and the civil service.

The idea that because of the 2016 Trade Union Act national action was no longer possible has been dealt a decisive blow. Some unions have moved to disaggregated ballots in order to ensure that at least a significant number of members can beat the 50% threshold and take action, although some unions have managed to get the necessary turnout in nationally aggregated votes. On Budget Day in March 2023, an estimated 600,000 workers took strike action together. No single day has yet reached the numbers during the public sector pension battle, when two million workers took part in the N30 mass walk out in 2011, but there have been far more of those days, and week in week out the strikes have continued.

In addition to the numbers of workers taking action, there have been some hugely significant mobilisations. On two strike days in spring this year, the NEU was able to mobilise over 50,000 members in London, while last December, as Royal Mail senior management started a vicious offensive of sacking and suspending reps and members, the CWU filled Parliament Square with over 20,000 postal workers, who then marched on Buckingham Palace.

Moving into action

New forces have also joined the strike wave, some involved in their first action. The first of these were barristers in the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) who, in March 2022, protested against the real terms cuts in their fees, which the CBA estimated had declined by 28% over two decades. The original strike vote had been 94% in favour, and in a further ballot in the August, nearly 80% voted to escalate the action. The Tories were forced to give significant concessions.

This was followed by disputes involving head teachers, junior doctors, and even consultants, the latter two groups taking strike action. Similarly, in December 2022 members of the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) took their first action in England and Wales in the history of the union. Traditionally, the RCN was the union that nurses joined so as not to go on strike, while militant workers joined TUC-affiliated unions such as Unison. All these sections, which formerly may not have seen themselves as part of fighting trade unions, have adopted the methods of the working-class movement. It can’t be a coincidence that many, if not all, of them are in professions that have left them with huge student debts.

But the effects of the cost-of-living squeeze and the acute crisis in the NHS have had a massively radicalising effect on NHS staff. They have been prepared to move to whichever union seems the most likely to secure a strike mandate. A whole layer have either moved unions or ‘double-carded’ – remaining in their existing union while also joining the RCN. This is a warning to union leaders that in a volatile period, with workers faced with an intolerable situation for them and their families, the ties to their unions will be tested when staff are determined to take action.

But nurses have also been fully examining the fighting credentials of the RCN. The union leadership recommended the initial offer from the Tories, but this was defeated by a virtual uprising of members. The task for these workers in the RCN, as in all unions, is to transform them into fighting unions. A new generation has been brought into the union movement, seeing the need to get organised and take action – the NEU, for example, has reported attracting up to 70,000 new members. Key is the building of powerful open and democratic broad left organisations, to bring together and attract the most militant members, to discuss and set out a fighting programme that can transform the unions, and to hold even left union leaders’ feet to the fire.

Testing times

This is even more necessary in this period, as the level of the crisis puts union leaderships relentlessly to the test. A succession of union leaderships has looked to bring disputes to a conclusion. For union activists in many of these unions, this has been done prematurely. In the case of the NEU, the leadership rushed through an acceptance vote just as members were voting to continue striking in their re-ballot. Many of the union leaderships have been exposed for their lack of confidence in their members’ fighting capability. But at this stage, apart from the RCN, in most cases a recommendation from the union leaderships has been accepted by the broad union memberships. This shows the necessity of fighting for militant union leaderships.

The PCS leaders, for instance, were clearly reluctant to declare a dispute and then go for a ballot. Once a ballot for action was won, they waited until nearly half of its six-month strike mandate had gone before calling all-members’ action, preferring extremely small-scale targeted strikes. And then they rushed to agree the first offer of a one-off, non-consolidated payment of £1,500. Worse, the members’ consultation on this offer has been totally lacking in transparency and democratic accountability. All of which risks disorientating and disappointing members. However, this autumn the elections for PCS general secretary and assistant general secretary present an opportunity to elect a new leadership team, with Socialist Party member Marion Lloyd standing as the left general secretary candidate.

Of course, every dispute is different. And the tactics and strategy for each have to be worked out carefully, weighing up what is needed to win the battle, the mood of members, and what can be done to build their confidence. We don’t make a principle of any tactics or amount of action. Given the situation facing workers, there has been, in general, a move away from the one-day periodic strikes that were prevalent a decade or so ago. But escalation has to be weighed up carefully, putting forward a schedule of action that brings members together, raises their confidence and mood, and takes the struggle forward. While calling piecemeal action can be seen by workers as insufficient, and not affecting the employer, escalating action without sufficient preparation and lifting the mood of workers can exhaust workers and dissipate the mood.

Without question, the national disputes on the railways and in Royal Mail, both backed up by the Tory government, have had a particular significance. Royal Mail senior management especially have led a vicious assault on the CWU and its postal worker members. A sign of their viciousness was the fact that, at one stage, over 400 union reps and members were disciplined – sacked or suspended – often by local management. Altogether the CWU called 18 days of strike action. Members have now voted to accept the company’s offer after a fight that lasted well over a year. The clear attempt by Royal Mail to smash the CWU was faced down but a layer of posties consider the outcome of the dispute to be a setback.

Such a brutal management attack calls for a struggle on a far higher level than so-called ‘normal’ times. It would have needed far greater action to be called, perhaps weeks of strikes. There would have undoubtedly been difficulties in convincing members about this, as in other disputes. There is clearly still a legacy of the period of low-level struggle that has to be overcome. This is both in terms of how much action can be taken as well as how strikes are organised. Many picket lines have been more like protests than attempts at convincing fellow workers to join the strike. But the lags in consciousness can be rapidly caught up as workers learn, often through bitter experience, what it takes to win their disputes.

Unite is almost the only union that has recently been able to organise sustained strikes or even indefinite action. But the union has been able to pay strike pay of £70 a day. And while it has organised over 800 individual disputes, these have only involved around 15% of its membership. In contrast, the RMT has had over 60% of its members taking action, while in the disputes in Royal Mail, BT and the Post Office, the CWU has seen perhaps 80-90% of its membership on strike. Three quarters of the NEU’s 400,000 members have been on strike.

Nevertheless, the question of how strikes are resourced has to be faced up to. It would take the public launching of a strike fund, going to both the rest of the union movement and wider working-class communities. In the Royal Mail dispute, this would have brought home the importance of these workers’ jobs and their place in local communities. It would, by necessity, have taken the struggle to a higher level, and it could have acted as a mobilising weapon as well as a financial one, drawing wider working-class forces into the fight against parasitic owners and the crisis-ridden Tory government.

Political voice

The other vital weapon was a political one. Alongside the central task of militant industrial action, it was necessary to put forward the demand for re-nationalisation of Royal Mail. Especially in light of working-class people being furious at the profiteering by the energy companies, the call for firms like Royal Mail to be brought back into public ownership would have been overwhelmingly popular, and also necessary, when the Royal Mail vulture capitalist owners threatened administration at the key point of the dispute. The demand for re-nationalisation would have put huge pressure not only on Sunak but Starmer too. The union leadership should have demanded that Starmer publicly declare in favour of this policy, which was passed at Labour’s national conference last autumn. But this would have pitted the CWU against Starmer’s Labour Party, something the leadership are not prepared to do at this stage.

More and more the political demands will become essential, and in turn pose the whole question of a political alternative for workers. Through the industrial fight workers become far more open to and conscious of broader issues, including political ones. Starmer had a frosty reception at Unite’s national conference because delegates are well aware of his opposition to strikes, as shown by the scandalous sacking of Sam Tarry from his front bench role for daring to go on a railworkers’ picket line and speaking out in support of the strike. In addition, there has been the experience of cutting Labour councils such as in Coventry, where Unite and their bin worker members came under attack.

However, the opportunity to forge a political strategy not restricted to merely supporting Starmerite Labour candidates, which would have strengthened its industrial struggles, unfortunately wasn’t taken at the conference. This will continue to be an issue in the run-up to the general election and especially beyond, if as likely, a Starmer pro-big business government is elected. Some of the union leaders may look to avoid strikes in the pre-election period and will undoubtedly be extremely reluctant to sanction action if and when a New Labour government is elected. So it will be essential that industrial and political pressure is maintained on the union leaders.

Tories under pressure

What has been a common thread in all the national disputes has been the Tory government, either as the direct employer or the political backer. In many of these strikes the union leaderships have not been prepared for the scale of action needed to win. And in many cases they have been forced into calling action by the pressure of members but not willing or able to commit fully to a serious strategy, both within the individual unions or more broadly.

The role of the Tories in the national disputes in rail, Royal Mail, BT and the public sector, posed the bringing together of all these strikes in mass co-ordinated action. Important steps were taken in this direction, with over half-a-million workers on strike together on 1 February and 15 March this year. But there was the potential to go much further in mass co-ordinated strike action across all sectors with live strike mandates.

That deficiency is arguably the major lesson to be drawn from the strike wave, especially for the looming battle against Sunak’s Minimum Service Level legislation. Inspired by the debate developed within the National Shop Stewards Network, the conferences of the RMT and Unite passed motions calling for mass co-ordinated strike action if and when unions are attacked by the Tory anti-union legislation. The RMT resolution was raised by the FBU in its call for unions to come together in mass opposition to the Minimum Service Levels Act. The FBU and RMT in particular set out a fighting strategy in their TUC Congress motions. At Unite’s conference, the motion agreed, moved by a Socialist Party member, included the need for Unite to call for action on the scale of a 24-hour general strike.

To date the Tories have been forced into giving significant concessions on pay by the action that has been called, even if it isn’t considered enough by many workers who have been involved in those disputes. In November 2022, before the first nurses’ strike, the RCN leadership offered to suspend action just for the promise of serious talks on pay. Sunak refused to do so but was forced back to the negotiating table and to make an increased offer, as has also happened elsewhere in the public sector. The Tories will rue the day that they forced a new generation of nurses to take to the picket lines and learn a precious lesson – they won more out of the government because they took action. It is a conclusion that more and more workers will also draw.

Many will be asking whether the strike wave is petering out. As some disputes are resolved, on good and not so good terms, it is possible that there could be a pause in national action at least. But given the economic volatility, it seems likely that action will continue, at local level, or be resurrected at a national level in the new pay year, as workers fight for the pay rise that they desperately need. The rise in the rate of inflation might slow but the damage of inflation has been inflicted, and huge increases in mortgage payments will now start to be felt. Whole sections of the working class and increasing layers of the middle class, are going without. Many will feel that they have no alternative but to fight.

And the Tories can easily ignite a mass struggle if any union or group of workers are attacked with the anti-union laws. Given the inherent weakness of his government and party, Sunak’s Tories could be forced out of power by such a movement. That would also be a political down payment by the working class on a Labour government led by Starmer, who has cravenly set out his stall as the trusted representative of big business.

There will be many ups and downs, but a new period of workers’ struggle has opened up. Workers will be absorbing the lessons of their experiences on the picket lines to prepare for the further battles to come. The vital task is to equip the workers’ movement with the industrial and political programme for the stormy times now and in the future.