Liz Truss’s election as leader of the Conservative Party becoming Prime Minister signals a significant ratcheting up of attacks on the working class. She has made it clear that there will be no real attempt to help the poorest in society with rising energy bills. The billions of pounds of subsidies announced by Truss’s government are going to the energy companies, and those who are poorest will benefit least. Millions of working people will continue to live in fear about how they are going to survive after October 1.
The announcement by the RMT and CWU that they will be striking together on Oct 1st combined with the call by Enough is Enough campaign for demonstrations in every city and town on the same day must be the starting gun for a movement of resistance. Train drivers and Dockers in Felixstowe and Liverpool have also targeted 1st October as their next day of action. 175,000 workers could be out that day.
Workers do not want to be made to pay for the crisis. Within the working class there is a real desire for unity.
It is too early to tell if the wall-to-wall coverage of the pomp and ceremony of the mourning of the Queen’s passing will have the desired effect of halting the momentum of the Autumn action. I doubt it. Although the silly decision to call off strikes and postpone the TUC conference won’t have helped.
When workers strike together it highlights what they have in common rather than what divides them. Despite the differing levels of pay, conditions and security of employment within the working class when workers strike together, they rise above the attempt to divide them and recognise that their class unity lays the basis for victory.
This unity is only one part of building success. Trade Unions are contradictory organisations. Their significance is that they organise workers where they are at their most powerful, the workplace, and collectivise workers to resist. Their weakness is that they reflect the sectional divisions built into the system. A trade union organises along the lines of a worker’s trade and not as a class.
To prevent the struggle from collapsing into a series of sectional battles the coordination of strikes must be effective and challenge these sectional divisions. Failure to do so can allow the old sectional divisions and interests to dominate the struggle. This can happen when trade union leaders fight, not for the best deal they can get for the whole of their class, but instead fight to secure the best deal for their particular section.
Coordination the last time around.
Since the beginning of this century working people have faced massive and sustained attacks on their living standards. A decade of austerity, a pandemic where 150,000 people, in the UK lost their lives and now a cost-of-living crisis which threatens the worst cuts in living standards for half a century and could lead to tens of thousands dying of cold and many more suffering ill health. This immediate crisis caused by a broken fossil fuel energy market sits alongside the systemic climate and ecological crisis which threatens our ability to survive and is already causing devastating impacts for millions of people.
So why have we seen so few attempts to coordinate action across the different sectors this century?
The anti-union laws that have been passed since 1982 have had a huge impact. They have made secondary action illegal. Secondary action is when action is taken by workers of one union in support of another over an issue that does not directly affect them. They have also made it unlawful to take action without a ballot and introduced thresholds for turnout and a percentage vote for action, that must be met before action can be legally taken. These laws were designed to and have made taking strike action legally more difficult to achieve, both in individual unions and across unions.
Whilst it is not easy to coordinate strike action across different sectors it is not impossible. The fear of falling foul of the law and financial penalties and the fear of the wider political impact of coordinated strikes, has meant trade union leaders have been very reticent to get such action off the ground.
When trade union leaders did go down this route the action was token, designed to force governments to open talks rather than using strikes to set an agenda of their own.
There have been three examples of unions nationally coordinating strike action this century. The first was in 2005-6 with 16 unions taking action in defence of public sector pensions, an attack launched by the then Labour government. The second in 2008 over pay involving four unions; UCU (FE only), NUT (NEU) PCS and ATL (NEU). The third was in 2011-12 against the Tory governments attack on pensions. This last action was the biggest strike since the 1926 General Strike involving 29 unions and around 2 million workers. It was also the biggest strike in Britain history involving women.
The strike action in all three examples were limited to no more than one or two days in succession. The 2011-12 pensions dispute held the most strike days. Five in all and spread out over almost a six-month period and only one day at a time, the strike on November 30th 2011, involved all 29 unions. The remaining days involved only the NUT, PCS and UCU.
None of these attempts at coordinated action went beyond one or two-day strikes. This was never going to be enough to prevent the attack on public sector pensions and pay.
Despite the very limited success of these strikes, coordinated action is very popular amongst workers. Coordinated action gives workers the understanding that they are a formidable force to be reckoned with.
This time around.
As we move to a fourth attempt at nationally coordinated strike action the stakes could not be higher. The government and the employers know that they have to beat the RMT and postal workers to send a message to the whole of the working class that striking doesn’t pay. Failure to do so will unleash a wave of strike action not seen for a generation.
Whilst the stakes are higher than the last time such action was attempted so is the desire for unity and the willingness to fight amongst millions of workers. For example, Dockers at Liverpool and Felixstowe are set to coordinate their strike action. This would raise the temperature significantly. Dockers striking at a time when supply chains are already struggling will create chaos. The press will launch an attack on the Dockers even more ferocious than they have done with the rail workers.
The question for the trade union leaders is: are they prepared to launch the kind of action that can win?
It is clear a series of one or two days strikes over a period of several months, no matter how disruptive will not be enough to beat the employers. They will ride this strike plan out. Introduction of ‘smart strikes’ where one group of workers come out on one day and another group on another to cause maximum disruption will also not deliver the knockout blow.
When the stakes are so high the only way that we will win is if the employers and government are forced into a position where they are faced with a stark choice – significant pay rises or their system. This will take significant escalation, including indefinite strikes.
The Tories look to Thatcher’s battle with the Miners in 1984/5 as the model to adopt to beat the RMT/CWU today. Don’t give in, buy off any group of workers that look as if they might join the miners. They were successful with this strategy because trade union and Labour leaders did not mobilise to join a coordinated fight, and the miners remained isolated.
But this is not 1984. The terrain in which we fight is different. The Miners’ strike took place in a period of significant defeats for the working class like the steel workers in 1982. Their strike took place after the powerful shop steward organisations, that helped deliver the knockout blow to the Heath government in 1972, had been eroded from the mid-1970s onwards. Today this round of coordinated action takes place against a backgroundof revival in workplace organisation, localised victories and the emergence of wildcat strikes.
Building working class organisation that can deliver such a knockout blow can happen very quickly when moving into action in these conditions. It doesn’t take twenty years of union recruitment campaigns and lots of localised victories to create such a transformation. It can happen overnight. UCU has recruited 1,000 new members since the ballot opened a few weeks ago.
Providing the trade union leaders put forward a strategy of significant strike action, from which workers can see that their leaders are serious about seeing this through, the working class is in a good position to be able to respond.
So where will this call come from? At this year’s TUC Congress (the meeting place of all the, mainly full time, union staffs and their General Secretaries) there are motions calling for coordinated action. Unison calls for ‘the General Council to co-ordinate action between unions’. The PCS has amended the motion to add, ‘calls on the General Council to establish, convene and provide resources for a special working group of willing unions which would’ and the NEU’s motion calls for, ‘calls for solidarity actions with workers who have to strike to defend pay, pensions, jobs and standards for themselves and the wider public, including joining picket lines to publicly show support for workers in dispute.’
All of which are fine and should be supported.
However, there is no attempt, by any union, to put in a motion calling for a coordinated day of action and naming that day. Now that the CWU and RMT have named Oct 1st as a day of joint strike action the TUC should call upon the whole movement to support them.
In 2019 a motion submitted by the UCU calling for a 30-minute workday stoppage in solidarity with school climate strikes (and watered down by UNITE to ‘workday action’) was passed unanimously. It resulted in the biggest trade union action over climate change seen in Britain.
Even if a mild motion similar to this, was passed, which called for a 30 minute ‘workday solidarity protest’ over pay and the cost-of-living crisis, on the next weekday strike called by the RMT, CWU and other unions, it would see millions of unionised and non-unionised workers joining such an action. This would be a great way to follow up the Oct 1ST launch of coordinated action.
The RMT and CWU have started the coordinated strike ball rolling. We have to do all we can to build solidarity for those who are taking action. Whichever unions have a live ballot should try and coordinate their next day of strike action with the RMT and CWU on Oct 1st.
However, at the moment the vast majority of workers in the country are not participating or preparing for strike action. Setting up solidarity networks in every locality and workplace is the important first step to ensuring that those on strike know that they are not alone and those who are offering that support can feel that they are a part of a wider movement for change.
Those workers who are on strike will increasingly have to find ways to maintain the engagement of their members. The longer a strike goes on, the more urgent is the need to have in place structures that ensures maximum participation in the dispute. Workers isolated at home on strike days is a sure way of weakening the resolve of those taking the action.
The experience of UCU where post-16 education workers in HE have been involved in quite lengthy strikes is useful. The need to hold regular meetings, in some cases daily, to organise to raise funds, to send strikers to workplaces to raise support and maintain picket lines has become important to the strike. These strike committees are central to ensuring that members are kept informed of latest offers and details of negotiations that have taken place.
Strike committees are also important to ply pressure on their leaders to call the necessary action that can win. There is nothing more frustrating when participating in national strike action when decisions about the strategy adopted are not taken by those who are actually taking the strike action. As many CWU and RMT members experienced when their action was called off to mark respect for the period of mourning. The longer the strike goes on the greater the need for strike committees at a local, regional and national level becomes.
Calls for such committees is not about making faces at the trade union leaders and denouncing them at every turn. It is about ensuring that when our class is facing one of the most severe employers’ offensives seen in a generation, we utilise the best and most successful experiences of our class so that we win.
Strike committees and solidarity networks can lay the basis for the kind of rank-and-file organisations that can see us through to victory.
Let’s make sure Oct 1st is the beginning of a mass movement, with strike action at its centre, which can turn the tide on the employers and their government.
Sean Vernell UCU national negotiator.