Tories Collapse Amidst a Growing Strike Wave

How a Resurging Labor Movement is Reshaping the UK's Political Landscape

November 1, 2022

The Tory government collapsed on October 20, 2022 after sinking the pound, triggering a rise in government borrowing. Their budget, set to be implemented on November 17, will hammer indebted families already struggling with the highest inflation levels in forty years. The crisis takes place against a backdrop of growing discontent which is finding its expression in a rising wave of strikes. This article looks at the growing wave of strike action, its causes, and some of the challenges facing striking workers and the left.

Growing wave of strikes

The nationwide strikes on the railways at British Telecom (BT) and by postal workers at Royal Mail have transformed the atmosphere inside the trade union movement and the wider working class. Pay is not the only issue, with major assaults on jobs and working conditions taking place on the railways, at Royal Mail, and at BT.

The rail strikes involve the Rail Maritime and Transport union (RMT), the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), with Unite engineers also striking on Great Western Rail. The dispute is part of a much more generalized attack affecting almost every grade of rail worker. The employer’s plans include mass job losses alongside radical changes to terms and conditions and attacks on pensions. As with BT, the strikes by the Communications Workers Union (CWU) in Royal Mail are over pay, but also come against a backdrop of wider attacks on jobs and working conditions. Following the unilateral pause in the action called by the RMT and CWU after the death of the queen, Royal Mail raised the stakes by withdrawing from a range of pre-existing agreements with the CWU. The CWU have in response planned an escalation in strike days throughout October and November.

Beyond the national strikes

The rise in single-site strikes at individual employers in the private sector predates the national strikes. Most of these disputes have been led by Unite. Its new leader, Sharon Graham, claims that in her first year as general secretary Unite members took part in over four hundred and fifty disputes involving seventy-six thousand members. During that year in post, Unite has run one hundred and twenty-two strike ballots. The union claims a win rate of 80 percent with £150 million extra won for Unite members. In the current climate, many of these disputes don’t lead to strikes as the threat of action often results in concessions from employers. 

Some of the most significant sectoral disputes have been in local authority trash collection departments, where victory in one borough leads to action in the next. On the buses, we see a similar pattern following a number of victories over pay with a potential strike of two thousand London bus drivers averted after an 11 percent pay deal. We have also seen strike action by dockers. Two eight-day strikes by nineteen-hundred Unite members over pay at Felixstowe, the port through which nearly half of all containers enter Britain, threatened around £680 million worth of trade. Unite members’ strike action at the Port of Liverpool, Britain’s fourth largest port, started on the day of the queen’s funeral. Unlike some of the other unions, Unite left it up to reps to decide if they wanted to postpone their action during the period of “national mourning.” Thankfully, Liverpool Dockers ignored the demands for “national mourning” and struck to their own timetable. Dockers in Southampton refused to handle ships rerouted from Liverpool in a significant escalation of the dispute—such action is unofficial and potentially illegal. It is also a magnificent demonstration of solidarity from rank and file dockers. The strike in Liverpool has intensified with dockers starting two more weeks of action on October 24.

Although on a smaller scale, alongside the official action there has been an important outbreak of unofficial or wildcat action. In May, workers across multiple oil and gas rigs in the North Sea were refusing to work over demands for a £7-an-hour pay increase. The response from the RMT, Unite and GMB unions, was to distance themselves from the unofficial action as it was “unlawful.” At a food factory near Bury, around one hundred workers walked out—despite not being in a union—over pay as well as a host of issues related to their treatment by managers. In August, unofficial action took place at the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland, when hundreds of workers on maintenance and repair contracts walked out over pay, with around two hundred and fifty workers temporarily blocking tankers from accessing the site. This action was part of a wider unofficial dispute covering eleven sites. At the end of October, at the Essar Stanlow refinery, unofficial action involving fifteen hundred construction workers led to a 12.3% increase, all loss of earnings from unofficial action repaid and a £1500 lump sum to settle a dispute over ‘walking time,’ the time it takes to walk within the site to get to the job. This victory was a fantastic example of rank and file workers taking immediate action with no reference to the law or the trade union leadership and winning conclusively with determined action. Inspiring action has also been taken across a number of giant Amazon warehouses in August, after workers at Amazon’s huge “fulfillment center” in Tilbury, Essex, were told that they were getting a pay ‘increase’ of 35p an hour. As videos of the action spread on social media, it sparked action by hundreds of Amazon workers in its warehouses in Coventry, Rugeley, Bristol, Leicestershire and Swindon. Both Unite and the GMB have been organizing across Amazon, but these walkouts were led largely by unorganized workers. Following these actions, the GMB balloted their members at the Coventry Amazon fulfillment center for strike action, but missed the undemocratic 50 percent turnout threshold imposed by the Tories by just 1 percent.

Will the action spread to the public sector?

Public sector workers—from the civil service, local government workers, school staff, health workers, firefighters, higher and further education workers—have balloted or are in the process of balloting for action. The Trade Union Act 2016, which introduced the 50 percent turnout threshold for strike ballots, makes it more difficult to reach the numbers for national action. However, the growing strike wave in rail, post, telecoms and the wider economy have transformed the mood even in the public sector where workers have faced decades of cuts to services and take home pay. 

In Education, school unions are set to ballot this autumn for strikes over pay with head teachers also preparing to ballot. Members of the University College Union (UCU) have taken action across Further Education colleges throughout October and Higher Education members are currently being balloted. Over seventy thousand university staff have voted overwhelmingly to strike at one hundred and fifty universities, beating the anti-union 50 percent threshold handsomely.

Despite the recent resignations, the Tories’ aim under new prime minister Rishi Sunak will be to reintroduce another round of Thatcherite austerity to shift the burden of the crisis onto the shoulders of workers.

Britain will likely be facing an autumn of strikes in emergency services as well. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) announced that 32,500 of its members across the UK would vote on strike action against a 2 percent offer. Over one hundred thousand members of Unite working for the NHS across England and Wales are being balloted. Unison will ballot 406,000 of its members who work for the NHS across England, Wales while balloting is already underway in Scotland. The ballots will include emergency services staff including nurses, paramedics, emergency call handlers and ambulance drivers.

Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), who recently changed their rule book to allow them the ability to strike, are also balloting for strikes throughout Scotland, England and Wales. The RCN’s general secretary says nurses will vote to strike not just for pay but against intolerable working conditions. Despite recent legislation allowing P&O-style strike-breaking by agency workers, during the successful strike in Northern Ireland, nursing agencies refused to scab. Cullen predicts that in England, Wales, and Scotland, nursing agencies would refuse to supply strike-breakers this time, too. The Royal College of Midwives are also set to be balloted over pay, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists are consulting members over taking action, and junior doctors in the British Medical Association look set to ballot in January 2023. A strike of this magnitude by nurses, doctors and other health workers would involve 750,000 workers and would be the largest in the NHS since the 1980s. This development would deepen the political crisis over the cost of living, NHS funding, and privatization, creating the potential for action in solidarity with health workers.

Why now?

Britain faces a productivity crisis as well a cost of living crisis. Average annual growth rates in Britain have roughly halved since the 1960s, from about 3.5 percent a year to less than 2 percent today. Since the reign of Margaret Thatcher, the Tories have not resolved these deep-seated problems. For example, Britain’s output-per-hour-worked remained at lower levels than Germany and France with no recovery since 1979. Productivity has stagnated further since the financial crisis.

In 2012, five Tory MP’s wrote a book called Britannia Unchained. It claimed, “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world,” and continued, “We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.” Two of those MPs were prime minister and chancellor in the Tory government that recently collapsed. Whatever the Tories may think, the reality is that workers in Britain work longer hours than those in Sweden, Germany. and France and do not retire any earlier.

But are British workers lazy? A set of large government-funded surveys conducted since the 1990s shows the share of people who say they work at “very high speed” for at least three-quarters of the work day rose from 23 percent to 45 percent between 1992 and 2017. In 1992, 71 percent of employees said they had “a great deal” of control over how hard they worked; by 2017 this had dropped to 46 percent. The Health and Safety Executive also shows that work-related stress, depression and anxiety are on the rise. As work intensity increases, so has the manager’s whip.

A better explanation for poor UK productivity is the lack of investment in new equipment and technology. Business investment has been weak in the UK by international standards and took a further hit after Brexit. The result is an economy poorly equipped to deal with both a financial crisis and a cost of living crisis.

Grinding poverty is the experience for the poorest in Britain. Following a decade of Tory austerity, and cuts to Universal Income a year ago, large swathes of the “working poor” are already being tipped over the edge as they can no longer manage to make ends meet. Wages have been squeezed since the financial crisis of 2008. Average real wages fell by nearly 7 percent between 2009 and 2014. The last decade has seen the longest peacetime squeeze in living standards since the Napoleonic wars, with household incomes shrinking by 2 percent. Despite the collapse in confidence in the Tories, Britain remains among the top thirty richest countries in the world. Levels of inequality in Britain today now surpass every country in the Western world outside of the US. The decline in collective bargaining coverage in Britain in recent decades is one of the main factors responsible for the increase in inequality. In 1979, prior to the election of Thatcher, Britain had a coverage of about 85 percent, making it one of the highest in Europe with the narrowest levels of inequality. Since then, coverage has declined to about 25 percent. Research from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that wealth inequality has accelerated since the financial crash and years of austerity. Britain was an outlier in OECD countries with a decline in real pay since 2007. For example, in 2007, the average household in Britain was 8 percent worse off than its peers in North Western Europe, but today this deficit is 20 percent. 

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), a Tory creation, is predicting that the cost-of-living crisis will result in the worst hit to living standards since 1956. Truss, the ex-prime minister, said that high energy costs are a price worth paying for energy security. No doubt rising interest rates for homeowners are also “a price worth paying.” Despite the recent resignations, the Tories’ aim under new prime minister Rishi Sunak will be to reintroduce another round of Thatcherite austerity to shift the burden of the crisis onto the shoulders of workers. They are set to introduce further anti-trade union legislation as they hope to further discipline the labor movement and undermine workers’ right to strike. There are no guarantees that this agenda could work as they plan a second time around.

Starmer is desperate to distance himself from the unions in order to try and appear responsible and ready to step in to govern after the next general election. This position will increasingly raise questions about the union's relationship with the Labour Party.

Pressures leading to action

UK unemployment fell to its lowest rate since the early 1970s this summer even as the economy stalled. This was not because more people were employed. Instead, there’s been a further jump in the number of people who said they were not working because they were studying or had a long-term health condition. Long-term sickness is being driven by two key factors: long Covid and people being signed off sick until they can access NHS care. Workers’ experience during the pandemic is having a significant impact on their attitudes to work and their employability, with many now no longer prepared to put up with “bullshit jobs.” In recent years, more companies have built their business model on pushing workers to work “above and beyond” their job descriptions. Some of the rail disruption in the UK this summer was a case in point: operators like Avanti relied for years on staff voluntarily working extra shifts on their days off; when staff withdrew their goodwill, the service stalled. 

All of these pressures are coming together with the cost-of-living crisis that has created a sense of a common experience across the working class, with a broad sympathy with groups of striking workers and a feeling that they are fighting for all workers. It is this mood that Mick Lynch, leader of the RMT rail workers’ union, has tapped into. Lynch was invited to speak across news channels as broadcasters sought to demonize him and the workers taking action. However, he ridiculed TV presenters and presented the case of the rail workers strikes as part of a wider battle in which all workers have a stake. In doing so, he has turned himself into a spokesperson for millions of people experiencing the huge increases in prices. Meanwhile, Starmer, the Labour Party leader, has sought to distance the Labour Party from the strikes. He recently sacked a shadow transport minister for attending a picket line. Starmer is desperate to distance himself from the unions in order to try and appear responsible and ready to step in to govern after the next general election. This position will increasingly raise questions about the union’s relationship with the Labour Party.

The current employers’ offensive started during the pandemic with a rise in the use of the “fire-and-rehire” tactic which employers are using to dismiss workers en masse and rehire on inferior wages, terms and conditions. In April 2021, British Gas engineers who struck against ‘fire and rehire’ were isolated and defeated. In Spring 2022, workers responded to the illegal summary firing of eight hundred workers employed by P&O with a ferry occupation. The firings led to a huge wave of revulsion against the company’s actions. Instead of building on public sympathy and looking for solidarity from dockers at the port, the RMT leadership instructed the occupying workers to leave the boats out of fear of anti-union legislation being invoked against them for workers taking “secondary action.” The growing number of firings using the “fire-and-rehire” tactic has stalled for now, following successful workers’ resistance alongside rampant inflation. Employers are instead using high inflation to drive down levels of real pay.

Many of the workers involved in this summer’s strikes were identified during the pandemic as “essential workers” and forced to work as normal with all the associated health risks. Many of us had to use public transport to travel to our workplaces where union health and safety reps had to fight to establish improved ventilation, cleanliness and social distancing. Millions of “essential workers” went through this experience for at least a year as they tried to stay safe. Those collecting refuse, transporting goods to supermarkets and warehouses, running the transport system, working in healthcare, delivering the post, and working in the ports were all deemed essential workers. They were called upon to make sacrifices while accepting pay freezes in the name of “national interest.” 

When the economy rapidly reopened in autumn 2021, these problems resulted in significant labor shortages, initially in road haulage with heavy-goods vehicle drivers demanding a premium after years of miserable pay and conditions. But it soon became apparent that these labor shortages existed across most sectors of the economy: in transport, hospitality, health, education, engineering and beyond. The impact of the Tories’ murderous pandemic policies are still being felt across the economy today. Many essential workers remain bitter at the lack of acknowledgement for their efforts and sacrifices. However, the experience of the pandemic also boosted these workers’ confidence, with a growing sense of self-worth and potential power.

These multiple pressures for action are also reflected in a growing union membership, albeit slowly and from a low base. Numbers rose by 118,000 to 6.6 million in 2020. We continue to see an increase for the fourth year in a row. Until recently, we had seen the lowest number of strikes since records began before the uptick in 2019. Official strike figures were no longer being recorded, supposedly due to the impact of Covid-19; this has only recently changed with figures released for June with most increases in strikes taking place in transport and logistics. Most recent figures from unions show that industrial disputes are at their highest level for five years. Over the past twelve months, the TUC recorded at least three hundred disputes, a fourfold increase on three years ago. The growth in union membership and disputes is positive and highlights the need for a renewed focus on the left on strategy in the labor movement.

Problems of leadership

The sudden suspension of the strikes after the queen’s death is one example of the limits of any strategy that simply leaves the conduct of strikes in the hands of union leaders. Large national disputes are more difficult for rank and file activists to influence. We continue to see single-day stoppages with some moves to coordinate and escalate from trade union leaders. Local disputes are easier to influence, but have less impact in shifting the overall balance of forces. The dispute at the Port of Felixstowe provides socialists with an opportunity to influence a strategically important choke point for British capital. However, while it is true that trade union leaders have been conservative around calling for sustained or coordinated action, or challenging calls for national unity following the death of the queen, the problems run deeper still.

The new wave of strikes is leading to the beginnings of a recovery in the movement and some important victories.

Following decades of retreats and defeat, there exists a layer of senior union representatives who have not been involved in action, nor have they experienced victory and are remote from most rank and file workers. Where senior reps have been in situ in established, organized workplaces for years and sometimes decades, they can spend most of their time in meetings with senior management. Often, their relationship with the management can seem more important than that with reps and members. This layer of senior reps are often the most influential trade union spokespeople in their workplace. They also tend to occupy most of the lay positions in the union machines at regional and national levels where their conservatism reinforces that of union leaders.

No doubt there is still a political left active across the labor movement. However, it has atrophied, and it is doubtful that its influence would be positive today due to the fact that most of the organized left adopts a “broad left” strategy which relies on left leaders to deliver action. When these leaders are found wanting, often the only opposition comes from the right. We often talk about the “deadening hand” of the trade union bureaucracy when analyzing setbacks or defeats. However, we rarely discuss the suffocating impact of this layer of reps combined with the lack of an independent rank and file in workplaces and union structures.

After announcing a series of strike days for November, the RMT came under pressure from the right wing press over one of the days of action coinciding with the National Poppy Day on November 3. This is a day where red poppies are worn as a show of support for the Armed Forces, and groups such as the British Legion collect money for military veterans. Rail action on this date was to be coordinated across the country with strikes on the London Underground shutting down key parts of the economy. The decision to cancel action on that date was taken by the rail unions executive,  made up of elected reps—which makes it too simplistic to simply blame union leaders for derailing the action. However, the point here is not that the RMT is somehow susceptible to jingoism in a way other unions are not. It is likely that most other union executives would cave in to the same pressure if put in this position, and the decision by the RMT was quickly followed by the TSSA. When union leaderships who are confronting the state in national disputes feel the inclination to call off action in the spirit of so-called “national solidarity,” they get away with the retreat because there is no coherent alternative view from an independent rank-and-file to keep the strikes on. This is beginning to change in some workplaces where passive and ineffective senior reps are coming under pressure from new reps, and with the influx of new members who want to fight against the pay cuts. The new wave of strikes is leading to the beginnings of a recovery in the movement and some important victories.

Opportunities for the left

As the economy slides into recession, the Tories and the Bank of England want to tame the growing workers’ movement. The labor shortages will no doubt be less severe if businesses go under and unemployment rises but many of these shortages will remain unresolved. However, the fact that we are also experiencing a rising wave of strikes as we enter recession provides a different experience to that of suffering multiple defeats prior to the downturn. There are no guarantees that strikes will disappear as pressure grows on working class families—even during a recession. Whatever transpires with a declining economy, the Tories and the employers are already mounting a serious challenge to organized labor. We need to see more coordinated and sustained industrial action to meet the scale of the challenge. One and two-day stoppages will not win these disputes. The national strikes are growing but thus far have been led from the top. As they involve more unions, the danger becomes greater that some union leaders will settle for minor concessions. We saw this in 2011 when bureaucratic mass strikes in the public sector were called off in a betrayal of union members’ attempts to defend their pensions. Socialists must continue to focus on building solidarity and independent networks to support these strikes and oppose any sell outs.

The small but growing number of victories in the private sector are a result of well-organized rank and file militants coordinating action across their sectors. In construction, trash collection, road haulage and the buses, we see a growing number of reps supporting each other and learning from their successes. In Unite, these reps are working together in national industrial combines, which have been encouraged by the new leadership. This strategy is being opposed by the old left who want to maintain their influence and cling onto the failing broad left approach. Socialist militants need to build these combines as part of a strategy of building solidarity, coordinating effective action and defeating the old left in the unions. Achieving this will mean linking the bigger political questions against war and oppression with the struggle for pay. The Liverpool dockers provided an inspiring example when they came out in solidarity with Black Lives Matter in 2020. It’s therefore no surprise that they refused to be cowed into postponing their latest strike on the day of the queen’s funeral.

Attempts are being made to link up struggles in the community with industrial struggle. A number of campaigns have sprung up in recent months. The Enough is Enough (EiE) campaign, launched by the leadership of the CWU and RMT, has held impressive large rallies across the country. However, it remains a tightly controlled organization that is hindering the development of local groups. The Don’t Pay UK network, a grassroots campaign developed by a small group of revolutionaries whose aim is to encourage one million people to refuse to pay rising energy bills, has managed to sign up over two hundred thousand people. The People’s Assembly, a broad coalition of the left and labor movement, has called national demonstrations to bring the movement onto the streets. However, we currently lack a unified campaign to unite the industrial struggles with community resistance.

Today we face unprecedented challenges. Escalating imperialist war which includes the threat of nuclear war, economic crisis, and worsening living standards alongside accelerating climate change. We also face a growing health crisis and rising inequality in income, health, education and housing, with an infrastructure that has been ravaged by four decades of privatization. The growing degradation of work means that more people are now no longer prepared to put up with “bullshit jobs” and the experience only helps fuel much of the resistance we see today. The new Tory government was able to hide from scrutiny during the period of “national mourning,” but its first attempts at intervening in the British crisis led to its collapse. The opportunity for building a mass movement across the working class and wider society is clearly upon us. However, the left needs to develop a coherent strategy for uniting the disparate forces and the growing numbers of workers entering the struggle. In the process of building an effective and united movement, a new radical left can be born. This will require patient work alongside the new activists we meet in the various campaigns that have emerged.

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