Rail strike graphic by Pixabay/geralt Rail strike graphic by Pixabay/geralt

Lindsey German on the RMT’s national strike and reaction from Paul Mason

The battle lines are drawn for class struggle over the next months in Britain. That was shown by the highly successful TUC demo on Saturday and the strike by the rail union RMT, due to start on Tuesday, has already caused apoplexy in the usual quarters. Highly paid journalists and politicians vie to tell us that the unions are holding us to ransom, that their members are overpaid and that we will all be put to the greatest inconvenience if they go on strike. Yet the reality of the situation is this: privatised rail companies receive considerable amounts of public money, as well as the astronomical sums we pay in fares, money which they prefer to channel to their shareholders than to pay their workers decently or indeed provide a good rail service.

Anyone who travels on the railways will know that these extraordinarily high fares are in exchange for overcrowded trains, poor maintenance of infrastructure and stock, regular cancellations of services at short notice. The government’s latest plan is apparently to close all railway ticket offices and move everything online – to the detriment of many groups of travellers. The main bulwark against further deterioration of the rail system is the unions.

There are of course wider issues here. We are being told by the government and the governor of the Bank of England that workers have to accept pay rises much lower than inflation (which even on their CPI figure, not an accurate reflection, is set to hit 11% by early autumn) because otherwise they will cause further inflation. The problem here is that wage rises are not causing inflation – they are running to catch up with a rate of inflation caused by a variety of factors including pandemic, war and supply chain problems, but not least by price gouging where big companies simply put up prices in order to maintain their profits. This is what is happening with fuel prices, food and consumer goods. Holding back on wage claims will not stop this inflation – it will simply impoverish and make life worse millions of people.

This level of inflation comes after more than a decade of wage constraint which has meant major cuts in income for most public sector workers (not their top managers who demand ever higher bonuses and pension deals) and for those on fixed incomes such as pensioners, people with disabilities and those on universal credit.  The share of wealth already going to the richest keeps increasing, while workers see less and less of what they produce.

The government recognises that the dam may burst over wage claims and strike action. Teachers, civil servants, postal workers and nurses are likely to ballot over pay, the universities dispute is also heading for a reballot in the autumn, and there is now determination to demand more pay across the public sector. This is why it is taking a hard line over the rail strikes, but it has no clear strategy in the face of a major withdrawal of labour at a time when there is both inflation and a very tight labour market. Despite the bravado of Tory ministers, there is a shortage of workers across many sectors of industry. Workers have much greater bargaining power because of this, and they are beginning to use it. There simply are not the teachers, nurses, train crew, to replace those leaving the industry as it is, and employers are in no position to deal with this.

Already this is reflected in the fact that the private sector is awarding much higher levels of pay award than the public sector. The low level of the latter is down to government refusal to properly fund and pay for essential and valuable workers. What do they expect those workers to do to protect their own and their families’ living standards?

The anger at a range of issues from pay to fire and rehire to cuts in the NHS and increased military spending was palpable on Saturday’s TUC demonstration, which attracted many tens of thousands. It reflected the resurgence of the working class and the rail workers’ imminent action – along with that proposed or taking place among other groups of workers – gave it a boost and a focus which was lacking from the vague slogans of the TUC. The demo marks a turning point from the disorientation of many on the left following the defeat of Corbynism two and a half years ago. The demo’s size reflects still that it was composed of activists mainly, both from unions but also from campaigns like the People’s Assembly, against deportations to Rwanda, and a range of others, but organising the activists to reach out to wider layers of people is important.

Crucial to it is giving every level of solidarity to the rail workers and to all those planning strikes. That means going to picket lines, organising locally in their support, collecting money, and combatting the monstrous propaganda attacking these workers from the rich and powerful. We are in a class battle and its outcome is crucial to us all. The Tories make much of this being a return to the 1970s, as a means of scaring those who simply see strikes as disruptive. But the 70s had the highest level of union membership ever, the lowest gap between rich and poor in postwar Britain, and came at the end of two decades of increasing living standards. Thatcherism was the brutal response to this. Rebuilding that working class strength begins here.

Up against the law

I wrote a Briefing last week about Paul Mason. Mason has threatened legal action unless we take the column down. This we did, rather than put individual socialists at risk of financial loss. I very much regret that debate and exchange of opinion is threatened in this way and think that differences like this should not be settled in the courts, for reasons both of cost and politics.

Mason and his supporters claim that the provenance of the emails on which my comments were based is dubious, and he has said they are a result of Russian hacking or faked. I have no idea if this is true, but it could be. However, there has been no evidence put forward as to the hacking, and nothing has been said about whether these emails are genuine or not. If they are, then they – and more recent ones which purport to show him in direct correspondence with someone from the Foreign Office involved in disinformation – are in my opinion quite damning. That question is the key one and really needs addressing. As I said last week, I know that I have been under state surveillance for 45 years. I really don’t appreciate efforts to extend that just because my politics are in opposition to my government.  

This week: I will be taking part in the Revolution event on Saturday and Sunday – it’s online and open to all. I will also be protesting at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall at the time of the Nato summit in Madrid. And I will be fully in support of the rail and underground strikes in London during the week.

Book now for Revolution! Festival


Before you go...

Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.