Rally at the Royal London Hospital

John Rees looks at the state of the class struggle as the biggest wave of strikes in decades recedes

In a speech about the state of labour relations that went viral, Australian property developer Tim Gurner not only let the cat out of the bag, he propelled the feline to global media stardom. 

What Gurner told an appreciative audience of fellow capitalists was that the labour market had been fundamentally transformed by Covid. Workers, he complained, act as if ‘employers are extremely lucky to have them, as opposed to the other way around’. ‘People decided they didn’t really want to work so much’, bemoaned Gurner. They had become ‘arrogant’. ‘Pain’ needed to be inflicted on the economy to the extent of a rise in unemployment of 40-50 percent before the old pre-pandemic level of discipline could be restored. Gurner said he was happy that governments across the globe seemed to be moving in that direction.

Gurner’s speech was widely condemned and soon elicited what even the Daily Mail described as a ‘grovelling apology’. But too late. Gurner had pointed to a fundamental truth: the pandemic did shift labour relations in two important ways.

The return of the working class

Firstly, ideologically, it showed how vital workers are to the economy and the wider society, especially the ever-widening category of key workers. The ‘clap for carers’ was the watershed moment. It may have been later co-opted by the government, but it initially came from a grass roots initiative and for several weeks millions of workers stood on their doorsteps applauding other workers. In that moment the neo-liberal image of workers as dispensable chavs collapsed in the minds of millions.

Secondly, this was accompanied by and reinforced a different attitude to work. The pandemic produced a huge disruption to the work discipline of neo-liberalism. Millions began to think there might be a different life than the ‘work till you drop’ (for a miserable wage) regime.

Corporations are still grappling with this post-pandemic labour market reality, as the Financial Times recently reported. Zoom, ironically, is trying to get staff back in the office and Elon Musk is fulminating about ‘laptop classes living in la-la-land’, but they are bucking a head-wind when a third of US firms now have 100 percent home working. Even Zoom is only demanding that employees spend two days a week in the office. In the US the number of firms demanding full time presence in work dropped from 49 percent to 39 percent this year so far.

In the UK the figures are lower but not by much, and the trend is in the same direction. In 2019 in the UK about 12 percent of workers were working from home to some extent. By 2022 that figure was 25 percent, rising to 40 percent depending on the time of year. In a recent poll for LinkedIn a third of office workers said they would quit their job if asked to return to the workplace full time.

These figures are less interesting for what they show about a long term shift in employment patterns than for what they tell us about the consciousness of workers and the balance of class forces right now. Maybe there will be a long term change in work patterns, maybe not. But today some workers have found a widely effective way of wriggling out of some of the most oppressive dictates of the neo-liberal labour market as it has developed since the first days of Thatcherism. 

But only some workers, and only to some degree. Other workers, say in the gig economy, collecting bins, or in a car factory, are in jobs that can’t be done from home don’t have the wiggle room. Even those that do are facing a fight back from bosses and government to try and re-establish work discipline. But the mood is general and not confined to those who do home working, and the move to home working has added to the pressure that all workers are able to exert over wages and conditions in a tight labour market.

These facts are worth recalling because they remind us that the class struggle takes place across the whole working class and not just among its unionised component. This is especially important when the proportion of workers in unions is below 25 percent. The wider context of the class struggle shapes what happens in the struggle between unionised workers and the bosses.

The state of the unions

This aspect of the struggle has been dominated in the last year by a strike wave larger than we have witnessed for many years. Many of those strikes have now been settled and so it is possible to make an initial overall assessment of the outcome.

It is of course true that any struggle is better than no struggle and that without strike action the pay deals would likely have been worse than they turned out to be. But, that said, most pay deals agreed by the union leaders were below the rate of inflation and so marked a pay cut. 

The CWU pay deal was one of the least satisfactory, with a three year deal worth 3.3 percent a year when across those years inflation was 12 percent, 7 percent, and a projected (but optimistic) 2.5 percent in 2024. It was accompanied by worsening conditions and a major wave of victimisations of CWU militants. The UCU dispute has been one of the worst led campaigns of this strike wave, leading to a motion of censure passing at this year’s congress against General Secretary Jo Grady. The employers have imposed a real terms pay cut of 7 percent. NHS workers, despite fierce resistance to a pay cut deal, went back to work with two unconsolidated lump sum payments and a 5 percent pay rise, meaning a real pay cut of 7 percent. The NEU settlement at 6.5 percent was one of the better deals of the pay round but still left teachers with a pay cut.

These figures contrast unfavourably with the approximately 8 percent pay increase across the private sector. They even contrast unfavourably with the average of 7.8 percent across the economy as a whole, and that figure doesn’t include bonuses and so is not distorted by high end salary settlements, although public sector average was a lot lower at 3.3 percent.

In some cases in the private sector Unite has managed to push pay rises into substantial double figure settlements but in other cases, the Stagecoach dispute in Warwickshire for instance, the 7.9 percent deal for 2023 and the 4.5 deal for 2024, will barely keep up with inflation. The problem is that the cost of living crisis cannot be dealt with one dispute at a time, even for Unite members. And the union’s retreat from political engagement has meant very limited participation even in the national protests that might have given Unite leaders a larger platform than the individual disputes.

The political front

Of course the cost of living crisis is much more than the industrial disputes that arose from it. It is a huge political crisis during which the Tory party has gone into meltdown and has been unable to generate a stable government since the pandemic swept away Boris Johnson in the partygate scandal. 

But in this register the unions have been even weaker than on the industrial front. The TUC has done almost nothing to effectively intervene in the ongoing crisis of the Tory government. The Enough is Enough campaign, launched by CWU officials and backed by some leaders of the RMT, is the shortest-lived, most ineffective mass campaign that the left has ever generated. After a round of successful rallies it failed to even call a national protest and disappeared as the CWU dispute ground to a halt.

More broadly, the political stance of the unions has been neutered by the rise of Starmer’s viciously anti-left leadership in the Labour Party and by the right wing leadership of the GMB effectively assuming the leadership of the TUC over defence spending and the Ukraine war. The ‘no politics’ stance of the current Unite leadership has left the GMB’s Gary Smith occupying the political role in the TUC that Unite once held.

In part this has been possible because, 20 years after the election of the original awkward squad left union leaders, that radical charge is dissipating. The current left leaders often inherited their mantle from the generation that took the leadership of major unions from the right wing. They themselves have not had to fight for it. And the days when industrial struggle was so low that it barely faced the union leaders with a challenge are now gone.

It is little wonder that the unions continue to lose members if the difference between being a union member and not being a union member is marginal in terms of wages and invisible politically.

In summary, the situation is this: working people in the broadest sense are using the post covid environment to conduct a guerrilla struggle against the employers over conditions and pay. The unions have not co-ordinated, generalised, or sustained this struggle, industrially or politically, to the degree that was possible or necessary to defend living standards, let alone defeat the government. The partial, uncoordinated, strikes simply were not enough. 

What is necessary now is to rebuild the unions from the bottom up, industrially and politically. Some of the most dynamic sections of the trade union movement are those that directly reflect the more combative mood among workers as a whole: the Uber drivers who have won really significant gains, the Amazon unionisation dispute in Coventry, the drive to deepen union organisation in the NEU, some of the Unite disputes.

But the tide cannot be turned one wave at a time. We need to generalise from these examples into a union wide rank and file movement that can refresh and rebuild the union movement so that it meets, expresses, organises and generalises the resistance which is already taking place in an inchoate way among workers. And this cannot be done without politics. It is a standing limitation on the unions if they do not break with the free-market, pro-war stance of the major parties. Significant sections of their own membership and the wider working class have already broken, partially or wholly, with this consensus. The unions will gain, not lose, if they reflect this already existing desire for a new beginning.

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John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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