CWU Royal Mail picket line CWU Royal Mail picket line. Photo: Joe McCluskey

We need wider and deeper co-ordination and escalation to win the strikes, argues Unjum Mirza

Class war

The Tories’ Growth Plan 2022 announced at the mini-budget is a declaration of class war. It has been delivered by a crackpot Tory sect whose ‘mandate’ for governmental office rests upon less than 0.1% of the population. It spells growth in riches for the 1%. It spells growth in misery for the 99%. The undercurrent of Trussonomic-trickle-down will simply generate even greater inequality, while working people and the poor struggle as it is with the rising tide of the cost of living. 

We too need a growth plan. A growth in strikes, protests and resistance. Critically, we need a general class response to the employers’ and government’s offensive. We will have a glimpse of what this can look like as strike action on the docks, rail and post converge on this coming Saturday 1 October. Every trade unionist, socialist and campaigner needs to mobilise solidarity in every city across the country: join picket lines, and organise protests and rallies in support of the strikes.

The solid two-week Unite strike which commenced on 19 September at the Liverpool docks last week has been joined by the Felixstowe dockers, who are on strike for a second round of eight days from 27 September, having rejected the bosses’ imposed pay cut. The ports combined handle 65% of the UK’s supply chain. And the power of the strike has been enhanced by the brilliant unofficial action taken by Southampton dockers, who are refusing to unload vessels re-routed from Liverpool. This is what solidarity looks like.

On 1 and 5 October, Aslef, the train drivers’ union, is to strike across twelve train-operating companies (TOCs) on the national network. The scheduled strike dates coincide with the Tory party conference in Birmingham – the day before as well as its concluding date – adding to the woes of a government in total disarray. The companies hit are Avanti West Coast, Chiltern Railways, CrossCountry, Greater Anglia, Great Western Railway, Hull Trains, LNER, London Overground, Northern Trains, Southeastern, TransPennine Express, and West Midlands Trains.

On 1 and 8 October, over 40,000 RMT members from Network Rail and fifteen TOCs will strike across the entire railway network.

On 1 October, thousands of TSSA members from Network Rail and eleven train-operating companies will strike with individual companies taking further strike action on 5, 6 and 8 October.

On the day ‘KamaKwasi’ delivered his mini-budget, Unite issued a notice for ‘immediate release’ announcing its members employed in Network Rail’s electrical control rooms, which maintain the electrical supply to the rail network, will also join the strikes on 1, 5 and 8 October.

On 30 September and 1 October, 115,000 CWU postal workers will strike over pay in an increasingly bitter dispute, as Royal Mail declares war on its workforce, having served notice to the union that it will rip up all agreements between the parties. In response, the CWU has issued notice for a further nineteen strike dates in October and November, which will also hit Black Friday on 25 November, Cyber Monday on 28 November and the Christmas build-up.

And there’s more. Some 40,000 BT and Openreach telecoms workers will be joined by critical-service workers employed as 999 emergency-call handlers, who will strike on 6, 10, 20 and 24 October, amid a proliferation of ‘local’ disputes. And across education, health and the civil service, national ballots for strike action are being prepared by UCU, NEU, Unison, RCN and PCS respectively. The FBU has also threatened a national pay ballot from October, should there be no movement on a 2% pay offer.

A strategy to win?

The intersection of the national strikes on the rail and post with the docks offers a real taste of our power. It can act as a platform from which the entire trade-union movement raises its game to meet the Tory assault. The Tories are reeling following the financial storm precipitated by a mini-budget that has left the markets in turmoil, the pound plunging against the dollar, and divisions among the ruling class surfacing to the top.

We need an independent workers’ response to the turmoil – we won’t pay for their crisis. That response demands greater co-ordination among the strikes taking place. It demands an escalation of the strikes. It demands a general class confrontation against the Tories and the ruling class. In short, there needs to be a shift in strategy and tactics.

The trade-union leaders heading the national disputes (rail and communications) have all echoed the same tune: ‘we’re in for the long fight’ and that ‘these are defensive strikes’. The statements essentially form two sides of the same coin. The former promotes the idea of a ‘war of attrition’, while the latter correspondingly justifies limited strike action.

A war of attrition implies that both sides are consolidated in a position in which any additional measures cannot produce a decisive result. It’s a trial of strength, a case of who collapses first from exhaustion.

But, there is scope to mobilise measures for a decisive result – for both sides.

So, the Tories plan to introduce further crippling anti-union (and anti-protest) legislation. And the resources open to the Tories aren’t just legislative; they include the police, the army and far shadier elements of the unelected state. Moreover, the Tories aren’t waiting about. They’ve already introduced a scabs’ charter and while delivering the mini-Budget; the Chancellor stated that the Tories’ aim is to force trade unions to put pay offers to a vote to members even when derisory. This has little to do with democracy and everything to do with undermining our collective organisations and our ability to fight effectively.

We too have resources that can be mobilised to produce a decisive result. We can co-ordinate better and more. We can escalate. We can deliver greater cross-sector and working-class solidarity. We can call a general strike.

The emphasis on the strikes being ‘defensive’ implies that 24/48-hour rolling-strikes per month are the best tactical means of achieving declared aims. It supports the idea that we can sustain the ‘long fight’ and exhaust our opponents, since our members can ‘afford’ to strike once or twice a month for a considerable length of time. It ain’t necessarily so. It ignores the fact that as each month passes, it will be workers’ inflation-hit wages that increasingly struggle to cover the costs of food, energy, rents and mortgages amid a deepening crisis of what Marx called that cold cash-nexus of ‘shameless, direct, brutal exploitation’.

Politics is concentrated in economics

Strategic and tactical decisions are ultimately subordinated to politics; they’re based on an assessment of the actual balance of forces between opposing sides. So, for instance, it is true that the Tories have massive resources of the state to hand, as explained above. But the Tories are also deeply divided and weak, with the recent leadership election resolving little. Indeed, those divisions are re-surfacing with remarkable speed, as rumours abound of letters of no-confidence in Liz Truss already coming in from Tory MPs following the mini-budget, and fears that she will ‘crash the economy’.

Former Tory Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke said: “we’ve put at risk slightly our reputation for being competent with the money”, as the value of the pound plummeted to an all-time low against the dollar. The Bank of England stated that they ‘will not hesitate to change interest rates as necessary’, and warned of a ‘material risk to UK financial stability.’ It then took emergency action to buy £65bn of government bonds at an ‘urgent pace’ to avoid a financial meltdown. The Financial Times reports a London-based banker explaining: ‘At some point this morning I was worried this was the beginning of the end … It was not quite a Lehman moment. But it got close.’ Even the IMF has criticised the mini-budget, stating it is likely to increase inequality.

The divisions among the Tories and within ruling circles run deep. It is important to remember, none of them are our friends. They are all agreed that workers must pay for their crisis; they’re divided about how to make workers pay for their crisis. Starmer’s Labour offers no alternative. It is signalling to those very same ruling circles that Labour is the party of ‘sound money’, i.e. their profits are safe(r) in their hands. And that Labour’s governance will be ‘economically responsible’, i.e. a more efficient manager of capitalism.

As the fall-out from the current turmoil remains under assessment, one of the immediate consequences of the fall in the value of the pound is very serious for workers immediately. The cost of imports will likely result in further rises in the price of food, fuel and energy – all amidst an existing cost-of-living crisis. How do we avoid workers and the poor paying for the crisis? How do we prise open the fractures within ruling circles? How do we win? Politics is concentrated economics as Lenin once said.

Offence is the best defence

To merely state that the strikes are ‘defensive’ fails to understand that in a heightened level of crisis and struggle, the distinction between offensive and defensive is often blurred, if not wiped out altogether. Elements of defence and offence exist side by side.

The defensive capabilities on the railways have proven solid as the RMT, Aslef, TSSA and Unite strikes have demonstrated. The extent, scale and impact of the picketing across the country by RMT members has been truly inspiring. Likewise, the Aslef strikes across the train-operating companies has been ‘immense’. Similarly, the CWU picket lines across both the Telecoms and Royal Mail have been solid. It’s been the same picture with the Unite Dockers’ strikes at the Felixstowe and Liverpool ports.

Workers have demonstrated again and again their capacity to shut down their workplace, deliver members and solidarity on picket lines, and hold the strike.

It was the strikers themselves who grasped, much more quickly than the trade-union leaders, the importance of co-ordinated action. For instance, one of the arguments on the railways was that ‘strikes are less effective because the bosses just work from home’. Put aside the exaggeration of this claim, it became obvious to striking workers that co-ordinating strikes with CWU Telecom workers was strategically important, because it is they after all who enable the bosses to work from home – they can flick the switch! The same co-ordinating logic applies to the railways and the docks (freight rail and truckers particularly). Co-ordination allows us to combine strikers’ differing industrial strengths, and achieve an elevated collective muscle that can help shift the entire balance of class forces in all our favour.

But, if we are serious about winning, the increasing (albeit, imperfect) co-ordination within and across industries must be combined with an escalation of the action. And escalation does not mean an extension of the existing strategy over a longer period of time. It means, co-ordinated, generalised and all-out strike to bring the employers and government to their knees and win – quick. Offence is the best defence.

Class war and trade-union limitations

The current strategy of attrition and limited action finds the trade-union leaders trapped between intransigent employers and government – with whom they’d like to negotiate a settlement and meet some semblance of their demands – and the fear of escalating action in order actually to win these disputes outright.

There is a danger that manoeuvre (while necessary in any struggle) begins increasingly to dominate, replacing the required shift in strategy and tactics – a shift towards more aggressive strike action to secure victory. The problem with manoeuvre – in the absence of serious strategy and tactics – is that it can collapse into a type of ‘make this up as it goes along’ approach which will result in confusion, and the status quo bending the union leaders to its purposes. It can also open the possibilities for our opponents to divide our struggle: settling with one section of workers while isolating another to avoid the danger of a generalised, united movement.

And that’s why independent rank-and-file groups and networks are vital and urgent. The scale of the crises we face necessitates a response where workers go beyond the limits of trade-union sectional demands and fight as a class against the ruling class. The general attack on our class demands a proportional general response.

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Unjum Mirza

Unjum Mirza is a driver on the London Underground. He is on the Editorial Board of Tunnel Vision, the rank and file bulletin, and is an Aslef union branch chair.