Public sector striker in Westminster, February 2023. Photo: Flickr/fotologic Public sector striker in Westminster, February 2023. Photo: Flickr/fotologic

Lindsey German on keeping your nerve as the stakes are raised  

This week has been another turning point for the strikes which have defined politics over the last year. The teaching unions have put real pressure on the government, although they could not have done so without the widespread action across multiple unions over the last year. The government is also facing action by both junior doctors and consultants, and the ongoing disputes with rail workers are seeing another series of strikes this month. So it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Rishi Sunak has been forced to move over the public sector pay awards. The threat of coordinated action across the schools in the autumn loomed as a challenge to a government already reeling and internally divided. The big vote by the NASUWT union for strike action followed the threat of the head teachers’ union taking action, on top of months of one and two day strikes by the largest teaching union, the NEU, have all concentrated government minds and amazingly we find there is more money on offer to try to settle the strike.

We should be clear: the strike action taken by the NEU had fantastic levels of support, which have no doubt influenced the other teaching unions to be more militant. The government did not even want to implement the pay review body recommendations, and the new offer is nearly double what it originally wanted to pay, at around 6.5%. It is also fully funded, so will not come out of already stretched budgets. However, it also represents a pay cut in real terms given the rate of inflation. It is therefore a mistake of the teaching unions to recommend acceptance of the deal. Whatever the advances on previous offers, the reality is that it was only achieved after the greatest pressure was put on government, and a rejection of this offer would put even more pressure to force Sunak and co to think again.

The pathetically repeated government claim that the rises can’t be afforded because of inflation hides the fact that the big increases in prices are coming from a range of sources, including the Ukraine war, food shortages, and profit gouging by big supermarkets and utility companies – but not from public sector pay rises. The supposed remedy for inflation is the ever-increasing rise in bank interest rates, which in turn are leading to a mortgage and renting crisis which will adversely affect many public sector workers. This pay offer does not enable them to maintain their standards of living and is nowhere near the inflation matching levels of some pay increases won in the private sector.

We also need to look at the wider context. The government wanted to take on the unions and defeat them. They have not succeeded. But neither have the unions broken through. The NEU deal pushes the chances of such a breakthrough further away for both teachers and other trade unionists, especially the new groups entering the field of battle: the junior doctors have been on strike for five days, the consultants will be out this week. The junior doctors have rejected a similar offer to that of the teachers, and they are right to do so. Now Sunak is able to attack them for not being like the teachers. He is also saying that no further industrial action will improve these offers. That’s a lie, as we have already seen. In addition, the train companies and government have launched a major assault on the rail unions and on the public generally by the plan to close nearly all railway ticket offices. They have done so to open a second front on the rail unions and to take revenge for the RMT’s long running industrial action.

We should be in no doubt that this government wants to smash the unions – that’s the purpose of its new anti-union law – but has been given a bloody nose by the action of trade unions so far. Now is not the time to settle except on terms which will give workers the confidence to resist these attacks. Now is the time to escalate the action to bring in wider groups of workers, including linking up with those in the private sector, like the Amazon and Gatwick strikers, and to move towards a strategy of all-out strikes.

No one has ever said there are easy or straightforward answers to this, but answers there have to be. The British working-class movement is emerging from a very long period of weakening and defeat. Its recovery will be hesitant and sometimes contradictory. Many will feel that they have struck and this is the best offer they can get. And the danger in present circumstances is that people can feel isolated or demoralised and believe that they can only achieve partial success. But it is important for the left to spell out what the Sunak manoeuvre means: firstly that workers will be accepting a pay cut, and secondly that the government and employers will try to recover their strength and position in order to launch further attacks. They will make concessions now to fight anew when they can. That’s why we should argue to reject and continue the fight. If teachers and other public sector workers decide to accept these offers, that is their decision and should be respected, but the union leaders should be joining with the rest of the left in pointing out its limitations and proposing further action.

This week, Sunak is likely to lose three by-elections: two in seats with 20,000 plus Tory majorities, one in Boris Johnson’s former constituency. Sunak is incapable of delivering his promises and resorts with every turn towards scapegoating and division. The Tories are very weak, very divided. They rely on racism and nationalism to divide and rule, they are determined to force down working-class living standards in order to pay for their crisis. They have already defunded education, the NHS and local government services to such an extent that every area of public life is failing.

Now is not the time to allow them to regroup but to hit them hard. That means arguing that we reject these offers, widen the disputes and challenge the government.

This week: I will be speaking at a meeting organised by some of the lawyers representing the Spycops victims – it’s online on Thursday so do join.

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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’.