Pause button. Graphic: Pixabay/AndyPandy

Lindsey German on why we withdraw our labour and the shame of the pro-war left

The number of workers in Britain voting for industrial action and going out on strike continues to rise to levels not seen in over 30 years. Junior doctors are the latest to smash the government-imposed strike-vote thresholds, matching discontent already registered by groups as diverse as firefighters, bus workers, train drivers, teachers, and physiotherapists. The combination of real wage cuts over more than a decade with seemingly endless plans to ‘modernise’ and ‘rationalise’ work to the advantage of employers, has led to increased militancy in industry after industry.

The government, which is full of wannabe Thatchers, at first thought facing down strikes was a good idea. They underestimated the resilience and determination of the strikers, and the levels of public support which have if anything grown as the months of strike action have continued. So now, it is reported, Rishi Sunak is trying to find ways of settling with at least some groups of workers in order to take the heat out of the action. These strikes are, after all, costing a great deal of money, and in the case of the NHS exacerbating an already very serious crisis.

Finding an alibi for doing so in the convenient fact that government borrowing this year and next is going to be much lower than previously assessed, the government is making vague promises of settlements to get some of the strike days called off.

This has already worked with the RCN, whose leadership has called off its threatened 48-hour strikes in order to talk about a deal. I have no doubt that Sunak and co will be desperate to get one with the aim of taking the most popular group of striking workers off the field of battle, and to then cajole, threaten or force other groups to follow suit. Already the firefighters have been given a better offer than most other public sector workers, presumably on the grounds that the Tories could not afford to have another group of emergency workers on strike.

We should be clear however that none of these offers actually match a real cost of living pay rise. In the case of the nurses, there is much talk of a one-off payment on top of a slightly increased pay offer. But such a payment, although welcome to those in debt through increased food, energy and rent bills, is just that – one off, a bit like an enhanced Xmas bonus, and not consolidated into future pay. There is no need to settle for this when much more could be won.

And there is certainly no need to call off strikes pending anything other than a firm serious offer. Government ministers tried the same approach with the teachers, who have quite rightly resisted calling off this week’s strikes, despite being told that this is a condition for negotiations. The government and employers know that ‘pausing’ action all too often makes it harder to get back on again, and gives the bosses a breathing space that they can use against us.

That is exactly what has happened with the UCU dispute. Following talks at the conciliation service ACAS, UCU general secretary Jo Grady announced a two week pause, calling off seven days of planned strikes to allow a period of ‘calm’ to enable talks to continue. This caused widespread discontent within the union, and also allowed the employers to take the initiative to impose next year’s pay deal without agreement. The union members have just commenced a reballot to extend the action beyond April and hopefully commence a major marking boycott – but getting the vote out is not made easier by these delays or the demoralisation and demotivation they can cause.   

Instead, when the government and employers are on the run, that is the time for unions to double down on their demands and to insist that any negotiation does not require calling off action.

The strikes have had a huge impact, domestically and internationally, and whatever the exact outcome of the present wave of disputes, they are heralding a new wave of trade unionism. The strike day initiated by the teachers’ union on 15 March budget day now looks to be very big indeed, with civil servants, junior doctors, rail workers, and lecturers all set to join. That is a tremendous step forward and needs to be built on by every socialist and trade unionist. But it will not be enough alone to defeat the government. That requires much greater coordination and action across unions, and it also requires much stronger development of workplace and rank-and-file organisation to enable workers to organise and fight back even when this is against the wishes of some of the union leaders.

There have been many instances of union leaders settling for much less than they need to because their desire for compromise is greater than their concern to get the maximum for their members. The strikes here have been a turning point in the class struggle. The next turning point has to be towards escalation to beat the government. The next big step is 15 March 15. Also important is the rank-and-file conference for 10 June where we can discuss organising how to take the movement forward.

The pro-war left – what are they good for?

Thousands of people turned out to demonstrate in London on Saturday against the war in Ukraine calling for peace talks now, no to Nato and against our government sending arms. I find this one of the most dangerous periods of my lifetime in relation to war. As one German speaker at an online meeting I attended on Friday put it, there is effectively war between the US and Russia. This is what a proxy war between Russia and Nato actually means – and we hardly need reminding that both sides are armed with nuclear weapons. Over the past year we have seen an escalation of the war, and of the weapons provided – from supposedly defensive ones to now large quantities of German Leopard tanks. It isn’t ending there either: as soon as the tanks were agreed, Zelensky and his allies began the call for fighter aircraft. Only last week, this call was echoed by perhaps the two most discredited politicians in Westminster, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

For in Britain, this is a Tory war, aided and abetted by the loyalest of oppositions in the form of Keir Starmer, for whom there are never enough flags to wave or drums to beat. The Tories see it as a useful distraction from their domestic woes, as well as fulfilling the traditional Tory demand for more money spent on ‘defence’. The endless what can only be called pro-war propaganda around the first anniversary of the war is a disservice to finding out the truth about the war, and a disgrace to the profession of journalism.

Too much of the left has been sucked into supporting this war and escalating the arms deliveries, to the delight of the arms manufacturers and dealers, and to the joy of those who want to marginalise the left and the anti-war movement. The pathetic sight of a tiny pro-war protest at our march only showed how little active support there is for these ideas, once they move beyond mainstream propaganda. Feeding the imperialists now will make future wars more likely, and risks escalating the Ukraine war itself. The losers in all this are the Ukrainian people, the Russian people and those across Europe and the US who are being made to pay for the warmongering with cuts in their living standards.

I was proud to be part of organising this demonstration and of everyone who attended and who stood up to be counted. They are part of a growing movement which will get stronger as more people become aware of the real nature of the war and of the dangers of this war spreading particularly to confrontation with China. There were large demonstrations in Italy and Germany calling for peace. This question must be at the top of the political agenda for all those who are serious socialists. It’s not enough to have a paper commitment to being against the war, we have to do something about it. That means organising in communities, unions, schools and colleges against the warmongers. And that starts now.

This week: I will be discussing how to take the campaign forward, joining a local march of striking teachers on Thursday in east London, and on Friday seeing Guys and Dolls at the Bridge Theatre.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

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’.