RMT’s Mick Lynch speaking in Parliament Square, June 2022. Photo: Flickr/Steve Eason RMT’s Mick Lynch speaking in Parliament Square, June 2022. Photo: Flickr/Steve Eason

Lindsey German on the new militancy’s next phase and the House of Windsor’s feeble reboot

It’s approaching to a year since the strike wave in Britain began, with the RMT taking action from last June. And the movement has shown tremendous resilience – coming out on strike again and again, delivering the reballots demanded by the anti-union laws to renew action every six months, standing up to repeated threats and bullying from management. But after this period of time we need to look at how we are responding to government and employer intransigence in the public sector particularly – and try to answer the question what is to be done? Do we keep the industrial action going at this rate of a series of limited strike days and other action short of a strike, do we escalate the action, or do we settle for a deal which is considerably less than demanded and than what many union members want?

It’s clear that for some sections of the trade union bureaucracy the only option is the third. Unison and the GMB have settled for a poor deal in the NHS, urged on their members as the only deal on offer, but one which the RCN and Unite members have rejected. Now the CWU is pushing a deal for Royal Mail workers which is poor both in terms of pay (10% over three years plus a one-off payment of £500) and conditions, since it will require quite major alterations to working patterns.

There is obviously a great deal of anger among postal workers about this, with feelings that much more could have been won. The deal should be rejected. But if these deals are not acceptable then we have to consider what the alternatives are, and here we need to recognise the game that employers and government are playing.

They have both had a nasty shock from the strike wave itself but also from the levels of popular support that the action has engendered. This speaks to very widespread opposition both to the cost-of-living crisis and to the draconian work practices that affect millions of workers. However government and employers are trying to ride them out by a combination of force, divide and rule, and token payments which will perhaps alleviate immediate misery but will do nothing to remedy the long-term fall in real wages for British workers.

So the government is taking the nurses’ union RCN to court, claiming that its proposed strike action next week is not covered by its ballot mandate. A record number of universities are threatening 100% pay deductions if UCU members take part in a completely legal marking boycott, even though they will be expected presumably to carry out other duties. A considerable number of post workers have been victimised or disciplined by Royal Mail in recent months. Teachers and civil servants have been told to expect no more than the miserable offers on the table.

The longer this goes on, the more the stakes will be raised and the more the employers will resort to bullying and coercion – backed up by a subservient media. They’re not getting it their own way. New groups of workers have been coming into struggle, such as junior doctors. The determination of workers to stick with their action and their union has surprised the government. And the Tories wanted to be able to say that inflation had fallen below 10% this month as the huge rise in fuel prices last year falls out of the annual figures (although it is still in our bills). Unfortunately for them inflation is still over 10% and at 19% for food prices – so the arguments that we don’t need high pay rises simply don’t add up.

So now is not time to settle for below-inflation deals. Which brings us back to what next? If the present wave of struggles hasn’t yet forced them to back down, a few more months of it will not be key to turning the situation round. We need to escalate the action including looking at all-out strikes. And to be successful in this we need to generalise. The ruling class does this all the time. The strikes are, after all, not just about pay but about working conditions. The employers want to claw back even more surplus value – the wealth that we produce – in order to increase their profits even more.

Everywhere this means making us accept lower living standards at the same time as we are facing worsening working standards. Job cuts, flexibility, changed working patterns, are all to the detriment of workers and to the gain of employers. That’s why the Royal Mail and health settlements are so short of what’s needed.

What does it mean for the working class to generalise our struggles? It means linking them up, showing solidarity, and arguing that these individual settlements do not help those still out on strike. One crucial question here is winning support across the working class, through collecting money for strikers to sustain them. That also helps to make them political in the widest sense. We see it in France over pensions, where workers banged pots and pans during Macron’s ‘address to the nation’ and where power workers cut off electricity in a school he visited.

The TUC, which is in theory supposed to organise across the unions, has proved itself absolutely useless in these disputes. It even seems too timid to call a demonstration. So it will be down to those at a rank-and-file level who want to widen out support and solidarity for the strikes. That’s a minority but quite a big minority. And organised, it can begin to challenge the government and employers – who are very happy with the deals going through at the moment.

This week teachers and nurses will be back on the picket lines. They need our support. But we all need to step up the action if we are to win. We also need to organise – which is why the rank-and-file conference on 10 June is so important.

Roll on the red republic

The dire spectacle of the coronation is moving into view. Despite the fact that the majority of his ‘subjects’ have shown little interest in the event, the establishment bandwagon is rolling, with media stories, patriotic politicians and overnight dress rehearsals costing many thousands.

The apologists for the monarchy cite a number of reasons to support: it brings in tourists, is cheaper than a republic, and is a harmless institution. All of them are bogus. Tourists would come anyway – look at Paris and Versailles. The monarchy is extremely expensive and its members fabulously wealthy. And it is far from harmless. The monarchy plays a key role in maintaining a major capitalist state, and its institutions and those related, such as the Anglican church or the military, play an essentially conservative role. Everything that it stands for is about respect for the rich and powerful, and maintenance of the status quo.

That’s why the spectacle is so important not just to the royals themselves but to the whole ruling class. That’s why too we will hear so much fawning commentary, and be asked to accept that a series of idiotic and very often invented traditions have some wider significance or interest.  

The monarchy is the glittering pinnacle of wealth and power, a point well understood by James I, whose own son Charles ended up on the scaffold. When there were calls to get rid of bishops in the church, James argued ‘No bishop, no king’, that if you get rid of one form of authority and hierarchy, then you threaten them all. It’s true today: no king, no House of Lords, no titles for the privileged. No one should rule over us because of an accident of birth, or because of the immense wealth they possess.  

Growing numbers of people are aware of this and there’s unlikely to be a wave of patriotic fervour. But British capitalism will do its bit. So the biscuit tins and coronation mugs will be on sale, the flags will be waving, and the street parties will take place. None of this manufactured patriotism can hide a country whose major institutions are held in such low esteem, whose public services barely work, and whose workers are showing greater levels of militancy than in decades. So maybe the red republic is closer than we think.

This week: I will be speaking at a Stop the War meeting in Brighton on Thursday, and at the May Day march in Newcastle on Saturday. I’m looking forward to rejoining the nurses, teachers and civil servants on their fresh pickets from 27 April. I will also be finishing reading an excellent novel by Victor Serge, Last Times.

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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’.

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