Nurse as angel. Graphic by Pixabay/ Yeskay1211 Nurse as angel. Graphic by Pixabay/ Yeskay1211

Lindsey German on strikes and strategy

The stakes are getting higher as the current strikes enter December, set for another round of one-day actions. The decision by RCN nurses to strike for two separate days before Xmas has brought a deluge of criticism about how patients will suffer and treatments will be delayed – from exactly the people who have justified cuts to the NHS over the past decade. Royal Mail bosses continue their offensive against the posties in the CWU, threatening jobs and conditions. The government is clearly preventing rail companies from coming to an agreement with the unions, fearing that this will lead to higher wage settlements. And two universities have threatened to deduct 100% of monthly pay from striking UCU members if they refuse to reschedule classes cancelled on 3 strike days.

The employers, media and Tories all want to force down real wages and to pay for any slightly higher increases with job losses. They know that there is growing militancy at rank-and-file level – with many public sector workers in particular feeling that they have no alternative but to strike. Whereas average private sector wages have increased by around 6%, those of the public sector have risen by around 2%. With RPI at over 12% all such levels of increase represent a wage cut, but it is particularly hard felt in the public services.

With one report suggesting that nearly 4 million households will be paying almost a third of their income on energy by April, and with food prices going up much higher than the headline inflation rate, there is a great deal of misery ahead for working class people – unless we stop this attack. The strike action so many of us are embarking on over the next few months is vital. But it needs to be on a much greater scale to roll back the employers and government. They constantly play on the divisions inside the working class in order to weaken us all. The most obvious scapegoats at present are migrants, as Suella Braverman and friends whip up prejudice against some of the most vulnerable people in society. But they are also happy to pit one group of workers against another and to disparage our actions.

So we are told, wrongly, that rail workers are greedy and earn higher wages than most other workers. We are told that postal workers need to ‘modernise’ even though all previous such ‘modernisations’ have resulted in worse conditions for both workers and customers. And we are told that nurses striking will make patients suffer. This is a quite deliberate attempt to split organised workers from those outside unions. The immensely restrictive anti-union laws in this country have not prevented the strikes, so now the employers and their friends try different tactics: that workers are selfish, that ‘the country’ can’t afford it, and that strikes will only damage us all.

These arguments are completely bogus. The very rich privatised rail and mail companies have plenty of profits that they prefer to divert to shareholders and CEO salaries rather than to wages. Universities are raking in money from students which they prefer to spend on elite buildings rather than on their staff. Education and health have been systematically underfunded which is now having a very detrimental effect on staff and the general public alike.

One key argument that trade union members have to confront however is that the strikes are harmful to the public, whether as patients, students or people who want to make train journeys. In my own union, UCU, we have been told by management and by some fellow workers, that we should not strike because it will damage students. In one case I heard of, someone not striking justified this by saying they had a ‘duty of care’ to students – by implication suggesting that those of us striking are breaching this. The nurses will get far more of this, even though they have made clear that emergency cases will be covered.

The exact opposite is true. In every single industry and sector out on strike, attacks on workers’ conditions have been coupled with worsening services for the public. The unions are among the people most committed to improving education, health, the transport system. It is public sector managements and the miserly governments behind them whose constant search for cost-cutting, ‘rationalisation’ and increasing workloads means they have no regard for ‘duty of care’ for those they are supposed to provide services for. If the strikes are successful, these will help to maintain and improve such services. If they lose then we can guarantee that the reverse will be true, with demoralised and overworked staff, shortages as people move elsewhere for better pay, and even worse conditions for those who remain. This is the fundamental truth that is rarely spoken about the strikes.

Instead they are portrayed as sectional and selfish. Those of us who want this wave of industrial action to win must reject these arguments and insist that it is those taking action who are helping students, patients and passengers. We also have to make clear what is necessary to win. There are now so many groups of workers striking or balloting that this represents action across the working class in response to attacks on our class as a whole. It needs a generalised, all out response until we defeat the government and employers. One-day strikes coupled with fierce rhetoric are not enough to defeat this attack, and we can’t allow ourselves to be dragged into a war of attrition.

These disputes are about much more than pay. I have seen that on my own UCU picket lines, where people are organising collectively, cooperating, bringing food to share, getting support from bus and van drivers, discussing how education could work if it wasn’t constantly subject to the constraints of the market, talking about strategy and tactics, and explaining to fellow workers and students why the dispute is happening and what our grievances are. So within these strikes is the microcosm of how society could be changed for the better. There is perhaps an awareness of this from even the most dense Tories, which is why they fear our success.

This week: Wednesday is our third of three days’ strike action in UCU, so I’ll be picketing then joining the London rally organised by the union. All are welcome to join. On Thursday I will be going to see a new play, Baghdaddy, at London’s Royal Court theatre, about Iraq and wars. The Telegraph describes it as ‘it’s own worst enemy’. Highly recommended by friends.

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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’.