Lindsey German on the rail strikes, Labour's attack on the unions and a woman's right to choose
It was Labour prime minister Harold Wilson who said that a week is a long time in politics. Last week was a watershed for the working-class movement: a mass demo organised by the TUC was followed by 3 days of inspiring strikes from rail workers in the RMT union. These had the effect of lifting left-wing confidence – still at a low ebb following the defeat of Corbyn and the ever-rightward trajectory of his successor. It also changed the political agenda. The railways ground to a near halt for the best part of a week, demonstrating the power of the rail workers, and demanding that the union’s claims – including a pay rise to match inflation and no compulsory redundancies – were met.
These eminently reasonable demands were met with the predictable outrage from those who defend wage cuts, fire and rehire and worsening conditions. The RMT was criticised for not being willing to modernise by unelected figures who sit in ermine robes in the House of Lords. Its leaders are pilloried for their salaries by people who are perfectly relaxed about the existence of tax havens or the 178 billionaires who live in Britain. The media screamed about the low-paid workers unable to get to their jobs, forgetting that many who are low paid are unable to travel by train because of the cost of fares imposed by greedy privatised companies.
Even right-wing media had to concede that the RMT won the arguments, seemingly astonished that the general secretary, Mick Lynch, repeatedly got the better of reporters and politicians alike. It’s as if the Benefits Street view of working-class people as feckless and stupid represents the actual view of the ruling class and its hangers on. Lynch has been a great advocate for his union (as we would expect from its elected leader) but there are many working class people like him who understand their own disputes and combat the lies being told by management.
The government is now facing its summer of discontent as different groups of workers – many of them exactly those who were clapped as heroes two years ago – prepare to ballot for industrial action. This week criminal barristers have joined in striking. A generalised attack of high price rises plus continued cuts in the public sector is leading to a generalised response, and there is likely to be much more industrial action in the coming months. Mick Lynch is speaking therefore not just for his own members, but for millions of people who want to push back against the Tory attacks. This also explains the outpouring of solidarity and support the rail workers have received.
Grant Shapps, the sorry apology for a transport minister, has no good arguments to defend pay cuts and ticket office closures, but instead is resorting to bluster and further legal restrictions on striking which will only serve to institutionalise scabbing. A Lib Dem spokeswoman argued that the army should be brought in to break the strike. These are the responses of politicians whose embrace of neoliberal policies is being disrupted by strikes from the people who actually produce the wealth from which they benefit.
Keir Starmer’s Labour leadership has further disgraced itself by trying to prevent its MPs from attending picket lines. David Lammy’s preposterous claim that a party of government doesn’t go on picket lines would come as news to the founders of Labour. It was specifically created to give the unions a voice in parliament yet now refuses to publicly support those taking action against a vile right-wing government.
This is them against us – and Starmer is definitely with them. These will be bitter struggles, but workers have not only right but also power on their side. We need to use it much more in the coming months if we are to beat back these attacks on the whole working class.
It's a woman’s right to choose
The US Supreme Court decision to reverse Roe vs Wade is an attack on women’s rights everywhere. The original judgement in 1973 was a big step forward on making abortion more freely available and safer. The right to free abortion was a key demand of the women’s movement in the 1970s. It stemmed from the argument that women should have control over their bodies, and this meant in the case of unwanted pregnancy they should be able to terminate the pregnancy if they wished to do so. The late 60s and early 70s saw a liberalisation of society – in Britain the 1967 Abortion Act made it legal for the first time in certain circumstances. Before the Act there were an estimated 100,000 illegal abortions a year in Britain, performed in dangerous conditions and often resulting in serious injury or death.
I was very much involved in campaigns to prevent further restrictions on the right to abortion, starting with opposition to the James White bill in 1976. Many of us argued that this was about women’s rights but also about class. Rich women could always pay for private abortions. Further, women could not have full control over their lives unless they controlled their fertility. These remain extremely important arguments, as millions of women worldwide suffer because of the ‘culture wars’ used by right wing conservatives who see abortion as a threat to ‘family values. The result in countries from the US to Poland where these rights have been restricted is more unwanted pregnancies and dangerous abortions.
One of the main slogans was ‘free abortion on demand, a woman’s right to choose’ which sums up that only women have the right to decide what happens to their bodies, not the church or state. I feel it is regrettable that some people, especially in the US, refer to this as an attack on people and will not use the word women because it is supposedly not inclusive. This is a denial both of our history in struggling for abortion and of the very real and continued oppression of women. There are plenty of ways that any writing about this can be inclusive, for example by referring to ‘women and other people who have abortions’. But to ignore the fact that this is overwhelmingly an attack on women does a disservice to those of us who want to fight it.
Summit of hypocrisy
The G7 summit of the world’s richest countries, meeting in the comfort of the German Alpine resort Garmisch-Partenkirchen, has imposed further sanctions on Russia. Later this week the Nato summit in Madrid will commit to a big increase in troop deployment in the Baltic states and to further money for arms to Ukraine. The US is planning to provide an advanced long range surface-to-air missile system as well as more artillery. The sanctions are supposedly in response to Russian seizure of Ukrainian grain, and more generally to the global food security crisis which has been exacerbated by the war. If the G7 were serious about ending the chronic shortages of food and profiteering in the global south, or the cost of living crisis here, they would be trying to find ways of ending the war in Ukraine which has brought so much misery, rather than prolonging it. Instead their actions will ensure it continues. This is now a proxy war between Russia and Nato. They are very wary of demands to intervene in the Black Sea, because this could lead to a greater conflict, but still continue to send major weapons, to involve many more Nato troops directly in eastern Europe, and to make more threatening noises in the direction of China. We’re seeing inter-imperialist rivalry on a growing scale – and they really don’t give a damn about the millions already suffering as a result.
This week: I will be watching the last two episodes of Sherwood which, despite its faults, deals with the serious issue of the 1984-5 miners’ strike – and undercover policing. I will be supporting events to mark the birthday of Julian Assange who faces extradition to the US for telling the truth about their wars. And I will be reading Rosa Luxemburg’s little book on The Mass Strike which talks about the relationship between the economic struggle and politics. Very timely.
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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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