Unjum Mirza discusses the growing wave of industrial struggle with a backdrop of a collapsing government and the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead
Boris Johnson has been cast to the dustbin of history. But, the lid has not been placed firmly on top. He aims to continue as prime minister until the autumn. The entire Tory government is adrift. Decision time: fish or cut bait? The trade union movement has a choice: either we passively spectate and speculate upon events as they unfold; or we actively engage and enter the stage as an independent force that directly interferes to hasten the demise of the Tory government.
The impressive RMT national rail strikes sprung picket lines across every city in the country. The gravity of the strike pulled a level of solidarity into its orbit from across the trade union movement and the working class not witnessed in decades. The solidarity worked both ways: lifting the morale of those on strike while boosting the confidence of wider layers of our class to fight.
Co-ordinating strikes acted to further deepen this dynamic. For instance, the Mitie strikers at St Georges Hospital in south London held their own picket lines; their own local protest and then travelled en masse via the Tube’s Northern Line (transforming the first two cars into a protest train!) to march along the Euston Road and join forces with the RMT Rally at King’s Cross. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch reciprocated the solidarity by joining the Mitie picket line the following day.
This is what terrified our rulers: the RMT strike generated and generalised a class anger and response from below to the multiple overlapping crises facing capitalism today.
Balance of forces
The rail strikes are no ordinary trades dispute. It is about the balance of forces - after forty-plus years of neoliberalism, austerity, Covid and now the deepening cost of living crisis - between the employers and government on the one-side and the working class on the other.
On our side, the rail strikes have offered a mere taste of the massive potential power latent in the workers’ movement.
Alongside RMT’s strike mandates across Network Rail, the Train Operating Companies (TOCs), London Underground and now 2,000 workers at Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) who have just returned a massive 80% yes vote for strike action, Aslef, the train drivers’ union’s decision to strike on 23 June on Greater Anglia Trains and co-ordinate further action with RMT on Hull Trains announcing strike dates for 16-17 and 23-24 July between the unions is extremely positive.
Further, Aslef are to declare this coming Monday 11 July the results of ‘live’ ballots on London North-Eastern Railway; Arriva Rail London; Great Western Railway; TransPennine Express; West Midlands Trains; Chiltern Railways; Northern Trains Ltd; South-Eastern; Avanti West Coast; Arriva Cross-country and Direct Rail Services. Aslef also hold strike mandates for London Underground and the Croydon Tramlink who struck on 28-29 June during the Wimbledon games and are to strike again next week on 13-14 July over pay.
TSSA too are delivering strong strike votes with a huge 86.1% (63.3% turnout) at Avanti West Coast; 67.6% (75.5% turnout) at CrossCountry; 63.6% (71.4% turnout) at East Midlands Railways; 69.2% (63.9% turnout) at LNER; 88.9% (58.4% turnout) at c2c and 83% (60.1% turnout) at Northern. TSSA is also balloting West Midlands Trains (closing 7 July), South-Eastern (closing 11 July), and Great Western Railway, TransPennine Express and Greater Anglia (closing 13 July) while 6,000 members are also being balloted at Network Rail (closing 11 July).
Mick Lynch captured the scale of the attack on the railways at RMT’s Annual General Meeting this week:
“Network Rail are ramping up their demands… the train operators put on the table that virtually every rail worker would be re-contracted on a new contract of employment and a new set of terms and conditions… they are going to bring back the Driver Only Operated disputes in every single train operating company. They have told me that face to face. They said it was their mandate from DfT. So, this is as serious as it gets. It is the fight of our lifetime and of our generation.”
Mick Whelan, Aslef’s general secretary told the Financial Times co-ordinated walkouts are “likely” adding “We believe (strikes) will have a massive effect” and that “There will be a summer of disruption”.
The response to the employers’ offensive on the railways has got to be ruthless. As the ballot results roll in, imagine each rail union co-ordinating a joint strike the week commencing 25 July. Then imagine each rail union co-ordinates joint picket lines. Now imagine each rail union declares an all-out strike. It can happen. It should happen. It needs to happen.
And there’s scope for broader forces to get stuck-in too. The CWU’s 40,000 National Call Centre Workers ballot returned a massive 91.5% yes vote for strike action. The CWU national ballot of 115,000 workers at Royal Mail is set to return on 19 July. From 2 August, we could all be out together.
Every current dispute (and there’s lots of them) could pile-in while the education unions NEU, UCU among others prepare for the second wave of the revolt this autumn.
“Legions of hell”
Of course, the ruling class would not accept this without a fight. During the General Strike of 1926, the miners’ leader A. J. Cook told them “you have been fighting the legions of hell”. The government has taken an increasing authoritarian turn with the Police and Crime Act, the Nationality and Borders Act, reliance on the courts and the media alongside plans to legislate for employers to use agency workers to break strikes and demanding minimum essential services from unions. They will attempt to mobilise all resources of the state at hand to defeat us.
But, the divisions within ruling circles are being televised live for all to see as we speak. The likelihood that Boris Johnson can limp on let alone continue to lead this incompetent, homicidal, corrupt, rotten and sleaze-ridden government in the midst of the internecine warfare on full display must be doubted. We’re not dealing with a Thatcher – a serious class fighter for their side – they have no Ridley plan and no strategy; they’re rudderless and without a clue as to how to deal with a serious industrial insurgency. Faced with a united, determined and irresistible movement they really are up shit creek without a paddle.
The first obvious danger is the trade unions fail to mobilise and instead spectate as the government falls apart. We must demand of our trade union leaders that there is no gap between declaration and deed i.e. words must turn into action.
But even where the unions do mobilise and co-ordinate action there is a danger that the fight is fragmented with different train companies playing divide and rule offering deals to settle with one union and not another leaving workers isolated and sapping our combined collective power. The Aslef deal on Scot Rail and the TSSA deal on Mersey rail (both settled well under the current rate of inflation at 11.7%) indicate an early warning and even the RMT has thus far refused to set further strike dates with Mick Lynch explaining to members “This Union will not waste your energy and commitment to the cause so we will take a disciplined and controlled approach to any industrial action”.
More broadly than the railways, it is brilliant that Unite the union and RMT have combined forces and announced an all-out strike at Wabtec, the rail maintenance firm in Doncaster, from 19 July against fire and rehire. But Unite and GMB have both just suspended their dispute with BA upon a presently undisclosed “improved” offer ending the possibility of national joint action with the rail unions. Unite previously refused to escalate the Scunthorpe scaffolder’s strike across British Steel and demobilised the call for a mass picket. On the buses, Unite have often settled for far less than inflation and acted to suspend rather than spread action (such as suspending the all-out action at Arriva Yorkshire). The GMB have secured some impressive pay victories among refuse workers but also left the national British Gas workers’ strike isolated and doomed to defeat.
We should not settle for anything less than no-strings inflation (RPI) linked pay rises i.e. nothing less than 11.7% as it stands presently; no job cuts, no concessions on working conditions and for scrapping the employers’ modernisation agenda.
The danger is that the potential for industrial militancy to generalise and encompass broader social and political issues faced by workers can collapse into the narrow sectional interests of individual unions opening the possibility for the employers to favourably settle with a minority of workers while the majority get shafted.
Rock the boat
Furthermore, many of the trade union leaderships and the TUC in particular, are much too reliant on the Labour Party. With the prospects of a general election now very real, the union leaderships may try to demobilise the potential of a workers’ revolt claiming ‘rocking the boat’ will only weaken Labour’s electoral prospects. In fact, an industrial insurgency would tear the Tories apart and increase Labour’s prospects.
The Labour Party are aware of this but their material interests lay elsewhere. Keir Starmer’s instruction to front bench Labour MPs not to attend picket lines is a signal to the rich and powerful that their interests are safe in his hands. Similarly, David Lammy, Shadow Foreign Secretary, when asked if he would support strike action by Heathrow check-in workers fighting to restore a 10% pay cut imposed during the pandemic he said: “No I don’t. It’s a no. It’s a categorical no” adding “because I’m serious about the business of being in Government”.
For those who hold illusions in some Paul Mason-esque type “progressive/tactical alliance” rubbish to oust the Tories, please note Liberal Democrat MP Munira Wilson’s strike-breaking calls for Boris Johnson to work “with the army and others to put contingency plans in place if the strikes are going to continue” stating “exceptional times call for exceptional measures”.
Independent rank-and-file organisation
That’s why we need to develop and build independent rank-and-file confidence, action, networks and organisation on the ground. In the words of JT Murphy, a leading member of the First World War national Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement we are “In the unions, of the unions, but never determined by the limitations of the unions”.
We are committed to working with and in unity with all those who desire the biggest, united and co-ordinated strikes possible – unleashing the power of the working class. But the rank and file are not a stage army that can be turned on and off like a tap. The principles of independent rank-and-file organisation are best captured in the statement of the Clyde Workers’ Committee 1915: “We will support the officials just as long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them”
As socialists, our aim is to link the struggle within capitalism – the trade union struggle to improve our pay and working conditions in an exploitative system – with the struggle against capitalism – linking industrial militancy, rank and file self-activity and the struggle for socialism.
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Unjum Mirza is a driver on the London Underground. He is on the Editorial Board of Tunnel Vision, the rank and file bulletin, and is an Aslef union branch chair.
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