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Trade union solidarity at CWU BT picket line

Trade union solidarity at CWU BT picket line. Photo: NEUEastMidlands / Twitter

We need class logic - co-ordination, escalation and decisive action - to generalise the growing strike wave and take on the Tories, writes Unjum Mirza

“Not one person condemned it”

Reporting live from Leicester railway station, a BBC correspondent was asked “How would you sum up the mood of people there today?” during the RMT national strike (and TSSA on Avanti West Coast) strike last Wednesday 27 July. She answered, “I did ask the question how they felt about the strike and not one person condemned it, there was in fact quite a lot of support for the right to strike”.

The same goes with the CWU BT strike – the first national strike since 1987 - on Friday 29 July (and out again 1 August) and the powerful Aslef strike that brought all services to a complete standstill across Greater Anglia; Great Western Railway; Hull Trains; LNER; Arriva Rail London (Overground); Southeastern and West Midlands Trains on Saturday 30 July.

And there’s more to come. Lots more. During the RMT national action, Aslef declared huge strike ballot results for Avanti West Coast and Crosscountry: 92.6% and 93.2% respectively. The Aslef EC immediately included them in the strike action announced across now nine Train Operating Companies on Saturday 13 August with ballot results pending from Transpennine Express; Chiltern and Northern on 25 August.

Meanwhile, RMT had already announced further national strike action for Thursday 18 and Saturday 20 August with London Underground members planning to strike on 19 August. The TSSA too have announced strike action across eleven companies in co-ordination with RMT on 18 and 20 August.

It is clear that the stunning RMT strike action in June, which itself flowed from a rising tide of struggle over the past twelve-plus months, has now fed back into that uptick and shifted the entire tempo of the struggle.

Picket line politics

On every picket line, strikers, supporting workers and the public offer eloquent accounts of the huge disparity between pay and profits within their own industry. On a BT picket line in Southwark, Brian, a striker, said,

“They’ve imposed a pay cut on us. Did you see what Philip Jensen (BT chief executive ) said? He says ‘It’s final. It’s history. It’s done’. Who does he think he is? BT made £422 million profits in June on top of the £1.3 billion last year. And he thinks it’s a done deal? We’ll see about that.”

On every picket line, strikers express shock and anger at the deepening cost-of-living crisis citing the obscene profits of the energy companies and the pay awards for CEOs and Shareholders. Simon on the Aslef picket line at New Cross Gate said,

“Sure, this strike is about us – our pay and T&Cs – but it’s also about our kids and our future. When we grew up, our parents thought our lives would be better. The truth is, it really is touch-and-go for many of us as it is. As for our kids, dream on.”

Tom, a driver at the same depot said in disbelief,

“Have you just seen the profits the energy companies have made. Five-fold increase in profits! And that’s before the price cap goes up again at the end of August. They’re taking us for mugs. My bills have just come in and they’re ridiculous for the summer months. Just imagine our bills over the winter months.”

On every picket line, strikers had a firm political grasp of the situation. At London Bridge, John, an RMT striker spoke for most when he said,

“The Tories are deciding who’s the next prime minister for the entire country among themselves. How’s that democratic? We’re on strike having delivered huge mandates despite all the hurdles of the anti-union laws and now they’re talking about making it even harder for us to strike. They want to bring in minimum services and bring in agency staff and make scabbing legal. It doesn’t really matter who's in power, we’ve gotta rely on ourselves”.

With reference to Kwasi Kwarteng’s tweet, Dan, an RMT striker on the same picket line, added,

“It makes me laugh when the Tories complain about the unions colluding and then put out tweets about using agency staff to break strikes ‘Yesterday it was a criminal offence. Today it’s an option for business’. It’s so blatant. The government and employers are in it up to their necks.”

Aslef driver Andy added,

“Attempts by the government and anti-union press to demonise workers exercising their legal rights have largely fallen flat on their face. They want to legislate to outlaw strikes and the withdrawal of labour. This isn't progress or modernisation as they like to call it. It's the erosion of rights, the imposition of detrimental terms on the cheap and mass redundancies. They want workers poorer and the shareholders get richer. We're not all in it together! It's all a trick. We aren't falling for it. Transport workers are not the enemy. We can never compete morally with nurses or cleaners but we can show what a strong unionised industry can achieve through unity and exercising our legal rights. Others are taking notice and following suit. We stand together.”

Most importantly, on every picket, the desire for co-ordinated and united strikes was a “no-brainer” as Ian, a BT striker said,

“You guys (rail workers) get people to work and move essential supplies as we saw during Covid. We (Telecoms/data workers) enable people to work from home. Surely it’s gotta be understood by our (union) leaders that’s why our strikes are most effective united?”

General strike

In response to Liz Truss’s threats to further curb trade union rights Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary called for an “enormous response from the trade union movement”, adding, “We need co-ordinated and synchronised industrial action against what they’re proposing… I would be looking for a general strike if we can bring that off, but it’s up to others”.

To great applause at the BT Tower picket line, Dave Ward, general secretary CWU added, “I have spoken with Mick Lynch and Gary Smith (general secretary GMB) and Sharon Graham (general secretary Unite) and we believe its time now to consider calling for forms of collective action that every worker in the UK can participate in”.

Mick Whelan, Aslef general secretary explained to Sky News,

“We’re rushing into a situation whereby all the politics that happened in the mid-1930s in Spain and Italy and elsewhere where they curbed the voice of protest; they curbed the voice of civil liberties; where they tried to take away human rights; where they attacked trade unions and drove us in a very, very right-wing world that I hope most people in this country don’t want. They reality is, we already have the worst trade union laws in Europe other than Lithuania before the last trade union bill; before the last protest bill and if they don’t want the people of this country to be able to say what they think of either their government or their employers or their futures then we’re living in a very sad society.”

Keir Starmer’s decision to sack Sam Tarry, shadow transport minister for joining a picket line during the RMT/TSSA strike action last Wednesday caused anger across the entire trade union movement as well as within the Labour Party. Only three months ago in May, Aslef’s national conference voted overwhelmingly against motions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. Kevin Lindsay, Aslef’s Scotland organiser immediately resigned from the Labour Party citing Starmer’s decision a “step too far” but added he “now also support(s) the proposal for Aslef to disaffiliate from the Party”. Motions are already being drawn-up, discussed and debated at Aslef branches to call on the EC to recall Aslef’s Annual Assembly of Delegates and/or organise a referendum for the membership to decide.

The bankruptcy of Starmer’s Labour was further illustrated just three days later during the Aslef strike on Saturday when Audrey White the pensioner and activist who confronted the Labour leader  when he visited Liverpool on the “promises he has reneged on” received a letter dated 29 July 2022 terminating her membership of the Party.

One Struggle – One Fight

We face multiple deepening crises: the cost of living; supply chain breakdown; health, climate change and war. The Tories are desperately weak and divided and hold no solutions other than making us pay for the crisis. Labour too is bankrupt and holds no answers. Starmer is clearly signalling to the rich and powerful that their interests are safe in his hands. We need answers.

The rail and telecom strikes are decisive battles in the struggle as they represent confrontations that will shape the balance of forces between capital and labour on a national scale. The national struggle in the post over pay (and terms and conditions which is being covered with a second ballot presently underway) is not far behind and can be synchronised in the fight.

Likewise, dockers at the Port of Felixstowe – which handles nearly half of all container traffic in the UK – have returned a 92% vote rejecting the company’s below-inflation 5% pay offer. And dockers at Britain’s fifth largest port – Liverpool Docks – are currently balloting over Peel Port’s below inflation 5% offer. Between them they are responsible for over half the supply chain for all of the UK’s industrial production logistics.

So, what are our next steps?

First, our industrial demands cannot be for anything less than no-strings RPI-inflation-linked pay rises i.e. nothing less than 11.9% as it stands presently; no job cuts, no concessions on working conditions and for scrapping the employers’ modernisation agenda.

Secondly, we need to escalate the action beyond twenty-four-hour strikes. A series of twenty-four-hour strikes can be quite sensational as we witnessed last week. But it is not the decisive action that we need to win. The government could not handle an all-out strike on the railways let alone across sectors. The Tories and ruling circles are deeply fractured. Determined and decisive strike action would tear them apart.

Thirdly, we really do need to get better at co-ordinating the strikes. Notwithstanding some very positive steps in this direction, the truth is, the unions have already missed real opportunities for greater co-ordination in June and July and probably in August too. There can be no doubt that the desire for co-ordinated and united struggles within and across industries is there among the rank-and-file.

But what kind of co-ordination? Sequential dates or joint dates of strike action?

Sequential strike dates do hold an industrial logic. On the railways for instance, we can extend the level of disruption over a greater period of time with the bonus of reducing the loss of pay to members.

However, joint strike dates and joint picket lines demonstrate a class logic. They hold both the industrial power needed to win while generating a gravitational force that pulls wider layers of workers into its orbit and action at the same time.

In other words, the former limits the struggle to industrial aims and the trade union struggle. It runs the inherent risks of fragmentation and collapsing along sectional lines and opening up opportunities for the employers to favourably settle with a minority of workers while the majority get shafted.

The latter extends the struggle, demonstrating our power as class. It holds the better chance of securing our industrial demands for all workers as it transcends sectional interests while also beginning to address the multiple crises we face from our class standpoint.

There will no doubt continue to be an overlap between the two elements. But the strategic orientation must be placed on the latter co-ordination. This is what we must fight for within and across our unions and sectors.

Imagine, if we co-ordinated strike action across unions, across sectors; on the same day, held joint picket lines and included among our strike dates Monday 5 September – the day the Tories impose a new Prime Minister on us all. Bring it on.

Before you go...

Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!

Unjum Mirza

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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