Unjum Mirza analyses the growing strike wave and the political crisis and argues that the struggle has to move out of narrow industrial confines if we want to win
Services shuddered to a complete halt on Saturday 13 August as Aslef train drivers struck solidly across nine train operating companies. The RMT national strike resumed on 18 and 20 August. The strike included TSSA and Unite members and proved no less devasting with rail bosses warning services would be reduced to just a fifth, if that, and pleading with passengers not to travel unless “absolutely necessary”.
The fifth London Underground strike organised by RMT members in co-ordination with their national comrades on 19 August was joined by Unite bus drivers at London United (parent company RATP) across west and south-west London and parts of Surrey bringing parts of the capital to total standstill.
A week dominated by the rail strikes had hardly ended when on Sunday 21 August, an eight-day strike involving 1,900 Unite dock workers at Felixstowe – the UK’s biggest port – was fully underway and solidly supported. The strike will cause massive supply chain disruption and according to the Russell Group (analytics company) will hit as much as $800 million of trade.
By this week’s end, some 170,000 members of the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) will be on strike involving 115,000 Royal Mail on August 26 and 31 and September 8 and 9; 50,000 BT and Openreach workers will strike on August 30 and 31 and Post Office workers will join the struggle on August 26, 27 and 30.
Voices from the picket lines
Aslef striker Mark at LNER said,
“We’ve not had a pay rise in nearly three years. We worked through the pandemic and subject to a Tory social experiment. And now the government’s gone missing in the middle of a cost of living crisis and we have two numbskulls who are trying to out-vie each other on who would attack us hardest while the energy companies are raking in billions, literally billions and we’re told to accept below inflation pay rises which are nothing but pay cuts”.
RMT striker Edgar at London Bridge explained,
“They lie about the pay we’re on and then they pit us against the nurses. But if we don’t get a pay rise, the nurses’ will lose out too. They don’t give a damn. We’re all being shafted”.
Don, a member of Prospect supporting the strikes added,
“That’s right. What do they think, we’re fighting for an equality of poverty? My union might not be the most radical but I tell you what, a lot of members are up for a fight. Look at the Amazon workers, they’re not even in a union and they’re organising and striking”.
A PCS member stopped by with her family to hand over money for the strike fund. She explained,
“We’re balloting too. It’s really hard to get the turnout because our workforce is so fragmented. And they want to make anti-union laws even worse! How’s that democratic? They’re taking away our voices and our rights”.
RMT member John said,
“That Shapps is a real dunce as well as a liar. Did you see that video about services to Manchester? He lies about four trains per hour when it’s one and he doesn’t even know what a ‘direct train’ means? This is the Transport Secretary. Sure, he’s pushing for changes in the law to make it harder for us to strike, but that’s out of fear. He knows how strong we are and how much support we’ve got”.
Aslef driver Colin on Avanti West Coast said,
“The West Coast was on its knees before we brought it to a complete stand-still today. They keep going on about unofficial action but how is can it be unofficial action that we take the day off on our rest days?! The solution is simple, give us a pay rise and recruit more drivers”.
Another Aslef driver added,
“Shapps is now threatening us with Section 188 redundancies. That’s nothing other than fire and rehire on the railways. It’s the Tories’ version of P&O on the railways. The railways are falling apart, they need to be renationalised”.
Kirsty and Kerry from the TSSA said,
“We’re out across 11 companies today. What’s going on is outrageous and we have some tough battles ahead of us but the unity on this picket line shows how we can win”.
Mel, an RMT Rep at the Elephant and Castle depot on London Underground, said about the DfT/TfL funding talks,
“When you are having your secret talks just remember the workers who kept everything going during the pandemic. We want what is fair. We want what we deserve. Nothing more. Nothing less. And we won’t stop until we have those assurances”.
Ian May, Unite rep for striking bus workers on London United said,
“Having co-ordinated strike action has a bigger impact on TfL and can help shake up the complacent and indeed hostile attitude that TfL and its contractors have towards their workforce”.
Anthony from the RMT added,
“Look, we know that the problem here is the Tory government. But for Sadiq (Mayor of London) to hide the details of the funding talks – our futures - behind “commercial confidentiality” is taking the piss. And we know what he’ll do at the end of it, he’ll turn around to us and say he’s gotta make cuts. What he should be doing is exactly what we’re doing: fighting back. There’s no reason why he couldn’t call a London-wide protest against the government. It’d be absolutely massive!”
Rob, an Aslef London Underground driver who refused to cross RMT picket lines during the London Underground strike said,
“It doesn’t matter which union is on strike, you don’t cross picket lines. How dare they (i.e. DfT/TfL) hold secret talks behind our backs about our jobs, our terms and conditions and our pensions. It affects us all. Surely we should all be out officially anyway”.
Tim, an RMT member on the Central line stations said,
“On the Tube we know what the closure of all ticket offices on the national rail means. During Fit for Future (the previous restructure on London Underground Stations following the ticket office closures) we were promised no one will lose their jobs and every station will be staffed. Since it was introduced staffing levels have dropped significantly and continue to drop with vacancies unfilled. Now they want at least another 600 jobs! The unions are totally right to demand no more job cuts and every station to be staffed , all day and every day”.
A couple of young students approached the picket line, nervous at first but soon get in the swing of speaking to workers on strike. Then one asked, “when we go back to university, do you think it’d be a good idea to organise solidarity meetings on campus?” “Oh yes” came the immediate reply and phone numbers were exchanged.
The crisis deepens
On the eve of the RMT-led rail strikes on 18 August, the ONS inflation figures were announced at 12.3% RPI. On the day before, ONS figures showed the steepest decline in wages since comparable records began in 2001 with a 7% fall versus RPI inflation over the three months to June alone - the fastest rate on record. Meanwhile, Unite the union’s research data demonstrates soaring inflation has nothing to do with the alleged wage-price spiral but instead, “since the pandemic, the FTSE top 350 have seen profits soar by 43 per cent. Britain has a profiteering crisis”.
The Bank of England forecasts inflation will rise to 13% CPI in October and remain at “very elevated levels” throughout 2023 as the country slides into a 15-month recession, while predicting growth “very weak by historical standards”.
The Bank of England’s 2% target for inflation coupled with a labour market that remains “exceptionally tight” means the Bank’s measures represent nothing more than class war on workers as they combat “the pressure on wage growth” employing recessionary policies including a swell in unemployment.
Weak, divided and nasty
The Tories are weak and divided, reflecting the fissures and fractures of a ruling order amid a system – capitalism – engulfed in a series of interlocking crises of cost of living, war and climate catastrophe. The Tories’ increasing reliance on repressive legislation and authoritarianism is further reflection of their weakness. Liz Truss, the front-runner in the Tory leadership contest, described by one right-wing Tory MP as “the adoptive child of the ERG (European Research Group) and all the other batshit groups on the right of the party”, has made plain that she aims to take on the unfolding workers’ revolt with further repressive anti-union laws.
We’ve already had restrictions on “noisy pickets”; increased financial penalties payable by unions for “damages” and the Tories’ Scab Charter – permitting employers the use of agency labour to break strike. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng proudly announced the policy saying, “This was a criminal offence. Now it's an option for business”.
Truss now threatens requirements for minimum staffing levels during strikes; “tailored minimum” service levels within each industry of ‘critical national infrastructure’ (undefined but read “key workers”) during strikes as well as “tailored minimum voting thresholds” for industrial action. Truss wants to increase strike notice from fourteen days to a month and restrict the number of strikes permitted within the current six-month limit with cooling off periods between.
While we’re on strike, Truss wants to bar unions spending union funds – our money – as strike pay for members. And for all sectors outside the ‘critical national infrastructure’, Truss wants to increase the minimum threshold from 40% to 50% for a strike ballot. Meanwhile, the winner of the Tory party leadership contest – the country’s next Prime Minister – will be elected from a constituency representing 0.42% of the population.
Co-ordination, escalation and power
The dominant debate on the picket lines was about how we co-ordinate our strikes. John from the RMT at London Bridge explains, “We could combine our action effectively if we had a rolling programme of Aslef coming out one day, the RMT the next, TSSA after with Unite following”. Dan on the same picket line adds “yes, but it would make sense if we all came out together on the same day wouldn’t it? It won’t be easy but we’d have to escalate too”.
These workers have a real sense of their own power. Successive waves of past restructuring and increases in productivity per employee - squeezing as much profit from the workforce - has resulted in a workforce with increased concentrated power in industry just as capital’s aims to reduce costs in services has witnessed workers proletarianised.
This is where our power lies to secure victory in the current disputes and simultaneously mobilise the very forces necessary for a re-organisation of society as a whole.
There are dangers ahead. Mick Lynch warned the rail strikes could go on “indefinitely” unless ministers intervene in talks. But there’s a difference between pursuing a strategy of rolling 24-hour strike action “indefinitely” and co-ordinated indefinite strike action.
The former limits the aims to negotiation and settlement – keeping it strictly within the parameters of the trade union struggle. Further, as the winter months approach, there is no automatic guarantee that members will continue to fight so solidly as financial fears could easily turn to paralysis and passivity. The latter sets the objective to win the industrial dispute now while broadening the struggle and opening the real possibility of tearing the government apart before it inflicts any further damage on our class.
The struggle against the Tories cannot and must not be confined to industrial action alone. It must encompass the political and social crises working people face too if it is to be successful. In this case, the Enough is Enough campaign and its demands as well as Unite’s Workers’ Manifesto are important and have been received with enthusiasm on the picket lines. But there is a danger of seeking programmatic ‘solutions’ for a crises-ridden system and substituting it for the key task in escalating, deepening and co-ordinating the strike wave within and across sectors that could transcend narrow sectional interests and fully unleash our power as a class. This in turn needs to be combined with mass protests and mobilisations on the streets as the People’s Assembly are organising for the Tory party conference on 2 October and the National Demonstration on 5 November.
The rail strikes have yet to reach a crossroads. It is urgent that rank-and-file militants understand where our power as workers lies – in the workplaces, not in the trade union offices. There has been some excellent work done across the unions on the ground to deliver solidarity. But as yet, the crucial independent rank-and-file organisational expression necessary to address the critical questions that lay ahead appears to escape us.
We need to win
Truss and Sunak have no understanding of Thatcher’s true legacy. It would serve well to remind ourselves what it was. Paul Foot wrote in an article Thatcher: class warrior (1985):
“Mrs Thatcher is not an intellectual giant, nor has she risen to such heights through her beauty or oratorical skills. She is a new fashioned two-nation Tory who understands the simple truth, which evades far too many of us: that class confidence comes out of class strength, and that her class can win only if the other class loses”.
We need to up the ante. We need to get on with the business of winning, for our class.
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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.
More articles from this author
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- Workers’ fightback resumes in a divided country
- Save our buses: Unite protests against Tory cuts to London transport
- Tory transport austerity and the mass resistance we need
- How to turn a strike wave into a tsunami
- The next round of rail strikes: time to tear the Tories apart
- The potential for a summer of discontent that could bring the Tories down