As wages continue to fall and workers rights are attacked further, McDonald's and other workers have begun to strike. Lindsey German explains why they are so important.
Are the first strikes of the autumn going to signify a change in direction for the British working class? And are we going to witness the beginning of the end of decades of attacks on working people which have so marked British society going even further back than Thatcherism?
On first glance, all this seems unlikely: the strikes are sporadic, involve relatively few numbers, are not big set piece battles. Conditions for working people are so unfavourable that it is hard to believe that such disputes could lead to the far reaching changes most people on the left and in the unions would want. Yet the strikes are taking on a political significance beyond their numerical weight – and it may be that in this battle Goliath can be defeated by solidarity, courage, determination and the use of tactics which involve mobilising support well beyond the actual workforce.
Whatever else happens this week, the strikes by McDonald’s workers in restaurants in Cambridge and Crayford - and the campaign around them organised by the BFAWU bakers’ union - are sure to hit the headlines. It is, after all, a company known worldwide, its golden arches instantly recognisable by people across different continents. McDonald's has given its name to a particular form of production –the standardisation of fast food sale and distribution, given a uniform quality which is reliable and relatively cheap.
It is also a byword for low status, poorly rewarded work. The demands of £10 an hour minimum wage, equal pay for under 25s, union recognition, and an end to zero hours’ contracts are obviously fair, but they will, if successful, herald a change in fast food outlets and catering companies across the country. If workers at McDonald’s can win, the argument will go, so can those in Costa, Subway, Pret, and all the others.
While these strikes have an international dimension – 4th September coincides with Labor Day in the US – and while these conditions are similar throughout the world, the situation in Britain is particularly dire considering it is one of the richest countries in the world.
Wages have fallen further than anywhere else in Europe except Greece over the past decade. Productivity is very low, partly as a result of low wages, and low investment. The conditions of working people are, if anything, getting worse, with gross insecurity for those on zero hours or in bogus self-employment. Commuting is the most extensive and expensive in Europe. Housing costs are taking ever greater shares of young workers’ incomes. Childcare is totally inadequate for those on anything but very high wages, as the latest TUC report demonstrated this week. The minimum wage – supposedly a floor or safety net – has become the norm in too many industries.
Casualisation, redundancy, restructuring, and downsizing of work, have all made life much harder for millions of workers. Employment is at record highs, but wages so far have not risen. One reason it is so high is women staying in employment longer as they are forced to work more years before retiring. Additionally, many in part time work cannot find the full-time jobs they want. The weakening of unions which characterised Thatcherism and especially the defeat of the miners’ strike has had a major impact on worsening conditions in the workplace.
Workers will not succeed in improving their conditions without a rebuilding of the unions. However well-intentioned a future Labour government will be, this brutal increase in the extraction of surplus value from workers will continue in workplaces unless it is actively resisted. That is why the strikes we are now seeing – in BA mixed fleet, the rail companies and the post, as well as in fast food and delivery companies – are so important. They have a weight far beyond their individual size.
They often also depend on the strength and solidarity of campaigns built around them. In one sense this has always been true – the Dockers’ strike of 1889 had mass solidarity and support from the wider community and working class, as did Grunwick – but with the weakening of unions and the mismatch between low levels of industrial action and high levels of political radicalisation, solidarity and sympathy actions are even more important.
One group that is very much in need of such support is the Birmingham bin workers. Out on strike against wage cuts and redundancy, their union Unite achieved a deal with the leader of Birmingham City Council – a Labour council – which has now been reneged on. The workers are back out on strike and may be followed by other groups of refuse workers in other councils. Everywhere, councils are making cuts as a result of government funding cuts. In my own council, Hackney, they have just announced a £15 charge for bulk refuse collection from houses which used to be free. No doubt many councils will be looking to trim wage bills at workers’ expense.
Birmingham bin workers are right to go on strike. They are protecting their wages and the services of people living in the area. Yet they have been criticised over rubbish piling up, and some residents have been moving the rubbish. That’s wrong, however well motivated it might be, because it weakens the strike. Labour councils shouldn’t be passing on Tory cuts at the expense of their employees or residents. They should be fighting publicly against this further attack on working people. The mayor of Bristol is right to lead a protest march next weekend against this Tory penury. We are going to need much bigger levels of strikes and protests to roll this back.
Macron moves into battle
Meanwhile, that nice Macron, so beloved of the Guardian and liberal opinion, is trying to force French workers to accept worse conditions. They strike directly at the strength of the unions, attempting to by-pass union representation for smaller companies, and give workers less employment and tribunal rights.
Already, the major French union, the CGT, has called a day of action for next week, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise promises major action against the changes. Just as we should support workers in Britain taking action, so we should show solidarity with French workers in resisting this attack which is aimed at destroying many of their rights. This is what European unity should look like – forging links from below with those fighting for better conditions. From above, the unity will be behind Macron. There will be no fundamental disagreement with his strategy from those who run the EU and its component governments. After all, this is what the project is about, and if he succeeds it will be a green light for further attacks on workers elsewhere in the union.
Thatcher’s policies explain a lot about what’s wrong with Britain
Talking of the miners, I took a taxi from Rugeley Trent Valley station in Staffordshire last week. The driver was an ex-miner who had worked at Lea Hall colliery till 1992, which brought back memories. I think we don’t say enough about the impact of the pit closures of the 80s and 90s on present conditions. There was a report last week also about a former pit village in County Durham, Horden, which had very high levels of mental and other health problems. None of this should surprise us when whole communities are thrown on the scrap heap. But it has a major knock on effect: depopulation and flight of younger people, worsening job conditions and wages, a greater sense of division between people, worsening schools, healthcare and general infrastructure.
The full social cost of these policies is immeasurable, and the people who pick up the bill for broken lives are not the rich or the Westminster politicians. Instead, they deride people in former mining and other industrial areas. This has come out strongly since the referendum, when they are routinely and unfortunately castigated as poor, badly educated and bigoted. Of all Thatcher’s policies, the destruction of old industries and the sale of council houses must surely be the most long term damaging. And we’re still living with the consequences.
Fostering the worst sort of racism
There is only one explanation for the huge amount of press coverage around the Tower Hamlets ‘Christian child fostered by veil wearing, Arabic speaking Muslim family’ saga. It’s called Islamophobia. There is really no excuse for focusing on the sad and difficult story of a five-year-old girl unless you have a political axe to grind. Sure enough, it gets written in a ‘respectable’ newspaper, taken up by the likes of Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson, and provides a field day for racists.
It transpires that at least half the ‘facts’ turn out not to be true. But I have to say I don’t think they should be of concern to anyone, except those immediately concerned and the authorities who have a duty of care towards the girl. This will, however, become another story when years later, people will repeat untruths which were presented as truths. And as usual Muslims – who have done nothing but foster a child in need – will be to blame.
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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