By Sean Burns
2023 looks set to be marked by a renewed upswing in industrial action as more strike ballots are being returned successfully. The National Education Union (NEU) in Britain, as well as Scottish teachers are joining the strike action. Likewise the ongoing struggles in Royal Mail, health and the Universities are set to continue. This is no surprise as the ongoing pressure on workers’ pockets continues to mount as high inflation and interest rates hit working-class people.
The fact that inflation looks set to halve by the end of the year will provide little comfort to workers when wages have not met rising inflation. Energy costs increased by 70% last year, while food costs rose by 11.6%. The Tories’ response has been wholly inadequate cost of living payments, while welcome, barely scratch the surface given the depth of this crisis.
They have refused to seriously tackle the rampant profiteering by the likes of big energy companies pulling in over £16 billion in profits last year. Instead, the Tories have laid bare their intentions of taking fire at working-class people and the trade union movement by attempting to demonise workers on strike and introduce legislation that would make strike action ineffective – by introducing minimum service levels and allowing the use of agency staff to break pickets.
Co-ordinate the strikes
It is in this context that the TUC has announced a day of “events” to “protect the right to strike” on 1 February. The TUC’s General Secretary launched the events stating: “We will call on the general public to show support for workers taking action to defend their pay and conditions, to defend our public services and to protect the fundamental right to strike.” It is positive that there is some resistance to the Tories’ attempt to introduce this legislation – beyond a lacklustre legal challenge – but what is notably absent is a call to coordinate the strike action.
125,000 Royal Mail and Post Office workers, 50,000 rail workers, 100,000 civil service workers, 30,000 ambulance workers, 100,000 nurses, 70,000 university workers and 60,000 Scottish teachers will have active strike ballots on that day. At the very least the call for those workers to time their action to be on the same day would drastically increase the impact of the action against the Tories, but also crucially assist the individual disputes in securing victories by strengthening the effectiveness of each action. We are stronger when we strike together.
Attempts to justify this mis-leadership from the TUC have amounted to, in effect, an appeal to the establishment to be reasonable. The Tories have made clear that they are not reasonable nor willing to concede a fair deal to workers. Instead, as they have illustrated in the health service and rail disputes, they are intent on an ideological crusade to maximise profit and curb workers’ rights to organise by breaking the backs of the unions.
In a similar vein, the TUC General Secretary has downplayed calls for a general strike. The Financial Times reported him stating, “it would make little sense to groups as disparate as teachers and physiotherapists who were worried about pay, but hardly inclined to militancy.” Such a view is the opposite of reality!
Workers across the board, in every sector are facing the same issues: pay not matching inflation, intransigent employers refusing to give an inch, and a hostile Tory government. Moreover, they are more often on strike at the same time. The coming together of these disputes, and others that may arise, in a 24-hour general strike would be an immensely powerful stand by and for working people. The Tories recognise this fact even if the TUC leadership does not.
The way forward
The alternative strategy of the TUC General Secretary would appear to be along the lines of ‘wait for Labour’. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions strategy is no different ‘wait for stormont return.’
Trade union activists must come together to discuss how to coordinate strike action and maximise the effectiveness of their actions. This should include pressuring the leaderships of individual unions to co-operate in and across sectors.
Crucially, we must push for a strategy that seriously confronts the Tories and raises demands that will deliver a lasting change for workers, including inflation-linked pay rises and the repeal of anti-union laws. Adjacent to a serious industrial strategy, a political strategy needs to be developed that forges a new party for working-class people based on the struggles of workers, and accountable to them, and crucially, armed with anti-sectarian and socialist politics that can challenge the crisis-ridden capitalist system and its representatives.