UK STRIKES: FOR A SINGLE TRADE UNIONS’ PLATFORM WITH COMMON DEMANDS

UNITED KINGDOM (UK) STRIKE WAVE: Public sector workers are the most involved in the current big wave of strikes: public service (Union PSC), post and telecommunications (CUW), nurses and paramedics (RCN), tube and bus, civil servants, teachers – and many others. The railway workers (Unions RMT-ASLEF-TSSA) began a series of short strikes from the start of 2022. They have remained the driving force of the whole movement. More recently, around 100,000 National Health Service (NHS) workers from England, Wales and Northern Ireland staged a 2-day strike (Unions RCN, GMB, Unite). This NHS strike is to be repeated, and some 64,000 Scottish nurses will join it. Junior Doctors, teachers and firefighters across the country are consulting for 2023 as well.

When told of the nurses’ demand for a 19% wage rise, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Minister of Health Steve Barclays were shocked and outraged. They deemed this claim “unaffordable”; if everyone in the NHS received this sum, £28 billion would have to be found! They said that this cost would be “inflationary”, and would fall on the 28,000 households (taxpayers) already in great difficulty, the poor dears.

The inflation rate is officially 11.1%, but it reaches 14.2% (and higher) account taken of the alarming spike in commodity prices. 

According to The Living Wage Foundation, 4.8 million British workers (20% of the country’s workforce) are paid below the living wage. Research at the House of Commons Library shows that 60% of new jobs created since May 2010 were in precarious sectors where the hourly wage is less than a quarter of the national hourly median.

The Institute of Health Equality says that for the first time in a century, life expectancy has stopped growing – and for women in poor areas, it has actually fallen. Young people now live less well than their parents at their age, and families are stuck for life in private and precarious housing.

Capitalism makes war on the workers

Nursing workers are demanding a 4% wage hike above inflation calculated against commodity prices now closer to 15 than 14%. The government is indignant at the total of 19% thus produced. But for the nurses, 4% is a small ask in disintegrating conditions: heavy loads worsened by chronic staff shortages, rising pension contributions, asocial hours, and – horror – scathing accusations of negligence towards the patients!

By posing as the defender of the taxpayer, the Sunak government wants to pitch the general public against the strikers. This fails remarkably however, since the public supports the strikers in thousands of ways. By refusing to even speak to Pat Cullen (RCN) the government shows its capitalist and colonial contempt for a poorly paid workforce, often made up of immigrants (India, Philippines, etc) which includes porters, cleaners, ancillaries. On top of all this and most of all, what the government does not want to see is the wages rising with the cost of living.

The TUC estimates that in 2019, over 5m workers worked a total of £2bn in unpaid hours; and that billions are thus taken every year from the British workforce. In the NHS in November 2022, one in twenty nurses worked for £7,000 of unpaid overtime. This is about a quarter (or a fifth) of a nurse’s salary.

The workers – including of course the nurses – are not prepared to bleed themselves so that the capitalists can spend billions on the survival of their system. If some £457 billion were found to bail out the banks in 2008, then some £310 billion more to deal with the pandemic, and now another billion to arm Ukraine to the teeth – surely £28 billion can be found for the nurses.

Between all the trade unions involved today – from Northern Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland – the demands revolve around the same pivots: The wages must keep up with the cost of living. No laws must come to break the strikes. Work done must be paid for. The capitalists must find the funds in their catastrophic profits and military budgets.

Create a permanent platform between the unions

In October 2020, the FT Adviser reported that “the UK has seen no real wage growth for 12 years”. Indeed, as the vast majority of British workers have only experienced austerity and pay cuts since 2010, current inflation cannot come from their wage rises! This is slyly denied however by official commentators for whom the working class is a constant cause of inflation by its greed.

Faced with the divisions that have produced 3 prime ministers in one year, British capitalism must either take from its profits by yielding to the working class, or else confront it.  For the moment, the government has chosen confrontation. A Minimum Service Order law is going through parliament to make certain strikes illegal. This law will criminalize picket lines and trade unions that block agency workers and other scabs. Originally, this law was intended to apply only to emergency services in the transportation and health departments; it is now being extended to counter other strikes.

In the absence of action on the part of the TUC, the fight against the Minimum Service Order can only be effective by the unions coming together to oppose it and talk about it with one voice.

The government introduces this law with great urgency because it fears the advance of workers’ power. Despite the traitorous and complicit silence of the Labour leadership (now that Starmer has cast Corbyn aside and replaced him), the government’s feverish reaction shows the potential of this strike movement. British capitalism and its Labour ally want the workers silenced in the name of a national unity (now almost obligatory) to serve the US-UK-NATO’s war against Russia. And what they want to stop, over and above all else, is the anti-capitalist unification of the trade unions throughout the country.

Academics and Teachers in Edinburgh, December 2022 – ‘eis’ is Scotland’s biggest Teaching Union.

The conditions are favourable to the creation of a permanent platform between the different trade unions on strike, to defend and protect the right to strike, to efficiently oppose the coming law. Achieving this is bound to encourage the TUC to drop its passivity and – do its job.

The deep political significance of this wave of strikes

The president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Adrian Boyle, told Times Radio that the hundreds of preventable deaths nationwide every week must be linked to the long waits of patients outside hospitals that have run out of beds.

The strikers’ demands have all to do with money, but their movement goes well beyond that. The nurses explain that those who do not care about human life are the ones who cause hospitals to run out of doctors, of staff and of beds. Border Force officers (PCS) refuse to push back the migrant boats into the waves. PCS are currently taking the Sunak government to court over this[1]. As for the railway workers (main Union RMT), they are opposed to Driver Only Trains. They insist on the guards staying on board, not only for the sake of their necessary jobs but in the interests and security of the travelling public as well.

The gutter press like Time, Sun and Daily Mail have accused RMT leaders (Mick Lynch in particular) of being Putin’s “useful idiots”. One such newspaper called the RMT an “extremist cabal-led syndicate supporting Putin’s murders in Ukraine”. Suggested here but not uttered, is the cry that a striker is an ally of Russia, an enemy of the UK and of its NATO ally; a traitor to be left undefended if attacked. Labour leader Keir Starmer, the same who betrayed Corbyn, has decreed that under Labour disciplinary “no one must speak against NATO at Party meetings”.

It is not to serve the country but to fight the workers that the government has sent soldiers to drive ambulances and replace the Border Guards on strike at airports. It is the second time since the pandemic that the army is used to solve social problems. This measure illustrates capitalism’s intention to face the working class down with force. The strongly ‘nazifying’ hatreds pouring out of its media are as many invitations to street attacks, similar to the days of the false accusations of anti-Semitism to demonize Corbynism. If no right-wing group has yet dared to attack the picket lines, it is because the public stands solidly behind workers’ fighting for a society in the interests of everyone.

Fearing uprisings, the government says that it will set aside £20 billion to mitigate the impact of what it calls “the cost-of-living crisis”. It will subsidize electricity, gas and petrol consumption for a while. But “the cost-of-living crisis” is not a temporary illness as suggested. When inflation is high, the capitalist class fights tooth and nail to pass on higher prices to workers. This is why Sunak finds the nurses’ demand “unaffordable”. The railway workers fight for the safety of the passengers, the nurses fight for the lives of the patients, the Border Guards fight want respect for human life. In the current struggle, workers and trade unions are the force that works for the preservation of life and the human dignity. They do not do it just for them, but for the whole population. This is the political role that the Labour Party should be playing.

The unmanageable price rises bring closer the interests of the working class and those of the general public. This explains the deep solidarity between them, and the state of panic in which the successive UK governments find themselves immersed. This strike wave gives a demonstration that the working class and the population are increasingly united not only against capitalist management but against the capitalist system itself.

Find the £28 bn in the huge profits and staggering war budgets

The Institute for Policy Studies says that in the first year of the pandemic, the world’s 2,400 billionaires enjoyed a $4 bn increase in wealth. The Sunday Times Rich List reports that during that same period in the UK, the number of British billionaires rose from 147 to 177 – and that they did so “at the expense of the rest of society, with a combined wealth of £653 billion”. This capitalist degeneration ravages the whole of society and not just the working class. Not just in Britain but the whole capitalist world.

Against the spirit and the letter of each of the international treaties that the United States signed, it proliferated the B61 nuclear bomb in 5 European countries: Holland, Belgium, Germany, Turkey and Italy. These bombs are currently being upgraded, along with the aircraft delivering them – usually the F35. The United Kingdom, which has its own reserves of B61s, periodically receives deliveries of F35s from Lockheed Martin in the US. A first batch of 48 modified F35s (F35A and others) is now available in the UK, under US and NATO control. As the cost of an F-35A is around £64 million, one can imagine the sums involved.

From 24 January to 3 October 2022, the Kiel Institute tracked the €93.8 billion sent to Ukraine by 40 countries in financial, humanitarian and military aid. Of these 93.8, €52.3 billion came from the United States, 29.2 from the European Union “and €12.3 billion came from other countries, mainly the United Kingdom”.

On national television, British Conservative Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi called on NHS workers to drop their strikes and wage demands because “this risks playing into the hands of the Russian president who wanted to fuel inflation in the West”. 

If the British workers did not listen, it is because their wages (and their many unpaid hours) are already colossally subsidizing the capitalist “crisis of the cost-of-living” – a crisis itself mightily exacerbated by the capitalists’ sanctions against Russia. The workers have therefore no reason to sacrifice themselves on the altar of the British oligarchs’, let alone that which finances the war of NATO against Russia in Ukraine.

Under the heading ‘defence’, the United Kingdom contributes each year to NATO’s expenses. In 2021, its contribution was £60 billion, and this sum increases every year.

In the absence of a sufficient response from the TUC – and worse to be expected from the Starmer Labour leadership – the various trade unions find themselves with the opportunity to unite between them around the notion that the £28 billion being refused to the health workers could be, and should be, taken from the huge capitalists’ profits, and from the ever-growing military budgets. The implementation of this principle would surely prove the eminent affordability of £28 billion.

So let the unions unite around common demands

Against the socialist-leaning and anti-capitalist left of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer upholds a system of proscriptions which has ousted or expelled some 200,000 Labour members these last three years. By this action, Starmer gave a serious pledge of loyalty to the capitalist system. That’s why he, and his shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, also agree that £28 bn is an “unaffordable” sum for NHS workforce!  Labour is 26 points ahead of the Tories in the polls, but the working class is not afraid of the capitalists, Tory or otherwise.

Most Labour Party members (even non-leftists) join the picket lines, or sympathize with them. This shows that it was not enough for Starmer to have expelled 200,000 Party members. The latter are still in the fight, even if from the outside of the Party.

The working-class base that backed the Corbyn leadership is speaking now, and more militantly than ever. In this strike movement, the unions are developing new leaders who have every reason to press against the old passive and collaborating Union structures. All the unions of the country are involved in the current major strike movement. The opportunity offers to develop, extend and systematize a permanent platform of common demands, right now during the strikes, and with a view to maintaining it after the strikes, in anticipation of the struggles after that. The programmatic basis for this gathering could be:

– Respect for the right to strike, against the Minimum Service law

– Systematic indexation of the salaries on the cost of living

– Strike settlements funded from capitalist profits and military budgets

This wave of strikes is not unique to Britain. And it is not a sign of capitalist strength that in the United States, Biden had to impose a contract on 130,000 rail freight workers to prevent them from obtaining their rights. In France, a general strike is planned for 19 January 2023 while railway workers organized a national strike against an offer from the SNCF below inflation. In Spain, doctors and pediatricians have been on indefinite strike since November 2021. In Italy, a transport strike is underway. In Germany, IG Metal is involved in strikes in the automotive industry in Leipzig and Stuttgart. Major strikes are taking place in Eastern Europe such as in Poland (Solaris) and Hungary (students and teachers).

There is an opportunity to unite the UK trade unions in struggle as suggested above, while seeking at the same time wider international unity with the trade unions of other countries, in the USA and Europe, for example.

The working class of the United Kingdom and of all the capitalist countries rises against the attempt by capitalism to make it pay for capitalist bankruptcy, and the costs of the war that world capitalism wages, at enormous costs, against Russia in Ukraine. The war of Nato against Russia in Ukraine aims at all the countries of the world – generally the former colonies – that no longer submit to it.

Labour’s socialist transformation requires a greater fusion of the strikes with the wider movements opposed to the wars that world capitalism and Nato prepare in an attempt at saving their systems.

Posadists Today – 12.1.2023 – revised 16.1.2023


[1] The Push Back Policy is repudiated by the PCS Union which is taking the government to court (alongside the charity Care4Calais) on ground that this is unlawful, unworkable and morally reprehensible. They add that this “cruel and inhumane” project runs counter to the Rights and Maritime Laws. PCS is not on strike just for money. It is on strike to protect its members from having to carry out this abominable plan. Guardian 27.11.2021 reported that Home Office teams have been training for months for Push Back – and that volunteers from the charity Channel Rescue witnessed Border Force officials on jet skis practising turning around dinghies off the cost of Kingsdown in Kent. 

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