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The strike wave in Britain

An opportunity for workers self-organisation.

10 January 2022


Health service workers on a picket line.

The new wave of strikes in Britain and the support for union leaders such as the RMT's Mick Lynch answering back to sneering and well-heeled reporters has led to wild enthusiasm amongst socialists. They resemble someone finding water after years in the desert. Increasing class consciousness and increasing class combativity have changed the face of politics quite dramatically.

But socialists have a duty to provide a class analysis that will aid the working class in this struggle and in coming struggles. Polite clapping isn't enough.

One problem is the socialist strike illusion. That is the belief, commonly held, of equality of opponents in the strike. For workers, a strike is a massive investment involving loss of income, with the capitalists and the state having massive resources. So far, we have seen strikes limited in time and in separate sectors with a battle for public sympathy. This sympathy is strong as all workers suffer austerity and the collapse of public services, but in the long run more is needed.

For its part the Tory government are very aware that further strike action is building up. The overall strategy is to finally move towards implementing Brexit - realising a low wage economy dominated by the private sector. Their best bet is to break their opponents individually before they unite in a broader general strike wave. Itís in this context that they propose new laws that go even further towards removing the right to strike.

So, there are basic lessons of solidarity and trade union unity that have to be advanced. In defiance of the law, workers must look at ways of continuously expanding the strike wave and mobilising supporters on the streets. They also have to defend themselves against many in the union bureaucracy who are likely to scab and there is a special need to confront the TUC. Baroness O'Grady has just left the leadership to continue the class struggle in the house of lords. The new Secretary, Paul Nowak, offers milk and water coordination of action and says the TUC will take court action against the new anti-strike laws, where the judges will act in the interests of capital.

A more general mobilisation is essential, and that depends on developing a political programme. Top of the list is a repudiation of anti-union laws. The current strikes are taking place against enormous legal restrictions that involve great expense in conducting votes and ensuring a substantial turnout, with the threat of further major restrictions on the way. A TUC court case or a promise that a future Labour government would repeal the act is not enough.

The striking unions should reject the fiction of sectoral employers with whom they should negotiate. In this context the bosses will plead poverty and offer limited payments which the workers must pay for through layoffs and speedups. The union fight is with the government and it's winding down of the public sector and it is this reality that is generating public support for the unions.

We should demand that the postal service, transport and health remain in public ownership and that the subsidising of private capital that occurs in all these areas be reversed. A new programme for public service would tear out the profit motive and respond directly to the needs of workers.

Unions are not effective organisations in formulating policy on their own. The current talks with the government represent a limited victory but allow the government to decide if they can wait to wear down the strikers and calculate the extent of concession they may have to offer. It doesn't help that some unions are focused solely on pay and others on pay and conditions. None have strong proposals for reversing the decay in public services, even though this is the issue that generates so much sympathy.

Workers and their unions need a political party that can represent the whole of the working class. Keir Starmer's vow that Labour won't get out a 'big government cheque book" and the adoption of the Tory slogan of "taking back control" are evidence that Labour will not resolve the public sector crisis, and will never be a party for the working class, a stance underlined by Starmer's fulsome praise for the private sector.

The fact is that some unions are now confronting the surface elements of government policy, but neither they, Labour nor many of the socialists are confronting the mass wave of privatisation and the resulting decay in services. The current crisis is the reality of Brexit. "Take back control" and calls for deregulation are calls for the abolition of trade union and human rights, the destruction of public services and the creation of a low wage Singapore on Thames.

The alternative is working class action with mass expropriation of capital and re-establishing links with the European working class to build our power internationally.

In discussing the way forward, we must not forget the dark path taken by the Irish trade unions. There are few strikes, there are few protests. A policy of partnership with the government has seen low level pay increases, with the cover that the unions won cost of living payments for the poor. Major crises in housing and health roll on with serious comment, and as a result the right is growing.

Our joy at the new strike wave is justified. Class struggle brings class combativity and class consciousness and the opportunity to progress. However, that's what they are - opportunities.  Socialists must bring forward proposals for unity of the class if this rise in struggle is not to fade away.


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