As Britain faces economic crisis at the hands of a right-wing Conservative government, it continues to be hard hit by Brexit, and is still reeling from the impact of the pandemic. With the Labour Party failing to mount any serious opposition to neo-liberalism, we are at last seeing the re-emergence of significant trade union-led strikes.
There is a rising confidence amongst working people to confront the attacks they are facing from the government and the employers. We have not seen this determination to fight back for a long time.
For more than 40 years, since the emergence of neo-liberalism under Margaret Thatcher, the British trade union movement was on the defensive, suffering a series of significant defeats. The most devastating was the Great Miners’ strike of 1984/85 which ended with the miners being forced back to work and the subsequent closure of the mines. Thatcher introduced a series of anti-trade union laws which curtailed industrial action and banned effective picketing and solidarity action by unions. Trade union membership has been halved from 12.6 million in 1979 when Thatcher came to power to just over 6 million today. Only a small percentage of workers in private companies are unionised.
Now, in the midst of the dreadful cost of living crisis fuelled by inflation which is pushing millions of people into poverty and making them dependent on food banks, the trade unions are fighting back and demanding both that wage rises keep pace with inflation, and that rights and conditions of work are protected.
There are now ongoing disputes on the railways, in the post, on the docks, and other groups of workers - including hundreds of thousands of health and education workers - are now preparing to take action. Workers are determined to defend their pay and conditions through strike action and that determination has found its reflection in a number of trade union leaders: Sharon Graham, the general secretary of Unite; Mick Lynch of the RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers), and Dave Ward from the postal workers, have been giving voice to these struggles.
What is also new is the widespread support that these strikes have generated among the general public. Despite repeated attempts by the media and the establishment to demonise these struggles, polls show majority support among the population for the industrial action. At this moment, despite the threats from the government to outlaw the strikes and the refusal of the Labour Party to support the strikes, the mood is increasingly militant and the demand for action is spreading to other groups of workers.
Moreover, there is a recognition from those on strike that the actions must be linked together in order to be really effective. Some unions are now bringing together and co-ordinating strike action. We saw the first fruits of this on the day of action on October 1st. This cross-union solidarity has not been seen since the 1970s.
Alongside the action from the organised trade unions, we are seeing a series of wildcat/unofficial strikes taking place throughout the country. These are non-unionised workers in private industry beginning to flex their muscles: Mitsubishi in Teesside; Ineos’s Grangemouth oil refinery; Lynemouth power station, and at dozens of other workplaces including many Amazon depots.
The October 1st day of action saw nearly 200,000 workers from the post and the railways on strike together. At the same time, the environmental movement mobilised – initiated by Just Stop Oil, demonstrating solidarity with the trade unions as well as taking action to oppose the worsening climate catastrophe. Thus for the first time for many years, and despite the draconian trade union laws which continue to shackle all industrial action, there is now serious discussion about generalised industrial action and a programme for political change.
Alongside the strikes several of the unions have expressed their determination to defend the class as a whole. A number of campaigns have been launched to oppose the cost-of-living crisis; the most effective has been the ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign. It aims to bring together all those wishing to fight on a programme of social and political advance. Its five demands are: A real pay rise; Slash energy bills; End food poverty; Decent homes for all; Tax the rich. These demands have struck a chord. It is only a few weeks old but already more than 800,000 people have signed up to support these aims. The campaign has brought together the militant unions, community groups, housing action activists and two of the best left Labour MPs, Zarah Sultana and Ian Byrne. It also has the support of Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the Labour Party, who has now been removed as a Labour MP by the current leadership of the party. However, Corbyn remains hugely popular on the left and particularly among young people. Nearly 200,000 people have left the Labour Party since Corbyn lost the leadership. Many of them are part of the mass base of support for the ‘Enough is Enough’ movement.
The new campaign has mobilised tens of thousands in rallies up and down the country and on the day of the mass strike action it organised demonstrations and pickets in more than 50 towns and cities. This is a new situation in British political life.
The current Tory government now under its new leader Rishi Sunak is economically the most right-wing in Europe. It is a government determined to represent the oligarchs and finance capital. Its programme is for the liberalisation of the economy, the destruction of existing workers’ rights, ripping up environmental protections, attacks on refugees and the privatisation of the health service.
It is trying to introduce policies that would make Meloni and Le Pen blush. However, this is a government in desperate crisis and deeply divided. It has been in office for only a matter of weeks and already its budget which sought to reduce taxes for the rich ended up nearly crashing the pensions market. In itself, this debacle suggests the fragility of the system as a whole, the crisis facing British capitalism is not unique to this country.
Sunak's predecessor, Liz Truss, lasted only a few weeks in office and her budget almost led to the collapse of the pensions system. As a result, Truss was forced to resign on 20 October. The Labour Party has moved sharply to the right and ditched most of the Corbyn 2019 manifesto for a pro-business, one nation, programme. Those on the left who have not left the party in disgust have been silenced and those who continue to speak out on issues, such as Labour’s unconditional support for NATO, are being expelled. There is no possibility for the left to regain the leadership of the party within any foreseeable timescale.
The Labour Party will very quickly face a serious challenge from the trade unions in struggle and the wider social movement they are helping to build. This new alliance, which also includes the campaigns against climate change and environmental destruction, is the new force which is growing in strength and confidence as the crisis deepens. It has the potential to play a transformative role as the crisis intensifies.