Coordinate the strikes to defeat the Tories
Normally a quiet month for the trade union movement, August has seen a whole number of industrial disputes raging on – and two prominent ones have registered wins.
The Birmingham bin workers have forced management to retreat after seven weeks of action while janitors in Glasgow, in a branch of public service union Unison led by Socialist Party members, have won after almost two years of fighting.
Scandalously, in both cases the employers have been Labour councils, although perhaps unsurprisingly in Glasgow they lost control in the May elections. This is a warning to the Blairite Labour councillors in the West Midlands and elsewhere when they continue to push through Tory cuts. 20 lost their seats in Durham this year after a long struggle by teaching assistants over proposed pay cuts of 23%. Jeremy Corbyn must call on Labour councils to stop passing on the cuts.
These victories will give a big boost of encouragement to the many other current struggles. On 3 August, hundreds of striking members of general union Unite in three separate London-based disputes – at Barts NHS Trust, the Bank of England and British Airways mixed fleet – demonstrated together in a succession of protests.
The Birmingham bin workers have made contact with their counterparts in Doncaster who have won a £1 an hour pay rise through the threat of strike action. Other Unite members are also taking three weeks of strikes at Argos warehouses, while Manchester Mears housing workers are reballoting after an indefinite strike.
There has been a definite pattern in many of the disputes. In Glasgow and Birmingham, workers who are directly employed by the councils were targeted for pay cuts as a direct result of the cuts. In Barts, Doncaster and Mears, it is outsourced workers in the NHS and the local authorities respectively who are fighting back against poverty pay.
Also, the mixed-fleet and Mears workers share the experience of those on new, inferior contracts being prepared to take action, and in the case of Mears, with the support of their colleagues on the original, better-paid terms. This shows that, even if after a few years, these newer, often younger workers realise that it’s not enough to be ‘grateful’ for a job at any cost and, given a lead, will fight back.
The biggest connection of all is the fight against the squeeze in workers’ living standards, in whatever form. This week, the gap between workers’ pay and inflation widened even further.
The CPI inflation rate of 2.6% is 0.5% higher than wage growth although the original, higher and more accurate RPI rate is 3.6% – a massive 1.5% higher. And it is this rate, for example, that the rise in train fares that will come into force in January will be based on.
Of course, 5.4 million public sector workers have seen their pay rises capped at 1% for the seven years of Tory-led governments. No wonder that it has been estimated that if such wage restraint continues until the end of this decade, the average worker’s real income will be at 2005 levels!
The anger against the pay freeze has now even spread to the Royal College of Nursing, historically opposed to strike action but under pressure from its membership to act. Infamously, in the general election, Theresa May was grilled about nurses having to go to foodbanks.
This is a weak and divided Tory government, propped up by the DUP. The summer wave of strikes shows that there is a mood to fight, on condition that the unions give a lead. And workers can have their confidence raised by the Tories’ weakness.
We are now in the pre-TUC congress period. The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) is again organising a rally before the start of conference to put pressure on the union leaders to act to smash the wage freeze. The NSSN is calling for the public sector unions to coordinate strike ballots on pay to mount a mass offensive against the Tories, who are revealing divisions on the pay cap.
Some union leaders will point to the new Tory Trade Union Act as an insurmountable barrier to national strike action. There is no doubt that it does represent a barrier, with undemocratic voting thresholds, from a government who couldn’t win enough votes to get a simple majority!
But that means that there must be a dynamic campaign to win the ballots, not to retreat from the prospect of action. If this campaign is rooted in the possibility of mass joint action across the public sector, it can really raise the sights of public sector workers.
It could also reach out beyond them. Other disputes this summer range from civil service union PCS fighting Department for Work and Pensions office closures, to transport union RMT resisting driver-only trains, and now bakers’ union BFAWU McDonald’s workers planning strike action, on top of entertainment union Bectu cinema workers fighting for the London Living Wage. Any big action in the public sector would attract their support.
The massive N30 public sector pensions strike of two million workers in 2011 shook the Tories. It was halted by the right-wing union leaders and the TUC.
Similarly, the developing pay battle in 2014 was allowed to peter out. These retreats emboldened Cameron and Osborne to roll out their vicious austerity offensive – the worst for 90 years. But that has created a feeling of outrage among workers.
Many of the union leaders are either unable or unwilling to see the real, potentially explosive mood that exists below the surface. But we are seeing on a daily basis, in a whole rash of disputes, that mood breaking out – and it was reflected in the swing towards Corbyn’s anti-austerity message in the general election.
Even some of the more far-sighted Tories and bosses are wary that this mood won’t be contained by the anti-union laws. The unions cannot forever allow these laws to prevent action. Instead, they should be building towards a 24-hour general strike against Tory austerity.
Actually, there have been unintended consequences of the Trade Union Act. For example, one of its measures is to time out disputes after six months, forcing unions to reballot. This has added to the trend of workers moving away from one-day strikes to escalating action as they conclude ‘better to go for it from the start!’
The victories in Glasgow and Birmingham show what is possible but must be used as an example to build upon, to smash the Tory pay cap and inflict a decisive defeat on May’s regime.