Why UK workers go on strike?

Author: Daniel Randall; a London Underground worker and a rep and branch official in the RMT union.

What we’re now experiencing – and hopefully not only “experiencing”, but actively participating in and attempting to shape – is the most significant upsurge in workers’ struggle for a generation. You can tell that in part by the number of “firsts” we’ve seen recently: the first strike at BT since 1987; the first national rail strike since 1994; the first time rail and Tube workers have struck together since 1989; the first time Tube and bus workers have struck together since the 1990s; the first national postal strike since 2009; the first strike at Felixstowe, Britain’s busiest container port, since 1989. This year is set to see the highest levels of strikes in Britain since 1989; that’s particularly significant because some recent years – 2017, 2018 – recorded some of the lowest levels since records began, so we’re seeing a very, very sharp increase after a period of decline and stagnation. Another marker of the significance is the mini-flurry of wildcat strikes – unofficial strikes where workers simply walk off the job – at Amazon and elsewhere.

I’ve worked on London Underground for eight-and-a-half years. I’ve been on strike as frequently this year alone as I have in the previous seven years combined. Our dispute, unlike many others in the current wave, isn’t about pay – it’s about job cuts and attacks on our terms and conditions, including pensions. But what our dispute has in common with many others is the fact that it’s essentially impelled by an attempt by our employer to use the economic crisis precipitated by the pandemic as a pretext for making cuts, essentially forcing workers to pay, via cuts to our jobs, terms, and conditions, for a crisis that we not only didn’t cause, but in fact worked through, at significant danger to ourselves, to keep essential services running.

There is definitely an atmosphere in the workplace I haven’t felt before. Even in a relatively well-organised industry such as mine, many people’s relationship to the union can still be quite transactional. It’s seen as “insurance for your job”, an external body to which you pay a fee in exchange for the service of individual representation. But against the backdrop of this strike wave, I can see the arguments I often make – about the union being a weapon in our hands rather than a service or product we’re purchasing… I can see those arguments start to click.

With other groups of workers now balloting – civil servants, teachers, and others… with health workers and firefighters planning ballots later this year – the strike wave will hopefully continue to spread.

Although we are still at an early stage, I think there is significant potential for a series of individual, discrete industrial disputes to be coordinated and knitted together into a class-wide fightback against inequality, against the policies of our Tory government, whose leaders a very explicitly committed to making the rich richer at the expense of workers and the poor.

The Tories know the threat that strikes pose, which is why they are planning to implement new legal restrictions on our already heavily restricted rights to strike. The Tories are not the CCP. Nevertheless, they are committed to using state powers to constrain and restrict democratic and civil liberties, including the right to protest and the right to strike. I’ll put a link in the chat to a briefing produced by the Free Our Unions campaign, which is a grassroots campaign against anti-union legislation, which sets out some of the new laws the Truss government is planning to introduce.

The legislative regime that confronts workers’ action in this country, the aggregated product of generations of defeats for the labour movement, is explicitly designed to frustruate and slow down workers’ action, and workers’ action to narrow economic channels. Legal prohibitions on strikes over political issues, prohibitions on strikes in solidarity with other workers… these constraints aim to prevent industrial action “bursting its banks” and flooding over into the political sphere.

Often, union officials – and not only officials – internalise those constraints. You can see that in comments like those Mick Lynch, the general secretary of my union, RMT, made recently, where he bemoaned the “politicisation” of the our dispute on the national rail, saying, “this is really an industrial relations matter between us and the employers”, playing down the wider political context.

But Mick Lynch has also, entirely correctly, “politicised” our disputes himself, by continually emphasising social inequality – not just the immediate trade dispute between the RMT and train companies – as the context for our strikes. He’s said, in effect: RMT is fighting for all workers to have a pay rise. That’s a political question. A society-wide increase in wages and benefits, based on a substantial increase in the minimum wage and inflation-proofed rises for all, requires government action. The more striking unions raise this, the more the current strikes will test the limits of the legal prohibition on unions striking for political demands, especially if there is substantial cross-union coordination.

As these strikes continue, I think political questions will be posed increasingly clearly. It’s very important that those us active in the strike wave fight for our unions not to shy away from those questions – and rather to take them up explicitly and enthusiastically.

The Labour Party itself is, like the unions, an unavoidable terrain of struggle. That party has a historic and structural link to the labour movement, it was founded to articulate the political interests of organised labour. It’s moved a long way from that foundational purpose, and is led by people whose loyalties lie more with capital than with labour. Nevertheless, the immediate alternative to Tory government is Labour government, so the trade union movement must actively contest, including within the structures of the Labour Party, what the programme and policy of that government will be. Immediately, that means organising to win the Labour Party to a position of supporting strikes, rather than its current neutrality or even implied opposition.

Just to conclude, then, I want to say particularly to anyone living in the UK, it’s the best moment for 40-odd years to get involved in trade unions and the labour movement. It’s a time of ferment and febrility, and we need to use it to reach out to new groups of workers, including in diaspora and migrant communities, and bring them into unions. Hopefully that’s something we can talk about in the discussion, and of course I’m happy to answer any questions anyone has.