2022 saw more strikes in Britain than any year since 2011 as workers continued to fight back against an on-going cost of living crisis that will see poverty, foodbank use, and homelessness hit even wider sections of the working class. The strike wave, which began last summer led by rail and postal workers, has not come to an end.
2022 saw more strikes in Britain than any year since 2011 as workers continued to fight back against an on-going cost of living crisis that will see poverty, foodbank use, and homelessness hit even wider sections of the working class. The strike wave, which began last summer led by rail and postal workers, has continued into the new year.
Over half a million workers took strike action together on February 1st. In a clear indication of rising militancy and confidence, teachers, civil servants, train drivers and university lecturers co-ordinated their strikes across the country. On March 15th, 700,000 workers again took co-ordinated action. Striking unions were joined by London Underground workers and, for the first time in their history, junior doctors in England and Wales who walked out on a 72 hour strike. Workers from different unions visited each other’s pickets, and rallies were held in cities across the country, many co-ordinated locally through trades councils and local solidarity networks. These became focal points for militant protests, with high levels of public support, and involvement of community campaigns, students, and social movements.
The mood of militancy and resistance has spread beyond the public sector. Dockers, bus workers, bin workers, and cleaning staff have all taken action in different parts of the country and some have made substantial gains. A clear “demonstration effect” has emerged as workers re-learn from each other the power of collective action. Recently 1,400 members of the Unite general union voted to strike in the UK’s massively profitable offshore oil and gas sector. Even non-unionised workers, notably hospitality staff and Amazon workers have been on strike, demanding both improved pay and union recognition. These strikes have often involved “new unions” organised around precarious groups and migrant workers.
A New Phase in Britain’s Strike Wave?
After 4 decades of union decline, the militancy of worker resistance has shaken employers and government alike. The Tories and their media friends tried initially to demonise strikers, hoping it would divide “militant unions” from “the general public”. But the cost of living crisis is so widespread that public sympathy remains with the strikers and Sunak has been forced to change tack. Government ministers have now offered talks on improved public sector pay if unions first call off further action. Unfortunately, some union leaders have accepted this and cancelled planned strikes in recent weeks. Health workers unions have even recommended that members call end their dispute altogether and accept new offers. This is a mistake. Most “improved proposals” emerging from these talks come nowhere near workers’ original demands. They are all below inflation, often staggered over a number of years and involve “one-off” payments not permanent pay rises. Some, like those offered to rail and postal workers would mean increased workloads and job losses. If more union leaders call off action a new phase in the strike wave could open up. One that sees the unprecedented solidarity built since last summer start to fragment. Unions still taking action would then come under increased pressure to settle for far less than they could achieve by striking.
This does not need to happen. Not all union leaders are rushing to grab inadequate compromises. Civil servants plan a national strike on 28 April and longer strikes during early summer. Teachers’ leaders have walked out of talks and urged members to reject an “insulting offer”. Postal workers have rejected an employer offer that would have threatened jobs and workloads. It is clear that members’ support is solid, and polls show that strikers retain public sympathy. Significantly, workers are becoming increasingly conscious that the crisis requires a wider class response and cannot simply be confined to winning improved pay. Health workers, teachers, rail workers and university lecturers have all linked their strikes to defence of public services decimated by underfunding, privatisation, and austerity. Street demonstrations and solidarity rallies have seen strikers protesting side by side with social movements and community groups campaigning around energy prices, fair rents, food poverty, precarious work, and other aspects of the cost of living crisis.
The Radical Left and Rank and File Trade Unionism
To maintain momentum, union activists must call on their leaders to organise more co-ordinated strikes like those in February and March. These have been vital in maintaining solidarity between workers in different unions. Strikes must be escalated too. So far the majority have been time limited “demonstration strikes”. These have certainly boosted workers’ confidence in collective action. But they have not been sufficient to force employers to concede real pay increases. What is needed now is more extended action like the 3 and 4 day strikes taken recently by college lecturers and junior doctors. Escalation up to and including all out strikes and a general strike become possible if the mood of militancy can be maintained. For this to happen means first addressing the low level of rank and file union organisation that has resulted from long-term union decline and passivity dating back to Thatcher.
A new generation of more militant union leaders such as Mick Lynch of the rail workers and Sharon Graham of the Unite union, has been instrumental in reviving militancy and inspiring rank and file workers to regain a sense of their collective power. But even militant union leaders have historically been reluctant to allow trade union struggles to develop into a political challenge to the power of capital. Several factors have contributed to this, which cannot all be examined here. Nevertheless, rank and file networks have always been crucial in politicising industrial struggles in Britain. Such organisations enable direct worker control over disputes ensuring members’ interests are prioritised not those of officials. They overcome “sectionalism”, promote grassroots solidarity, and build workers’ confidence to act independently of their officials if necessary. Recently there have been glimpses of rank and file organisation re-emerging. Activists in the lecturers’ union have organised successful opposition to their General Secretary’s attempt to call off strikes. Health union members have formed an inter-union rank and file organisation (NHS Workers Say No), which uses social media effectively to campaign against a sub-inflation pay deal negotiated by their officials.
Rebuilding confident and combative rank and file networks within and across the trade unions is now a matter of urgency. It is unlikely to happen without the active involvement of the radical left. This will mean overcoming fragmentation and differences on the British left concerning strategy and tactics towards trade union struggle. In particular it means going beyond abstract propagandism and finding ways to support and encourage rank and file trade unionists to develop their own forms of grass roots organisation out of the intense struggles in which they are now engaged.
Britain’s strike wave may recede over the coming months. But workers still face inflation above 10% and the UK government predicts the biggest fall in living standards since records began over the next two years. Beyond the cost of living crisis, we face much wider challenges to trade union and democratic rights. An increasingly authoritarian government has already imposed new restrictions on the right to strike and protest. Its horrific scapegoating of asylum seekers and refugees divides workers and legitimises the vile ideology of fascist groups like the Patriotic Alternative now organising in our communities. The Labour party is no solution. Since the Corbyn period it has shifted sharply to the right. Starmer has consistently refused to support the strikers, to challenge mainstream neoliberalism or to confront hostile refugee and asylum policies. The pressing question now is whether Britain’s revived union militancy can continue to combine with social movements and community campaigns to develop into the nucleus of a genuinely transformative political alternative. Radical socialists have much to do to help make this happen.