This summer, many workers in Britain will be going on strike for the first time in their lives.
On 21, 23 and 25 June, 40,000 rail workers, members of RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) took part in the largest railway strike for thirty years. 80 percent of train services on the three strike days were cancelled.
Over twenty marches and rallies were held on Saturday 25 June, the largest in Glasgow and Liverpool, supported by workers from many different unions and types of work. In Edinburgh, members of Pride parade broke from the official Pride march to join the RMT strike, in a show of solidarity reminiscent of the support shown by LGBT groups to the miners during the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, and in contradiction to the position of the Pride establishment. This was reciprocated across the country by RMT support for and participation at Pride.
Other groups planning to strike include criminal-law defence barristers, teachers, NHS (National Health Service) workers, junior hospital doctors, airport staff and postal workers.
The spur for all these strikes is the rapidly rising cost of living, especially food and fuel prices, global economic effects of the war in Ukraine.
In origin, these are defensive, economic strikes – unions taking action to maintain (or just slow the fall of) real wages in a period of inflation.
They are rapidly taking on a political aspect, due to the confrontational attitude of Boris Johnson’s government.
Inflation is currently running at 9.1 percent, and expected to go higher. This comes after years of gradual decline in real earnings, with wages and salaries not keeping up with prices and rents. Real earnings have already dropped by seven to eight percent over a decade.
Most of the strikes are in the public sector (or, as in the case of the railways, private companies working on contract for the government).
In the private sector, where employers want to recruit and retain staff, average pay settlements are currently around 8 percent. Public sector workers are being offered only 2 or 3 percent, meaning a sudden drop in real wages following a long slow decline.
Boris Johnson’s government has declared its intention to change the law to allow employers to bring in agency workers as strike-breakers (illegal since 1973).
This provocative move may be a political gamble by Johnson, aimed at reviving support among Tory members of parliament (MPs) and core voters, offering them some old-fashioned union-bashing in addition to “war on woke”. Last week, the Tories suffered stinging defeats in two by-elections, losing one seat in southwest England to the Liberal Democrats, and one in the north to Labour.
The rail strike has also opened up the political divide, which is essentially a class divide, within the Labour Party. Labour leader Kier Starmer instructed Labour MPs not to join RMT picket lines. David Lammy, speaking for the leadership, said: “A serious party of government does not join picket lines”. About 50 Labour MPs put solidarity before party discipline by joining railway workers on their picket lines.
Back to reality, after the pantomime of the Platinum Jubilee.