The UK strike wave is building. New groups of workers are moving into struggle and workers who have never struck before are now winning strike ballots. These victories are overcoming the draconian anti-union laws which attempt to prevent strikes taking place. At least 50% of workers involved in any ballot must vote and of those more than 50% must vote for strike action. Many unions are able to smash through these barriers, but not all and because, in the case of the NHS, individual NHS Trusts ballot separately, then some Trusts have voted to strike while others have not been able to reach the government’s threshold. However, even in the Trusts which have not reached the threshold the percentages in favour of strike action have been clear. On a national level there is overwhelming support amongst nurses in favour of strike action.
The rail workers (RMT & ASLEF) and postal workers (CWU) have been striking for some time and other groups of workers have also been striking at the same time: transport workers, refuse workers, barristers etc. The barristers were able to win a 17% pay increase and other groups of workers have also been successful at a local level in winning similar increases – Liverpool dockers for example.
Teachers (NEU & NASUWT) and lecturers (UCU) as well as civil servants (PCS) have also voted for widespread strike action. Unions across the NHS are balloting for strike action with the Royal College of Nurses voting to strike for the first time in its history. Other unions with members who work in the NHS are also winning ballots: UNISON, GMB, UNITE. The BMA (doctor’s union) are balloting for strike action in the New Year. Most of the unions above represent workers in the public sector.
Wage increases in the private sector have been outstripping wage increases in the public sector for years and the gap in earnings between the two sectors is widening. Public sector workers are tired of being exploited by successive governments and even before the current cost of living crisis many were finding it hard to cope. Across this winter the situation of public sector workers living in poverty will become even more commonplace.
Workers need this money. The current chancellor (Jeremy Hunt) has allowed a free-for-all for bankers’ bonuses and has done little to increase taxes on the rich or corporations. The so-called windfall taxes looks to be a pathetic damp squib.
The government is currently refusing to negotiate with the NHS unions, saying that their wage demands are unrealistic. It hopes that public opinion will turn against the workers, but so many workers are struggling that the public does not only understand the struggle, it is living the struggle.
The British public support the strikes. According to a recent YouGov poll, 65% of the British public supports the nurses going on strike and a clear majority 53%, according to a Survation poll, support the CWU, with 32% against. Support for the strikes is also increasing. Interestingly, the government was able to give pensioners an inflation matching pension increase. Support for the Conservative Party is most strongly represented in the over 60s, so this was done out of electoral necessity. Unfortunately, the shadow secretary for health and social care (Wes Streeting) was not able to come to the defence of public sector workers. On the Today Programme (BBC) on Friday of this week, he offered very little to the workers, except to say that he would enter into negotiations with the unions and that he understood why they were striking but offered no way forward out of the current situation beyond making the NHS more efficient. He also clearly stated that a Labour government would not give the nurses the 17% they are asking for because it’s unaffordable. Where have we heard that before? There was no mention of kicking out the private sector, of re-negotiating PFI contracts or giving workers more say in the running of the NHS. Keir Starmers’ position on the NHS is that we can’t get rid of the private sector for the foreseeable future. In other words, it’s here to stay.
Workers in struggle are gaining in confidence as more unions strike. This is a view clearly expressed on the picket lines. There appears to be a more determined mood among workers and unions and activist groups such as Enough is Enough are starting to coordinate united action, beyond visiting picket lines. There looks as though there could be concerted action around the first days of the nurses strike on 15th and 20th December; with unions coming together in town centres and elsewhere to show the people of those towns the level of their determination and to put forward their reasons for striking against the diatribe of a hostile right-wing press and government. The strike event calendar indicates a level of action not seen in the UK this century. Workers are beginning to use the term general strike. They also know that if they lose this fight, then this winter and winters to come will be bleak indeed.
The British people are yet to move into mass action in support of those in struggle, unlike the people of Madrid for example, where tens of thousands have taken to the streets in defence of public health services. However, local groups and NHS groups, such as SOS NHS, are starting to work together and coordinate events. SOS NHS represents over 50 organisations, including 16 trades unions. Enough is Enough and Peoples’ assembly are also mobilising along-side unions.
This is a key moment for the strikers and indeed the trades union movement as a whole. It is concerning that, although the unions meet together with the TUC, there is not obvious call from the TUC itself for united action. The law is designed to place issues of legality in the way of coordinated action, but ways must be found to overcome the law or ultimately break it. The winter of discontent we are entering into must be won by workers. Failure to win significant concessions from this government will be a significant set-back for trades unions and the working class. It is now time to unify in struggle and build a unity that can challenge the rhetoric that the government and the right-wing media promotes. This government remains divided and weak, in unity the working class can prove its strength and win.