Workplace, Trade Unions, Strikes

How can the strikes win – and what would victory look like?

12 September 2022
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By Jeremy Dewar

It has been a hot summer, two heat waves, the driest since 1976 and it looks like it’ll stretch well into the autumn.

I’m not just talking about the weather here—this is the class struggle. As Bernie Sanders said at an RMT rally in London, we’re the talk of the town not just here, but in the States and across Europe. The British working class is back.

Indeed, the strikes have all been rock solid—barely anyone has been crossing picket lines to scab on their workmates. Instead of a few branch officials, the pickets have been large and vocal, invoking a carnival atmosphere.

Solidarity groups have sprung up across quite a few London boroughs and beyond. Their support on the picket lines have been warmly welcomed. There is a great feeling that important traditions of old are being reborn.

Problems

Will this strike wave, the biggest for 30 years, end in victory? What sort of action could see us over the finishing line? These are the key questions being asked by militants on the picket lines.

The RMT kicked off this round of action with a three-day National Rail strike. Since then, there have been a series of one or two-day strikes, with the CWU, Aslef and TSSA following the same pattern.

Most of the strikes have not been coordinated – instead, they have been stand-alone strikes—although recently the rail unions have come out together, as have the different CWU sectors, Royal Mail, BT and Post Office. But we have not yet seen a national day of action bringing all striking unions out at once.

Both Mick Lynch of the RMT and Dave Ward, CWU, have talked about taking action ‘for as long as it takes’. On one level this is admirable leadership, standing firm against the enemy.

But on another level, it is worrying. Many unions, most recently the UCU and in the financial crisis of 2008-11 the PCS, have tried this tactic, the monthly or fortnightly day(s) of action, followed by negotiations.

Sometimes they have resulted in minor shifts by the employers; more usually they have led to exhaustion, followed by demoralisation. Never have they led to outright victory.

Sharon Graham’s Unite has adopted a different strategy, but one with no fewer problems. Starting earlier with the HGV drivers’ strikes of last autumn, Unite has succeeded in winning some extraordinary deals by bringing out small groups of workers for longer periods, sometimes indefinitely, who could be supported by the union with strike pay.

However, when given the opportunity to link up the strikes across one company, like Stagecoach, or one industry, like the docks, or against a common enemy, for example bringing out the London bus drivers alongside the tube strikers against TfL, Graham has consistently refused.

Frankly, this is sniper fire, important and necessary, but not an offensive strategy, which is what we need. This chimes with Mick Lynch’s refrain that the RMT’s disputes are ‘defensive’ struggles. On its own, this is not sufficient; we need to go on the offensive if we are to reach a political settlement—one that secures the victories and extends them to cover the whole working class.

Answers

Pickets generally know the answers to these problems. They want unity, coordinated strikes that can amplify their voices and demonstrate that they are all key workers.

There is a tremendous will to make bigger sacrifices too, escalating the strikes, seeing that it brings results, like in Coventry with the bins, quicker than taking the ‘long haul’. All-out strikes can be daunting, especially with the rising cost of living, but the work of solidarity groups can ameliorate these fears.

Workers Power proposes for discussion and action the following:

First, we need to press for longer and more coordinated strikes. An escalating and united programme of action would politicise the strike wave and put pressure on the government to resolve the crisis. The mass support this would generate could also provide the basis for sustaining the dispute, as it did in the great miners’ strike of 1984–85.

Second, we need to coordinate the claims, something Dave Ward toyed with but has recently fallen silent about. To demand RPI inflation rate plus 5% should be the minimum, considering the erosion of wages we have already suffered. Unions must also insist on an escalator clause, so that as prices rise each month, so do our wages, 1% for 1%.

Third, we must raise political demands as strike aims. We know that privatisation is at the root of many of our grievances over pay, job cuts, pensions and conditions. ‘Renationalise mail, rail and the utilities’ should be inscribed on our banners just like ‘Cut the profits not the pay’ is now. And if the government can cap public sector wages, as they have for 12 years, they can cap the energy prices —back to where they were last summer.

Last but not least, we need rank and file organisation and leadership. Many militants, certainly in the fighting unions, trust their leaders. Indeed, the left general secretaries have roused great loyalty with their fighting talk and increased use of strike action.

Unfortunately, the union bureaucrats see their job as ‘cutting a deal’ with the capitalists. Sooner or later they will recommend an end to the strikes. None of them have declared that they would defy the anti-union laws when they are used, as they will be. All of them have hinted that they will sacrifice pay for working conditions, or some job cuts for job security for the rest.

Regular mass meetings; elected and recallable strike committees; membership control over when we strike; how long for and who with; and what our negotiating position should be, will become increasingly necessary to keep the pressure on our leaders not to waver.

More than that, rank and file leaders need to be prepared to take control of the strikes, should any union leader attempt to sell them short or limit the action. This has been proved negatively in recent years, in the RCN and UCU for example. It would be naïve to believe it couldn’t happen again today, even with a Mick Lynch or Sharon Graham involved—remember the P&O seafarers?

In conclusion, re-establishing the forgotten traditions of striking and picketing is a great start. However, on its own, it is not enough. We need to transform the unions into fighting democratic organisations, which will grow their numbers by millions. Once again, proletarian militancy will strike fear into the bosses who have driven down our pay and conditions for decades.

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