As a part of our ongoing coverage of the emerging strike movement in Britain, Charlie Kimber, editor of the weekly newspaper Socialist Worker, explores recent developments, asking what changed in 2022 and what has stayed the same. His analysis draws on three extensive comments from workers who took action last year. His account uncovers the tensions between rank and file workers and the union hierarchies, investigates examples of unofficial action, and questions where the dynamics of the movement will lead it next.
The British strikes of 2022 generated such hope partly because they came after a deep lull in workers’ struggle. Year after year for decades, the official statisticians and the media pumped out the usual depressing annual figures about strikes. Those supplied in 2018 were fairly typical:
The number of workers who went on strike in Britain last year fell to the lowest level since the 1890s, when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show 33,000 workers were involved in labour disputes in 2017, down from 154,000 a year earlier. This is the lowest number since records began in 1893. There have only been four other occasions over the past 120 years when fewer than 100,000 employees went on strike.1
Got the message? Not just poor figures, but the worst ones since the British Empire covered a quarter of the world’s landmass. You could almost hear the bosses rejoicing every time the numbers dropped. However, it was not just that too few people struck and the picket went onto the endangered species list. The combination of anti-union laws, the demonisation of strikers and the cultural sneer against class struggle had a bigger purpose. The aim was to make the idea of widespread strikes not just illegal and outdated, but largely unthinkable—off the agenda.
Now, that is gone, and it is wonderful to see new life flood back into the workers’ movement. We do not know how this will play out in full. Nevertheless, a single walkout by the RMT union’s members on the railways in 2022 involved more workers than in every industry in the whole of 2017. Official figures released in November 2022 showed over 700,000 strike days in the four months June to September of the year. The 356,000 in August alone was more than double the total figure for the entirety of 2015.2
The pages of Socialist Worker, and Mark Thomas’s article in the previous issue of this journal, have set out how the strikes have developed and what issues they raise for socialists.3 This article collects the extended thoughts of three participants in recent battles and draws a few basic conclusions.4
One conclusion is that, although the wave of strikes has been triggered by rampant inflation and sharply declining real wages, their roots go much deeper. The factors include how workers were treated during the pandemic as well as the long accumulation of other grievances. Another important point is that workers are regaining confidence in their own actions, but this is fragile and half-formed. It rarely takes on even the most rudimentary organisational expression. Even the strongest example, from the North Sea oil and gas rigs, should not yet be seen as a permanent body of militants with deep roots.
Note the reformist dog that does not bark—none of the workers who speak below spontaneously mentioned the Labour Party as part of the solution to the crisis facing workers. A similar article three years ago would undoubtedly have found some or all the strikers expressing their support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and their hopes for his victory. This shift does not mean that workers will not vote Labour when a general election comes; for most activists, getting the Tories out is crucial. Nor does it mean strikers have all abandoned their hopes of change through parliament. However, it does mean that the debates around strikes now take place in a different setting.
Finally, I argue that the views and actions of the union bureaucracies remain a barrier to the full development of effective action. This is not a signal to despair. Instead, it is to say that, while offering the greatest solidarity with all the strikes that happen, it is also crucial to develop rank and file confidence, push for the fullest participation by strikers in the decision making about their disputes, and to encourage networks that can pressure the trade union officials and organise initiatives independently of the bureaucracy when this is necessary.
We need workers, and strikers in particular, to take back control of their unions. That means mass meetings, strikers’ right to decide on whether offers are accepted and if strikes should be called off or paused, strikers’ control of negotiations, and elected strike committees. Without such organisation the full-time officials will limit the struggle and insist on compromises rather than real confrontation. It is not enough to see the failings of union leaders; there must also be organisational alternatives with a different political base.
Recognising that we still have a long way to go—facing reality—is crucial to ultimate success. In the 1980s, there was much talk of the fatally outdated nature of the old methods of struggle: mass strikes, strong picketing by as many strikers and supporters as possible, confronting anti-union laws, staying out until you win, and so on. The world had changed, we were told; such tactics were “cavalry against tanks”. That was wrong then. We should recognise that, nearly 40 years since the Great Miners’ Strike, it is the methods that came after that are exhausted: partnership with employers, one-day strikes, working inside the law, chasing after media support and rejecting militancy. These tactics came as a result of defeat and despair, and they have led us to a point where the working class has been in retreat for decades. This is why celebrating the strikes of 2022, but not being satisfied with small gains, is so important.
North Sea—fighting a rigged system
One of the most extraordinary fightbacks in 2022 was unofficial strikes on the North Sea rigs in May and September. They show the failures and limitations of the trade union bureaucracy in their sharpest form. The strikes were a revolt over pay cuts that had been rammed through by the oil companies and the contractors, but they were also rebellions against the unions’ lack of action. Disgracefully, union leaders reacted with hostility to these magnificent displays of workers’ militancy.
The strike in May by workers employed by contractor Bilfinger started at the Elgin platform, 150 miles off Aberdeen, and then spread across 16 installations. Workers for subcontractor Wood, among many others, joined the strike for a rise of £7 an hour on their base rate, which would bring wages back to where they were before the pandemic.
Adam Nowell, who had been an offshore worker for 12 years, emerged as one of the voices of the strike. He told STV News, “The action began with a sit-in by fabric maintenance workers on the Total Energies-operated Elgin platform before spreading to several other installations, including BP’s ETAP, the GlenLyon FO, the Clair field and Harbour Energy’s Britannia installation”.5 An offshore worker on the Britannia platform sp0ke to Socialist Worker’s Simon Basketter:
The walkouts spread over the last two days. On the platform I’m on, workers stayed out for the day shift and night shift for two days. Bilfinger has a fair amount of workers here, so that means little work was done, except for the safety-critical stuff. There was some talk of picketing the helicopter deck to stop crew changes, but that wasn’t taken seriously. It’s a pity as that would have stopped management coming out yesterday for talks. It could and should have spread much further.6
Initially, the unions, though not supporting the strikes, described them as the inevitable result of an intolerable situation. A Unite spokesperson said the union had “only recently been made aware” of workers’ grievances, but added, “Unite has been clear that employers who repeatedly refuse to pay wages that reflect the cost of living can only stoke resentment amongst workers.” GMB Scotland regional organiser Dom Pritchard said, “The industrial unrest is not surprising. It’s the response to employers who have been racing to the bottom for years on pay and conditions”.7
However, the unions only took this position because Bilfinger was a “rogue” employer that had failed to signed up to the Energy Services Agreement (ESA). The ESA is a deal that is designed to make things easy for both companies and union officials. It was agreed in 2021, bringing together the RMT, Unite and GMB unions and the big companies. It put the unions “in the room” as the agreed intermediaries with workers. The deal constrained the corporations, but it also offered them a more certain way of maintaining a disciplined workforce—as long as this was agreed through the unions. The ESA has, for example, an automatic way of working out pay, which includes a so-called rate adjustment mechanism (RAM) that calculates changes to salaries using a formula based on average inflation and oil and gas prices. There will be raises in good times for the industry, but only within limits. It effectively acts as a no-strike deal, with a key clause saying, “It is agreed and accepted by all signatories there will be no departure from normal working or stoppage of work or any steps to affect industrial action in support of any dispute relating to the RAM during the respective and agreed calculation and/or review periods.” It also caps any pay increase: “Should the Consumer Price Index increase and the Commodity Price Adjustment result in a total percentage increase above 4 percent, the percentage to be applied to the new paid base rate will be restricted to 4 percent”.8 So, no matter high inflation goes, a 4 percent increase is the limit.
The most recent pay calculation was finalised at the beginning of 2022, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which spurred further inflation of already high commodity prices and showered fabulous wealth on the oil firms. The next formal review of the RAM was scheduled for February 2023, but strikers demanded this be brought forward to reflect both the rising cost of living and soaring oil and gas prices.
The May walkout pushed Bilfinger into joining the ESA scheme, which satisfied the union leaders, even though there had not been the pay rises that workers demanded. As the strike ended, Unite published a weaselly statement: “Bilfinger UK and Unite are now requesting all workers return to normal working practices on the basis both parties will enter into talks through the ESA framework to discuss issues of mutual concern that have led to the current industrial unrest.”
The unions were delighted that Bilfinger had been drawn into the ESA, but many of the workers believed this was merely a move made by the company to avoid altering the pay rates. Angry and militant messages now circulated among workers:
The wage revolution has started. We are not singling out one company but industry worldwide as a whole. The cost of living has gone up dramatically and wages on the other hand have gone down—or stalled—dramatically. The year 2016 was the start of the stalling wages offshore. Oil alone is sitting at $100-plus a barrel at the moment. There is more money being made onshore in most trades at the moment than working offshore.
The bonuses and uplifts are nearly finished at a time when industry profits are at an all-time high. Most in the industry are on zero-hour contracts. They can send you on your way at any moment.9
The “wage revolution” was blocked, but it had not ended, and it came back to the surface again in September. In advance of the action, a group calling itself the Offshore Oil and Gas Workers Strike Committee put out an open letter. It is worth quoting at length:
This is an address to all concerned regarding the offshore unrest and the reasons we have come to the conclusion we have regarding a wildcat strike.
Since 2001 our wages have been hit extremely hard. We are currently around 22-23 percent behind inflation with our wage. The oil companies have ransacked our terms and conditions. They have forced rota changes, cut up to 15 percent out of our take home pay and created an environment where it feels like we are racing to the bottom.
Being forced into longer rotas for less money has had a huge impact on the mental health of all in the North Sea. Even after it was recognised that these rotas were detrimental to our very existence, and they agreed they weren’t good for all concerned, they still have subcontractors on these rotas. The collapse of the Offshore Contractors Association was nothing but a power grab by the oil companies. They decimated our terms and conditions and then dressed up the new terms under the ESA as a game changer. Total and utter rubbish. We have had derisory pay offers which give us nothing but the equivalent of a hard slap in the face.
We then started to talk about striking, since big oil is raking in grotesque profits. They came back, without discussion, and said as a goodwill gesture they will implement a 3 percent pay increase. Again, derisory since the profits are so huge. We are in constant discussions with our employers, unions and ESA signatories, but it is taking far too long. We know they are dragging it out in order to try to defuse the situation. All this is doing is making the situation worse.
Our unions say they haven’t got the numbers currently to ballot for strike. We say that’s rubbish as the whole North Sea are absolutely livid about our treatment.
The wildcat strikes that are being talked about and planned are a result of years of inaction from the unions and our employers. They have made us feel like we can only get things done by taking things into our own hands. We went through the whole due process when it comes to raising our grievance. We used the proper channels but feel we are being led down the garden path.
We constantly watch the men and women at the top take home massive pay rates and bonuses, yet they treat us like scum.
The whole of Britain is up in arms about the cost of living. We are no different. We provide the energy to keep everyone’s lights on yet seem to be the last to have our say.
The time for action is now. So, at 1pm on 8 September 2022, across all assets, all trades and disciplines, and all companies, we will be holding a strike until we are met with some sort of respect. We have stood by the rules now for too long, and now we do it our way.
Our terms have been put forward. You know what we want, and we do not want to wait until next year to get it. Give the oil and gas workers what they deserve!10
The strike began on 8 September, and it was a success. It hit platforms including Buzzard, Beryl Alpha, Armada, Judy, Britannia, Forties Echo, Bravo, Alpha and Delta, Gannet, Pioneer, Jade, Scott, Everest and Brae Alpha. Other assets affected included the ERDA rig and the FPF-1 and BW Catcher floating production facilities. Several hundred workers took part.
The unions, however, reacted with horror, fearing the action might upset the relationships they had so carefully crafted with the employers. In a joint letter from ESA signatories Unite, RMT and GMB, the unions said formal negotiations offered “a real chance to change this industry for the better of every worker” and that any unofficial action “risks everything”:
Some operators on the old infrastructure will use industrial unrest to justify early decommissioning and all we’ll get is more redundancies. Others will see a divided workforce and will exploit that.
The unions continued, “Trying a smash and grab job for short-term gains we fear will only put the whole thing at risk. It’s your call”.11
Buoyed by the unions’ assault, some of the bosses cracked down on the strikers. A message from contractor Stork to those who had taken part said, “I can confirm that we have been made aware of your involvement in ‘unofficial strike action’ on Thursday 8 September and Friday 9 September. I write to convey the company’s disappointment in your actions.” It added that, on top of pay deductions:
You will not be considered for any permanent retained crew contracts or core vacancies that may become available within the next 12 months. Future unofficial strike action involving yourself cannot be tolerated and will be subject to full investigation and disciplinary due to breach of contract under gross misconduct. Any industrial action taken must follow formal process and only be taken with the support of the unions.
Testimony 1: Greg, a North Sea worker
“It’s hard in the North Sea. Do I have to tell you that? The cold, the rough seas, the sense of being a million miles from usual comfort, the 12-hour shifts and often overtime, the danger, the living with the same group of people for day after day, all day. You don’t want to work but, when you don’t work, there’s not much to do. You can’t have a drink. And I bloody hate going on helicopters, which isn’t great for a North Sea worker. But the money can be good, and there is a weird sort of community and purpose in the job. It’s better than being in an office.
“I also like organising to fuck up the oil companies. Partly that’s to make everything better for me and others. But I also like fucking them up in itself. That’s because they are so arrogant, and have so much money. For me, one of the moments that made a difference was in 2018. A group of directly employed workers on the Shell platforms began kicking off about the rotas. In 2016, Shell had moved their own workers to three weeks offshore and then four weeks onshore (3:4). Contractors were pushed to 3:3. They changed it from 2:3 as a way to cut costs because the oil price was down.
“It was such a fucked up thing to do—to make people’s lives that much worse just to protect their profits. Two weeks on is a long time; three weeks is another world. Much, much tougher; you get ill more, you’re more likely to have an accident, and it’s far harder to keep a relationship, see your kids and so on. It was a decision that I know meant people’s relationships came under strain. Perhaps they might have broken up anyway. But it didn’t help.
“People swallowed it because the alternative was no job, and the unions were completely useless. They argued that we should accept it ‘temporarily’ in order to save jobs, saying we would come back to it when there were more union members. Useless. Then, in 2018, some Shell workers saw that the crisis had passed, and asked why we were still on the three-week rota. They pushed the union to act, but they also said they would have a walkout themselves if nothing happened. They didn’t care who knew it either. They let Shell be aware of what they’d do. I can’t prove it, but I think the unions were as scared as Shell about it.
“Then a group of Norwegian workers had a strike on the Total platforms about pensions and so on. It showed you could fight. Unite had a small strike on Total to follow that up. So, why not on Shell? Unite had a consultative ballot for contractors, and it showed support for a strike. People were really up for it.
“Suddenly, Shell announced that it was reverting to 2:3. They knew a revolt was coming. It was great for the directly employed workers, but a lot of contractors were left out of the talks. They were working less offshore, but their pay fell as well. I got the message that workers had to have more control over the talks and the deals.
“My dad was part of the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC), which was a rank and file response to the Piper Alpha killing—my dad always said it was a killing, not a disaster—on 6 July 1988, when a rig blew up because of a lack of safety measures and 168 people were murdered. The OILC was born on the anniversary of Piper Alpha, and it became a really strong movement, but then it became a union like others with officials who didn’t live the life of a North Sea worker. It started having its own problems. I know about that experience, so I keep an eye out whenever someone says they are doing deals for me.
“The strikes of 2022 were organised by a core of people who knew each other, were pissed off with the pay and knew they had power when the oil prices went up. But also lots of newer workers got involved. I think we, the older ones, learned a lot more from them than they did from us. We had a Telegram group with over 1,000 members at one point. I’m sure at least one of those was a scab who was telling it all to the managers, but it didn’t really matter.
“The Offshore Oil and Gas Workers Strike Committee is quite a loose idea. It’s not a body with an office and a social media account. It’s a place to organise.
“The success of the strikes was holding the strikes, rather than any huge wage gains. We have laid a basis for the future and showed everyone that you can’t trust the union. Actually, you can trust them to act badly. The threats of disciplinaries afterwards were almost as much the unions’ responsibility as the companies’. But they haven’t sacked anyone.
“Instead, the unions have held a couple of official strikes. They were quite small, but if you are sitting in a union office you know you have to show you are active. Otherwise, the wild bunch—us—are going to sweep up. That’s also our gain. It’s been a good year. On to the next battle!”
BT Group—disconnecting from cosy relations with the bosses
One of the biggest, and yet least analysed, strikes of 2022 has taken place among 40,000 workers at members of BT Group: BT Plc, Openreach and EE. These are engineers and call centre staff, carrying out key services including repairs, having new phone and internet lines fitted, and dealing with faults.
In many ways, the action in BT is a surprise. There had been no national strike at the company for 35 years, which reflected a culture of close working between management and unions. In 1984, when the Tories privatised the group’s predecessor, British Telecom, it had 240,000 workers. By 1992, this had fallen to 160,000, and today it is about 100,000. Nonetheless, there has never been a major struggle over these cuts, partly because bosses were quite careful not to reduce the facilities and time off for trade union reps at the same rate as the jobs went. BT workers would sometimes joke that the safest job at the company was to be a union full-timer.
There is no great tradition of militancy among BT workers. They are part of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), whose Royal Mail section is famed for its organisation and readiness to take action, which has included unofficial walkouts when workers thought them necessary at various points in recent decades. However, the BT workers never gave off that vibe—until something snapped.
The experience at BT shows how the present strikes are rooted in a long period of management pressure, with rising inflation and the example of other workers striking then triggering an explosive response. This has produced a break from previous attitudes towards the bosses, but it does not overthrow all the hesitations and compromises of the bureaucracy.
In the past two years, BT threatened a raft of attacks. The union had to respond, probably expecting that a bit of sabre-rattling would lever management back into its traditional practice of working with the CWU. In December 2020, workers in BT Group took part in a consultative ballot, voting massively for strikes if bosses failed to cease attacks on their jobs, terms and conditions. Over 74 percent of the 45,000 CWU members took part in the ballot, with almost 98 percent voting yes to action. However, this did not lead immediately to a strike. Instead, talks did indeed begin, aimed at what the union called “a solution to BT’s Transformation Programme”. By July 2021, the CWU accepted in principle a deal to “increase job security and maximise the number of British direct labour jobs by discussing retraining and re-skilling, voluntary redundancies, and foresight of workplace closures to help mitigate compulsory redundancy.”
The deal led to lots of criticism at the next union conference. Socialist Worker’s Nick Clark reported a speech by Chris Power from CWU South East Central branch: “Last year, we got bleeding zero percent. We would have been in quite a position to ballot the members for industrial action then. We as a branch would have loved to have seen a statutory ballot for action last year”.12
Yet, the willingness to make big concessions failed to stop the assaults. BT bosses not only said there would be a below-inflation pay deal for 2022, but that the union would be pushed aside in implementing it. Management imposed a £1,500 pay rise on all workers, claiming it meant an increase between 3.8 percent and 8 percent, depending on pay grades. That was below-inflation for everyone, but the size of the rise for the lowest paid was a fraud. Up to two-thirds of the £1,500 had previously been paid out to address a recruitment and retention crisis in the company’s call centres.
The CWU reacted with disbelief and fury to bosses dropping their previously “constructive” approach: “The annual pay review this year represents a radical departure by management from the time-honoured partnership approach to industrial relations that had previously underpinned 35 years of industrial peace.” Union leaders complained that normally a deal “that is fair and acceptable to both sides is arrived at through discussions, and then recommended by the union to its membership”. Given the antagonistic nature of class relationships under capitalism, deals that are genuinely “fair and acceptable” to bosses and workers are an illusion. In any case, the previous tactics went out the window in 2022. The union protested, “This year, BT abruptly terminated the talks after just six short meetings”.13
Workers responded magnificently when the CWU called for resistance. Around 30,000 Openreach engineers voted 96 percent for strikes on a 75 percent turnout. In BT Plc around 10,000 workers (including some 9,000 call centre workers) voted by 92 percent for strikes on a 58 percent turnout. This opened the way for what the union claimed was “the first—and biggest—national call centre workers’ strike in British history”.14 Dave Ward, the general secretary of the CWU, added:
Call centre workers are some of the most casualised and isolated workforces in this country. They are notoriously difficult to organise, and the unprecedented vote they have taken today demonstrates the anger so many people feel in this country today.15
There has, rightly, been a lot of attention on how newer and smaller unions such as the United Voices of the World and the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain. These unions have been able to make inroads into organising groups that had previously been seen as unorganisable: delivery drivers, cleaners, carers, park workers, and others on low pay. However, the experience of the CWU emphasises that the bigger and older unions can also organise sections of workers that are often seen as hard to bring together, including those employed in call centres.
Testimony 2: Matt, an Openreach worker from Chesterfield, who has been employed within the BT Group for longer than a decade
“It’s true there was a reasonable relationship between the CWU and management for the last 20 years. ‘Reasonable’ in that the company got largely what it wanted and the union could deliver a stable life for those who were on the best set of terms and conditions. This returned to bite us in the bum.
“Each year there would be a 2 or 3 percent pay rise, in line with other companies in the industry. There was a certain respect between the two sides, and there were deals over terms and conditions. Don’t think this was all great! For example, at one point in 2014, BT told the union it was either going to bring in new engineering workers on worse contracts or use agencies. The union accepted the two-tier contracts. That’s really divisive now. You can have people doing the same job whose pay is £8,000 or more different.
“This closeness shifted when BT bosses decided they needed a shake-up to increase profits and compete against other firms. The arrival of Philip Jansen as chief executive officer of BT Group in 2019 is often seen as the moment of a shift but, of course, the issue is not just Jansen. It’s about why he was brought in by the board.
“They knew they were hiring someone who would act as an attack dog. He immediately started asset stripping, selling off parts of the group such as BT Fleet. He was building on cost-cutting under his predecessor, Gavin Patterson. In July 2020, the CWU launched the Count Me In campaign, because it was clear where Jansen was going. The union had let him get away with compulsory redundancies, and he was ripping up long-standing agreements. This was during a pandemic when we were all supposed to keep working on the frontline as a vital service.
“There were almost 5,000 people online for the launch of Count Me In. It was a chance to start the process of building resistance. There was also a link with the attacks in Royal Mail. Adam Crozier, who had been chief executive at Royal Mail but couldn’t break the union, was brought in as BT Group’s chairman in 2021. He replaced Jan du Plessis, who was seen as in favour of working with the CWU.
“But I think the union couldn’t really believe what was happening. It wasn’t ready for an all-out confrontation. There was a really terrible retreat in July 2021. We had been marched up to the top of the hill for a battle, and then the union announced a deal that accepted practically all the attacks coming from BT. The company said it would only ‘consider steps to avoid compulsory redundancy’, while slashing jobs by not replacing any workers who leave.
“It also said it would ‘look at the timing and location’ of some of the office closures, but there would be ‘no changes to locations and sites previously announced’. Plus, there would be no pay deal for 2021. Why did the union grab this deal? As Andy Kerr, CWU deputy general secretary for telecoms, said, it put union officials ‘back in the room’. So, it wasn’t about what happened to the workforce—it was about restoring the chummy relationship and protecting the officials’ role.
“Of course, BT didn’t back off. They’ve kept coming, and that led to the latest ballot. We won it because of good communications from the union’s head office but also because Jansen was such a hate figure. If we accepted pay being imposed then we were going to lose everything else. The CWU got into its members’ minds about the affordability of a pay rise and the implications of imposition.
“BT had made massive financial profits of £1.3 billion, and it gave its shareholders £700 million. So, they can afford to increase pay. The union was laser-focused on Jansen, and the audacity of giving himself a 32 percent pay increase. It was a question of good tactics and timing, turning union members against the hierarchy of BT: ‘Why is it good for them to give themselves decent pay rises but not the workers?’ The timing could not have been better to play on members’ minds and them being unfairly treated by the beast of BT. David versus Goliath!
“Employers sometimes overplay their hand—well, we’ll see whether they have after this dispute. The picket lines have been crucial. We’re building our networks on the picket lines.
“But the union is still hesitant. It was very nervous about calling out the 999 call handlers in case it was seen as ‘bad publicity’. Eventually, the union did ask them to strike, but why not call them out immediately? It’s management’s fault they have been pushed to take action.
“On the picket lines, people are lifted by visits from other unions and by socialists. They’re connecting the BT issues to the way the Tory government acts. People realise that their particular problems are linked to everyone else’s. And some people see they have had blinkers on for a long time, and now they’re lifted.
“The idea of unity is very popular: unity with the postal strikers in our union and wider unity with other strikers. But there is very little effort from the top to make it happen. We’ve had several days of national strikes by BT and Royal Mail on the same day, but by the end of October, there was hardly any cross-over, joint rallies, demos and so on. So, we’ve broken from the closeness to management that we had before, but we’ve only half-changed the way the union needs to operate”.16
Mutiny on the buses
As well as the national strikes taking place in sectors such as telecoms, post and rail, a major series of strikes by bus workers have hit the privatised transport firms. Workers know there is a dire shortage of drivers, and they will not endlessly accept the regime of low pay and harsh conditions. In every case, bus strikes have led to gains, with the biggest increases being made where unions have launched all-out strikes. Yet, it is also true that nearly all the settlements have been lower than the Retail Price Index rate of inflation and are therefore still effectively pay cuts.
One deal that the Unite union trumpeted as an astounding success came at the Arriva garages in North London. The 2,000 workers were poised to launch an all-out and indefinite strike from 4 October 2022, but a settlement was agreed at the last minute. A Unite statement celebrated the result:
The 2,000 drivers, who are members of Unite, will receive an 11 percent pay increase from Saturday 15 October. The workforce will also receive 10 percent in back pay from 2 April. The pay increase represents the best deal across the London bus network, and Unite will be seeking to replicate it with other bus companies operating in the capital.17
Yet, for all the alleged achievements, the deal was accepted only very narrowly: 703 votes to 533. Moreover, two of the eight garages threw out the deal by wide margins: Tottenham by 146 to 85, and Palmers Green by a resounding 174 to 18.
Unite’s “organising model” claims to put workers at the heart of every dispute, but the experience at Arriva underlines that there is still a big gap between the officials and ordinary workers.
Testimony 3: Pat, a driver from one of the Arriva garages that rejected the offer
“We felt like a very strong group going into the pay claim this year, because we know there is a real shortage of drivers and that management are finding it hard to recruit. Also, we have not had a real rise for a very long time. There are some drivers on £12.30 an hour—real dross. You have men and women working 13 days in 14 to keep their home together. That’s no life, and I don’t think it’s safe either.
“We know it’s a very wrong society. I drive across London where you can see the £1 million houses and the £3 million houses for some as well as the big estates where there’s lots of people worried about their fuel bills and the cost of a big shop.
“There was a woman I know who gets on my bus, and I’ve known her for years. We nod and smile at each other, and she thanks me when she gets off. One day she said to me, ‘I might not be coming on the bus anymore.’ So, I asked why, and she quickly said, very quiet, ‘Because I’m not going to Tesco’s any more. I’m walking to a foodbank.’ That was it—a ten second chat—but it summed up a lot for me.
“Then there’s the pandemic. People died in bus garages because we had to work even though lots of us knew it was unsafe. Looking back, we should have just walked out, but management was horrible and strict, and the union was too slow. That sort of thing leaves a scar, a hard memory.
“We started the talks, and Arriva were slow to come up with an offer. We had meetings and told the negotiators that we wanted a 15 percent rise. That’s not over the top. It means a small increase rather than the pay cuts that most people are getting with inflation being so high. At one of the meetings, a driver said, ‘Let’s keep up with the rise in the gas and electricity bills. Let’s double wages!’
“So, we had a ballot and voted in big numbers for a strike. It was bubbling in the garage: a really hectic mood. People thought, ‘Let’s stick it to them!’ Arriva panicked. Management knew they were going to get into a fight they weren’t easily going to win. Even if we didn’t get all we wanted, there might be a large number of drivers who would leave. So, a new offer was put forward. It was said to be a rise of 11.2 percent, but it involved back pay of less than that for the early part of the contract, so overall it was only an increase of 8.25 percent—well below inflation.
“Working this stuff out is complicated, but there are people in the garages who sit down and work it out together, and then they tell others. A network? I’m not sure about that. But there are people who see it as important to be aware of this stuff and communicate and take a real interest in what the union is saying and what’s going on in other unions. And they talk to each other.
“The result was that what the union had called a ‘high value’ deal was rejected by 1,111 votes to 121. That was in mid-September. Then we said we were going out on strike on 4 October and not coming back until it was sorted. I liked that. We knew there would be another offer—perhaps a bit of the same in new clothes or maybe a little bit better. When it arrived, there was disbelief in my garage.
“The revised offer still included reduced back pay, but this time a 10 percent increase from the beginning of April to mid-October, with the 11 percent only applying afterwards. It was only a tiny bit better than before. I knew my garage would vote against it, but the constant voting has an effect. Some of the reps in other garages began to say, ‘Come on! We’ve won a lot here, and we’re not going to get much more. Is it really worth us going out?’ There’s another version that says, ‘The union isn’t really up for this and isn’t going to pull much more from Arriva, so let’s not lose the money with a strike.’
“It matters a lot what the rep in the garage says. How else can you explain that my garage voted heavily against while Ash Grove in Hackney went 103 to five for the deal? It’s about the people who argue in the garage. Overall, it was very narrow, but we lost. It’s not just about money. I don’t think Arriva comes out of this more on top. They had to pay more than they wanted. But being at work is about an atmosphere that’s set every day. Does the manager think they can push you around or do they have to respect you? Do you get some slack on shifts, overtime, days off and sickness or is there a tough attitude? If we had struck, I think we would have changed the attitude of the managers in the garages in a big way, and we’d have met people from other garages, which would have been helpful.
“We’ll see now. I’m ready for another go in the future. Isn’t everyone given what’s happening with prices?”
In conclusion: on the narrow horizons of the union leaders
The revival of strikes is not a result of some shift to the left among trade union leaders. For instance, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has been widely lauded for his leadership of the rail strike. However, he was previously seen as one of the stalwarts of a union bureaucracy that resented being accountable to its national executive committee, let alone the members. In 2020, Lynch resigned as the RMT’s acting general secretary. The union’s previous general secretary, Mick Cash, was off work with stress, and both Lynch and Cash accused the national executive of bullying and harassment. Lynch’s resignation letter stated:
I regard the current stance of the national executive committee as overbearing, harassing and bullying towards myself as an elected national officer. I am of the view that the same continued stance has caused the long-term illness of our elected general secretary.
The constant hounding of senior officers by the members of the national executive committee has made it impossible for the union to be managed properly, efficiently or professionally in the way that established precedent, working arrangements, the rule book, annual general meetings and previous national executive committee decisions have provided for.
The stance and attitude of the national executive committee goes beyond their duties and responsibilities under the constitution of the union and has had the effect of undermining the role of general secretary itself and the individuals that have been carrying out the role.18
The CWU’s Dave Ward has shifted during his term of office. When he defeated the incumbent general secretary Billy Hayes to win the position in 2015, he campaigned around promises to stand up for workers rather than simply acting as a “liaison officer for the Labour Party”. At this point, he was widely seen as a non-political figure. However, as general secretary he became a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn while also agitating inside the wider union movement for a new deal for workers, action on zero hours and other issues. Yet, the 2022 strikes showed the limits of this radicalism; at the time of writing, Royal Mail bosses remained unmoved by a series of one and two-day strikes.
Struggle has, in most cases, been foisted on the union leaders. Lynch and Ward sense that workers are not going to be pissed about anymore, and they can express this feeling powerfully and skilfully. Nonetheless, they did not create the storm. Union head offices know they have to respond to the shattering assault on their members’ living standards. They cannot urge them to accept pay settlements that mean big real terms cuts—although many of the union leaders will snatch at a compromise that means slightly smaller cuts.
Nor can unions lightly agree to new anti-union laws that question the role of the union leaders. As always, it is not the effect on struggle that upsets the trade union leaders, but rather the undermining of the unions’ structures and negotiating functions. In an interview with the Financial Times, Unison general secretary Christina McAnea raged about the low pay offers made to millions of public sector workers and proposals for clampdowns on union rights. However, she added, “Unions would find ways to operate even if the government pressed ahead with plans to raise the thresholds for strike ballots to pass.” So, fewer strikes would not be a problem, but McAnea suggested that “a separate proposal—to require trade unions to put all offers from employers to their members—was impractical.” Such a move would clog up the smooth process of negotiations and give-and-take, and therefore had to be stopped.19
At the start of this article, I said that it had now become widely accepted that big strikes are possible and necessary. Yet, unfortunately, there is still a very long way to go before other basic ideas of class struggle are accepted. One is that the union leaders are still obsessed with following what they conceive to be “public opinion”. Generally, this means what certain media commentators define as the views of ordinary people. So, for example, the RMT and CWU immediately called off strikes that had been scheduled during the official mourning period after Queen Elizabeth’s death. The RMT later retreated from a strike that would have coincided with a Poppy Day collection.
It also remains unthinkable for union leaders to call action outside the anti-union laws. There has been much talk of a general strike in 2022, but no union leader has ever proposed even 15 minutes of action without navigating a path through the thicket of anti-union laws. The only road to a general strike within these restraints is for every union to ballot nearly simultaneously, with all reaching the turnout thresholds and other requirements set out in anti-union legislation. That is simply not going to happen.
This does not rule out big, united strikes. As this article was written, 500,000 workers had a mandate to strike under the laws, and another million were balloting to join them. That is no general strike, but it is substantial. How much wider, however, the horizons would become if the union leaders threw off the shackles of anti-union laws! Instead, by strictly keeping to them they encourage the Tories to introduce more. Amid the carnage of Liz Truss’s government, British history’s shortest serving prime minister found time to begin the passage of a law that would effectively destroy the power of transport strikes. Perhaps it will be dropped, but that is not at all certain.
It is instructive to compare union leaders’ response to the Tories’ mini-budget on 23 September to that of the bankers. As the disastrous fallout from chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s programme became clear, the Trades Union Congress delivered a stinging verdict on the measures but offered no suggestion of how to fight them.20 In contrast, the bankers did not respond by sending a strongly worded letter to Kwarteng or calling a rally in a month’s time. Instead, they used their social power to destroy the government’s policy over the course of 48 hours. It was the same at the P&O shipping company when the employer rammed through mass job cuts. Top boss Peter Hebblethwaite told a House of Commons hearing that the firm broke the law by choosing to sack 800 workers without consultation because “no union could accept our proposals”.21 In sharp contrast, the RMT union, under Lynch’s celebrated leadership, refused to call for mass picketing of the ports or walkouts and failed to encourage workers who had spontaneously occupied ships. So, P&O won.
This does not mean the bureaucracy is wholly fixed and immovable. One interesting take on what is happening in the United States, which may have echoes in Britain, comes from Joe Burns, director of collective bargaining with the Association of Flight Attendants-Communications Workers of America union. In his book, Class Struggle Unionism (Haymarket, 2022), Burns describes how managements launched an incredible offensive against trade unionism in the 1980s, overturning a period of settled and cosy bargaining relationships. This followed the high profile defeat of the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981, when US president Ronald Reagan worked with the bosses to prepare scabbing during the strike. The wider union movement allowed these workers to be isolated and beaten. There are obvious similarities with how the Tories prepared meticulously to smash the miners’ strike in 1984-5, as well as the failure of the TUC, leaders of other unions and the Labour Party to deliver the solidarity that could have won the strike and crushed Margaret Thatcher’s regime. In an interview about the development of different forms of trade unionism in the US, Burns says:
Business unionism, bureaucratic and weak, proved incapable of resisting this trend. The class struggle unionists pushed for a fightback based on an anti-concessions stand, strike activity, picket line militancy and reform movements. Yet, during this period, there arose a new form of unionism that attempted to straddle the fence between business unionism and class struggle unionism.22
Burns describes how former “class struggle unionists”, who had been part of the social movements of the 1960s, had reached the mid-levels of the union bureaucracy or drifted into union education programmes by the 1980s:
Their alternative relied on smart, savvy staffers to fight smarter within the existing system. Rather than the bitter open-ended strikes and picket line militancy, they favoured one-day publicity strikes, corporate campaigns and the “organising” approach.23
This set them apart from the traditional business unionism. On the plus side, they helped push the AFL-CIO union federation away from very conservative position on race and immigration. However, these officials also abandoned the workplace organisation at the core of both traditional unionism and class struggle unionism. In fact, “They used strikes and unionism to pass progressive legislation, placing them closer to middle-class advocacy groups than true business unionism”.
The process in Britain was different. After Thatcher’s defeat of the miners came “new realism”, union leaders’ belief that successful strike struggles were essentially impossible. Instead, they argued that the only way forward was to cooperate with “good” bosses, hope Labour won an election, and look to the European Union’s social legislation to blunt the impact of home-grown enemies.
One reaction against new realism was the election of the “awkward squad” of left-wing union leaders in the early 2000s.24 Although their roots were different, their politics had some of the characteristics that Burns describes. They were also riding on the disenchantment with New Labour, the outrage caused by the war in Iraq and the echoes of the global anti-capitalist movement after Seattle. Some of these leaders—pushed by pressure from below—were important in creating the united strikes of 2011 over pensions.25 The highpoint was the strike on 30 November, which saw around 2.5 million out, but the weakness of the movement was soon revealed when the larger unions rushed to do deals with the government. Rank and file networks were too weak to stop the leaderships or act without them.
Burns concludes we need “new fighting unions, rank and file movements, and cross-union formations. But it will also require the popularisation of a set of class struggle ideas that can validate these actions.” That is good, and his analysis and prescriptions are well worth reading. Yet, he continues to offer up the prospect of unions and union leaders who can free themselves from the bureaucratic pressures of their role and positions.26 He rightly points to the determined militancy, class consciousness and imperishable hatred of the bosses embodied by figures such as Big Bill Haywood, leader of the Industrial Workers of the World in the 1910s. He also highlights the battling tradition of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America and the other left-led unions that fought head-on battles with the bosses in the 1930s and after the Second World War. This experience matters because such unions began with an understanding of the need for relentless battle with employers. The contrast with the union leaders today is massive and stark.
Nonetheless, union leaders having roots in actual struggles does not provide a permanent shield against the pressures towards compromise and bureaucratic degeneration. The comparison is something of a slur on some of the US giants that Burns highlights, but a contemporary British example of a union leader with such roots is Jo Grady, the general secretary of the UCU university and college workers’ union. Grady won her position in 2019 due to a wave of UCU strikes the previous year over pension cuts. She was one of the founders of the USS Briefs website and social media feed that pushed the strikes and denounced some of the hesitations and concessions by the then general secretary Sally Hunt and her supporters. However, in office Grady has acted entirely in the spirit of the traditional union leader: limiting action, playing off the hesitant sections of workers against the boldest ones, ignoring democratic decisions that are at odds with her plans and so on. Despite this there are elements of flux and potential as well. As this article was written, university workers had taken part in three days of national strikes and were set for all-out action in 2023, unless the union leaders block it.
This is not a time of certainty. A weather forecaster might have a fair chance of success if they say that today will be like yesterday. Such an approach would be a serious error for the reader of class developments. For all the weaknesses of our side, there are millions of workers who are ready to fight. In the course of such struggles, the lessons that the three workers featured here learned can become more widely understood.
Charlie Kimber is the editor of Socialist Worker and a co-author of The Labour Party: A Marxist History (Bookmarks, 2019).
1 Partington, 2018.
2 Office for National Statistics, 2022.
3 Thomas, 2022.
4 Some of those I talked to must remain anonymous in order to protect them from employers and, in two cases, union officials. The names, except for Matt, are pseudonyms.
5 Donaldson, 2022.
6 Basketter, 2022.
7 Thomas and Penman, 2022.
8 The full text of the ESA is available online at https://oeuk.org.uk/product/energy-services-agreement
9 Price, 2022.
10 Dykes, 2022.
11 Dykes, 2022.
12 Clark, 2022.
14 Communication Workers Union, 2022.
15 Communication Workers Union, 2022.
16 The BT Group strike ended in December 2022 after workers accepted a CWU-backed deal. One in five workers rejected it despite the union’s recommendation. It was not fundamentally different to the offer that had triggered the dispute. Activists stressed the biggest gain was new networks of strikers who were now more ready to organise.
17 Unite, 2022.
18 Lezard, 2020.
19 Strauss and Pickard, 2022.
20 Bell, 2022.
21 Topham, 2022.
22 Burns, 2022.
23 Burns, 2022.
24 Quite which union leaders can be categorised as being part of the awkward squad is a matter of debate. It is fairly widely accepted that it included Mark Serwotka (Public and Commercial Services Union), Bob Crow (RMT), Derek Simpson (Amicus-Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union), Tony Woodley (Transport and General Workers’ Union), Billy Hayes (CWU), Mick Rix (Aslef), and Andy Gilchrist and Matt Wrack (Fire Brigades Union). Other accounts add Dave Prentis (Unison), but this is to stretch the concept of “awkward” well beyond breaking point. The actual performance of many of these leaders was dire, even though their elections often engendered high hopes among trade union activists.
25 In 2011, unions did not need to hit turnout thresholds in ballots, making such action easier.
26 For an analysis of the trade union bureaucracy, see Thomas, 2022. See also Martin Upchurch’s useful activists’ guide to the rank and file and the bureaucracy on the Socialist Worker website—Upchurch, 2022.