Striking back: is the class struggle reviving in Britain?

Issue: 176

Mark L Thomas

In the summer of 2022, strikes by workers suddenly returned to centre stage.1 Three high profile national disputes catapulted industrial action, picket lines and national union leaders into the public arena. The first nationwide strikes on the railways since 1993, at British Telecom (BT) since 1987 and by postal workers at Royal Mail since 2009 transformed the atmosphere inside the trade union movement and wider working class. This was all the more dramatic because it came against a backdrop of three decades in which workplace militancy has been languishing in the doldrums, with historically low levels of strikes year after year.

Alongside the national strikes, there has also been more localised action by London Underground workers, bus drivers, local government refuse workers, dockers—with the first strike at Felixstowe port, Britain’s busiest container port, since 1989—workers on North Sea oil and gas rigs, and workers on repair and maintenance contracts at major infrastructure sites. Even criminal barristers have taken unprecedented strike action. More remarkably still, many non-unionised workers across Amazon’s vast “fulfilment centre” warehouses took some form of action, whether through walkouts or sit-ins.

The current strikes involve a combination of, on the one hand, groups of workers with at least some recent if uneven tradition of resistance and relatively strong workplace organisation (on the railways, in Royal Mail) with, on the other hand, groups who have taken next to no action for decades (BT, Felixstowe docks). Pay is not the only issue, with major assaults on both jobs and working conditions taking place on the railways, at Royal Mail and at BT; nevertheless, wages are the lightning rod that has created a sense of common struggle.

This analysis will ask what lies behind this uptick in strikes, how we should understand their significance, and what obstacles will need to be overcome to deepen and spread the new strike movement.

What’s driving the new militancy?

The whip of inflation has acted as a spur for ever more groups of workers to turn to the strike weapon to defend their living standards. The Retail Prices Index measure of inflation at the start of summer 2021 was under 4 percent. A year later it was over 12 percent, with every indication that it will continue to rise. By summer 2022, any pay awards under 12 percent were, in reality, real-terms pay cuts.2

In fact, wages have been under a sustained squeeze since the financial crisis of 2008. Average real wages (taking into account inflation) fell by nearly 7 percent overall from 2009 to 2014. There followed a weak recovery, and it was only in 2020, on the eve of the pandemic, that average wages returned to their pre-financial crisis level, while still lying far below where they would be if historic trends had continued after 2008.3 The “lost decade” on pay (in reality, 12 years) represented a major break in the recent historical experience of the working class in Britain. Although there were sharp falls in pay at some points (for example, the early 1920s when the post-First World War boom collapsed and the 1976-8 period during the Wilson-Callaghan Labour governments), these lasted for much shorter periods. A report from the Resolution Foundation notes that, after 1945, real wages doubled every 29 years on average. This acted as an escalator of rising wages for successive generations until it juddered to a sudden halt in 2008.4

Yet, this protracted wage squeeze did not provoke any widespread pay revolt by workers. Strikes overall remained at the historically low levels they have been at since the early 1990s, and those strikes that did take place were more often over attacks on conditions than pay. The biggest strikes in this period—the public sector actions in June and November 2011—were over pensions, not pay.5 Of course, there were some pay disputes, in further education colleges, for example, and by a number of public sector unions in 2014, but pay strikes were far from widespread.

The ruling class was able to win the argument among a layer of workers that pay freezes had to be tolerated to protect jobs, particularly in the context of the 2008-9 economic crisis. Central to reinforcing this message was the embrace of austerity by the Labour Party under Ed Miliband‘s leadership and the (usually less explicit) acceptance by much of the trade union leadership that wage restraint was necessary to ensure the “viability” (for which, read “profitability”) of firms or the economy as a whole. The resulting lack of struggle over pay in turn created a feeling that, if a group of workers did fight, they would be isolated and unpopular, with a fear of being seen as “greedy”.

The sudden re-emergence of high levels of inflation has changed this dynamic. It is no longer a question of a slow erosion of real wages over a number of years but a sharp shock to living standards compressed into a few months. This is pushing workers to fight, especially when they see firms making huge profits and giving major handouts to shareholders. The experience of a pay squeeze since 2008 has also had an ideological impact on workers. It means old arguments about wages pushing up prices—the spectre of a “wage-price spiral” that Boris Johnson invoked at the start of the summer—are at odds with workers’ experiences and lack even superficial credibility.6 Far more persuasive is the argument put forward by some union leaders that profits are the key driver of price rises (a “profits-prices spiral”). So, for example, a detailed analysis from the Unite union of the 350 biggest firms listed on the FTSE index suggests that profit margins rose sharply during the pandemic, reaching a value 73 percent higher in 2021 than 2019. Even if energy companies were removed, average profits were still up 52 percent. Unite general secretary Sharon Graham’s assessment of the situation is one that will resonate with large numbers of workers: “The weight of evidence shows that Britain is in the grip of a profiteering crisis. Workers’ wages, and what they can buy, are being squeezed by corporate wreckers pursuing runaway profits, quite literally at our expense”.7

The cost of living crisis has also created something else: a sense of a common experience across the working class, a mood of generalisation that creates broad sympathy with those groups of workers fighting back, and a feeling that they are fighting for all workers. It is this mood that Mick Lynch, leader of the RMT rail workers’ union, tapped into so successfully when hostile media interviewers tried to pit different groups of workers against each other. Lynch did not fall back on a limited, sectional defence of the immediate interests of his union members alone, but instead cast their strikes as part of a class battle in which all workers have a stake. In doing so, he turned himself into a spokesperson for the wider working class.

Revolt of the “essential worker”

The outbreak of strikes has also been shaped by the experience of workers in the pandemic. A common thread connecting many of the workers who initiated the summer strikes is that, during the pandemic and lockdowns, when millions of workers began working from home and others were placed on the furlough scheme, they were told to carry on their normal work. The government described them as doing “essential work”: collecting refuse, transporting goods to supermarkets, running the transport system, delivering the post, working in the ports and so on. These essential workers continued their routines despite all the risks to their health and lives from Covid-19.

Called on to make sacrifices for the common good, and often accepting pay freezes during the first phase of the pandemic in the “national interest”, this led to bitterness and anger among such workers when the lockdowns ended and profitable firms offered below-inflation pay deals. However, the experience of the pandemic also served to boost their sense of power. Being told your work is so vital to the continuing basic functioning of society that you have to work during a lockdown undermines the notion that you are “disposable”.

This, in turn, was further amplified when the drive to reopen the economy rapidly in autumn 2021 exposed major labour shortages, for example, among skilled heavy goods vehicle drivers. At one stage, Tesco was offering lorry drivers up front “signing on fees” of £1,000 to come and work for them, such was the competition for scarce skills between the major supermarkets.8 Tight labour markets in some areas of the economy further boosted some groups of workers’ confidence that they could fight and win their demands.

Questions of leadership

More subjective factors have also contributed to the growth in strikes. The period of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party was contradictory. Its emergence, especially in the 2015-17 period, created a bigger and more confident left, but it also offered a focus away from workplace organisation or even street protests. Electoralism—the focus on getting Corbyn’s Labour elected—and the internal battle with Labour’s right wing came to dominate.

The defeat of Corbyn and Labour’s shift to the right under his successor, Keir Starmer, has weakened the hold of such electoralism, at least for now. Meanwhile, Starmer’s desire to prove to the wealthy and powerful that Labour is a safe pair of hands that can be trusted not to trouble their interests has provoked antagonism between him and union officials. Starmer has sought to distance his party from the strikes, with the sharpest expression of this being the sacking of Labour’s soft-left shadow transport secretary, Sam Tarry. Tarry’s crime was not so much attending rail workers’ picket lines after Starmer told the shadow cabinet that they should not do so—after all, other leading Labour MPs such as Lisa Nandy had also been on picket lines. Tarry’s real crime was his public support for pay rises in line with inflation and his questioning of Starmer’s abandonment of Corbyn’s commitment that Labour would renationalise the rail industry.9

The argument to wait for a Labour government to address the cost of living crisis today has limited purchase among both union activists and even some sections of union leaderships and officials. Indeed, the establishment of the Enough is Enough campaign in response to the cost of living crisis by the Communication Workers Union (CWU), with RMT support, reflects the political vacuum Starmer’s rightward move has created. The project has had huge resonance, with over 500,000 signing up in the weeks after it was announced and huge launch rallies in London, Manchester and Liverpool. The picket line, rather than the parliamentary arena, suddenly seems to offer a far better solution to the assault on living standards to many of those who once looked to Corbyn.

Contradictions of the officials

Amid the failure of Starmer to provide leadership, some trade union leaders have played an important role in encouraging action. Lynch’s media performances are noted above. The role of Sharon Graham in her first year as Unite general secretary has also been significant. Elected on a platform of rejecting the orientation of predecessor Len McCluskey on the Labour Party, with a call to instead “get back to the workplace”, she has adopted a much more combative approach to strikes and towards Labour. In a pointed break from tradition, Graham stayed away from Labour Party national conference in September 2021, held soon after she was elected, and instead visited a number of Unite picket lines.

Nonetheless, it is important to understand the contradictory role played by the union leaders and more broadly by trade union officials, that is, those directly employed by trade unions.10 This group, sometimes referred to as the trade union bureaucracy, form a specific social layer, subject to contradictory pressures. Trade unions exist to defend workers’ interests within capitalism and bargain over the terms of workers’ exploitation, not to end it. This inevitably leads to the emergence of a division of labour between the bulk of “rank and file” workers, who make up the union’s membership, and a smaller layer of officials who are responsible for negotiating with employers.

The result is that this layer of officials is isolated from those they represent and no longer come under the same immediate pressures as their rank and file members. Instead, the officials’ world is one of meetings and negotiation, leading them to come to see compromise and the reconciliation of capital and labour as the very purpose of trade unionism. As Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein argue, for union officials, “Struggle appears as a disruption of the bargaining process, a nuisance and an inconvenience, which may threaten the accumulated funds of the union. Organisation becomes an end in itself, threatening even the limited goal of improving the terms on which the worker is exploited.” The trade union bureaucracy balances between workers and employers as a mediator. It plays an essentially conservative role, with officials operating as “managers of discontent”.11 However, the bureaucracy is subject to contradictory pressures:

It holds back and controls workers’ struggle, but it has a vital interest not to push the collaboration with employers and the state to a point where it makes the unions completely impotent. For the official is not an independent arbitrator. If the union fails entirely to articulate members’ grievances, this will lead eventually either to effective internal challenges to the leadership or to membership apathy and organisational disintegration, with members moving to a rival union. If the union bureaucracy strays too far into the bourgeois camp it will lose its base. The bureaucracy has an interest in preserving the union organisation, which is the source of their income and their social status.12

The upshot of this analysis is not, as it is sometimes misunderstood to mean, that the officials will never fight. At times, to reassert themselves in the face of employers or strengthen their hand in negotiations, to fend off discontent and challenges from below or to boost membership (and hence the income and social power of the bureaucracy), they may well seek to encourage action. As noted above, figures such as Lynch of the RMT and his counterparts in the CWU have called action and sought to encourage members to participate in it. Such efforts can lead to tensions within the union bureaucracy. So, for instance, as well as publicly identifying with Unite disputes, Graham has also developed an approach of going over the heads of Unite’s bureaucracy where she sees it as too hesitant or routinised. Part of this has been achieved “from above” by expanding the group of officials that work in the Unite Organising Department, Graham’s powerbase prior to her election, which can directly intervene to encourage and help direct disputes. There has also been the creation of new dedicated National Disputes Unit. Alongside this, Graham has pushed forward the establishment of new “combine committees”, which bring together reps and convenors across a sector (refuse, warehousing, hospitality and so on) and can share experiences and foster more coordination. This cuts across Unite’s powerful regional bureaucracies and is a challenge to its senior national industrial officers.13

The attitude of revolutionary socialists when a section of the union officials move into action was clearly expressed 45 years ago in this journal by Duncan Hallas: “We are for unity in action with all those in the working-class movement who are willing to fight, even when the agreement about objectives is only partial and temporary. This includes, of course, unity with whatever sections of the ‘official leaderships’ can be induced to collaborate in particular actions.” However, Hallas adds: “To cooperate with left-wing union leaders—and indeed with right-wing ones where possible—for particular ends is by no means the same as relying on them. Still less is it the same as believing that ‘progressive officials’ can ever be a substitute for organised rank and file activity”.14

In other words, even the most left-wing union official cannot be relied on and is likely to seek to avoid an all-out clash with employers that might risk an attack on the organisation by the state or the control of a dispute slipping out the hands of the bureaucracy. When the officials move, they can help propel the movement forward—something even more true in periods of low levels of struggle and working-class confidence—but this can lead to passive reliance on the officials and a lack of clarity about what needs to be done to ensure the success of a dispute.

The conservatism of union officials was demonstrated very clearly with the death of Queen Elizabeth II on 8 September. Both the RMT and CWU responded almost immediately to the news by suspending planned strike action, with the CWU ending action that had already begun. Union leaders unable to withstand the pressure of the cries for “national unity” when an elderly monarch dies are rather unlikely to risk any kind of serious confrontation with the ruling class. As Cliff and Gluckstein argued, even if there are important differences between left-wing and right-wing officials:

The fundamental fact overriding all differences between bureaucrats is that they belong to a conservative social stratum which, especially at times of radical crisis—as in the 1926 General Strike—makes the differences between left-wing and right-wing bureaucrats secondary. At such times, all sections of the bureaucracy seek to curb and control workers’ militancy.15

Whether the sudden break in the momentum of the strikes can be overcome remained to be seen at the time of writing in early September. Nonetheless, the sudden suspension of the action when faced with some degree of pressure from the ruling class underlines the limits of any strategy that simply leaves the conduct of strikes in the hands of the union bureaucracy. It reinforces the case for attempting to increase the organised weight of the rank and file in controlling strikes.

Other recent experiences also demonstrate the limits of reliance on union leaders and their officials. In spring 2022, the summary sacking of 800 staff employed by P&O ferries saw extremely muted resistance from the RMT. An initial call for a sit-in on the ships after the announcement of the sackings could have become a real focus for mass solidarity and led to efforts to get action among dockworkers in the ports. However, the sit-ins were quickly abandoned, and no real attempt was made to mobilise dockers for the protests that then took place at Dover, Hull, Liverpool and elsewhere. The fear of incurring substantial penalties under the anti-union laws due to such “secondary action” paralysed the union’s response—even despite P&O blatant breaking of employment laws and with a huge wave of public sympathy for the sacked workers, which greatly increased the political risks if the state sought to mount a legal assault on the RMT.16 Similarly, during recent strikes in higher education by members of the University and College Union, general secretary Jo Grady and union officials have placed repeated obstacles in the way of building the momentum needed to advance the dispute. This includes repeated failure to act on democratic decisions by members regarding the direction of the dispute.17

The aim of this analysis is not merely to warn about the limits of trade union leaders and officials. The goal of revolutionary socialists should be to actually intervene to try to raise the level of participation in and control over strikes by rank and file union members. This starts with encouraging mass participation in picketing, even if there is little expectation of workers breaking the strike. The picket line is a collective expression of workers’ activity, providing the basis for discussion and organisation. Meetings on picket lines or immediately afterwards in a nearby café or community centre can offer a framework for debates about the way forward, give more confident strikers the opportunity to influence those with worries, and so on. This can lead to votes over the direction of disputes. Socialists should suggest the formation of strike committees in local disputes. These are at their best if they are not restricted to the existing layer of reps but incorporate new activists thrown up in the course the strike. They should report back and be accountable to mass strikers’ meetings. Indeed, in some circumstances, it may be possible to campaign for the creation of national strike committees in big disputes so that more control passes into the hands of lay representatives of local branches, which are more responsive to the mood on the picket lines than full-time officials.

This approach means arguing to establish the principle that strikes should not be suspended in exchange for a mere promise of talks by employers—a tactic used by employers to break the momentum of disputes. It means arguing, even when new offers made by employers are put out to vote, that strikes should not be called off while this takes place. For instance, Arriva bus workers organised by Unite in North West England won a 9.6 percent pay offer over the summer after declaring an all-out strike. Some 1,800 workers at 11 depots voted overwhelmingly to reject this deal and remain on strike. The company’s bosses panicked and increased their offer to 11.1 percent, at which point, rather than pressing home their advantage, Unite officials called off the action and gave workers two days to vote on the offer. This curtailed the momentum of a struggle that could have broken through the Retail Price Index threshold and acted as inspiration for other groups of workers.18

The battle to increase the participation and control exercised by the rank and file, however modestly to begin with, is a central task in every dispute. The rest of the article will look in more detail at the disputes that began this summer before exploring how these tensions play out.

The railways

Though the current dispute on the railways is effectively the first action of its kind since the privatisations of the 1990s, the Tories’ hopes that the breakup of the industry and introduction of market forces would deal a fatal blow to the rail unions have long disappeared. Privatisation did initially create a severe crisis for the RMT union in particular, which saw membership plummet as collective bargaining structures were broken up and the new train operators and infrastructure companies shed thousands of jobs. Yet, despite the absence of national strikes, the industry has been characterised for two decades by guerrilla war between the unions and train companies, along with governments, whether Tory or Labour.

Paradoxically, the fragmentation of what had been a relatively well-integrated industry led to sharp competitive pressures, which created labour shortages. Combined with rising rail usage, this resulted in a growth in unions’ bargaining power and train operators’ vulnerability to strike action.19 This does not mean a complete absence of successful attacks on workers, but it does mean that the rail unions have presented a serious obstacle. One sign of this was an infamous outburst by a senior official at the Department of Transport, Peter Wilkinson, who told a public meeting in 2016 that train drivers “had to be broken” and those who resisting changes to working practices should “get the hell out of my industry”.20

Most recently, there were bitter strikes over the 2016-19 period against the expansion of the use of Driver-Only Operations (DOO), which transferred key safety critical roles (such as opening and closing the doors at stations) to the driver and downgraded the role of train guards. This paved the way to potentially remove guards from trains altogether.21

The battleground chosen for this attempt by the government to drive down costs—and hence reduce the ever-rising state subsidy to rail firms—was Southern Rail, the largest of the rail franchises. Strikes over the role of guards eventually spread from Southern to other train operators. The disputes were protracted, taking place over months and in some cases years. They typically involved a pattern of one or two days a month, sometimes more. In total there were 47 strike days at Arriva Trains Northern over DOO from 2017 to 2019, and 74 strike days on South West Trains. On the whole, the strikes were able to keep guards on the trains, even if there was a reduction by some train operators of their safety responsibilities. However, at Southern, where drivers in the ASLEF union also struck over the increased safety responsibilities and risks involved in the expansion of DOO, the outcome was less favourable. ASLEF’s leadership pushed through a rotten deal (presided over by the Trades Union Congress) to end the drivers strikes.22 The RMT denounced it as a “shocking and historic betrayal”.23

The current dispute is over a much more generalised assault, affecting almost every grade of rail worker. This would include mass job losses among maintenance workers alongside plans for radical changes to terms and conditions. The latter include mandatory Sunday working, changes to “attendance management” and sickness procedures, the closure of all ticket offices, and the conversion of the current grading structures into two multi-skilled grades for station staff and train crews to boost “flexibility”. Any improvement on the pay offer is conditional on acceptance of these measures. Additionally, there are attacks on pensions.24

If, as the RMT argue, the government had hoped that the union could be attacked as “greedy” and would be relatively isolated, these plans backfired.

British Telecom

The strike this summer by 40,000 telecoms workers at BT and its subsidiary Openreach is the first national strike there for 35 years. There has also been little tradition of strikes by any section of the workforce over the intervening decades, with the exception of a strike by a several thousand BT call centre workers in 1999 and a strike among a small section of Openreach engineers in 2021.

Within BT the CWU union has long pursued a social partnership approach of collaboration with the employer and repeated willingness to agree to concessions as long as the union “was in the room” and the union bureaucracy treated as a serious intermediary. So, BT was able to shed 100,000 jobs in the three decades following its privatisation in the early 1980s, with little resistance after the 1980s.25 As the CWU’s BT officials put it themselves when announcing the most recent strike ballot, “At the heart of the dispute…is the company’s abandonment of time-honoured negotiating protocols based on partnership and consent that have underpinned decades of industrial peace”.26

What seems to have changed this situation, forcing union leaders to take official action, is a combination of pressure from below by members and from above by the employer. BT launched plans for another round of job losses, office closures and attacks on conditions before the pandemic. In 2020, the CWU successfully held a consultative ballot, with nearly 98 percent voting for strikes on a 74 percent turnout, to resist these cuts and a pay freeze. Yet, after months of delay, the union suddenly announced a deal in mid-2021, averting a statutory ballot that could authorise strikes. The deal offered no guarantees over office closures, compulsory redundancies or an improved pay offer. This produced a wave of anger from below. Socialist Worker reported on the mood when the statutory ballot was called off:

“The membership is angry”, one CWU rep in BT told Socialist Worker. “They feel that the can has been kicked down the road all year… It’s a shock announcement without our consultation”… CWU’s deputy general secretary for telecoms, Andy Kerr, released a response only after BT announced the deal. He said the deal was positive because it puts union officials “back in the room”. Yet, as the rep put it, the deal “doesn’t seem to be a significant improvement or include a pay rise. All he’s achieved is he’s allowed to sit at the table and give his opinion on it.” The rep said a “rebel band of areas” are now calling on CWU general secretary Dave Ward to intervene. “The branches are angry”, the rep said. “The members gave a 97 percent mandate to fight and the top official has rolled over and had his belly rubbed”.27

At this years’ CWU BT section conference in late April, Kerr and other officials came under pressure to launch a serious fight.28 Combined with the move by BT to impose a below-inflation pay award, essentially bypassing the union as a negotiating partner, Kerr was forced to put himself at the head of the mood with a motion for a strike ballot and move to translate this into the action that started in late July.

Royal Mail

As with BT, the strikes by the CWU in Royal Mail are over pay, but come against a backdrop of a much wider offensive by the employer over jobs and working conditions. Privatised in 2013, Royal Mail’s senior management have been seeking to break up the company into a new lucrative parcels business and a declining letters delivery operation that would face being run down. Both would involve major job losses and increased pressures on the workforce for ever more “flexibility”, especially over working patterns. This would involve, for example, making Sunday working compulsory and paid at standard wage rates.

The CWU has been a serious obstacle to the employers’ plans in Royal Mail, at least slowing down the pace of “cost efficiencies”. Postal workers have maintained an impressive level of workplace organisation, which is reflected in both their repeated capacity to get high turnouts in ballots and in traditions of sporadic unofficial action. Thus, the former Royal Mail chief executive Rico Black, brought aboard in 2018 to smash the CWU and drive through the dismantling of Royal Mail, was forced out after being humiliated by postal workers. Attempting to use the pandemic to drive through his plans, Royal Mail announced in May 2020 that Saturday postal deliveries would be scrapped as part of a move to end its obligation to deliver letters six days a week. This would have meant later working hours on weekdays among other changes. The CWU said it would ballot and, even more importantly, told workers not to cooperate with the implementation of changes to work schedules. Facing the almost certain prospect of widespread unofficial action if workers were disciplined for refusal to alter their shift patterns, the employer was forced into a humbling retreat.29 Black was pushed out as CEO by the board and shareholders two weeks later.

Strikes by CWU members in Royal Mail, over a 2 percent pay offer, began with two one-day strikes in late August. They represent a serious trial of strength that will likely determine who has the upper hand in the battle over the future of Royal Mail.

Refuse, transport, docks and beyond

Alongside large-scale national disputes there has also been a palpable increase in “local” strikes at individual employers, including those within the private sector. Sharon Graham claims that, in her first year as the Unite union’s general secretary, the union took part in over 450 disputes involving 76,000 members.30 Although not all these disputes led to strikes (usually because companies made concessions to stave off action), and overall Unite claims around 1.1 million members, this still represents an important uptick in action by the union.31

Unite has members across 19 sectors of the economy, but again the common denominator of recent disputes is pay. Though the union has had disputes across multiple sectors, there has been a noticeable concentration among certain sections: lorry drivers in goods transport; bus drivers in passenger transport (including across a raft of Arriva and Stagecoach franchises); and refuse workers in local authorities, where there has been an unprecedented rolling wave of strikes, with success in one area helping trigger battles in neighbouring authorities and elsewhere.32

Most of these refuge strikes involve outsourced contracts, usually with major multinationals like Serco, but one of the most protracted and bitter was in Coventry and involved workers employed directly by the Labour-run council. The GMB union have also taken action among refuse workers in North Derbyshire and along the south coast.33

Action by the GMB, Unite and Unison unions among refuse workers in Scottish councils in August and September again shows the contradictions at play in recent disputes. The strikes were characterised by large, lively picket lines, with some members of the GMB and Unison unions refusing to cross Unite picket lines when strike days did not coincide. An initial offer from employers of a 5 percent pay increase, with a one-off payment from those earning below £20,500, was rejected. However, a new offer, amounting to between 5 and 10 percent for the majority of workers (depending on their grade), was sufficient for the union leaderships to call off the strike and ballot members on the deal. The Glasgow City Unison branch quite rightly called for the rejection of the below-inflation deal, with one activist commenting:

When the action was really beginning to bite, officials seemed to have accepted a completely arbitrary cap and locked themselves into frenzied negotiations… The union leaders’ actions mostly reflect a lack of awareness of what could be possible once workers start to take action. Who is to say the Scottish government’s 5 percent cap couldn’t be blown away by broadening and escalating strikes?34

We are also seeing a revival of action by dockers. An eight-day strike by 1,900 Unite members over pay at Felixstowe docks, through which nearly half of all containers coming into Britain pass, is a reminder that although some workforces have shrunk, their power to shut down large chunks of production or trade can be considerable. Unite was also set for a two-week strike on the Liverpool docks in September.35

The docks were once a byword for organised militancy, but there were two major defeats for dockyard trade unionism in the late 1980 and mid-1990s. The smashing in 1989 of the National Dock Labour Scheme that had once offered job security—one of Margaret Thatcher’s final great victories over workers—provoked a strike whose weak point was precisely Felixstowe, which had been developed outside the scheme in order to weaken it. Later, the 28-month unofficial Liverpool dockers’ strike in 1995-7, after hundreds of dockers were sacked for refusing to cross a picket by 80 workers employed by a subcontractor, ended without their reinstatement. The revival of the confidence to take action among dockworkers is a significant development.

There have been fewer major confrontations so far in core areas of British manufacturing. However, car workers at Jaguar Land Rover in the West Midlands forced the company to stick to a two-year inflation-linked pay deal without a strike, meaning they won a 12.4 percent pay award rather than of a real terms pay cut. Impressively, they won this despite local Unite officials failing to recommend rejection of the pay cuts.36 Moreover, if a looming ballot over pay among 11,000 engineers at Rolls Royce’s aerospace plants turned into strikes, it would mark a major escalation in manufacturing.37

Unofficial action

Although on a smaller scale, there has been an important outbreak of unofficial or “wildcat” action—action that is called without the sanction of formal union structures and without going through the process of postal balloting and a two-week notification period informing an employer of forthcoming strikes.

In May, there were reports of workers across multiple oil and gas rigs in the North Sea refusing to work over demands for a £7 an hour pay increase to keep up with inflation. An article in the industry magazine Energy Voice reported that a Telegram group with 1,000 participants helped spread word of the strikes. The response from the RMT, Unite and GMB unions—signatories to the Energy Services Agreement (ESA) between unions and employers—reflected the most conservative instincts of the union bureaucracy. It denounced the unofficial action as “unlawful” and as threatening to “undermine the credibility” of the ESA deal. In the face of a genuine upsurge of militancy, the union leaders urged “the need to be patient” and rely on painstaking formal negotiations.38

There were unofficial walkouts too by night shift workers employed by Altrad, a contractor at the Ineos refinery at Saltend in Hull over inaccurate wage payments. In Welwyn Garden City around 100 workers at a refuse and waste depot walked out to demand the removal of a manager they accused of sexism, racism and bullying. At a food factory near Bury, around 100 workers walked out—despite not being in a union—over pay as well as a host of issues related to their treatment by managers. Construction workers employed by Alufix in Clapham used vehicles to block the site on which they had been working after their contract was cancelled.39

A pre-planned and organised form of unofficial action took place at the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland, when hundreds of workers on maintenance and repair contracts walked out over pay demands, with around 250 workers temporarily blocking tankers from accessing the industrial site. The Grangemouth action was part of a protest by engineering construction workers covered by the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry. There were reports of significant action at the Humber Refinery in North Lincolnshire and at the Valero Pembroke Refinery in Milford Haven.40

However, the most remarkable unofficial strikes were those that took place across a number of giant Amazon warehouses over the space of several days in August, after workers at Amazon’s vast “fulfilment centre” in Tilbury, Essex, were told that they were getting a pay “increase” of 35p an hour. As word spread, it sparked action by hundreds of Amazon workers in its warehouses in Coventry, Rugeley, Bristol, Leicestershire, Swindon and elsewhere over the following week.41 This took place among a workforce that, some individuals aside, was essentially ununionised. It points to the potential for significant new sectors of non-union workplaces to be drawn into the organised working class.42

Will it spread to the public sector?

If the initial impetus for strikes has come from the private sector and privatised services, a key question is whether strikes will spread to public sector workers this autumn. Almost every group of public sector workers—from the civil service, health workers and junior doctors to school staff, firefighters, local government workers, and higher and further education workers—have either had or will take part in ballots for action.

Without the Trade Union Act 2016, which introduced the 50 percent turnout threshold for successful strike ballots, there is a high likelihood that union leaders would have faced real pressure to call strikes this autumn—the question, in that case, would have been the nature and seriousness of such action. However, the turnout threshold presents a real challenge. The workforces to be balloted in the public sector are often vastly bigger than in individual rail companies, bus garages or refuse depots. They run into the hundreds of thousands in schools, health and local government. This means the unevenness of organisation has undermined previous attempts to beat thresholds. Yet, there is the prospect of overcoming this weakness due to the scale of feeling among public sector workers due to both the below-inflation pay awards the government is offering and the highly visible examples of rail, post, telecom and other workers fighting back. Winning ballots will require socialists to engage in serious work in their workplaces and union branches to try to pull together and orient wider networks of activists and push union leaders to mount dynamic and effective campaigns.

The character of the current strikes

What is the overall character of the current disputes? The dominant feature of the key national strikes by RMT, ASLEF and the CWU is that their direction is in the hands of the established official leaderships of the union and their officials. The strategy being pursued is one that seems to be settling into episodic national strikes, with one or two days a month of action (although the CWU strikes in Royal Mail began by declaring a harder-hitting four days over a fortnight). These are still powerful: rail services run at a fraction of their normal volume during an RMT strike and are almost negligible during action by train drivers in ASLEF. Initial plans for a serious scabbing operation by Royal Mail management, using managers and agency staff at key hubs, came to little.43

However, the strategy of calling one or two days of strikes, then pausing for a month, runs the risk that it will be unable to put sufficient pressure on the employer and the Tories to force through major victories. In this context, revolutionary socialists, such as those in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), have sought to raise two strategic questions on the picket lines.

The first is for greater coordination of the strikes. The notion of a general strike has achieved a renewed hearing among activists, which is positive because it reflects the desire for generalisation and a class wide response to the cost of living crisis. However, the drawback is that, at present, there is no means for the rank and file to apply sufficient pressure to achieve this goal. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is as yet under little pressure to call a general strike, and individual union leaders can thus simply pass the buck: “It’s up to the TUC; we’d support if they call it.” A smaller, but more concrete step—because it is eminently achievable, if the will is there—is for all those unions with existing “live” ballot mandates to strike on the same day. By early September, with the number engaged in action across the three rail unions, in BT and Royal Mail (and the Post Office), plus a swathe of Unite disputes including at two major ports, the potential existed for a quarter of a million workers to take action together. This, in turn, could have served to boost further those workers’ confidence, while also acting as a focus for everyone in the wider working class who wants to see struggles over the cost of living crisis. Picket lines, joint rallies and marches in cities and towns could have offered an expression of that mood.

The rallies around the RMT strikes give a glimpse of the potential. These were initially on a modest scale in a few localities in the first round of RMT strikes at the start of the summer, and they often came at the suggestion and with the support of local socialists. Their success helped give the RMT officials confidence to take the lead in organising rallies on a bigger scale—for instance, a 2,000-strong rally in Liverpool and a hundreds-strong one in Sheffield on 20 August.44 Yet, as of early September, opportunities to hold joint action between RMT and CWU, who could then appeal to Unite to coordinate its “live” disputes with these unions, have been passed up.

A second argument raised by the SWP is about escalation: increasing the number and frequency of strike days, moving beyond the current “long haul” approach to bring about a more sustained disruption of rail, post and telecoms services, for example, and significantly increasing the pressure on both employers and government. Without such a strategy, victory will be harder, and this makes it possible that officials will seek to terminate strikes on the basis of unnecessary compromises. Worse still, strikes might lose momentum over months of action, allowing employers to go on the offensive and inflict serious blows to workers’ morale and organisation. Averting this and developing the major national strikes into the kind of insurgent militancy capable of landing punches on employers and the government will almost certainly require the emergence of organised pressure from below, challenging union officials over the direction of the disputes. To date, this is absent, with the level of differentiation between the best activists and the officials limited. However, this can start to change over time if a feeling develops that the current pattern of strikes is not leading to breakthroughs.

One of the reasons that the outbreak of unofficial action described above is so significant is that it offers activists a vision of a different form of industrial action. It is possible to strike without postal ballots conducted over weeks, the restrictions on workplace voting, turnout thresholds (which the Tories are threatening to lift still higher), notification periods to the employer of planned action, which give them time to minimise the impact, and so on. Unofficial walkouts sweep all this aside; decisions can be taken and action organised more collectively, in the workplace, and the employer may have little advance warning.

Workers’ struggles and the multiple crises of the system

The strikes over the summer offer the promise of starting to rebuild workers’ militancy in a way we have not since for at least three decades. The success or failure of the current, highly visible, battles on the rail, in Royal Mail, in BT and in the ports will be one factor in determining whether the movement goes forward and spreads to new groups of workers. However, as long as the whip of inflation continues to bear down on workers’ living standards, pressure to fight back will continue. A new post-Corbyn left is beginning to reconstitute itself around the strikes, as shown by the enormous popularity of the Enough is Enough campaign. This is, in many ways, a step forward from a left whose centre of gravity was the Labour Party and electoralism. Nonetheless, as the arguments above seek to show, substituting uncritical cheerleading of left-wing Labour MPs for uncritical enthusiasm for left-wing trade union officials, even those leading strikes, is insufficient in addressing the challenges ahead.

Attempts to win workers to a more militant and effective approach, rooted in efforts to achieve rank and file control over strikes, will be greatly aided by deepening revolutionary socialist organisation within the working class. That means seeking to win the best of the militants thrown up in the current strikes, as well as those workers inspired by them elsewhere, to such organisation. It also means tracing the connections between the inflationary crisis and the strikes it is provoking and the multiple crises of the capitalist system. The cost of living crisis is inextricably linked with the way that under capitalism our relationship with nature is governed by profit—with disastrous consequences, from the emergence of global pandemics that threaten the health and lives of millions to the accelerating reality of climate change. The system faces recurrent rounds of economic crises and sharpening geopolitical competition between (nuclear armed) imperialist states, from the proxy war this journal has argued is taking place over Ukraine between Russia and NATO, to the alarming rise in tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan.

The cost of living crisis is stimulating a potential revival of workers’ struggles. However, workers’ power to paralyse the flow of profits, and indeed to reorganise production and society as a whole, offers the key not just to defending living standards but also the solution to the multifaceted crises of the system—crises that pose an existential threat to humanity. In the picket lines lies the seeds of a different form of society. Socialists need to combine enthusiasm for the strikes, and efforts to spread them, with strategic clarity about how to win those fights, while seeking to persuade those fighting back of the necessity of revolutionary ideas and organisation.

Mark L Thomas is a workplace and trade union organiser for the SWP.


1 Thanks to Charlie Kimber, Alan Kenny and Joseph Choonara for comments and suggestions on a draft of this article.

2 The Retail Price Index measure is a more accurate measure of inflation than the government’s preferred Consumer Price Index as it includes housing costs, a major factor in working-class households’ budgets.

3 Partington, 2020. Partington draws here on the Office for National Statistics labour market economic commentary for February 2020.

4 Clarke and Gregg, 2018.

5 See Kimber, 2012.

6 Elgot and Stewart, 2022.

7 See Unite, 2022a.

8 Butler, 2021.

9 See BBC News, 2022, and Clark, 2022a.

10 For a useful overview of the relationship between the union bureaucracy and the rank and file, and suggestions for further reading, see Upchurch, 2022.

11 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p27.

12 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, pp27-28.

13 Graham was not the preferred general secretary candidate for the bulk of the Unite officials outside her own Organising Department. Her dynamic and combative approach, and the successes it has chalked up, has assuaged some, but she has no doubt also ruffled feathers. This has been reinforced by tensions over Graham’s approach to Labour. Her rebuke to Starmer, who she told to “get a spine” and back the strikes, will have caused nervousness among a layer of Unite officials, particularly in the context of growing calls for Unite to disaffiliate from Labour—see Williams, 2022.

14 Hallas, 1977.

15 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p28.

16 Clark, 2022b.

17 For example, see Squire, 2022a.

18 Unite, 2022b.

19 Darlington, 2009.

20 Stephen, 2018.

21 The push to expand the use of DOO was signalled in the 2011 McNulty report, commissioned in the last years of the New Labour government. The report called for DOO to become the default through the whole national rail network as a key “efficiency” saving.

22 Kiernan, 2017. Despite ASLEF members in Southern Rail voting down deals put to them twice, the leadership was finally able to push one through.

23 RMT, 2017. Alongside the strikes over the role of guards there have also been a number of important disputes by railway cleaners, most recently those employed by contractor Churchill.

24 See Lynch’s introduction to a RMT pre-strike briefing on 17 August—

25 Kirby, 2013.

26 Communication Workers Union, 2022.

27 Clark, 2021.

28 Socialist Worker reported that Kerr and other CWU officials received a “grilling” from some delegates—Clark, 2022c.

29 Clark, 2020.

30 See Unite, 2022c. Graham’s Facebook feed gives a flavour of the disputes taking place and the more combative tone of the union in general. Graham also claims that 80 percent of Unite disputes are victories and that overall they have resulted in members gaining an additional £150 million.

31 See Unite, 2022c.

32 Unite estimates it has had 25,000 members involved in passenger transport disputes, including at 23 Stagecoach franchises.

33 The GMB is a particularly contradictory union. On the one hand, it is capable of “sweetheart” deals, which in effect offer employers cosy relations to the exclusion of more insurgent unions. This includes deals with Deliveroo and Uber that undermined impressive work done, respectively, by the smaller Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain and App Drivers and Couriers Union. On the other hand, GMB is also capable of displays of what one socialist described to me as “bureaucratic militancy”, for example, in a number of refuse workers disputes.

34 Squire, 2022b.

35 Ringrose, 2022a.

36 Socialist Worker, 2022a.

37 Ringrose, 2022b.

38 See Dykes, 2022.

39 Socialist Worker, 2022b.

40 Socialist Worker, 2022c.

41 Squire, 2022c.

42 Amazon now employs a workforce of 70,000 in Britain.

43 Clark, 2022b.

44 See the reports of the rallies in Socialist Worker, 2022d.


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