First published at Anti*Capitalist Resistance.
The current pay battles represent a crucial stage in the attempt by a hard-right government to deal a massive blow to working-class living standards, working conditions and democratic rights. Like Margaret Thatcher’s claim that the miners were ‘the enemy within’, the new Tory enemies are nurses, train staff, posties, school teachers, civil servants and university lecturers – a huge section of the workforce.
Impoverishment and power
Crash the economy, impoverish millions, crush the unions, collapse the NHS, victimise immigrants, ditch environmental standards, and launch a huge offensive against democratic rights – these are just the substance of the headlines from the Tory programme now that the summer leadership election is over.
But last Thursday’s December 15 tremendous mass turnout of NHS strikers, paralleled by sustained action by postal workers and railway staff, has thrown Rishi Sunak’s government onto the back foot over its plans to collapse living standards in the service of energy companies’ profits.
After the chaos and turmoil of the Tory leadership battle, the Conservative parliamentary party has regrouped around a project to impose a shattering defeat on the labour movement, immigrants and the working class as a whole.
In contrast to the handouts during the pandemic for furlough and PPE, Sunak’s hard-right government assumes power that is determined to force down wages, which, in turn, will result in collapsing companies, hundreds of thousands of new unemployed, and growing numbers in both food and fuel poverty.
Sunak’s cabinet is packed with hard-right ministers. If they are successful in the current pay battles, they will push ahead rapidly to impose a new law that will make it virtually impossible to hold a legal strike in the public sector. This would be a major defeat for trade unionism. Labour leader Keir Starmer has made it clear that while his party will oppose new anti-union legislation, an incoming government would not seek to overturn it.
In every sector where there is a pay battle, the government and the employers have plans to further worsen conditions in the name of ‘modernisation’ and ‘efficiency’. That means tens of thousands of redundancies and more casualised and zero-hours contracts.
Resistance and public support
But the Tories are losing the public opinion battle. An Observer poll on 16 December found more than 60% supporting further strikes, despite the right wing press and BBC doing everything they could to undermine public support.
The Tories want to make immigration a central part of their platform for the next election. Part of that depends on pushing through their plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, which have now been ratified by the courts. Amendments to current legislation will limit the right to seek judicial review, making it much easier to rapidly deport asylum seekers.
For the moment, bizarre accusations like those aired by government minister Nadhim Zahawi, that strikers are aiding Vladimir Putin’s barbaric assault on Ukraine, have been put on the back burner. For now the government is attempting to stir up public opinion against the strikers on the basis of ‘enough is enough’ and on the basis that at striking workers are harming patients and Christmas plans – including rail journeys (RMT) and mail deliveries (CWU). Any anti-union argument will do. RMT leader Mick Lynch is right to say the BBC is becoming more and more a simple tool of government propaganda.
We can afford it
The main ideological myth promoted by Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is that there is ‘no money’ to pay workers a significant pay increase. In fact, Britain is awash with money, it’s just that a declining amount of it goes to the working class. There has been a 20% leap in the number of billionaires, following the government pay-outs to those providing Personal Protection Equipment during the pandemic – a huge scandal, where tax money was used as a feeding trough for the rich.
To create the money needed to pay the strikers and to boost all working class incomes, it would be necessary to ensure transnational corporations like Amazon and McDonalds that earn billions in Britain should be taxed in Britain. Most of all, the energy companies themselves, awash with billions in profits, should be forced to pay a continuous ‘windfall tax’, especially as most of the gas and oil they sell here is produced in the British sector of the North Sea. If these companies refused to play ball, they should be nationalised – or at least their British assets should be – as happened to some banks after the 2008 economic crisis.
Only through sustained strike action can the government plans be defeated. And out of this current wave of strike struggles, combined with the mass response to the energy price catastrophe, a left political response must be created.
The energy price catastrophe that is rapidly approaching will force many more into fuel and food poverty, to joining the many who are already suffering this. The ironically named price ‘cap’ will permit indicates an average of a little more than £2,000 per household. Many will pay a lot more, especially those at home a lot, including pensioners and the growing band of people required to work at home whether they want to or not.
In each industry – railways, Royal Mail, the NHS – Rishi Sunak’s war cabinet wants to back employers in ‘modernising’ work practices. Longer hours and harsher working practices will be enforced across the board and many thousands of workers will be sacked – 11,000 to go in Royal Mail for starters.
Legal reforms to judicial review go hand-in-hand with the already in place Police, Crime and Sentencing Act that gives police extensive rights to ban demonstrations that might cause annoyance or disruption – targeting nearly all demonstrations.
In addition, a new law defending ‘free speech’ in universities – that of fascists and racists – is being punished through, making many university boycotts illegal.
The labour movement, and the Left of course, must do everything possible to support the strikers through building where possible, support committees linking labour movement, environmentalists and community activists. The Left, inside the Labour Party or not, should demand that Keir Starmer and the Labour front bench back the strikers. The whole working class faces a cost of living crisis, and working Britain needs a pay rise to keep pace with inflation. Claimants need a deal that will ensure they are at least up to the national minimum wage.
Socialists should support local food banks. This is not mere ‘charity’, but the beginning of the sort of self-organisation seen in Argentina during the 2000-2002 economic crisis.
This is a wave of strikes that can increase this self-organisation, and building it is a central task of the left.