Freedom News

It’s all out for a new wave of strikes

Tube engineering worker and RMT rep Andy Littlechild writes on the background and forming of the latest strike wave, building the wave to a tsunami, and our broader need for community defence.

So complex is the situation we’ve been in over the last six months; with such an amount and range of strikes occurring, that for the first time in my adult life it’s impossible to keep on top of who’s going on strike. It’s worthwhile reflecting back on how the upsurge in feeling and action among workers and the general public has been steadily building since 2008’s austerity cuts began pressing down hard on jobs, public services and benefits.

Establishment Decadence

There has been the obscene expenses scandal of MPs, the bankers’ bailout alongside Grenfell and the growing need for food banks. The pandemic witnessed the social murder of our elderly and infirm in care homes, open mass financial corruption in corporations and the top ranks of the government; who partied away while disregarding the Covid rules they made us strictly obey. There was the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard by police officer Wayne Couzens, police racism, authoritarian attempts to ban protest under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and continued government inaction over looming climate change.

Stupidly, the government and corporations lost all self-control; revealing the true nature of capitalism, the Establishment and their utter pitiless disregard for us, who pay for their privileges.

As the saying goes: “They keep taking the jug to the well until it breaks!”

The jug has indeed now broken; leaving the government looking on as everything runs through their fingers and they’re left holding dangerous, razor-sharp shards.

Ripples Build To A Wave

Notable strike action had been occurring for some time; bin workers in Coventry and bus workers in Manchester pre-dating the latest main strike wave; but it was the scandal of a vicious application of “fire and re-hire” to the P&O maritime workers which smashed into the public consciousness; an outrage their union RMT did not meet with effective resistance.

As increasing numbers of industries saw workers on the sharp end of the government and employers’ insistence that they pay for the pandemic; the Department for Transport (DfT) and Transport for London (TfL) took on Tube and rail workers in the capital and across the nation. In the build up to the first Tube strike in March, I again carried the debate in RMT for a staggered two-day strike; a tactic I had devised along with others, which had been used to great effect in another Tube strike a few years before.

Around 10,500 RMT Tube workers struck on Tuesday 1st and Thursday 3rd March; crippling London for most of the week but costing just two days’ pay to RMT strikers and others from the Unite, Aslef and TSSA unions who had refused to cross picket lines. DfT’s response was to bring forward similar attacks on Network Rail engineering workers and train drivers, guards and station staff across more than 14 train operating companies (TOCs). Unfortunately for the DfT, successful strike ballots of 40,000 RMT members occurred across Network Rail and all the TOCs, plus ballots by Alsef and TSSA, with Unite also balloting on London Underground.

Tube workers struck again for a day in June; Aslef struck nationally on August 13th, followed by RMT employing the “maximum carnage for minimum loss of pay” staggered strike again. There was a national walkout on August 18th and 20th; with a joint RMT London Underground and Overground strike squeezed in the middle on Friday 19th, Unite was striking on the Tube plus 85 London bus routes and across other TfL operations.

These growing rail strikes, accompanied by RMT general secretaries Mick Lynch and Eddie Dempsey’s public mastering of bosses, politicians and media bigshots, received national and international exposure, connecting with workers everywhere.

Other workers, ground down by the cost of living crisis and more looming energy bill hikes, found themselves hard pressed at work with pay freezes, fire and re-hire, leading to this strike wave swelling up; taking in workers from barristers to bin workers all over Britain. Inspired workers have been taking to the ballot box and striking: the Criminal Bar Association, 115,000 posties, workers in refuse, telecommunications, buses, education, councils, NHS, mobile phone companies, airports, coop funeral care, docks, RCN nurses, exam adjudicators, cleaners and BMA doctors. Weetabix and Jacobs Cream Cracker workers were having a go too. Spontaneous unofficial strike actions took place at eight Amazon warehouses and at multiple oil refineries.

As I write strikes are taking place, further dates are being set and more ballots are rolling in many unions, industries and workplaces; it’s dizzying to keep up with. Similarly to my union RMT, other general secretaries and leaderships are hostage to their members’ determination to fight and the kudos this has bought them. This can always change; Lynch may be a household name now but doesn’t hide his view that RMT will have to consider some sort of a deal in our various disputes. The rank and file must keep a close eye on union bosses, as always, countering any premature settlements which don’t matching-up to the aims of their disputes. Most current and new disputes aren’t near resolution, the wave has been steadily growing.

Threats To Consider

An obvious threat comes with the Conservative government’s endless war on the freedom to strike and protest. What was once unlawful has now been made an option open to business, employers can now recruit outside agency scabs to break strikes, as just witnessed with Royal Mail and the posties. Liz Truss is ideologically wedded to enriching her business masters at the expense and even deaths of poor and working class people. Truss is incapable of setting out any policy she can stick to, apart from her continuous authoritarian pronouncements, which she collapses into by default as a refuge for her spiteful mundanity.

In regard to workers’ desire to continue fighting; the Labour Party is too busy sending business-friendly signals and distancing themselves from strikers to be a demobilising threat. By far the biggest threat to continuing generalised strike action comes in the form of the TUC, who would be its kiss of death. Any involvement of this treacherous arm of the State whatsoever should be opposed; especially the TUC calling a general strike. Handing over the strike wave to them would bury it quicker than you could say “I Heart Unions”; which if you remember the last time the TUC were involved in calling a general strike is all we ended up with: a social media campaign around posting that wretched phrase on our social media profile! Even if the TUC were to call a day or two of strike action it would be used merely as a national cathartic celebration, followed by endless talks which would release the steam from the strikes and open the door for Sir Starmer to intervene, demonstrating his class collaborationist abilities and promoting his general election campaign. Any move by unions for the TUC to call a general strike in reality will be union leaders looking for a bureaucratic way out.

Striking union members must instead insist that generalised coordinated strike action be sought between trades unions themselves; including the new non-TUC, direct action oriented unions such as IWGB, UVW and CAIWU.

Striking Alone Is Not Enough — The Necessity of Community Defence

Workers, along with citizens, are under attack in communities: the cost of living crisis, cuts to services, benefits and energy bills most won’t be able to pay; designed to empty bank accounts and cull our most vulnerable once again. With this double aspect facing us, strikes need to be embedded and supported by our communities to survive the course. Similarly, communities will need the fighting spirit and tactical abilities of the striking workers they live alongside. In accord with an anarcho-syndicalist approach, which is basically a workers’ approach anyway, we must intertwine both this strike wave at work with the broader class war being waged against us by the government, energy companies, corporations and landlords.

Enough Is Enough, a coalition of union leaders, Labour politicians and lefties with one eye on the Labour Party, still provides a cautiously usable network to build resistance. Don’t Pay is a resistance tool which has gotten Ofgem, politicians, the media and even Enough Is Enough in a growing state of panic. A most promising prospect could be the re-emergence of mutual aid groups; which sprang up spontaneously across Britain during the complete Covid-19 lockdown of March 2020. Mutual aid was self-organised to varying degrees as community support networks, while the national, regional and local State collapsed and fell into irrelevance. The virus was an invisible enemy; this time as well as the need for mutual support we have very tangible, clear and visible enemies; and it will be obvious, natural and acceptable for people to move beyond important mutual support to include community defence and resistance also.

We must learn from the past experience of the Covid-19 mutual aid groups to avoid local council co-option and charity mentalities setting in again as mutual aid groups re-emerge. Their potential in solidarity with their striking community members as needed support groups for those who won’t or just can’t pay limitless energy bills may be the piece of the jigsaw needed to win this social class war. What’s more, self-organised communities united with the working population is our only hope in the face of impending climate catastrophe; which we must start planning and building for.

Maintain rank and file control of the strike wave, and build community defence!

Pic: Guy Smallman

This article first appeared in the Winter 2022/23 edition of Freedom journal, available at our online shop for the cost of postage.

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