Potentials and Pitfalls After February 1st Strike

By Ronney Turus – ISL United Kingdom

February 1st was a huge success for the workers and unions in the UK.  It was billed a massive day of industrial action in decade by the masses.  Over half million strikers were on the picket line and tens of thousands protested across the country. 350 000 schoolteachers, 100 000 civil servants, 70 000 university lecturers, and rail workers joined the picket line on the day. There will be more strikes in the coming days including National Health Service, rail, teachers, lecturers, and culture workers (museums) throughout February.

It was an impressive sight of solidarity as well as resistance to witness workers, their families, pupils, university students, and public joining and backing strikers.  There was a feel of empowerment to fight back.  This was a test of further coordinated, escalated action that will be a must to win decent pay, to resist precarious jobs and to defeat brutal anti-union laws that are being streamlined through parliament.

Anti-strike laws plan a “minimum service level” that will be a condition for rail services, fire, ambulance, public services, health, education, and nuclear workers.  The union members who were asked by their bosses to work under this law but refused to do so could lose their jobs. The bosses could bring an injunction to stop strikes or seek compensation, from the unions and workers, if strikes go ahead. The employers would name the workers that they want them to work on a strike day. For example, a militant union rep could be asked to work on the day of the strike which will demoralise and undermine the strike. 

The UK has already one of the most anti-democratic union laws. For example, there are over 500 000 teachers in England. If teachers’ unions would like to strike legally at least half of the 500 thousand teachers have to vote and half of them should have voted in favour of the strike. If one applies this algorithm to the parliamentary election in the UK then only a handful of parliament members would have been elected.

The UK governments, Labour, and Tories, implemented an austerity programme against workers and the poor since the 2008 financial crisis.  The wage increase has always been under the inflation since then for all the workers.  Teachers have lost 23 per cent in real terms since 2010, and support staff in the schools 27 per cent over the same period. Nurses have lost 20 percent of their salaries against the inflation since 2010.  And again, a university lecturer has lost around 23 per cent in real terms. Cost of living, which consists of an increase in energy, food prices, mortgage, individual taxes and fuels, have gone up by 11% only in 2022. This is a 41 – year high increase in prices.  While teachers and nurses cannot afford to buy food and rely on food banks, and pay their energy bills, the corporate profits have gone up by as much as 8 folds.  The British government can blame war in Ukraine, Brexit, energy prices, inflation and so forth but austerity was a choice. While the salaries stagnated, the profits skyrocketed. Rich avoided paying their taxes.

First of February was a right step and in the right direction but it is not enough. Now, the workers and unions have got to step up for a coordinated strike for all the workers. The RMT is considering a new deal offered by the rail companies. The nurses might be offered a bit better deal, but still under the inflation, to stop them striking. Teachers will be made scapegoats as always happen in the UK. Each layer of workers will be peeled off one by one in April or May.

There has been unwillingness from some unions to coordinate and escalate the strike.  If the unions cannot fulfil their purpose to defend their members in a collective action, then that will be the last nail in the coffin of trade unionism in England.  Margaret Thatcher clipped the wings of the unions in the 80s. Now, the government would like to amputate the unions from knee down.

The British government is weak, divided and paralysed with internal conflicts and personal matters. A general strike will not only overthrow the government but open the avenues for enhancing working class struggle and gains.  Some activists are advocating 15th March as the day for coordinated and escalated day of action. A national demonstration on 11the March then a coordinated and escalated day of action will shake the establishment which is already on thin ice.  Can that happen? The union leaders have turned and twisted the movement, dived and ducked up to now.  They still can undermine the movement, but they know this time it will damage the unions for a long time. Can they take the risk?