“At a moment when the purely extractive nature of so much of the economy is plainly on display to more and more people, Labour should be firmly on the side of the trade unions and working people.”
By Laura Smith
As the battle lines are being drawn over what threatens to become the greatest reduction in living standards for ordinary working people since records began, the Labour Party leadership has failed the basic test of solidarity.
Having banned front-bench MPs from appearing on picket lines with striking workers seeking to protect their wages and working conditions, Keir Starmer last week sacked a shadow transport minister for “making policy on the hoof”—the offending policy being the statement that workers should not have to accept below-inflation pay offers.
The position of the Labour Party Leadership would seem to be that British workers should be taking real-terms pay reductions – and that after a decade of austerity and wage stagnation.
At just the moment when the trade unions are digging in to wage industrial struggles to prevent their members being fed into the maw of a raging cost-of-living crisis when company profits are soaring unchecked, the Labour Party leadership has deserted the field.
Labour’s Historical Record
The failure to display the most basic solidarity that should have been shown to workers making the desperately difficult decision to take strike action is a short-sighted one in the light of what is yet to come – likely a long, hot summer of strikes and disruptions that will run well into the autumn and beyond.
The cost-of-living crisis will continue to rage as food and energy bills mount and wages stagnate, while at the same time shareholder profits and CEO compensation soar. At a moment when the purely extractive nature of so much of the economy is plainly on display to more and more people, Labour should be firmly on the side of the trade unions and working people.
Of course, some of the criticism directed at Starmer seemed to imply a golden past in which Labour adopted a more defensible position. This is too rosy a view. In fact, the record of the parliamentary leadership of Labour on this matter is far from stellar.
During the great 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, Labour leader Neil Kinnock famously failed to stand with the strikers, joining instead with right-wing demands that the miners hold a ballot intended to undermine the strike.
The result was a generational defeat for the entire labour movement in a fight that the Thatcher government was determined to pick from the beginning – but that was nevertheless still a very close-run thing.
Go further back in time and leader after leader has resisted openly supporting strike action. Even the celebrated post-war Attlee Labour government broke strikes and took action against dockers, postal workers, miners and power workers!
Instead, Labour promised that they will be the workers’ voice in Parliament, and enact favourable legislation that will prevent the need for strikes in the first place “Justice through the ballot box’’.
Summer of Solidarity
The total retreat by the leadership of the Labour Party from the policies needed to drive this forward is the reason why solidarity with the trade unions is now more important than ever.
There is a fundamental failure to recognise that we live in very different economic times to when the last Labour government was in power.
People need an economy that runs democratically in the interests of the many in this country, and a failure to tackle inequality through distribution of wealth and reversing privatisation simply will not cut it. There must be systemic change.
After a decade of pay squeeze, headline inflation is running at over 11 per cent, and even the basics are becoming increasingly unaffordable for many people across Britain. Organising and fighting for change is only going to come through action in the workplace—as Mick Lynch of the RMT puts it, the cost-of-living crisis needs to be “resolved through the pay packet.”
After the longest period of wage suppression since the Napoleonic Wars, Britain needs a pay rise. We live in one of the richest countries in the history of the world. That it doesn’t feel that way, that so many people are struggling to get by or make ends meet, is a result of all the wealth being syphoned off at the top.
A general pay rise, inflation-proofing living standards and making up for a decade of lost real earnings, should come directly out of corporate profits, cutting off the fat cats from the source of their increasing wealth, which they extract from workers and the public.
It can be brought about by standing shoulder to shoulder with our trade union brothers and sisters and collectively demanding our fair share of the pie!
Like the Miners’ Strike before it, the generalised industrial action that is shaping up for the months ahead will set the political terms for the coming era. Who gains the upper hand will have consequences far beyond the immediate disputes that are fought out.
The outcome will determine whether ordinary working people will be asked to bear the costs of the pandemic and our new era of supply shocks and stagflation, or whether business executives and shareholders will be forced to pay out of their excess profits and amassed wealth.
Which to squeeze, people or profits?
These are the stakes in this epic summer of solidarity.
Taking Aim at Capital
Our trade unions are the frontline of our defence. More and more people will be facing the very hard prospect of strike action as practices such as fire and rehire accelerate and terms and conditions are slashed whilst families struggle to pay sky rocketing bills and contend with their diminishing pay packets.
As the recent media sensation around trade union spokespeople has demonstrated, the public in this country is ready for some straight talk about the structural problems we are facing. They are ready to join the dots between the ludicrous pay-outs to shareholders and bonuses to bankers and CEOs feathering their nests whilst working people break their backs working long hours and are still unable to make ends meet.
The likes of Mick Lynch and Dave Ward and many other trade unionists are now on hand to articulate plain truths that Labour politicians are too fearful to speak.
A wave of industrial action is coming, as pain hits workplace after workplace, be it railway workers, train drivers, bus drivers, bin workers, teachers, nurses, doctors, barristers, posties, cleaners, delivery workers, engineers, call centres – almost every sector is at breaking point, beset by the same distributional struggles over the surplus and who is to share in the overall gains to the economy, the rich or the rest.
The national rail strikes organised by the RMT have produced a level of solidarity across the trade union movement that the working class has not witnessed in decades.
A majority of the public already sympathise, understanding why the strikes are happening and—after the disruption of Covid—having developed an increased tolerance for disruption to the rhythms of everyday life.
This should be easy pickings for a united labour movement.
During the Covid crisis, the combined wealth of the billionaire class in the UK rose 21.7 per cent, to an eye-watering £597 billion. Yet the Tory government and media are attempting to paint workers on the railways fighting to preserve the real value of their wages and to save jobs and advance public safety as greedy trade unions!
We must help the public see through these lies.
But above all else, what we have to ensure is that the next phase of industrial action is coordinated. Trade unions must work together and establish key goals and standards they all support 100 per cent. The key messages have to be linked and the time to build powerful alliances is now.
This coordination is properly the role of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), but if it does not act then the individual unions must step into the breach.
There must be no re-run of past shameful episodes in the history of trade unionism, as with the betrayal of the Triple Alliance and undermining of the 1926 General Strike.
We need a mass campaign by the whole trade union movement against the further anti-union laws now being threatened by the candidates for Tory leader (and thus Prime Minister) in a desperate attempt to try to further hamper workers’ ability to take effective industrial action.
Recruitment must go into overdrive, offering workers somewhere to coordinate collective action. Key to that is the organisation within the unions themselves, turning members into campaigners and driving the call to action.
Whether joining the picket yourself, donating to strike funds, or supporting at protests, every single person in the labour movement has a role to play. This does not stop at the end of the summer.
Change is what is needed, and it is time for us to direct that change in the interests of ordinary people who deserve so much better. Whether we realise it yet or not, we’re in a class war in this country and it is time to pick a side.
Back in 2018, at a rally at Labour Party Conference, I raised the prospect of a General Strike, saying that the time would come for working people in this country to unite to “topple this cruel and callous Tory government as soon as we can.”
Whilst some people in the Labour Party reacted as if I had just proposed committing a murder, I was in fact simply stating that power lies with working people in this country if only they’d wake up and realise it.
Today, that might finally be happening.
We have our work cut out for us, against one of the most blinkered and short-sighted ruling classes in what the historian R. H. Tawney once termed “the oldest and toughest plutocracy in the world.”
The other side, the establishment protecting capital at all costs, will not pull any punches. They know that they don’t stand a chance if the masses of ordinary people in this country pull together.
With the first wave of industrial action we have flexed our muscles already.
Now it’s time to hit them where it hurts!