“The legislation covers six sectors and opens up the prospect that, if minimum service levels are not met, employers could sue unions and sack workers… make no mistake, democracy itself is on the line.”
Trade unions are at the forefront of the fight for democracy against plutocracy writes Laura Smith.
Well, here we go. Shocked? Nope, me neither. The news that Ministers have announced new legislation that will enforce “minimum service levels” in key public services, including the National Health Service, is a major assault on the right to strike, well-trailed in advance, and highly predictable.
As introduced, the Bill will require “a basic level of service in some of our most crucial sectors when industrial action takes place.”
The legislation covers six sectors – health, rail, education, fire, border security and nuclear – and opens up the prospect that, if minimum service levels are not met, employers could sue unions and sack workers. This in a country which already has some of the most restrictive anti-strike, anti-trade union legislation in the advanced industrial world, and in which wages have long been suppressed and living standards are now plummeting, further eroding the ability of British workers to feed, clothe and house their families, let alone aim for a better life. The gloves are truly off and the fight is now on.
Much will depend upon the outcome of this class showdown, which will shape the country for a long time to come.
Wages for the British worker have been stagnant for the longest period since the Napoleonic wars. Double-digit inflation in key necessities is driving the soaring cost of living, while corporate profits are up and billionaires are running away with the lion’s share of what anemic gains there are in a faltering economy. Even when there was productivity, it has long been decoupled from wages, exploding the mythical nonsense that hard work is the road to success. Bonuses for bankers while key workers are forced to turn to foodbanks has destroyed the belief that what you are paid is simply a measure of what you are worth to the market – a notion that has become ever more offensive.
During the pandemic, a curtain was ripped back on the real economy, and the public saw clearly that those carrying out a vital public service are key workers, and have been historically undervalued. Suddenly, it was apparent that caregivers, nurses, emergency service workers, transport workers, shelf-stackers, and producers of basic necessities are the lifeblood of our economy, not the bankers and the politicians and the speculators. We stood on our doorsteps and clapped for the NHS. Now as inflation soars and trade unions push to secure wages that barely keep pace with prices (let alone make up for a lost decade), those who were clapped and praised and held up as ‘heroes and angels’ are being demonized by government and the media as militants and the new enemy within, expected to once again pay the price through more extreme austerity measures.
The reasons behind this can no longer be defended on the grounds that it is ‘for the good of the country’s economy.’ It has been proven that austerity doesn’t work, as even the IMF now admits – a zombie economics. It is so obvious that the real motivation is greed, profiteering, tax avoidance, and the final round of looting of a failing system creaking on its last legs. We truly are living through the time of the most shameless and hypocritical greed, led from the top by a talentless and detached leadership with seemingly no desire to even try to solve any of the catastrophic problems we face. They are concerned only with themselves, and with amassing all the wealth they can before the music stops.
This is why the idea of trade unions is so frightening to them. As a forty-year-old failed experiment in neoliberal economics comes grinding to a halt in crisis and disarray, the prospect of collective action to force change threatens everything they represent. As picket lines increase across sectors and spread across the country, with more and more workers turning to industrial action in the greatest strike-wave since the 1970s as NHS workers, civil servants, postal workers, rail workers and educators ballot to withdraw their labour, the satraps of capital in Parliament and shameless sycophants in the media are attempting to shove through legislation attacking the public’s right to strike.
They are acting now because the reasons for workers to strike are only going to increase. Household income is set to fall by a further 3.8% on average in 2023, an even bigger hit than in 2022, according to the Resolution Foundation. Pensions and benefits continue to erode, while public services like the NHS are crumbling from years of underfunding, private profiteering, and extraction. Trade union members and their leaders – the key workers – are therefore on the very front lines of defending our living standards and our public services, which is why the government and the Tory press must make them the enemy.
And thus they are attacking our basic right to strike, just as earlier in this Parliament they have attacked our right to protest and even restricted our ability to vote. Make no mistake, democracy itself is on the line, including democratic freedoms in the economy. There is a word for forced labour – slavery – and a reason why the right to organise and to strike has long been considered one of the most basic of our freedoms. Without the leverage of withdrawing your labour you stand no chance in achieving just compensation or bringing about necessary change in industries such as education, health, and public transport.
If you have to provide a minimal service or face the sack you are as good as imprisoned subject to the bosses’ demands.
Even more dangerous to them, perhaps, is that industrial action is a form of collective solidarity that brings with it a different politics and set of relationships – as you will find if you go on any picket line across the country. And of course this legislation directly targets trade unions, making it easier to sue them and, if they persist in industrial conflict, push them into bankruptcy. This is personal as well as political, as politicians’ egos have been bruised and damaged by their encounters with straight-talking trade union leaders like Mick Lynch and Dave Ward.
Polls show strong public support for strikers, and the government and media are well aware of the discontent that is growing. A general election in the near future could practically wipe them out if current voting intentions persist. Thus the effort to pass as much legislation as is possible in the time that they have remaining in power. At the same time, they will attempt to pour fuel on the fires and stoke the rage of culture wars in an attempt to push a far right narrative to drown out any progressive left vision. The ads for medical fast-tracking at a price will increase, as public provision is undermined and eroded, and more and more debt will creep in to the average person’s life.
This is a class war. Pure and simple. And either democracy or plutocracy will win.
I have been saying for some time that what we are currently witnessing in politics is the transition to the next stage of this battle – between us and them, between the many and the few, between the rich and the rest of us. And it will get messy. What the future holds depends on each and every one of us and what we decide to do.
The challenge is massive and starts and ends with how to convince the majority of the public that there is an alternative to this depressing groundhog day cycle of greed and exhaustion, of boom and bust, of poverty amid plenty, public squalor amid private affluence.
People do not want much: a nice life with a safe home, a good health service, access to education and dignity both at work and in old age. In one of the wealthiest countries in the history of the world, this should be the bare minimum, not too much to ask. The fact that things are as they are is a sickening indictment of a failing leadership and a failed economic model.
We have to once again value community and turn back the clock on the Thatcher mantra that ‘there is no such thing in society’, halting the normalisation and acceptance of foodbanks, homelessness, and – the latest abomination – the advent of ‘warm spaces’ in the face of exploding fuel poverty in a country with as much wealth as ours.
It has been predictable since the 2008 financial crash that the sticking plasters that were added to the gaping wounds of a failing system would at some point no longer address the glaringly obvious morbid symptoms of a dying neoliberalism. For all the finger pointing and blaming of immigrants and benefit claimants and divisive culture wars, and for all the elite domination of and control over our political system and media, the ruling class has not been able to prevent the mask from slipping. For the left, we need to realise that now is the time for us to fight like we never have done before.
We need to bring unstoppable pressure to bear on the institutions that are supposed to represent us and our interests. The TUC must step up and coordinate between trade unions – and if they don’t, then the leaders of major unions must take control themselves and really work together. You would not invite a person to come in and rob your house whilst you stand watching, yet that is exactly what this government is doing with our livelihoods right now. In the face of this latest assault on our basic freedoms – the right to strike – we must meet fire with fire.
It’s time to get serious and fight like our lives depended on it, because they do. In 2018 I called for a general strike, and was ridiculed by the right-wing press and some political opponents. Something like that now seems urgently necessary. It’s amazing what a few hard short years can change.
- Laura Smith is a trade unionist, councillor in Cheshire East and former MP for Crewe & Nantwich. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram and twitter.
- You can hear more from Laura Smith at the upcoming event hosted by Surrey Country UNISON: “Myth-Busting Government Finances. The Money’s There, Why Won’t They Pay Us Or Fund Our Public Services?” on Wednesday, January 18th. Register and find out more here.