“The rank and file organising conference on Saturday 10 June in London, takes place in a context shaped by the hugely welcome upsurge in strike action, but also one that is characterised by serious challenges.”
By Alex Snowdon
It is now an established fact: the organised working class has returned as a political force in Britain. After over 30 years of very low levels of strike action, we are finally seeing a revival of industrial action. In 2022, there were 2.3 million strike days – the highest annual total in more than three decades – and the figure for 2023 is destined to be still higher. The fact that the BBC is currently screening a series called ‘Strike: Inside the Unions’ is testament to the impact that unions are making.
The first strike wave began in June 2022, with rail workers and postal workers in the vanguard. At last July’s Durham Miners’ Gala, RMT leader Mick Lynch announced: “We’re back. The working class is back.” It reflected a new-found combativity, confidence and optimism – a sense that workers, through their trade unions, were asserting themselves after a long drought in strike action.
Since then, we have seen a second wave of strikes – principally but not exclusively in the health and education sectors – with hundreds of thousands of teachers, lecturers, civil service workers, nurses, junior doctors and many others taking action. These have been accompanied by vibrant strike rallies, countless picket lines and a number of major national demonstrations.
We are now one year on. Lynch’s bold words have been vindicated – RMT strikes have been succeeded by many other unions taking national strike action – but now the mood is more sober. Victories (even partial ones) have proved hard to achieve, as the Tory government and employers have proved intransigent, and a range of tensions and tactical differences have emerged within the labour movement.
The rank and file organising conference on Saturday 10 June in London – How We Fight, How We Win – takes place in a context shaped by the hugely welcome upsurge in strike action, but also one that is characterised by serious challenges. It is an opportunity to take stock of progress so far, and share success stories, but also to reflect carefully on what obstacles we face and how we might overcome them.
The unifying issue behind strike action has been pay, fuelled by the cost-of-living crisis and high inflation in particular. Yet the pay deals being offered to workers – even after taking significant levels of strike action – have mostly remained well below inflation. The upsurge in strike action represents a positive shift for the trade-union movement after over thirty years of low levels of strike action, but the recovery is from a low base. Overall trade union membership had already fallen by over half from its peak of 13 million in 1980 before the recent announcement that 2022 – despite the strike wave – had seen a further decline of around 200,000 members.
One characteristic which reflects this weak baseline position is the lack of confidence to take indefinite action. The dominant form of strike action so far has been the national one-day or two-day strike, though sometimes there has been a significant series of such strikes. It has also proved difficult to get coordination of strike dates by unions. 15 March – when several unions took strike action in concert – represented a peak, but there have been some serious missed opportunities too.
The situation has been extremely uneven, with some union leaders (for example in Unison and GMB) showing little appetite for industrial action, while a number of unions have failed to reach ballot thresholds. There has been a problem with some unions (notably in the health sector) settling for underwhelming deals following negotiations. The rejection by a majority of RCN nurses of a weak deal – one that was recommended by their leadership – is the most impressive rank-and-file rebellion in the unions to date. The grassroots network that coordinated the rebellion, NHS Workers Say No, will be represented at Saturday’s organising conference.
In a number of unions, such as RCN and UCU, a degree of antagonism has developed between the union leadership and many elements of the rank and file over what is winnable and over the tactics needed to win. Some leaders have proved too willing to settle for too little. We have also seen UCU general secretary Jo Grady repudiating her own union’s democratic decision – by conference delegates – to pass an anti-war motion that opposes pouring arms into Ukraine and NATO escalation. It illustrates how some union leaders can be a block on important political questions as well as core pay and conditions issues.
All of this makes the conference a valuable opportunity to gather together activists from a wide range of unions to evaluate our achievements, identify the challenges and strategise for a way forward.
- The How We Fight, How We Win Rank-and-File Organising Conference will be taking place from 10:30am-5pm on Saturday 10 June at the Rich Mix, Bethnal Green Road, London, E1 6LA. It will be followed by the How We Win Strike Solidarity Benefit from 6pm featuring Lowkey, Barbarella, Don Biswas and others.
- Alex Snowdon is a teacher, workplace rep, and district secretary for Northumberland National Education Union (NEU). He is active in NEU Left.
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