A Unite activist asks if the cost of living crisis will lead us into a Summer of Discontent.
Tabloid editors are currently raiding the archives, and dragging out very retro looking pictures from 1978/79. You know the ones – rubbish piling up in the streets, blokes in donkey jackets standing over braziers. We are truly back to the future. Inflation, stagflation, “the country being held to ransom by greedy workers” and all the rest.
On 18th June, around 25,000 turned out for the We Deserve Better mobilisation in London. Post-Covid, and the trashing of the UK economy, we have the much discussed Cost of Living Crisis. Daily reports on the latest petrol price hike, families with heating bills rising from £80 to £140 per month, rent increases and evictions.
Despite the dead hand of the TUC, this march and rally was a bigger turnout than we’ve seen for a few years (Palestine aside, which was enormous). All very encouraging, and perhaps indicative of a shift in confidence and in workers consciousness.
It was very much a trade union event, so it was good to see Jeremy, Diane, Zarah, and the best of the Labour left present. Angie Baby, and some of the soft left, the fake left, and self defined centrists were also keen to be seen!
The Rail Strike was the biggest confrontation for many years, with 3 days of action which, in effect, closed the entire network for a week. Despite the anti-union laws, the RMT achieved resounding support from their 50,000 members. Clearly, the Tory Government are spoiling for a fight so the stakes are high for both sides.
It’s an interesting one, ‘cos rail workers are generally popular with the public, and polling suggest there is sympathy, if not outright support for their action. How this will play out remains to be seen as, if it’s gonna be effective, it’s gonna hurt. That’s the whole bloody point!
Contrary to the Tory and msm narrative, the RMT action is not simply over pay. Justified though their case clearly is. Starmer is clueless, like a rabbit in the headlights. Telling the Shadow Cabinet not to show support, so it’s good to see several Campaign Group members were very visible on RMT picket lines.
But standard rules apply. The narrative in right wing circles is one of ‘greedy workers’ ‘extremist Union Barons hoodwinking their members’ how ‘giving in to excessive wage demands stokes Inflation/ costs jobs’
Heard it all a thousand times before.
Yeah, standard rules – ‘we are offering you 2%, but may go up to 3% if you agree to modernisation/ productivity changes’.
Which in this case equates to reduced services, cuts in maintenance, reduced customer services, closing ticket offices, removing guards, attacks on terms and conditions.
With regard to pay, with inflation heading for 11%, they’re clearly having a laugh.
But the RMT are not on their own. There has been a steady rise in unionised workers being prepared to fight back. Most visibly, industrial action by bin workers and bus drivers. Some of the strikes are against Labour run councils, acting like Tories. The Communication Workers (CWU) have just announced a ballot of 125,000 postal workers, teachers are planning industrial action, as are civil servants.
Post-Covid, Brexshit is also starting to bite. The shortages of HGV drivers, of low paid so called ‘unskilled’ workers. And the private sector are starting to flex their muscles. Strikes at Gatwick and Heathrow, on the ferries, 12,000 Rolls Royce workers balloted.
We can see a change in the balance of forces. Marxists are always concerned to look at the objective conditions which now, for the first time in a long time, favour our class. There is grassroots pressure from below, angry workers pushing their leaders to take action.
But never underestimate the importance of leadership. Mick Lynch is storming it and smashing the media all over the place – channelling the late great Bob Crow. Sharon Graham is similarly leading from the front at Unite. Leading militantly, belligerently, unapologetically.
For many years now, most disputes have been strictly defensive. Below inflation pay rises have been the norm, particularly in the public sector. Pensions have been attacked, hard fought gains on basic terms and conditions lost.
Even during the Corbyn years, the level of resistance was very low, even with Corbyn and McDonnell insisting they would never repudiate a dispute, ever present on picket lines, always supporting workers in struggle.
But this is a genuine cost of living crisis, and workers are finding their voice and saying We Demand Better.