“The working class is back…we refuse to be poor anymore” declared Mick Lynch, the General Secretary of the RMT trade union, at the Durham Miner’s Gala.
As strikes sweep across the country this summer amidst a cost of living crisis, Lynch is right to assert that the working class are back defending their pay and working conditions.
Strikes are occurring across several sectors in the UK. For example, the RMT and ASLEF trade unions are striking in the transport sector, the CWU is arranging strikes across the communications sector and the NEU is likely to strike in the education sector.
There are also numerous local disputes, such as the Arriva bus dispute in Yorkshire, in which Unite trade union members are striking over pay and working conditions.
As expected, the Conservative Government and the right-leaning media have lambasted the trade unions. They have criticised union leaders by characterising them as “barons” and “dinosaurs” of the past which are causing chaos for working people.
Yet, those that criticise strikes often forget to mention that it is the workers themselves that have voted to take industrial action. Thus, the union leaders are not acting unilaterally.
The strikes have also been critiqued for being inconvenient, but that is the point of industrial action: it is not supposed to be convenient. Strikes are an expression of the political power of the working class as they demonstrate how essential the work of ordinary people is.
Another typical critical response to industrial action is to suggest that those on strike are greedy for wanting an increase in their wages. However, it is important to note the following.
The UK has more billionaires than ever before and an increasing number of millionaires, as profits are soaring for many businesses and individuals. The combined wealth of the UK’s 250 richest people (including Tory leadership contender Rishi Sunak and his wife) is £710 billion.
Yet, workers who produce the country’s wealth and have worked throughout the pandemic to keep the country functioning are now facing stagnating wages, an inflation rate of 9% (which is expected to rise to 11%) and the highest tax burden since the 1940s. There is a clear inequality here.
Many have been left with no choice but to take industrial action. Going on strike is never an easy option, but no worker should accept a decline in their wages, their living standards or their working conditions.
To focus on a specific dispute, one can look at the RMT’s strikes across the rail sector. The union is currently in a dispute over working conditions, job insecurity (there are plans to cut 1,800 jobs) and pay.
Following a national strike in June, Network Rail provided workers with an offer of a 4% pay rise. However, the new offer still amounts to a real-term pay cut due to inflation and will still involve compulsory redundancies. This has led to the RMT rejecting the new offer.
The RMT has rightly argued that workers’ pay and conditions should not be attacked. Instead, they have suggested that profits should be used to give a decent pay rise to workers and to provide them with job security. Network Rail can afford this: between July 2019 and July 2020, over £2 billion was made in private profits. In addition, Network Rail’s top ten highest-paid individuals make a combined £3.68 million each year, with the CEO receiving an annual income of £585,000.
Due to the RMT rejecting the new offer, further strikes are planned for this year. The trade union remains open for negotiations. However, the Government are refusing to sit at the negotiating table.
As demonstrated by the RMT dispute, workers’ pay, conditions and job security are being attacked amidst a cost of living crisis. At this time workers must be in solidarity with one another. It is important to remember that an injustice to one worker is an injustice for all workers. Pay and conditions must be protected for all.
Workers must support each other, as the state will often do all it can to prevent workers from achieving a fair deal.
To take a historical example, in August 1819 workers gathered in Peterloo to demand parliamentary representation. This resulted in cavalry being used to charge into the crowd, killing and injuring many.
More recently, when miners participated in industrial action in June 1984 at Orgreaves, the police force attacked many of them, injuring over 100 people. Media reports blamed the confrontation on the miners, but the Independent Police Complaints Commission in June 2015 found that there was “excessive violence by police officers” and that accusations of miners using violence were greatly exaggerated.
These two parts of the labour movement’s history demonstrate that working class activism is often disparaged by the state, which aims to maintain the status quo at the expense of working people. The state will use several tactics to do this, whether that be introducing strict anti-union legislation, or using divide and rule methods to pit workers against workers.
Therefore, it is important that the working class lend their support to one another during the upcoming wave of industrial action. This will demonstrate to the state and the critical voices in the media that the working class will not tolerate unfair labour relations in any economic sector.
Taking industrial action is not easy, but after a decade of wage stagnation and a severe cost of living crisis, workers have been left with no choice but to take industrial action to protect their pay and working conditions.