A summer of discontent?

By Albert Perks, RMT member.

Source > Labour Hub

At last, the trade union movement is rising “like lions after slumber”. For many years the level of strikes has been the lowest in the history of the British trade union movement, despite a slow but steady fall in real pay for over decade for most workers.  But with inflation now over 10%, workers are taking action to get pay rises that at least keep up with inflation. And the labour shortages across the economy mean that workers are in a stronger position to take effective action to force pay rises out of their bosses.

Rail strikes

The RMT’s rail strikes in June, on Network Rail and 13 Train Operating Companies (TOCs), were not just over pay but also against the plans by rail bosses – backed and guided by the Department for Transport – for cuts to jobs, including compulsory redundancies, and worsening of pay and conditions. The RMT has announced further strikes this month and next. Of the other rail unions ASLEF, which represents most train drivers, has called a strike for 30th July on ten TOCs after massive votes for action, and TSSA, which represents rail managers, supervisors, and clerical staff, has had votes for strike action which beat the legal threshold on six TOCs and on Network Rail.

And on Tuesday 21st June, RMT members on London Underground were on strike alongside those on the national rail network. They are in an ongoing campaign against Transport for London’s proposals to cut their jobs and working conditions, and undermine their Pension Scheme.

ASLEF has so far held three says of strikes which have stopped Croydon’s Tramlink system, again over pay.

Bus strikes

Since the election last year of Sharon Graham as General Secretary, Unite have campaigned for pay rises for bus workers. Over last autumn and winter, Unite won pay rises across many Stagecoach companies, such as a 10.7% pay increase for 560 workers in South Yorkshire and 15.8% for Stagecoach drivers in Worthing, Sussex. Some of these followed strike action, some were conceded by Stagecoach before action was called.

Unite are now taking on another of the big bus companies, Arriva. Arriva buses in Yorkshire were stopped for most of June by a strike over pay, a strike which resumed this month after Unite members rejected the company’s latest offer. Nine hundred Arriva bus workers in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire are being balloted over pay. 1,800 Arriva bus workers in the North West have voted in huge numbers for strike action in a dispute over pay, and all-out continuous strike action will begin on Wednesday 20th July.

Militancy in other industries

Unite and GMB have won a much-improved pay offer for about seven hundred British Airways check-in staff at Heathrow, after overwhelming votes for strikes against BA’s refusal to reinstate the 10% pay cut they imposed during the pandemic. This is now going to a referendum of members.

The CWU are running a strike ballot for 115,000 Royal Mail workers, and the result is due on 19th July. 1,500 Post Office workers (the ones who actually work in Post Offices) were on strike on 11th July over pay in an ongoing campaign. And 40,000 BT and BT Openreach workers will strike on 29th July and 1st August.

In education, the UCU held strikes at 68 universities in March and April over pensions, pay, and working conditions. This dispute is ongoing, and another ballot is taking place. And the NEU is threatening to ballot teachers to against the 3% pay rise offered by the government.

Some unions are campaigning for better pay for one of the lowest-paid groups of workers in Britain, cleaners. Cleaners at St Georges Hospital in Tooting, who are employed by NHS contractor Mitie, and organised by GMB union, will take a week of strike action this month, following 10 days of strikes so far. RMT members who are cleaners for Churchills, on several train companies in the southeast, are in an ongoing dispute for better pay.   

There are other disputes going on, or in the offing. These are often local disputes which do not get national media coverage. But one that has got media attention – because it looked so odd – is the action by barristers who have gone on strike in a long-running dispute over pay.

In some companies in the private sector, unions are winning pay rises in without a dispute and without making national news. For example, Unite has recently secured a two-year pay deal worth up to 17.5% for more than 1,000 Cadbury workers.

Bin workers

Strikes are taking place among some local council bin workers, who work for private sector companies where refuse collection has been outsourced. Coventry refuse drivers, members of Unite, have been on an all-out strike since 31st January 2022 in a dispute over low pay. Bin workers in Bexley, southeast London, also members of Unite, are currently on strike. GMB bin workers employed by Serco for Sandwell council are on strike on 29th July and in August. And GMB got a 7.5% pay rise for Chesterfield bin workers after threatening strikes.

140 local authorities in England – around 40% of the total – outsource their collection services to the private sector. GMB, Unite, and Unison should be co-ordinating to defend their members’ real pay across this sector.

Public Sector Pay

The big challenge for the trade unions this year will be over public sector pay. In local government, the three main unions (GMB, Unison and Unite) are asking for a flat rate pay increase of £2,000 or the current RPI rate for the over 1.4 million local government workers. The government have not put a limit on public sector pay rises this year, but they have said that they will not fund any increase above 3%.

It will take determination and leadership from all three unions, and unity between them, to get the action necessary to gain a pay rise that at least keeps up with inflation. For example, earlier this year when Unison balloted for strike action over the 2021 pay award, only 14.5% of members voted, and the three unions ended up accepting a 1.75% rise.

For over 1.5 million health service workers, the question is whether the health unions going to do anything about the government decision to give them only a 3% increase this year – another real pay cut.

PCS decided this week to ballot their members in the civil service over the Tory government’s derisory 2% pay rise, pensions, and plans to cut 91,000 civil service jobs.

What is needed is co-ordination in campaigning and action across the public sector, if public sector workers are not to suffer a further big cut in their real pay this year.

Unorganised workers

While trade unions are increasingly fighting for pay rises, they represent a minority of UK workers. Only 23.1% of workers –and only 12.8% of private sector workers – are members of a trade union (2021 figures). If the trades union movement is to fight for the whole working class, then they must turn seriously to organising, recruiting, and fighting for pay rises in all those workplaces and companies from which they are absent.

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