Building Solidarity

Susan Pashkoff reports on showing solidarity during the winter strike wave.

 

The other day, I was out with other members of our local Enough is Enough raising money for the strike funds of nurses and ambulance drivers, postal workers, and railway workers at a tube station near where I live in London. This has been happening since the wave of strikes started in December and is continuing through January. We go out for two hours, hand out leaflets, and ask people to contribute to strike funds. Yesterday, two local Labour Party councillors joined us. So far, we have raised almost £1,500. The point of this is not only to raise funds for strikers; it is to help build solidarity for striking workers.

Moreover, one quarter of what we raise goes to a local food bank. Usage of food banks by even workers in full-time employment has risen significantly, and it is very worrying. Margaret Thatcher clearly cried too soon when she said society is dead. Despite decades of ideological individualist nonsense shoved down the throats of people in this country, the ideology didn’t take hold, and that became clear during the COVID pandemic. While the government did nothing for people during the pandemic, this led to the creation of mutual aid groups and collections for food banks. Shaking a bucket to help striking workers and a food bank brings support even in a period of high inflation and economic crisis.

When I was a young child, my parents told me that I needed to be polite to listen to older people because they had lived a long time and had wisdom to impart and also to be respectful to my elders. Yesterday, I had an epiphany. When a nasty old white Tory man tells you to “go back to work” and “strikes are illegal,” I am now old enough to say “feck off, you old bastard” and guess what “we still live in a democracy and the right to strike is a human right you old fuck!” without being accused of being abusive to a nasty old man. He was extremely upset, literally working himself up to actually foaming at the mouth. He scared a young child so much that their parents hid them behind the door. We apologised for frightening the child; they told us it was not us, but him. Quite honestly, people were wondering why the nasty old bastard was yelling at us and putting money in the bucket. 

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Raising funds for striking unions Leytonstone Tube Station

What was also interesting was that he decided to vent his spleen at two women; as usual, nasty right-wing men love abusing women, thinking that they will be too scared to respond to them. The fact that he came back for seconds as he wasn’t finished after telling us to go back to work. He then lied and said strikes were illegal. The pleasure of realising that you no longer have to be nice to old right-wing bastards as you are old yourself, and that responding to him actually raises money (many commuters were wondering why an old man was abusing two women while shaking a bucket and leafleting). His unpleasantness turned into a win-win for all involved (except for the nasty old white Tory swine).

My favourite moment of the day happened when a woman around my age came up to me and said, “I hate the Tories; they’ve ruined this country!” and then said, “You’re in Unite (and I am; how did she know that?)” She pointed to my Unite beanie and my Unite badge, and I laughed and said I was here in solidarity. We stood together, agreeing how much we hated the Tories, moving our hands together in rhythm and saying, “I hate the Tories!” together. After that, I smiled for 10 minutes inside. Think of it as a moment of continued empathy between people!

Continuing Strikes and Economic Hardship

Strikes in Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland) are continuing, and more sectors are voting to decide whether they will go on strike. These strikes not only deal with pay but also working conditions and delivering the service that the workers are paid to do. The destruction of working conditions and the lack of protections afforded to workers have threatened job cuts even in the face of insufficient numbers of workers in the sectors. Zero-hour contracts, short-term employment, forced part-time employment, refusal to replace workers that leave or retire, and deskilling of workers have meant that exploitation of those in paid work is extremely high. Combined with low wages (public sector wages have stagnated due to a pay freeze and a pay cap imposed following the 2007–8 crash), privatisation has also enabled bosses to pay workers far less than those that haven’t been privatised. This has meant a stagnation in nominal wages, and with inflation running over 10%, workers are having to cope with falling real wages.

While the government has tried to address the rising prices of petrol and energy costs by introducing a windfall tax (while at the same time covering money for increased investment in the fossil fuel industry) and grants to consumers to cover some of the increase in prices in the fossil fuel industry, as well as one-off payments to disabled people, those on benefits, and older people, it has done absolutely nothing about rising food and household goods prices or the rising prices of rents and mortgages (due to rising interest rates and private landlords passing on increasing costs onto private sector tenants) and these are affecting people seriously. Food bank usage has shot up even for workers in full-time paid employment; we are witnessing the normalisation of food bank usage rather than actually providing sufficient wages and benefits to enable people to cope with rising inflation. While the government has increased the national “living wage” and benefits, these changes do not take effect until April 1, 2023. Meanwhile, good luck to you …

Most people have noticed that the price of oil and gas on international markets has gone down, but this lower price has not been passed on to consumers. Watching the news, I had the dubious pleasure of watching a propagandist for the fossil fuel industry say that our costs for using oil-based heating and petrol will decrease and that we need to understand that the prices reflect the cost of the last period of purchase and that until the next period of purchase from the oil industry, prices will remain high. You honestly cannot make this crap up. The nonsense that they expect people to believe because they say it in a serious voice is ridiculous. Heaven forfends that after creating inflation due to rising profits and profit margins, they may actually have a period with a bit less profit instead of helping out consumers who cannot get energy from anywhere else (except for installing solar panels on their homes).

Rather than address the rising prices of food, household goods, and rent by putting in price caps and rent caps, the government (national as well as some local councils) has instead offered support by teaching people how to “budget properly.” The reality is that people do know how to budget properly; rather, it is impossible to budget your insufficient benefits and wages to cope with rising food, household goods, and rent prices while also covering the high costs of energy and electricity.

Trying to blame the working class rather than accept responsibility for the policies of government and business of lowering wages (rather than investing in companies) and destroying working conditions and passing bills that make it harder to strike doesn’t wash well. In a country that is supposedly one of the richest in the world, food bank usage is now commonplace; how could this have happened?

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Striking Nurses, London UK

Despite the government’s attempt to try to blame the workers and shift responsibility onto the Labour Party to which many trade unions are affilaed and make financial contributions, the Tory offensive has failed. The government introduced a new bill this week called the “Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023,” which requires striking unions to ensure that workers’ safety levels are in place when unions go on strike and threatens workers who go on strike who do not obey the regulations with dismissal. Since the bill applies to the whole of the UK, this law will affect workers in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland as well as England. Nicola Sturgeon, the head of the Scottish National Party and the First Minister of Scotland, has said she will fight the government’s new anti-union bill “every step of the way.”

This bill shows that either the government doesn’t understand what the strikes are about – or they are this dense. (Nope.) Or this bill is a cynical exercise in power. My vote is for the latter (and unsurprisingly, this is what the unions and most people think), as this is just another anti-union bill served up by Tory governments to make it harder for workers to strike. One of the most important points of many of the strikes is that they raise exactly this issue: specifically, NHS services are unsafe because the work force is understaffed due to low wages and bad working conditions as the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has argued for several years. A cursory look at their website will demonstrate this. The fact is that the problem in terms of safety needs to (and has needed to) be addressed for years; the problems already existed before the COVID pandemic and are actually extremely unsafe for those who need healthcare in hospitals.

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Ambulance Workers, Hillingdon Ambulance Station, London

In response to this new bill, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) has called for a day of action on 1 February as a “protect the right to strike” day. This coincideS with the day that 100,000 members of the PCS (the Public and Commercial Services Union) representing civil service workers will go out on strike following a paltry offer of a 2% increase in pay. 27,000 workers for the Department of Works and Pensions are earning the national “living” wage and will get an increase in April because their current level of wages is below the new national living wage of £10.42/hour. Hopefully, more unions will strike on February 1st to support the national day of action. Tomorrow evening, the RMT has called for a protest next to the Houses of Parliament about the latest government anti-union law, which I am planning to go to.

Successive Tory governments have worked very hard to destroy the NHS, and the situation is dire for doctors, nurses, non-medical staff, and patients. On this Wednesday and Thursday, English nurses who are members of the RCN at 55 NHS trusts are going on strike; there is a protest, march, and rally supporting the nurses near Parliament. The RCN (by no means a left-wing union) has warned that if the government continues to ignore their demands, strikes will further escalate (in December they did one-day strikes; in January they moved to 48-hour strikes) and will involve all eligible members in England. Ambulance workers went on strike on the January 11, and another strike is planned for January 23. January; the government’s attack on striking ambulance workers labelling them as uncaring and not covering public needs before dashing off to strike has done nothing but anger ambulance workers who had ensured that people would leave strikes if needed to cover emergencies. The University lecturers’ union (UCU) held two ballots on pay and working conditions and on pensions, and the ballots to strike were won, and they are planning to go out in February and March. The results of the strike ballots for the main teachers’ union, the National Educators Union (NEU), will be announced tomorrow.

Building Solidarity

Support for workers on strike is still good; despite the loss of support for some of the strikes among the public, solidarity with the nurses and ambulance workers still stronger than that of those who oppose the strikes. In the PR campaign, NHS workers still have wide support among the public and among voters; moreover, membership in these unions has increased as well. According to The Guardian:

“Our Opinium poll on Sunday shows the nurses and their leaders are far more popular than the government. While 34% of the public approve of the nurses’ handling of the dispute, 21% disapprove. Just 14% approve of the government’s stance, while 48% disapprove. Figures on the ambulance dispute are also tilted heavily in favour of the strikers. Labour’s lead is up two points since the last poll three weeks ago, after a period in which the news has been dominated by the crisis in the NHS and strikes.

The Tory fightback against “evil, left-wing extremist” trade unions is not working; the reality is that those who want the Tories out of power are far more numerous than those who oppose the current strike wave. According to The Guardian, in polls indicating support for the next general election in England, Labour is up 1 point to 45%, the Tories are still at 29%, and the Lib Dems and Greens remain unchanged at 9% and 5%, respectively. Reform UK (those right-wing Brexiteers that are not in the Tory Party) have dropped 2 points to 6%. Sunak’s approval rating has dropped even further, to 27% approval and 41% disapproval. However, given the nature of the system, getting Rishi and the Tories out of power will have to wait, as they do not want to enter an election now. But when you think about it, their ratings haven’t improved at all, which is, shall we say, problematic for the next general election.

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For years, I’ve wondered why strikes in this city only last one day. I was honestly wondering whether longer strikes were illegal. After our solidarity picket, we went out for coffee as it was rainy and cold (after all, it is January), and I took the opportunity to ask one of the people who knows the laws around trade unions in Britain. I told him about the strikes by nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital and Montefiore Medical Centre in New York City, where the nurses walked out and won their demands after 3 days. I asked whether indefinite strikes are illegal in Britain and why the workers just don’t go on indefinite strike until they win. This is a far better way of guaranteeing a victory. It turns out that it is not illegal to do indefinite strikes; the type of strike balloting not only needs to indicate what the strike is about but the length of the strike. He thought that doing an indefinite strike would be a “nuclear option”. I am more than a bit sceptical about an indefinite strike being a nuclear option; they are common in the US. I think what would be the “nuclear option” would be a general strike of all unionised workers for an indefinite period. That would scare the shite out of the government and employers and, quite honestly, they need a bit of shaking up. I strongly welcome the rise in the number of strikes; I just think that an indefinite strike would get quicker results. This would be workers using their leverage to get what they are due after a decade of wage stagnation and the destruction of decent working conditions.

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Sainsbury’s Head Office, London 

As people here know, I am a member of Unite Community, which is the community branch of Unite the Union; we do strike support for the industrial branches of Unite as well as supporting benefit claimants, doing eviction resistances, and supporting those facing eviction. We work alongside those in environmental struggles; we support food banks; and we fight alongside the London Renters Union. This week many of the members of community branches in London went down to the head office of Sainsbury’s to stand in solidarity with a worker who was sacked up in Yorkshire (north England) for actually doing his job as a union rep. Bringing people beyond the sacked worker and the union organiser down from Yorkshire to London on the rail was far too expensive, so we were asked to offer some support, and other members of Unite in that industrial sector came down as well. Someone from inside the building came out to ask what we wanted; since the signs we were carrying said that we wanted the worker reinstated, it seemed like a bit of a ridiculous conversation—maybe it was the drums that were annoying them. This expression of solidarity with a victimised worker is extremely satisfying; remember, an injury to one is an injury to all (thank the IWW for that slogan)!

Groups set up around the cost of living to build solidarity for striking workers are working; but there is not enough going on locally, and there are worries that it may have fizzled out.

But the question remains: what about the rest of the workforce and the unemployed? Getting unions and groups like Enough is Enough to pick up the demands of those not in a union or unemployed is difficult. Those on Universal Credit (the UK’s benefit system) are having a far harder time of it than unionised workers, and we need their solidarity. Many disabled people and those on benefits are also working, as the current benefit system is not a proper safety net but instead a conditional system. Your benefits can be sanctioned unless you prove you are actively seeking employment. If you are not working enough hours as paid labour, you run into a benefit cap, which is not enough to survive on. The current benefits system is based on the idea that people who get benefits should be eligible for less than people who work for money. To add insult to injury, the Tories included a clause in the Universal Credit benefit system that limits benefits to children to only two children (unless the third child is a twin or the result of a rape); this justifies the ridiculous argument that women have children just to get benefits (surely you remember that one from the Reagan Administration in the US; remember the racist and misogynist Welfare Queens nonsense from the same time?). Women (especially single mothers) often have to find work around children attending school, and to get the 30 hours per week of free childcare, you need to have a job (how you can get a job without childcare is just one of those contradictions in this system). We often find women holding down two jobs around school times in order to be able to work and avoid the benefit cap. An obvious demand is the elimination of Universal Credit itself and its replacement by a proper universal welfare system that serves as a safety net.

We need the unions and the groups standing with them to stand with those who are not in unions. Precarious labour (e.g., those in zero-hour contracts, those in food delivery, those in short-term contracts, and those who work for agencies supplying support and assistance for disabled and older people) and deskilling of labour have become the dominant forms of paid employment, especially for younger people. While the government has raised the national “living” wage, it is still far too low. Withdrawing your labour to get better wages and working conditions is impossible without a trade union behind you. So, what can the unions do to help us? They can organise those in precarious employment, but it is difficult because these workers frequently lack a central meeting place to agitate for union organising (and often do not know each other). Care workers are extremely exploited, and their working conditions and wages are extremely low. They need to be organised into trade unions to fight for better wages and working conditions. If they are not unionised, they will also be used as a cudgel against all of the working class and will be used to erode pay and working conditions further. The unions need to fight for disabled members of their unions to ensure inclusive practises and support for disabled people at work and in the unions as well as those unable to work. We need the unions to stand alongside us in solidarity as we stand alongside them and their demands.

This will require discussions and coordinated support and solidarity; solidarity is an action not just a word. We need to practice it together. 



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