The RMT, led by Mick Lynch, was one of the first trade unions to draw a line in the sand and demand wage increases above inflation for its members. Lynch and his deputy, Eddie Dempsey, have brought much-needed confidence back to the trade union movement by vigorously articulating their members’ demands in round after round of what has often been hostile media interviews. T-shirts, badges, and even a part on the BBC’s flagship comedy show “Have I Got News For You” feature Lynch, who has become something of a symbol for the movement. It’s cause for celebration that a political leader has emerged to articulate the needs of his class in a celebrity-obsessed culture that seems to provide only the trivial.
That this conservative government, led by the new leader and de facto Prime Minister Liz Truss, will encounter working class dissatisfaction this autumn/winter from those working in other industries, is primarily down to the positive role played by Lynch, Dempsey and UNITE leader Sharon Graham (who has put her members above Labour party politics).
The dismantling of nationalised industries, as well as anti-trade union legislation enacted by a previous conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, have made coordinated action almost impossible. So credit must be given to the rail unions: TSSA, which looks after rail clerical and supervisory grades, and ASLEF, which represents the train drivers, who have co-ordinated action on the passenger operations, alongside those of their brothers and sisters at the RMT on Network Rail, so that on strike days the result is an almost complete shutdown of the rail network.
The rise of worker militancy is not just on rail, UNITE dockers and support staff have shut the ports at Liverpool and Felixstowe, and the Communication Workers Union (CWU) has members in dispute at Royal Mail, BT and Openreach. Almost all the disputes mentioned have pay as the primary issue with employers making below-inflationary offers while still protecting their profit margins. The strike wave could reach a crisis point very soon for a government already reeling from the impact its recent bankers’ budget had on the economy. A spending plan that has required the Bank of England (BoE) to intervene and stabilise the money markets with a liquidity injection or the pension sector would have collapsed. In addition to the £65 billion spent by the BoE, the budget presented by incoming chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng will cost the taxpayer an additional £75 billion in unfunded handouts to industry and the rich in a revival of the flawed neoliberal ideology of trickle-down economics.
We’re at war today, a class war with individuals in the cabinet who adhere to free market ideology, are influenced by think tank extremists and want to further weaken a state that was already reeling from the effects of this government’s own prior rounds of austerity. For years, people in the public sector have been underpaid, despite the fact that they are the unsung heroes who have kept our education, healthcare, and social service institutions from collapsing. This government soon forgets the toil and sacrifice made by these workers over the last two years. Unable to fund a respectable wage award now, but able to see billions of pounds leave the exchequer in what can only be described as dodgy supply contracts to their friends and political cronies during the COVID pandemic.
Soon, we shall know the results of the National Education Union (NEU) ballot of teachers, which will be closely followed by that of the Royal College of Nurses (RCN), which, if it votes yes to strike action, would be the first time in its history in England. Because the stakes are so high right now, workers who do not normally engage in industrial action may be forced to. In the upcoming months, many people will be forced to make tough decisions between paying their rent or mortgage, eating, and keeping their houses warm. They are well aware that this government is more focused on lowering taxes for the wealthy and big businesses. This is a government that is happy to have proposed legislation to decrease energy bills but will not pay for it with a windfall tax on the energy industry’s disgraceful profiteering, instead burdening future generations with a debt of more than £100 billion, which could balloon to £250 billion.
There must be no negotiated settlement that does not fulfil the trade unions’ initial demands. Anything less would be a mistake. One simply needs to visit a picket line on strike day to observe the class’s confidence in struggle, something which has been lacking for years. A settlement that permits this government to declare victory might put the movement back years, if not forever, especially if it cannot then rise to combat additional anti-trade union legislation devised by the free-market fanatics. This time the workers united must not be defeated.
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