This time last year we were anticipating a summer of discontent as millions of public sector workers were balloting or taking strike action in the midst of an unprecedented cost of living crisis. We did not anticipate a year of discontent which saw millions of strike days lost, as bin workers, civil servants, care workers, education workers, rail, bus and airline workers, even barristers joined the struggle! They were soon to be joined by doctors, nurses and other health workers, as well as post and telecommunication workers.
This week’s announcement by the government that they will honour the review board awards to police, junior doctors, teachers, prison wardens and armed forces … but only fund half the cost from government borrowing and taxation, has been seized upon by the teachers’ unions as a reason to call off strike action and welcome a return to normal relations with the government. Junior doctors are still on strike, but there is a sense that the government is winning. So what has gone wrong?
The unions handed the initiative to the government when they made the decision to hold rolling strikes. When you call an all-out strike it puts you in control. In health for example it means that the unions decide on the level of emergency cover and who goes into work, instead of the employers putting pressure on workers who have not been called out to take on impossible workloads.
Then, by calling for a series of one-day strikes instead of extended strike action, they gave the government time to respond, with the help of a compliant media, to attempt to demonise strikers. And when that failed, the government turned to legislation to enforce minimum service levels and further reduce the right to strike.
Finally, despite the talk of co-ordinated action, the unions never took the opportunity to bring everybody out at once. Imagine the impact of even a one-day mass strike by all the public sector unions with mass pickets, rallies and demonstrations in every major town and city. As well as being a legitimate union tactic, it would also have marked a shift to using industrial action to mount a political challenge against the government. Even the more militant union leaders in the rail, post and civil service baulked at such a prospect because they hold to the belief, not shared by the government, that political and industrial struggles should remain separate. Instead they continue to look to the Labour Party as the only vehicle for political change.
But we do well to remember that two years ago even the current level of struggle seemed inconceivable. Millions of workers have taken action, many for the first time, and experienced the feelings of strength and solidarity that you only get from mass struggle. Many thousands will have forged links and learned the importance of rank and file organisation, as when nurses organised to win a ballot when the RCN leadership wanted to settle. Some of these militants are open to revolutionary socialist ideas and are our best chance of developing a political alternative to Labour based on the central importance of class struggle. This strike wave may be coming to an end but, if its lessons are learned, it contains the seeds of an even greater struggle in the next phase of the continuing capitalist crisis.