This weekend’s Campaign for Trade Union Freedom conference From Pentonville to P&O: Union Rights and Tory Wrongs is a crucial strategic summit for the movement.
The greatest strike wave in decades is mobilising hundreds of thousands of workers to walk out. Soaring prices — particularly for energy, food and rent — combine with years in which real pay has fallen to radicalise new cohorts of workers.
The level of public support for strikes is encouraging. In lots of disputes unions are winning.
In the big national disputes, however, it’s clear that we have the fight of our lives on our hands.
Rail operators are protected from the impact of strike action: the government protects them from any loss of revenue incurred, so they have no incentive to negotiate a settlement.
Royal Mail bosses don’t care how much damage is done to the postal service, since their goal is to degrade the institution into a bargain-basement parcel delivery firm.
And endless “NHS at breaking point” horror stories suit the Tory purpose, accelerating the already sharp rise in people paying for medical treatment and reinforcing their narrative that universal free healthcare is unsustainable.
Here victory depends on building political pressure for a resolution as well as on the direct impact of withdrawing labour.
That political movement is doubly important because the government’s response to strikes is straightforward repression. Planned legislation aims at making effective strike action impossible.
Labour has promised to undo such legislation if elected.
But a lot of damage could be done before the next election, even if Labour keeps its promises, something its current leader is not known for.
Beyond that, Labour’s explicit embrace of private-sector involvement in public services and opposition to nationalisation, coupled with its decision to accept Conservative budget targets, will trap us in a cycle of downward pay and investment. Labour is not even trying to hide this, stating that it views pay demands being made in the NHS for example as unaffordable.
This “there is no alternative” strategy may be enough to defeat the Conservatives but it will make no lasting difference. And yet the huge support for action shows that there is a popular appetite for a more radical approach.
That rests on the fact that collapsing public services and rising poverty stand in contrast to the obscene profits of the super-rich. Unions like Unite have drawn a direct line between rising profit margins and the inflation that is hurting ordinary people. Labour might say there’s no money around, but there obviously is.
And it builds on the popular enthusiasm for socialist policies which was demonstrated at the height of the Corbyn movement five years ago. Despite efforts to put the genie back in the bottle, it is much harder now to pretend ideas like public ownership belong to the lunatic fringe. People recognise their popularity and can see the role of Westminster in blocking them.
So the question we face is how do we build a political alternative that is, for the time being, shut out of Parliament but which moves beyond periodic marches and direct actions so as to reinforce and advance the labour movement’s goals?
Can unions develop the emerging links with third-sector and community organisations, building local alliances?
Can projects like Unite for a Workers’ Economy project policies independently of parties in ways that apply pressure in the political sphere?
Can trades councils become democratic hubs whose close association with co-ordinating solidarity and support for the constantly spreading strikes turns them into focal points for an entire community’s resistance?
Only if unions, activists, socialists are working together so this strike wave becomes more than the sum of its parts. But if we fail to do that, we could be paying the price for a very, very long time.
This article was first published in the Morning Star. We thank them for their kind permission to reproduce it here.