Despite Covid, despite the war in Ukraine, despite the toxic divisions stirred up by Brexit, the working class in Britain, as in many other parts of the world, is still ready to fight in defence of its living standards. And, in the long run, this is the only road leading away from capitalism’s headlong rush towards self-destruction.
The “cost of living crisis” has become an active factor in workers’ resistance. The world economic crisis didn’t begin with Covid or the war in Ukraine. It has been building up for decades (remember the “oil crisis” of the 70s and the “financial crash” of 2008?). But these more recent expressions of the slide into barbarism have certainly accelerated global economic instability, and within that, Britain’s specific economic decline – and they have only partly hidden the additional and increasingly disastrous impact of Brexit at this level. The surge in inflation - now officially running at 9.1% and expected to rise to 11% later this year- is having a direct impact on the ability of “ordinary working families” (i.e. the working class) to heat their homes, drive to work, and put food on the table.
For many workers, spiralling prices and pay offers well below the rate of inflation have been the last straw after years of attacks on wages, jobs and social benefits, and there has been a whole series of strikes in important sectors, most notably on the railways. 40,000 rail workers - signallers, maintenance and train staff - belonging to the RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport union) held three strikes in June and plan further strikes on 27 July, 18 and 20 August – the first nationwide strike in Britain on the railways for about 25 years.
5,500 train drivers belonging to a different union, ASLEF will also strike on 30 July at eight rail companies. There will be smaller strikes at other companies before that. In the North West of England, bus drivers have been on strike following a pay dispute with Arriva.
There are also planned strikes in the communications sector. 40,000 British Telecom workers will strike on 29 July and 1 August. Royal Mail workers are to strike between 20 and 22 July. This could involve 115,000 workers.
Following unions’ rejection of employers’ pay offers in the airlines, this summer could see widespread stoppages at airports both in Britain and other European countries.
In education, there has been a number of struggles in the universities and FE colleges, while the National Education Union and the National Union of Teachers are calling for “industrial action” in the Autumn if negotiations fail. And following a government pay offer of around 5% (or under) for health workers, teachers and other public sector workers, “health unions angrily denounced the NHS pay rises as a ‘betrayal’ and ‘a kick in the teeth’, and warned stoppages could be on the horizon”.
These disputes are part of a more general rise in workers’ militancy. The GMB union, which has a strong presence among local council employees, reported that the number of disputes from October 2021 to March 2022 was seven times the level in the same period in 2019-20; the Unite union, one of the main public sector unions, claimed a four-fold rise in disputes.
The significance of these strikes
These struggles are not a direct working class response to the capitalist war in Ukraine. But having been told that “we are all in together” in the fight against Covid and that we must all be ready to make sacrifices to defend Ukraine and the West from Russian aggression, it is of no small significance that workers are not ready to give up the defence of their own class interests in the name of national unity. And if we look beyond Britain, we can see that the combativity of the working class has been straining at the leash in numerous countries. In 2019, just before the pandemic hit, there were important strike movements in France, and even during the lock-downs – especially at the beginning – workers in numerous sectors, including the “heroes” of the health services – took collective action against being forced to work without any real means of protection against the virus. As the lockdowns came to an end, there were more outbreaks of class struggle in the US, Iran, Italy, Turkey and elsewhere, prompting us to publish an article entitled “Struggles in the United States, in Iran, in Italy, in Korea... Neither the pandemic nor the economic crisis have broken the combativity of the proletariat!”
If we compare these movements against intensified exploitation to the situation of the working class in Ukraine, which has been almost entirely subjugated to the national war effort, we can see them as evidence that, while the workers of Ukraine are experiencing a real defeat, this does not apply to the working class globally, and in particular to its most experienced fractions in western Europe, who are not willing to sacrifice their material class needs to the idol of the national interest, still less to be marched off to war on behalf of the capitalist class.
It may be objected that all these struggles are limited to the economic level and that they are not leading the working class, in the short term at least, to develop a political alternative to the historic dead-end reached by capitalist society. But in a situation where, for reasons we have analysed elsewhere, the working class has largely lost any sense of itself as a distinct social force, struggles in response to the economic crisis and its accompanying attacks provide an indispensable starting point for the working class to recover its own identity, above all when large numbers of workers in different sectors are striking for essentially the same economic demands. And the recovery of class identity necessarily contains a vital political dimension as it tends to highlight the scenario predicted by the Communist Manifesto in 1848: “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat”.
The response of the ruling class and their trade unions
The formation of the working class into a unified force confronting the bourgeoisie is, of course, a long way off, and we have no intention of downplaying the immense obstacles which stand in the way of such an outcome – above all because the accelerating decomposition of bourgeois society itself threatens to drag the working class in its wake, to inflict this dying system’s own hatreds and divisions (national, racial, sexual, religious, etc) on the body of the proletariat. At the same time, even though the bourgeoisie itself is more and more divided, increasingly losing control of its own system, and its political machinery in particular, it is still capable of developing strategies and manoeuvres to prevent the unification of its mortal enemy, the working class.
In response to the strikes in Britain, the populist Tory government, which has claimed to be the “real party of the workers”(!), is for the moment not launching a frontal attack against the strikes but mainly adopting a more conciliatory, wait and see posture, even if the Transport minister Grant Schapps has said the rail strikers’ demands are unreasonable. It admits there is a “cost of living crisis” which it portrays as temporary, needing hard choices in order to be overcome. It is also offering token support to the poorest workers of a few hundred pounds in July and in the Autumn. More recently it has offered to increase the 2% public sector pay rise to 5%, i.e., it is offering a wage cut of approximately 5% instead of 8%.
The more serious vehicles of the bourgeois media, notably papers like the Guardian and Observer, but also the BBC, have talked a lot about the “strike wave”, even exaggerating it and predicting a “summer of discontent”, a return to the class struggle of the 70s. Numerous articles have been published showing the legitimacy of the rail strikers’ demands, in particular heaping praise on RMT leader Mick Lynch for his intelligent and articulate defence of these demands faced with hostile questioning from other parts of the media. There have also been a number of surveys published showing that the rail strikes have enjoyed a considerable level of public support. This is in marked contrast to previous transport strikes where the media have focused largely on the “misery” inflicted on commuters by the “selfish demands” of the unions. True, a tabloid like The Sun can still proclaim that “This week’s rail strikes are what happens when Marxist thugs high on ‘class war’ fantasies try to weaponize the public’s economic woes to bring down an elected Government they despise” (20.6.22), but such inflammatory rhetoric also serves to radicalise the image of the unions.
Since in the past the bourgeoisie has always been careful to hide news of escalating movements that have developed outside of official control, this constant and often favourable publicity for the strikes points to an attempt by the ruling class to anticipate and thus dissipate a more dangerous development of the class movement. And an early sign that the unions were playing their part in this division of labour, that they are doing their job of keeping the class struggle under control, was the calling of a big TUC demonstration “against the cost of living crisis” in London on June 18th.
- the unions have ensured that the strikes strictly obey the very tight legal restrictions in place today
- The list of strikes above shows that despite the fact that it touches important sectors of the working class, only parts of these sectors are actually striking.
- the strikes are spread out over different days
- care seems to have been taken to ensure that the strikes of different sectors occur on different days of the calendar.
- the strikes, according to the unions, are ultimately directed against the Tory Government, not against the ruling class as a whole. The final goal is the election of a Labour Government.
- This “anti-Tory” mystification is reinforced by “far left” groups like the Socialist Workers Party. While the leftists criticise Keir Starmer for not supporting the strikes and for disciplining Labour MPs for making an appearance on picket lines, their propaganda is constantly aimed at the need to “kick out the Tories” and install a Labour government with a more radical leadership (like Corbyn, for example). And if they call for the unification of strikes, this is to take place through the trade unions acting together. In sum, the leftists’ role is to prevent the working class from breaking out of the grip of the Labour party and the unions.
What we are seeing today in Britain is only a hint of what the working class needs to do if it is to forge itself into a unified and conscious power capable of confronting and overthrowing the rule of capital. It also reminds us of the cynicism and cunning of a ruling apparatus which is not restricted to the Tories but includes the whole “Labour movement” - from Starmer to the unions and the far left. But identifying the obstacles to the class struggle, exposing its real enemies, is a necessary part of releasing the immense potential revealed by the immediate resistance of the exploited class.
 What we wrote in our pamphlet Trade Unions against the Working Class in the 1970s remains true throughout the decadent period of capitalism: "What the proletariat must abandon is not the economic nature of its struggle (an impossibility in any case if it is to fight as a class), but all its illusions in the future possibilities of successfully defending its interests, even its most immediate ones, without leaving the strictly economic framework of struggles and without consciously adopting a political, global and revolutionary understanding of its struggle. Faced with the inevitable short-term failure of its defensive struggles under decadent capitalism, the class must conclude that it isn’t that these struggles are useless, but that the only way of making them useful to the proletarian cause is to understand them and consciously transform them into moments of learning and preparation for struggles which are more generalised, more organised, and more conscious of the inevitability of the proletariat’s final confrontation with the system of exploitation."
 See for example, from The Guardian, “Enemy within? Hardly... most people see why we need unions prepared to strike”