The historic importance of the strike wave in the UK

Printer-friendly version

Almost a year has passed since the strikes in the UK started. During the course of that year workers in Britain have reminded the world of their position at the birth of the workers’ movement, in the 1840s with the Chartists, the first political party of the working class, and later, with their leading role in the foundation of the First International. In the past 10 months workers in Britain have upheld that tradition and put themselves at the head of a new phase in workers’ struggle internationally.

The strike wave heralds an international resurgence

The strike wave began only a few months after the start of the war in Ukraine, with its deafening campaign about the defence of democracy; but the ICC has always been confident in the capacity of the world working class, and was convinced that its fighting potential had not evaporated, and that it would, one day, return to the path of struggle – which is what happened in 2022. It’s the first time since the 1980s that the working class in Britain has clearly left its mark on the social situation.

The defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985, the dismantling of much heavy industry and of centres of class struggle like the mines and docks, the campaign about the ‘death of Communism’ after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, all these had for years confused and disorientated the working class in Britain. Any sense of class identity had virtually disappeared. This situation weighed heavily on the working class and reduced struggles to a historically low level. But this changed in 2022 with what the bourgeois media called the ‘Summer of Discontent’.

In the face of record-breaking inflation, workers embarked on struggles against the ‘cost-of-living crisis’. This was in spite of all the negative effects of the acceleration of social decomposition, a period marked by ‘each for himself’, despair, nihilism, the rejection of rational thought, the proliferation of violent crime, and most recently by the imperialist free-for-all exploding in the war in Ukraine. But none of this deterred workers in Britain from launching strikes, walkouts, demonstrations and other protests as part of a class-wide resistance against the attacks of the ruling class.

In 2022 more than 2.5 million working days were lost to strike action, more than any year since the end of the 1980s. The massive character of the struggles shows that what is taking place is not limited to a particular sector, or to the workers of a certain region, but is a struggle of the whole working class. The strikes demonstrate that decaying capitalism, as it exists in the UK today, no longer offers any perspective apart from growing poverty and the absolute degradation of living conditions. In the face of this worsening situation, the working class was no longer willing to accept it; and starting from the conviction that only by struggling together could gains be made, it developed the first expressions of collective action, of solidarity between different sectors, between “blue collar” and “white collar” workers, and between the different generations.

The strike wave also shows the first fledgling signs of a class regaining confidence in its own strength, and of a recovery of class identity among workers who are beginning to recognise that their struggle is part of a class movement that goes beyond disputes with individual employers. And if the present struggles are a direct response to the rising cost of living, they are also the product of three decades of maturation in the working class, of a new step in the loss of illusions in the capitalist system.

Sabotage by the unions and the leftists

The bourgeoisie had not been passively waiting for the resumption of the struggles. In anticipation of a revival of working class combativity, it took precautions, for example with the emergence in 2021 of new, more militant union leaders, such as Mick Lynch and Sharon Graham, among others. These new leaders had to try to win the confidence of workers after years of anti-working class measures implemented with the help of the unions.

From the moment the strikes began in June 2022, the British bourgeoisie (government, opposition, unions, etc.) mobilised all its forces and set up different obstacles to the struggles in order to avoid the coming together of striking workers beyond their own sector, their own region, their own company or their own office. Union-controlled pickets were used as barriers separating workers from one another. As we have pointed out “Sending pickets to other workplaces and sectors and asking them to join the struggle, is illegal ‘secondary picketing’”[1] The unions’ separation of workers was pushed to the extreme when pickets were sometimes less than a hundred metres apart and workers did not take the initiative to come together to unify their struggle. All strikes, walkouts and work stoppages were kept “isolated from each other. Everyone in their own strike, in their own factory, their depot, their business, their part of the public sector. There is no real link between these struggles, even when it would be just a matter of crossing the street for the strikers from the hospital to meet those from the school or the supermarket opposite”[2]

The bourgeoisie also made full use of the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales. The unions divided the struggle up between those in Scotland and those in England or between Wales and England. A good example was that of the Scottish government offering the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) a better pay deal than was offered in England and Wales. During the negotiations with the Scottish government, the RCN ‘paused’ the strikes, leaving nurses Scotland in a state of limbo, whilst nurses in England and Wales were on strike.

The left wing of the bourgeoisie has also been able to recuperate discontent in the class by pushing it towards the defence of public services. The day of protest on 11 March, for example, organised by SOS NHS, a coalition of more than 40 groups and some unions, mobilised thousands of workers from the health sector under the slogans “This is a national emergency” and “Act now to save our NHS”. The fight for better pay and working conditions of heath care workers was turned into a call for Labour "to reinstate the NHS as a fully public service”, as Cat Hobbs, one of the organisers, said in her speech[3].

In the last few months of the strike wave the call to unite the different struggles has become stronger, and unions have been compelled to create new organs, bringing together members of different unions, to mobilise and coordinate action at a rank-and-file level. Socialist Appeal were among those leftists who immediately supported this new union strategy and pleaded for “cross-union strike committees that can respond to the call to mobilise and coordinate action at a rank-and-file level”[4] between different striking sectors of the working class.

Emerging protests by union members

As the strike wave advanced there have been several protests against proposed wage deals, organised by rank-and-file union organisations, in particular among university workers and healthcare workers. In these two sectors we saw clear signs of a reaction against the readiness of the unions to make agreements with the bosses or the government.

A first example was the protest of 100 university workers who, after a call by the UCU Solidarity Movement, staged a demonstration outside the London headquarters of their own union (17 March 2023). Angry at a so-called “sell-out” by the union executive of their hard-fought dispute over attacks on their pay and pensions by their employers, they held up signs reading “no capitulation”.

A second example is the protest of the healthcare workers against of the deal proposed by the National Health Service (NHS) and the unions. A cross-union group called NHS Workers Say No organised online calls, which were joined by hundreds of health workers from all the main unions. It also issued a special bulletin, sent out to thousands of members of all the unions involved, in which it called on workers by #VoteReject to say no to the pay deal[5].

A third example is from former senior members of the RCN who started a petition to hold a vote of no confidence in the RCN leadership. The intention of the petition was to enable members of the RCN to protest at the proposed pay deal and to force an extraordinary general meeting on the union leadership.

All these three examples show a growing questioning, and profound dissatisfaction with what the union leadership had done – but all within the framework of the unions.

However, the leadership of the National Education Union (NEU) was forewarned by the protests raised after the settlement for the healthcare workers and the university staff, and advised its members to vote against the wage deal it had reached with the Department of Education. The result was that the pay offer was rejected by 98% of the union members with new strikes on the horizon.

Ongoing reflection within the class

As we have seen for months in the UK, strikes are accompanied by discussion, which is a real and natural phenomenon during a strike wave. There can be no workers’ struggle without discussion. “One of the big topics of debate on the picket lines, the demonstrations, and meetings afterwards was what will happen next”[6] After the demonstration of 15 March intense discussions took place among members of the UCU around the next steps to take, with the result that a planned pause in the strikes was reversed.

After months of experiencing the unions’ divisive strategy, we can see an embryonic although confused process of reflection. At the same time workers also start to pose more fundamental questions such as “why are we still losing money in useless recurrent one day strikes?”; “are the unions simply just going to agree to a shit deal in the end, despite our struggle?” and, above all, “how do we get a struggle that unites all workers”.

But unions do all they can to prevent this questioning taking place. In response to the discontent exhibited by university workers in the UCU, Socialist Worker (9 February) proclaimed “To win, workers must keep making their voices heard and seize control of their disputes. Workers in Liverpool have organised a city-wide strike committee—four branches—after picketing next Tuesday. Strikers everywhere should hold strike committees. They can be a crucial space, involving people beyond existing union structures, for debate and activity to take forward the strikes”. This might seem very radical, especially the bit about “beyond existing union structures”, but these proposed committees are still “union structures”, new formations in the union framework, formed because of the perceived inadequacy of the existing structure.

The preparation of future struggles

At the moment, following the acceptance of deals by unions in the rail and postal sectors in particular, the strike wave is showing some signs of decline, but that does not mean that the workers are defeated or that combativity in the class has diminished. On the contrary: together with strikes that still continue (health, civil service, education…) or restart we can see other expressions of struggle such as the growing protests against the union deals alongside a deeper reflection in the class. The latter is important in the attempt to find answers for the dilemmas that workers have been posed with in their struggles.

Leftist groups try to keep the activities of the workers within the union framework of course, and therefore tell them that they have to organise cross-union initiatives, on a rank-and-file level. This, it is claimed, would be a step forward in the struggle. But this is not the case. On the contrary, it is an outright trap. Such proposals tie workers even more to the unions, an apparatus of the bourgeois state embedded in the working class with no other purpose than to sabotage the class struggle from within.

Collective reflection and confrontation with the unions are a necessary phase in the creation of the best conditions for future struggles, which are inevitable, since, for the working class as a whole, the present strike wave has not brought any solution for the problems it is facing. But such activity cannot take place within the unions, which will do everything to sterilise reflection in the class and to sabotage any attempt to put criticism of the unions into practice.

Those militant minorities who recognise the need for the struggle to break out of the current divisions, and thus to be controlled directly by the workers, need to group together regardless of what sector they work in - both to discuss the lessons of the strikes so far and to spread their understanding more widely. In particular, it is vital to call for mass meetings, general assemblies open to all workers, where we can make decisions about how to sustain and extend the struggle, and where we can elect genuine strike committees responsible to the assemblies, not to the union machinery.  


Dennis, 17 April 2023



[4] Socialist Appeal (The British section of the International Marxist Tendency):  After 1 February – Where next for the left?

[5] The preliminary result of this campaign is that the majority of the RCN members rejected the deal and new strikes have been announced, this time on a national scale and possibly in coordination with the junior doctors. Members of other unions might follow the example. Another confirmation that the strike wave still continues.

[6] “Action Now! Sign the petition to UCU”, an article from rank and file ginger group Notes from below, (5/12/22).