Union divisions can only weaken our struggle

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After more than a year of the biggest wave of strikes in Britain for decades, it’s a good moment to reflect about what we have achieved, what we have not achieved, and what obstacles have stood in the way of our struggles.  

The main gain of these struggles has been the struggle itself - breaking from years of passivity and retreat, insisting that the working class has not gone away and is ready to resist the mounting attacks on our living standards.  The sheer length of the strike wave is proof of the determination of the workers not to make more sacrifices “in the national interest”.  And the example of workers fighting back in Britain has been an inspiration to workers in other European countries who face similar attacks. In France, for example, demonstrating workers took up the slogan “enough is enough” in their mobilisations against government pension “reforms”.

Some workers have won pay awards after months of struggle. But with inflation officially still running at over 7%, the 6.5% to the teachers or the 5% to most NHS workers means that we are still running to catch up.

And what is most striking about these awards is the fact that they have been negotiated sector by sector, even within the same branch of the economy and the same workplace. In the hospitals, for example, ambulance and nurses’ unions have accepted the new offer, while radiographers and junior doctors are still holding out, still going on strike. It’s the same story in education: the main school teacher’s union has accepted the pay deal (although a number of local branches have rejected it), while university teachers are heading towards new strikes in the autumn. And in transport, the RMT recently suspended strikes on the London underground while maintaining strikes on national rail networks, with ASLEF announcing industrial action “short of a strike”. 

These divisions are not new. They repeat the pattern of the different strikes over the last year. You belong to a different union, so you come out on strike on a different day from your colleagues. In hospitals, schools, transport depots, instead of meeting together to raise common demands, instead of continuing the fight until all the demands are met, we are limited to voting as individuals in union ballots about whether to come out on strike and whether to accept the pay deal offered to our particular group of workers. The result: a whole series of separate strikes, on different days, with different demands, and almost no common demonstrations, even though all workers are facing the same assault on their living and working conditions. Our picket lines, one of the few places where we can come together and discuss about the progress of the struggle, are reduced to mere symbols, able only to appeal to colleagues in the same union to join them, rather than going out to appeal to workers in the next depot, factory, or hospital to unite in a common struggle. 

These divisions are not accidental. They are enforced by the ‘official’ state, with its laws against deciding on strike action in workers’ meetings and against “secondary picketing”, but also by the “unofficial” state – the trade unions, who administer the prison of these laws and maintain the fragmentation between different groups of workers according to trade, skill, or job specification.

And so, although this last year has shown that all workers are under attack, and that there is a will to resist among growing layers of our class, we are profoundly weakened by all the divisions imposed on us, blocked in the effort to form ourselves into a massive force that can challenge the exploiting class.

If we are to create this force, we will need to question the whole framework imposed by employers and unions alike. Against their rules about when we can go on strike or take any other actions, we need to gather in general assemblies where we make our own decisions, not as isolated individuals but collectively. Instead of submitting to the laws about secondary pickets, we need to send big delegations to other workplaces to call for a joint struggle, for strikes and demonstrations that bring us all out together.

The dying system which dominates the planet, capitalism, is not going to offer us a better future. It can only demand further sacrifices, further acceptance of misery and destruction. We, the working class, have a different future to offer, and the fight to defend ourselves today lays the ground for a deeper and wider fight to create a new society for the whole of humanity.

Amos 29/7/23



Strikes in Britain