Summer Strike Wave Hits Britain

By Ann Montague  

The United States is currently experiencing a wave of unionizing. Currently Amazon, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and REI management are seeing their workers for the first time moving to organize unions. Every worker has a right to struggle for power in their workplace,  regardless of the size or their place in the economy. All workers should support them and extend solidarity with their struggle.

In Britain, it is different. The working class is experiencing a wave of strikes and “Industrial Action” from some of the largest established unions in the country. This is working class activity that actually disrupts the economy. It is not only motivated by traditional fights for increased pay and better working conditions, but these unions have made political demands in recent years to renationalize mail, rail and the electric grid. 

There was an eight day strike at the Felixstowe dock. This Industrial Action was taken by 1900 workers in Britain’s busiest container port. It includes crane drivers, machine operators and stevedores. They handle 48% of the container trade. This was the first time in 30 years dock workers have gone on strike. They are members of UNITE, one of the largest unions in Britain. They rejected a 7% wage increase offered by Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company and are demanding better working conditions as well as pay increases. UNITE announced that the strike action will have a “huge effect on the UK’s supply chain and will also cause severe disruption to international maritime trade as well as the UK’s supply chain including the logistics and haulage sectors”.

Unison, which has half a million members working for the National Health Service (NHS) across Britain, announced that some of its members in the South West are planning for strikes.

The biggest teachers union, the NEU, and the National Union of Teachers say they will “strongly” encourage teachers to join industrial action over autumn if negotiations fail.

There was a 12 day Bin strike in Edinburgh which meant garbage piled up making it difficult to reach Waverly Station and a popular music festival.

On August 26th 150,000 members of Communication Workers Union (CWU) who represent the Royal Mail Group went on strike as they announced  97.6% of their members voted to strike. CWU made an announcement that summed up what all workers are feeling, “Our members need it, our members deserve it – the company can afford it.”

Something always sparks a strike wave and in Britain these workers were inspired by the Rail Strike which brought the country to a halt in early June and again in July. This was the biggest rail walkout in 33 years. The historically militant National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) brought out 50,000 members who ended 80% of the passenger services, including the London Underground. They strike every other day which impacts travel for the following week. Then for two days 40,000 rail operators strike but not the London Underground. Across England, Scotland and Wales freight trains impact supply chains. These are rolling strikes where there is not enough time to bring in scabs before the next roll out hits.

As management and corporate media attacked RMT and the strikes,  claiming they were hurting working people, the ever popular RMT General Secretary, Mick Lynch did a round of interviews using BBC and other corporate media to galvanize working class solidarity. “They are ripping off the passengers, they are ripping off the taxpayers. The government needs to fund the railway properly and we need companies to give up some of their profits to give our members a pay raise and job security. We need the support of the community. This is bigger than one trade union.” When asked by the interviewer if strikes are the way, Lynch responded, “What is the answer to ongoing pay disputes . . . pray? or tiddlywinks? Silence? What is there for the working class but to organize and strike?”

The Labour Party

Over the past decade, young workers in the United States have begun talking about the fact that we have no working class party. Some during the time that Jeremy Corbyn was head of the Labour Party looked to Britain. But the Labour Party has a long and mixed history. There are times it has leaned left and other times it has abandoned its roots and leans to the right.

[Anyone interested in this history should read Simon Hannah’s excellent  “A Party with Socialists in It: A History of the Labour Left”]

An energized working class should be a boon for the Labour Party. This is not how the new head of Labour sees it. In fact it is just the opposite for Keir Starmer, the newest head of the Labour Party. Instead of listening to Mick Lynch and following his lead, Starmer went in the opposite direction. He issued an edict during the Rail Strike that any of his Shadow Cabinet that walked a strike picket line would lose their position in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Starmer also backed away from Labour’s past pledge to renationalize all utilities.

Sharon Graham is General Secretary of UNITE, Britain’s largest union. They have 1.4 million members in construction, manufacturing, transport, logistics. Her members also are the biggest funders of the Labour Party.

She had already been saying that the Labour Party was becoming irrelevant and that it is getting harder to justify their funding. Labour Party members who had been walking picket lines all their lives were not about to stop now in the middle of a strike wave. When Member of Parliament and Labour’s Shadow Transport Minister, Sam Tarry was fired for issuing a statement supporting the Rail Strike and joining the picket line in July, Graham was enraged.

“What is required now is for the party that is there for the workers to stand up and to stop being embarrassed to be the party of workers. Is Labour now saying that workers should have a national pay cut? If you are not keeping up with inflation, you are having a cut in pay.” Unite members have been on strike for weeks over pay. She added that the issue of continuing to fund Labour through affiliation fees will be debated by union members at the UNITE Conference.”

With or without the Labour Party, the strike wave will continue into the fall. At the same time all that organizing for union recognition in the United States will lead to the fight for a first contract and in the words of Mick Lynch: What is there for the working class but to organize and strike?

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