The Sunak government condemns the strikes, declaring that they exacerbate the health and public service crisis and that therefore a law prohibiting such strikes should be imposed. In addition, it wields against the striking workers the threat of higher inflation and increased taxes should they win the wage increases they demand.
On the other hand, the Labour Party denounces the Conservative government and declares its support for strikes while the unions organize them...declaring that the only way to put an end to them and to avoid social unrest in the future is to protect the right to strike and establish a Labour government.
As inflation in the UK continued to rise over the past year and erode workers' wages, more and more families began to suffer food insecurity. By May 2022, prices had already risen by 9.1% over the previous year. Inflation continued to rise in the following months until it reached 11.1% in October, the highest level in 41 years, and only slowed down slightly in August.
In October, the number of low-income households at risk of hunger in the UK reached a record high. The threat of hunger was already affecting nearly 10 million adults and 4 million children who regularly skipped meals, according to data from Food Foundation, a British charity.
Moreover, despite the government's implementation of the Energy Price Guarantee (EPG) from September 2022, aggregate prices for electricity, gas and other fuels rose by 24.3% in October, by 36.9% for gas and by 16.9% for electricity. And although the inflation rate fell slightly in the following two months, food and beverage prices rose at a pace not seen since 1977, while prices for services rose at the fastest pace since 1992.
Following this process, a wave of wildcat strikes broke out in May 2022, followed by union actions and protests that continue to this day, involving workers ranging from the transport to the healthcare sector. The common demand: wage increases that at least compensate for inflation, staff reinforcements and bearable working rhythms.
The driving force behind this massive movement has been the strikes organized by the workers themselves... with the unions opposing them. They began on the North Sea oil rigs in May, followed by strikes of petrochemical workers in Scotland and England, spreading to two Teeside chemical plants, a Manchester food processing plant, and Amazon workers who joined in August.
The unions' response? To rush to negotiate deals that fall light years short of what workers were demanding and to take the lead in protests before they broke out spontaneously so that they could control them on their own terms.
In addition, the unions redoubled their efforts to gain a presence in the most precarious sectors, such as Amazon's logistics centers. Thus, the GMB union ended up organizing a 24-hour-only strike on January 25 which the media labeled as historic for being the first official, i.e. union-led, strike by workers of the e-commerce giant in Great Britain.
Railway workers in the United Kingdom, in addition to demanding wages in line with inflation, are opposing plans to reduce the workforce. In the NHS, the strikes are not focused exclusively on pay either. They point again and again to understaffing and widespread funding cuts that harm working conditions and the lives and health of patients. It is similar with teachers. As stated by one of the striking teachers,
The funding of schools is wholly unsustainable, and the children are not getting enough.
And according to another,
We’ve got millions on the breadline, old age pensioners struggling to heat their houses, the cost of living is escalating day by day and it’s atrocious that the government isn’t taking any notice or acting to make things better.
Being a teacher, we can see the number of people using food banks and things like that is increasing all the time. There are these sorts of systems to make things a little bit more bearable, but they’re not getting to the root of or solving the problem. The government is relying on charities to solve the problems they caused.
The junior doctors also participated in a three-day union strike demanding higher wage increases and minimum staffing. Demands shared by ambulance workers.
The union strategy
Tactically the unions have opted for a combination of intermittent strikes and protests with each sector of workers remaining separately focused on negotiating their agreement. Strategically, however, they have converged the expectation of the demands of different sectors - NHS, railroads, etc. - on the 2023 Spring Budget, thus saving the rail companies for example from liability.
Mike Lynch, the General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), which collaborates with the Labour Party on the Enough is Enough campaign, made the strategy explicit:
This government of the corrupt and the incumbent will seek to obscure the issues. The issue is they are responsible for your poverty and they have got to solve it and if they're not able to, they need to get out of the way now. Let's get a general election on and let's get a new government that acts on behalf of our people.
In other words, they are openly trying to channel the strikes towards an electoral victory for Labour.
I want Starmer [leader of the Labour Party] to win the election, no matter how difficult it is for me to say that out loud frankly. I want him to win the election because it’s a two-horse race. But if he gets in and he gives this vanilla politics apologizing even for social democracy...if we miss this opportunity our movement could be wiped off. We could be a footnote in history. So we must keep them [the Labour Party] under pressure.
For Lynch, the Labour Party, originally a political expression of the unions, should be supported electorally, although the unions should reclaim it as a tool of their own program.
We know well what the trade union and labor program consists of. Lynch himself, leader of the rail union, tried to impose below-inflation wage increases, flexibilization and job cuts on workers; it is Labour that is keeping the window open for NHS privatization that was previously opened by the Blair government in 1997.
Labour vs Tories: two ways of controlling the strikes
In response to the strikes, the Tory government in January proposed a new minimum services law which was passed on January 30 by parliament. The sectors affected would be rail, health, ambulance, education and nuclear power.
Prime Minister Sunak presents the proposed legislation as a solution to the health and public service crisis. Meanwhile, the Labour Party comes out against the bill. Their argument is not a defense of the right to strike per se, but a utilitarian argument for the very purposes stated by the Conservative government.
For Labour there is simply no need to resort to a disciplinary solution against strikes because a Labour government and the strengthening of the unions is the best defense against future strikes and social unrest.
Where is the alternative?
There is a massive difference between the Labour Party becoming once again the party of the trade unions and it being a party of labor. And neither the trade unionists nor the Labour leaders hide it: Labour assures that if it comes to power it will continue to support the war in Ukraine and impose at full speed a Green Deal, which will be no less a sucker of incomes of labor than that of the EU.
And the problems facing workers in Britain are no different from those of the working class in the rest of the world. They derive from the need of capital in crisis to revive an accumulation in crisis, by devaluing labor. That is why we suffer everywhere a galloping inflation that undermines our capacity to consume, that is why we endure increasingly inhuman working rhythms and that is why working conditions are increasingly degraded.
And everywhere, the trade unions, by their own logic and institutional role, share with state parties like Labour their commitment to the primacy of the profitability of national capital. That is why their methods and objectives of mobilization cannot but subordinate the needs of workers to the overall profitability of capital. With all that this implies, war effort and energy costs included.
The basic issue is that the system they defend is less and less capable of satisfying the most basic human needs, from health to food. And that contradiction between the needs of capital (profitability) and the human needs demanded by workers can only be resolved by resolving the contradiction between the unions and what the struggles need to impose on the supposedly implacable logic of profit.