Strike Wave Rocks Britain

While the Labour Party offers milquetoast solutions to the cost-of-living crisis and displays outright confusion over whether it backs striking workers, the unions are setting the opposition agenda, writes Marcus Barnett.

RMT solidarity strike rally at London Kings Cross, June 25, 2022. (Steve Eason, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

By Marcus Barnett
Labor Notes

In Britain today, anyone asking a worker about the direction the country is headed will be unlikely to receive a printable answer. 

Stumbling from crisis to crisis, the country is on its third prime minister of the year. Energy bills have skyrocketed by 96 percent since last winter, and rent has shot up by as much as 20 percent, while inflation — which currently stands at 12.3 percent — has been predicted to rise as high as 18 percent by the first few months of 2023. 

This is happening in a country which was the first in Western Europe to register 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus and has already been subject to brutal austerity measures that have wrecked the social fabric.

An analysis by the Trades Unions Congress (TUC, the British equivalent of the AFL-CIO) released earlier this year found that British workers earned £60 ($70) less per month in real wages in 2021 than at the start of the financial crisis in 2008 — the longest wage slump since the Napoleonic Era.

We Demand Better march and rally, London, June 18. (Steve Eason, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Where employers have offered any wage increases to combat inflation, they have still represented significant pay cuts in real terms.

Not that the same rules apply to them; while pay offers to workers have generally veered between 2 and 6 percent, the average pay of an FTSE 100 chief executive shot up 23 percent this year, with record bonuses being dished out. (The FTSE 100 is made up of the largest companies on the London Stock Exchange).

One such recipient was Philip Jansen, the CEO of BT Group, Britain’s largest provider of internet and phone services. BT reported £1.3 billion in profits this year, while Jansen netted a £3.5 million pay package — a 32 percent increase.

He now makes 86 times more than the average BT employee.

Yet after six brief meetings with representatives of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), Jansen called off discussions and unilaterally imposed an insulting £1,500 ($1,770) increase to annual base salaries — which amounts to a pay cut in real terms for the company’s 40,000 call center workers and field technicians.

The call center workforce is paid so poorly that some have become increasingly reliant on workplace food banks

The BT Centre in London. (Gryffindor, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Another was Simon Thompson, CEO of Royal Mail Group, the U.K. postal service (which was privatized a decade ago under the Conservative-Liberal coalition government).

In June, Thompson — who earns £62,750 a month — awarded himself a “short-term” bonus of £142,000. Shortly afterwards, the company informed its 115,000 workers it would be unilaterally raising wages by just 2 percent — a drastic pay cut in the context of the country’s cost-of-living crisis.

That’s despite Royal Mail workers generating record annual profits of £758 million for the company.

Strike Wave

Unsurprisingly, both BT and Royal Mail workers voted to strike in huge numbers over the summer, with one postal ballot registering a 97.6 percent yes vote with 77 percent turnout.

That’s the biggest mandate for industrial action since the implementation of the anti-labor 2016 Trade Union Act, which requires 50 percent turnout for a strike vote to be considered valid.

So did the 40,000 rail workers of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT). Their fight against pay cuts and layoffs has been given a great boost by Mick Lynch, the union’s unpretentious and quick-witted general secretary, whose media appearances have gained mass popularity.

Lynch called a Tory member of parliament a “liar” 15 times in three minutes, told a House of Lords member criticizing him that “I don’t even know who you are,” and accused a news presenter of “entering the world of the surreal” for implying that RMT members might provoke picket line violence.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of RMT, We Demand Better march and rally, London, June 18. (Steve Eason, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

As the months go on, these workers have been joined by other sections of the working class involved in their own disputes.

Recently, national votes for strike action have been won by 70,000 University and College Union members and 100,000 civil servants belonging to the Public and Commercial Services Union.

Most dramatically, the 465,000 nurses of the Royal College of Nursing — the largest nurses union in the world — have voted to strike for the first time ever.

And the coming months will see many other workers, from firefighters and teachers to food standards enforcers and nuclear weapons staff, weighing up whether to down tools in defense of their living standards.

‘Declaration of War’

Already, some strikes are showing results. Unite, the second-largest British union, led by the combative Sharon Graham, has engaged in relentless guerrilla warfare against regional bus companies, local councils and multinational corporations.

Members in transport, airports, and local councils have fought inspirational battles featuring mass picketing and occupations of council buildings.

In July, check-in staff and ground crew members of Unite and the GMB union won a 13 percent raise after threatening to shut down Heathrow Airport. In a series of strikes from September through November, Liverpool dockers won up to 18.5 percent.

Many major disputes have taken a less satisfactory turn, however. 

In the case of the postal workers, after a series of extraordinarily popular strikes, union leaders accepted a request to meet with company bosses in September in hopes of resolving the dispute.

As they sat down, they were told that managers across the country were being briefed about plans to “modernize” the company. They were handed two letters: the first informed them that Royal Mail was planning to withdraw from all agreements with the union, and the second discussed establishing a new relationship in which the company would no longer negotiate but merely “consult” the union. 

CWU General Secretary Dave Ward called it “the biggest attack on workers and their shop floor representatives that this union has ever seen.” The union’s national executive voted for another 19 days of strikes.

Management attempted to call the union’s bluff, offering a derisory 7 percent pay increase over two years, in exchange for the closure of mail centers and the introduction of owner-drivers into the Royal Mail.

Such a move would pave the way towards turning Britain’s postal service into an Uber-style delivery system.

The CWU doubled down, condemning the “declaration of war” on postal workers and reaffirming its commitment to striking on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the busiest online shopping days of the year. 

Soon after, Royal Mail management finally offered serious negotiations through an independent conciliation body funded by the government.

Rail employers and BT bosses reached out for similar negotiations. Many suspect that the employers’ resolve may be cracking under unexpectedly significant pressure from unions.

‘The Working Class is Back’

We Demand Better march and rally, London, June 18. (Steve Eason, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The widespread perception is that working people are being laughed at by employers who are gifting themselves cartoonishly extravagant payouts while workers suffer profoundly from the rapidly escalating cost of basic necessities.

Meanwhile, the government looks on and does nothing. 

As Ward of the CWU put it, British business is in a “moral crisis.” Ideas like capping the wages of top management and workers being able to hold no-confidence votes on their bosses now enjoy majority support.

Even as Britain edges toward a situation that one government minister likened to a “de facto general strike,” the response of the ruling right-wing Tories has been to ignore  the obvious problems giving rise to such an exceptional moment.

Instead, they are trying to further curtail the power of the unions — who already operate under some of the most restrictive conditions in Europe — by legally enshrining a “minimum service level” in the event of transport strikes.

Lynch denounced the move, telling a crowd in October that it would mean “workers being conscripted against their will to fight against themselves.” The TUC is challenging it in court.

But it seems unlikely that opposition will end there. The union movement’s heightened militancy has afforded it a social standing it hasn’t enjoyed in decades.

While the Labour Party offers milquetoast solutions to the cost-of-living crisis and displays outright confusion over whether it backs striking workers, the unions are setting the agenda of opposition and articulating the national mood in a far clearer manner. 

Enough is Enough — a coalition of unions, soccer fan groups, socialist members of Parliament, tenant organizations, and the publication Tribune — has gained nearly a million supporters, mobilizing people beyond the “usual suspects” to collect donations for strikers and food banks, throng picket lines and rally against the state of Britain in places often untouched by protest.

There is no doubt that if the Tories or employers like Royal Mail want to push their attacks, this power will be fully utilized to defend the RMT, CWU and other unions.

Ultimately, the situation is still volatile and unpredictable. But one thing is undeniable: in Britain, millions of people now feel emboldened to challenge a social structure that expects them to live worse lives, working harder and harder for people who have never had it better.

The workplace has been rediscovered as a battleground, and more people than at any time this century are recognizing their collective strength. 

At Enough is Enough’s October day of action to support striking rail and postal workers, several banners across Britain displayed the immortal words of the RMT’s late leader Bob Crow: “Spit on your own and you can’t do anything. Spit together and you can drown the bastards.”

No matter what happens in the coming months, millions of people will continue to take those words to heart. In the words of current RMT leader Mick Lynch, “the working class is back.”

Marcus Barnett is the associate editor of Tribune and an employee of the Communication Workers Union in the U.K.

This article is from Labor Notes.

The views expressed are solely those of the authors and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

20 comments for “Strike Wave Rocks Britain

  1. Ronaldinho
    November 25, 2022 at 17:01

    I’m not sure striking is the right thing to do now. Public sector workers have been the most protected in recent years especially during the pandemic when many private sector workers or the self employed lost their jobs. Public workers kept their jobs and their salaries. The whole of Europe is in economic turmoil not just the UK. Driven mainly by sanctions placed on Russia and Russia in turn retaliating with energy manipulation.

    The unions are using public sector workers for political purposes not to ensure a better standard of living. They want to topple this government that’s all. We are all living in difficult times, we need to find long lasting solutions to energy and debt.

  2. Vera Gottlieb
    November 25, 2022 at 10:50

    The British elite only cares about itself. This is being clearly demonstrated day after day.

  3. slorter
    November 23, 2022 at 21:49

    Two parties one is neocon neoliberal team A and the other is neocon neoliberal team B!

    • Red Star
      November 24, 2022 at 07:35

      The Team A and Team B analogy was proved yesterday, by The Spectator magazine in the UK.

      For those unfamiliar with it, it’s the UK’s oldest Tory magazine, dating from 1828. Past editors include Boris Johnson, so you get a good idea of where they’re coming from.

      Yesterday they held their annual awards ceremony. Amongst the winners :

      Politician of the year – Keir Starmer, leader of the supposed-opposition Labour party.

      In case you think they were being ironic, it should be noted that Starmer was there in person to receive his award., cheered on by the elites his party was originally formed to oppose.

      Probably even more disturbing was : Chancellor of the Year – Rachel Reeves

      Reeves, the Labour shadow-chancellor, was notorious for helping Labour lose the 2010 elections after she announced that Labour would be harder on the unemployed and others receiving benefits than the Tories were. Her attitudes towards the less fortunate in society haven’t changed in the intervening years.

      It’s fairly obvious that the Esthablishment that owns the UK has realised that the Tories have sucked out everything they can for the time being, and will soon be rested, safe in the knowledge that their almost certain successors, Labour, are absolutely singing from the same song sheet.

      Two cheeks of the same arse indeed. God help the UK.

  4. Kurt
    November 23, 2022 at 18:17

    To all those who have commented, and to those that might, and to Labor Notes, a cattle shute to steer the global working class revolution into the slaughterhouse of capitalist reformism and the pseudo working class, corporate controlled Parties around the world, I ask you one question; why hasn’t Labor Notes, and every other alternative website, barring one real socialist site, not ever mentioned Will Lehman, the Socialist candidate running for UAW President who wants to abolish the union apparatus and bring all negotiating to the shop floors by creating rank and file committees?
    Lehman is waging a battle with the corrupt bureaucracy absolutely frightened of his real revolutionary push to put the power into the hands of the real creators of wealth, the rank and file workers. The UAW apparatus, after seeing its last two Presidents imprisoned on corruption and racketeering charges for stealing the rank and files dues, has been forced by the courts to open up the voting for President to every member of the union for the first time in its history. The UAW apparatus is doing everything it can to suppress the vote. They have failed to send thousands of ballots and have refused to inform the rank and file of an election. Many workers had no idea there was an election happening because the apparatus has never posted anything on it at their workplaces. Lehman has brought a lawsuit against the UAW and the court appointed monitor, which was heard by a Federal judge on Tuesday, for their refusal to respond to Lehman’s request for a one month extension to the voting.

  5. Red Star
    November 23, 2022 at 16:59

    To give an example of the Enough Is Enough protests at the start of October, here’s the one that was local to me. It ended with the crowd marching off to support the local RMT (rail workers) strikers. This happened right across the UK, but was virtually ignored by our MSM.


    • Valerie
      November 24, 2022 at 03:42

      Great video, thankyou. The ptb do not want to publicize dissent. In the words of Gil Scott-Heron: ” the revolution will not be televised”.

  6. VallejoD
    November 23, 2022 at 13:24

    Applause for the above posts! Absolutely on target. The west has become a moral and ethical sewer of globalist, war-mongering neocon/neolib psychopaths who would screw working people for a shilling or a dime.

    Bravo to the strikers! Wonder when Americans are going to figure out that BOTH parties are the tools of plutocrat vampires.

    • Charles E. Carroll
      November 23, 2022 at 18:47

      Well said!

  7. evelync
    November 23, 2022 at 13:21

    Where’s Jeremy Corbin when British working people need him?
    He was kneecapped by the lies about anti-semitism…I knew they were lies from this side of the pond…but the woke culture we’re subjected to went hysterical on the accusation thanks to the complicit press; not unlike the Clinton campaign tricks to kneecap Bernie Sanders….different method, same outcome…a F U to the working people in our countries.

    (Subject the non elites to the old mushroom treatment….keep us in a dark room – imprison Julian for telling us the truth about wrongdoing done in our name with our tax$ – and every now and then shovel s..t on us.)

    Good for British people to be pushing back….I think they should call for Jeremy Corbin.

    And if it weren’t for Bernie Sanders not speaking up against our Russophobia and Sinophobia, I’d be calling for him.

    I wonder if the only guy who voted against the Patriot Act, Russ Feingold, is seeing though the foreign policy ugliness and would offer us a chance for changing to multi-polar thinking…

    • Red Star
      November 23, 2022 at 16:52

      There have been plenty of calls in the UK for Jeremy Corbyn to put himself at the helm of a new socialist party – and it would undoubtedly be a very popular move.

      Under Corbyn’s leadership, the membership of the Labour Party, on the decline for years, soared, making it the biggest political party in Europe. After he was replaced – and subsequently thrown out of Labour – by neo-lib Keir Starmer, an estimated 200,000+ members have left Labour. These people are mainly activists. They could power a new socialist party.

      Unfortunately, Corbyn doesn’t really seem to be interested. Which may be understandable given the mauling he was given by the UK Esthablishment. But if he was to declare himself, allied to the trade unions, things might really begin to change.

      Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like he’s going to.

      • Red Star
        November 24, 2022 at 07:13

        Additional to the above. I just found out today that Corbyn owes £775,000 in legal fees resulting from his defence of anti-semitism claims. The instigator has now dropped his claims, vindicating Corbyn in the process, but leaving him with the bills.

        I guess that’s how they do it – use the legal system either to threaten you out of taking action, or to cripple you financially if you do.

        • evelync
          November 25, 2022 at 15:47

          Thanks so much for your comments, Red Star. Great that the claims were dropped!
          I’m sorry to learn of the huge legal fees.
          Is there anything in the works in the British legal system to have the financial charges paid for by the felonious charging party?
          I hope so.

    • Rebecca Turner
      November 24, 2022 at 04:42

      Mr Corbyn cares mostly for the opinion of the Labour leadership, rather than for socialist revolution. His time at the top was largely wasted; he kept secret his meetings with the Tory government when it told him of its plans to let the Covid-19 virus run rampant in the interests of profit.

  8. Packard
    November 23, 2022 at 10:09

    Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and the US may all soon test the fragilities of their individual, yet nevertheless interconnected, stumbling, & dynamic economies.

    Hang on tight kids! Winter, Ukrainian war intrigue, rampant food/gas/rent inflation, rising local violent crime, unfettered illegal immigration, potential striking industrial workers, corrupt government officials, and Covid mandates for useless vaccines are all combining to make a brew that few of us will ever wish to drink. Yet, here we are today.

    Here’s to hoping I am wrong.

  9. Johnny Henry Hammer
    November 23, 2022 at 09:45

    The Labour Party in the UK is just like the Democrats in the US.
    The US Democratic Party only supports Wall Street.
    The UK Labour Party only supports the City of London.
    If you can’t see this, then you are not paying attention.

    If you can’t see this, then Joe Biden and the Democrats will make it quite clear, as they are willing to send in the police and military to force the Railroad workers to work under the #%^@# contract that the Railroad Bosses and Joe Biden have concocted.

    Personally, I wish they’d hold Joe Biden to his own terms for workers. 3 sick days a year. You can only get sick on Tue, Wed or Thur. And you must plan to get sick 30 days in advance. Sounds like good rules to keep the very important job of President working for the people. Be at your desk at 7am Joe, or else.

    Anyone who expects either the modern Labour Party or the modern Democratic Party to fight for workers is delusional. There are no millionaires there, and both parties only support millionaires.

    • Rob Roy
      November 23, 2022 at 12:23

      It’s Britain’s citizens fault fir letting their lying propaganda media oust Jeremy Corbyn, the one person who could have changed their lot. Now in Britain and the US, things haven’t changed since the 1600s and 1700s in the way the rich treat the poor. Looks as if Britons are learning what they should have known earlier: they have all the advantages of being able to shut down the flow of money into the pockets of the rich, by shutting down the work force. I hope they last-out the “bastards.”

      • Eddy Schmid
        November 23, 2022 at 23:11

        As an Ex Union official myself, I am not surprised at all by all this. It’s been building up slowly for the last 30 plus years. Laws introduced to ensure the toothlessness of Unions, even as explained in this article, taking away workers right to protest by legislating to ensure transport keeps running. Where in all this, have the workers been given the opportunity for their input ? And this is called Democracy ??? Regarding the Railway situation in the U.S. As a retired railway worker myself, did actually experience some of these conditions when a U.S. company bought out portion of our state railways. Perusal of their Collective Agreement their workers were OBLIGATED to sign, offered no input from the workers themselves. It was either, agree to our demand and sign here, or don’t sign and walk away. Thankfully, this crowd realised U.S. method of running railways in my state, is a failure.
        Workers need to stick together, today more than ever. I lived thru a period where workers had lost all faith and trust in their Unions brought on by businesses and Govt via the media. But Unions too, must share a portion of the blame.

  10. Valerie
    November 23, 2022 at 09:36

    Doesn’t sound much different from the US really. A complete shambles brought about by people in government not up to the job. Aided by corporate greed.

    • Paula
      November 23, 2022 at 14:58

      True that, Valerie, but at least the Brits are aware and protesting. Americans are going to be like deer caught in the headlights. Where’s American gumption?

Comments are closed.