Wednesday 1 February 2023

The Labour Movement Resurgent

Congratulations to Rishi Sunak for reaching 100 days in office. He'd have preferred to mark the occasion with a quiet toast rather than the biggest single day of strike action this country has seen for 30-odd years. But even rich boys don't always get what they want. I agree with Richard Seymour, today's actions are significant in size and scope. After what seems like years of a virtual absence from public discourse, except either as whipping boys for Tory politicians or regarded as embarrassing relatives by sundry Labour MPs, since the RMT took action in the Summer momentum has been building behind trade unions. With no one in mainstream politics sticking up for the labour movement, hundreds of thousands of work days lost speak louder than mealy mouthed shadow ministerial apologetics.

The first consequence is such a big, visible action can only embolden further such action. With ballots live for civil servants, teachers, railway workers, HE workers, nurses, and dozens of smaller scale disputes flaring up week after week in the private sector, as the cost of living bites workers have no choice but to defend what we have and demand back what's been taken. This can only spread further, seeing as Sunak is is refusing to negotiate. Inflation and affordability aren't the issue. We've seen how these don't matter when occasion affords an excuse to shower their well-heeled support with state money.. No, Sunak wants to be seen as a strong leader and needs to keep a lid on the politics of expectations. Doing the sensible thing and hammering out compromise deals with trade unions, even if their demands are nowhere near met, is fatal to a Tory project working to delegitimise and render ineffective all forms of collective action.

Yet, despite this, not only is the strike wave growing, public support is growing. This doesn't matter so much for workers in dispute per se. The object of striking is to be disruptive and make life unliveable for the employer for the duration. This, ultimately, is all that matters. Yet with some 300,000 teachers taking action and the huge inconvenience for millions of parents, polling shows their sympathies lie with them as opposed to the government and that this has increased as the strike wave has picked up speed. The reasoning isn't hard to fathom. Parents speak to teachers. They know what goes on in their kids' schools. They can see how hard pressed they are for resources, and have an inkling about the ridiculous (unpaid) workload that comes with the job. Likewise, because of the spread of the strike action, we are approaching that crucial point where every family and social circle has someone who has either been on strike during this wave, came out today, or will be looking to very soon. Whatever Tory MPs say in the Commons or the lines they push in interviews, or rubbish written by the shrinking right wing press, social proximity cuts through their lies.

Herein lies the danger for establishment politics. For decades, Tory rhetoric has relied on supposing the unions are some sort of excrescence; a barely-acceptable set of institutions who don't have any place in the modern workplace and are divorced from and separate to the workers they organise. For much of the same period, Labour's attitude has been little different. This has left an opening. The combination of the inflation crisis, and that unions are the only organisations talking about solutions is turning heads. Last time, political neglect of entirely normal aspirations resulted in Corbynism. This time, ignoring the fact working people want a wage or salary they can live on is legitimising trade unions and militant action. Sunak's short-sightedness is not keeping the labour movement in a box, he's antagonising it, setting up a dynamic where disputes can only grow and grow - especially when it's he, the Prime Minister who dodged a leadership contest of his own members, who's lacking legitimacy.

There are medium term consequences here for Labour as well. Keir Starmer has spoken favourably about trade unions pretty consistently, even though he won't be drawn on the specifics of industrial disputes or offer striking workers the smallest amount of encouragement. His silence about today's actions are typical. However, by not saying anything positive he's already teaching trade unionists, especially those new to the movement and taking their first striking steps, a valuable lesson: that Labour, and particularly its leadership cannot be trusted. While most sections of the labour movement will support Starmer without enthusiasm to get shot of the Tories, the aloof positioning, the "we're not a party of protest" posturing is placing a wedge between the enlightened legislators of which he is the personification, and the increasingly class conscious workers voting for him. That means when the time comes for conflicts between unions and his government, and they will surely happen, large numbers of workplace activists as well as union officialdom won't feel the need to pull their punches as Labour-loyal unions have done in the past.

In other words, the strike wave has every possibility of opening politics up by normalising trade unions as aggregators of workers' voices, by framing industrial action as a reasonable and legitimate response to unreasonable and unacceptable establishment politics, and crucially create a spur for workers - us - to look to our own capacities rather than waiting on a great socialist messiah to save us. Today was significant not just because it hit several statistical milestones. We could be at the beginning of something new - and exciting.

Image Credit


David Lindsay said...

Since when was one day off school an educational disaster? If rail operators whose entire business model was collecting whatever public subsidies that they happened to demand can still declare profits and pay dividends, almost always abroad and often to foreign states, then why can they not pay their staff in line with the cost of living? Between Boris Johnson's (and Rishi Sunak's) wasteful spending and dubious allocation, and Liz Truss's mini-Budget, then we are already looking at a bill that would very conservatively be estimated at £138 billion, £64 billion for him and £74 billion for her. Within Johnson's total, Sunak simply wrote off at least £4.3 billion to fraud arising out of Covid-19. Explain to me how anything would be unaffordable.

Yet do not expect to hear any of this from the Labour Party, which opposes the strikes, which said little about the Covid-19 fiddles at the time, which supported and supports all but one measure in the mini-Budget, which said nothing about Nadhim Zahawi despite having known all along, and which is pro-sanctions and pro-war with the fanaticism that only the liberal bourgeoisie, which does not fight wars, can ever muster. Labour has even adopted the Government's tactic of calling minimum service levels "minimum safety levels", although the Trade Union Bill does not mention safety. Far from repealing that legislation, Labour would be vastly more likely than the Conservatives to use those powers.

PurplePete said...

" look to our own capacities rather than waiting on a great socialist messiah to save us."

As The Guardian & the BBC were wont to repeatedly tell us: Corbyn is not the messiah, he is a very naughty anti-Semite.

Old Trot said...

I really, really, hope your hyper optimistic concluding thoughts turn out to be true, Phil. The extraordinary damage that the Tory ( plus Lib Dem) governments 2010 to now have done to all aspects of our vital civil society infrastructures are almost unbelievable . When a huge number of our hospitals have roofs and floors held up by metal props, and an unknown number of our schools too are in danger of physical collapse , you have a perfect metaphor for their sheer social terrorism over a mere 13 years. And now , as the RMT's leader says, we face actual enforced conscription of labour during strikes in the latest Tory bill against strikes and trades unions ! So much for 'liberal' capitalist democracy in the UK.

The NULabour careerists and their Deep State spycop creature, Starmer, will of course be entirely on the side of the employers and the rich against strikers once in office (not 'in power' of course - just mere lackeys of the capitalist class). But what of the trades union bureaucracy you pin your hpes on, Phil ? With a few honourable exceptions the often deeply corrupt, overpaid, gold pensioned, bureaucrats of the likes of USDAW, UNISON, GMB, etc, etc, are so happy personally with the status quo , and possible peerages in the future, that they would be privately perfectly happy with totalitarian restrictions on strikes , leaving them free, whilst posturing their opposition, to carry on their shamelessly comfy lifestyles.

The future is more likely to be one where the few more militant unions and leaderships will face expropriation of their assets , and even 'Pentonville 5' type imprisonments of strikers - which will be unsupported by the rest of the unions and TUC , as per the 1984 Miners Strike (and of course the 1926 General Strike onwards) . Unofficial 'Wildcat' strikes and subversive unofficial 'go-slows ' will have to be the weapon of that rising tide of working class resistance - not generally a strike wave uprising actively led by the bureaucracy. This will be a HUGE opportunity for the re-emergence of a radical non Labour Left. Unfortunately the entirely middle class current Left Liberal 'Left' simply ain't currently up to the task - having little contact with the non professional working classes, and many other, identity politics saturated, diversionary policy priorities to pursue. .

Robert Dyson said...

"to look to our own capacities rather than waiting on a great socialist messiah to save us". This is the most important sentence. I have hope. Even the BBC had shocking details of agents acting for British Gas breaking into homes, including vulnerable people, to fit prepayment meters - and news of Shell's £32.2bn profit in 2022. People have woken up.

Boffy said...

With so many workers on strike, its inevitable that support for strikes remains high, because pretty much every household now has someone in it, or who they know closely who is, has been, or shortly will be on strike!

Tories see only consumers - like themselves - not the fact that the vast majority of consumers, be it of goods or services, are also workers. So, they expect opposition to striking teachers from parents, forgetting that those parents are also teachers, nurses, doctors, train drivers, rail workers, civil servants, local government workers, and on and on.

The only people not on strike are those in the private sector who contrary to Tory propaganda have already had big pay rises, averaging more than 7%, often without needing to strike, or after just very short strikes. Rolls Royce workers, for example, got 16.9%! And, for unskilled workers who can easily move to other unskilled jobs, given that job vacancies are at historically high levels, the average pay rise just for changing jobs is 15%!

So, not only will many of those workers live in households where someone is unfortunate enough to be employed by the state, and so forced into striking, but they will look at their own pay rises, and see that what the government is offering is unsupportable.