In a statement of breath-taking hypocrisy, the government has accused rail, postal, and airline workers going on strike as causing “untold misery” and showing “contempt for ordinary people”. For many people in the UK, who have been hit repeatedly by Tory cuts, this accusation will be met with a mixture of incredulity and morbid amusement.
Since the Conservatives first came to power in 2010, more than 1 million public sector jobs have been lost; the number of homeless children has risen by 60%; in-work poverty now effects one in eight workers; funding for local government (councils) has been cut by 40%, and will be further decimated in coming years; the number of people dependent on food banks is fast-approaching one million; disability benefits have been stripped to the bone; and benefit sanctions have led to a spike in the number of suicides.
Despite all this, government debt has actually increased by over £500 billion since 2010.
At the same time, we have witnessed a historic transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. The richest 1,000 families in the UK have more than doubled their wealth since the onset of the crisis in 2007-2008! The very people who should have been put in jail after the financial collapse have received handsome bonuses.
Many economists and political commentators now see this period as a “lost decade” for workers and so-called “ordinary people”.
And then the Tories have the nerve to accuse rail, postal, and airline workers of bringing despair to the streets of Britain? This is hypocrisy of the highest order!
The Tory press has also been quick to denounce the strikes, portraying them as calculated attempts to bring down the government.
In reality, the Rail, Maritime, and Transport (RMT) union’s ongoing dispute with Southern Rail is about the issue of customer safety – in a bid to boost profits, Southern Rail is attempting to remove safety-critical conductors from trains. Similarly, the postal workers union (CWU) took action because of the announcement of widespread post office closures, as well as cuts to staff pensions. Airline workers, organised by Unite the union, will be taking strike action against a proposed three-year pay deal which barely kept pace with inflation, whilst eroding terms and conditions, including freezing overtime payments.
Clearly these strikes are not attempts to bring down the government – they are based on legitimate workplace grievances which are being ignored by the bosses.
But if we did want to get rid of the Tories, there is much that can be learned from the ongoing disputes.
Getting the Tories out!
Britain now has the most repressive trade union legislation in western Europe – a fact explicitly acknowledged by Labour’s current worker-friendly leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Since the introduction of the Employment Act 1980, which was conceived by the Thatcher government as a way of hamstringing the trade union movements’ collective strength, it has been illegal for workers to take solidarity action (“sympathy strikes”) with workers in another industry. Unsurprisingly, the succeeding New Labour government, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, refused to repeal this legislation, despite sustained pressure from the trade union movement
This effectively makes general strikes, which really do have the power to topple governments, illegal – although it has not stopped sympathy strikes from taking place altogether.
The Trade Union Bill, passed into law earlier this year, presents another obstacle to workers taking strike action. According to the new legislation, strike action must now be backed by a turnout of 50% (formerly 40%) of all eligible voters and then a “yes” vote of at least 40%. That amounts to 80% of those voting, on a 50% turnout).
Coming from the Tories, who were voted into parliament with a derisory 24% vote share, this is yet more hypocrisy.
Today, however, the ongoing postal, rail, and airline disputes indicate a way around such anti-union legislation. Workers in all industries have individual grievances with their employers. These include postal, rail, and airline workers, but also education workers, health workers, civil servants, council workers, retail workers – we are all fighting against privatisation and its effects.
Although the law states that sympathy strikes are illegal, there is nothing stopping us from coordinating our fightback so that workers, each protesting their own grievances, are called out on the same day. The government’s assault on our living standards has been coordinated, so why shouldn’t our response?
The sheer panic that we are seeing from the government over the current Christmas strikes, which are, in truth, relatively small-scale, provides just a glimmer of what could be achieved by a properly coordinated nationwide fightback.
A general strike, unseen in Britain since 1926, has the power to bring the country to a standstill, and to remove the hated Tories from government. It could also pose the question of power – who runs the country, the bosses or the workers? – and lead to a more fundamental restructuring of society.
As the late Bob Crow famously stated:
If one person spits it won’t make a difference, but if we all spit, we’ll drown the b*stards!
Let’s follow the lead of the rail, postal and airline workers.
Let’s make 2017 the year that the labour movement fights back!