The Present Wave of Strikes and the Way Forward for the Working Class

A public meeting was held on this topic in London on 6 May 2023. The presentation, which we reproduce below, was generally well received. Interventions from the floor did not dispute the main points made, most significantly the role the trade unions and the left were playing in defeating the strikes, nor did they dispute the need for mass meetings and strike committees as the only way to extend the struggle today. The discussion focussed instead on the causes of the strike wave, the lack of class consciousness today and how revolutionaries could achieve an influence in the class struggle.
A speaker from the floor queried the causes of the strike wave, suggesting people’s hopelessness is bringing them together to struggle but arguing that this type of anger could be manipulated by the ruling class. In the discussion speakers pointed to the systemic problems of capitalism resulting in falling average profitability leading to continual attacks on workers’ wages and living conditions in an attempt to restore profitability. This was the root of the present strike wave. While it was accepted that the anger this produced could be manipulated, and blaming Russian or Chinese imperialism was one type of manipulation already attempted by sectors of the UK ruling class, the CWO doubted it could be manipulated indefinitely. The attacks on wages and living conditions would continue and this type of manipulation has its limits.
Another speaker from the floor raised the question of the lack of class consciousness in the present struggles, the need for revolutionary intervention and why this was difficult today. An example of the FE colleges was cited. The colleges had been privatised and were all separate from each other, making a united struggle very difficult. More significant still was the liquidation of the historical strongholds of the working class in the UK such as mining, steel working, manufacturing, and so on, which had been shipped abroad. This had produced an end of homogenised experience for the working class and class identity had been lost. This, the speaker argued, was a barrier to taking the struggle outside the unions. There would be no progress until there was communist leadership in the struggle.
This led to discussion on struggle outside the unions and wildcat strikes. The capitalists were scared of wildcats and a CWO contact pointed out that the GMB had leafletted Amazon specifically to prevent self-organisation and wildcats. Another speaker said the problem was that the organic link between the class and revolutionaries was broken in the counter-revolution of the 1920s and we were still in a period of counter-revolution. While there was agreement that the organic link between revolutionaries and the working class was broken and needed to be re-established, there was no agreement on how this could be done. CWO speakers argued No War but the Class War (NWBCW) committees were one means of starting to re-establish this link. Two objections to the strategy of NWBCW committees were raised. The first was that working with anarchists or class struggle groups was diluting left communist politics, and the second that the level of class struggle today was still not sufficient for such an initiative.
Here we should point out that NWBCW is no shortcut nor a replacement for the usual political activity of the CWO. We do not expect immediate success (i.e. workers in struggle adopting internationalist positions here and now) and we are well aware that the terrain for intervention is always shaped by the level of class struggle (which, despite a revival of wage disputes, is still relatively low). It is a long term perspective which becomes more and more pertinent as the drive to war intensifies and as the working class resists the attacks on its living standards. By bringing together internationalists on the basis of clear points of agreement, NWBCW committees are a way to amplify the otherwise scattered internationalist voices within the wider working class – before it is too late.

In this talk we are going to speak about the current wave of strikes, the reason for them, and why so many of the strikes are failing, and what workers could do to win their struggles. Over the last four decades workers have been in retreat everywhere. Now there are signs that something is beginning to change. Across the world, from Iran to Europe, Australia and the USA, millions are striking against rampant price rises and general decline in working conditions. For the moment, however, the majority of workers are still hesitant. The lost decades have left a legacy of low confidence and expectations. The world economy is in crisis, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, although not the cause of the crisis, have only exacerbated the problems for workers everywhere, with the general cost of living spiralling. The British economy has declined more than anywhere else, in part due to Brexit, and the incompetencies of our government, but a simple change in government won’t be able to permanently improve things for the working class, because the cause of the crisis is capitalism’s falling rate of profit.

The response of the capitalist class to the falling rate of profit since the 1980’s has largely been to send production abroad to countries with lower wages and conditions, while simultaneously attacking the wages and conditions of workers in Britain. This strategy of the capitalist class led to a rise in the rate of profit from 1982 to 1997, but it could not end the crisis, only delay it. The attack on wages has been ruinous for the working class, driving millions into poverty, to the extent that the last fifteen years of wage stagnation, since the 2008 financial crash, has on average, in real terms left British workers £11,000 worse off a year. This stagnation in wages has only made the situation more dire for the working class as since 2021, inflation has risen sharply, rising to a high of 10.4% CPI in February 2023, or 14.2% RPI in October 2022. This rise in inflation has been caused by two main factors, central banks pumping money into the economy to keep businesses afloat during the pandemic, all while production sharply fell; and secondly the war in Ukraine with the ensuing sanctions put upon Russia, which has lead to massive rises in the price of oil and natural gas, with natural gas more than doubling in price, making heating unaffordable for the majority, while everything else becomes more expensive because of the rise in the cost of energy and transport. But these attacks on the working class are not enough for the bourgeoisie to restore profitability, this is the reason behind the drive to war that we are seeing today, to try and get access to cheaper resources, and cheap labour and eliminate capitalist rivals. The anger from the working class is clear to see, fed up with ever worsening pay and conditions, the working class has returned to the path of struggle after decades of retreat, and it has done so with with more work days lost to strike action in 2022 than any year since 1989, and that is even though union membership is substantially lower.

Four Big Strikes

We want to look at 4 of the main strikes in Britain to illustrate the problems we face and point to solutions and ways strikes could be won.

The strike wave in Britain was really started on the trains. This followed a ballot of RMT members over whether to take industrial action over wages. Their demand was for a 7% pay rise. The Rail Delivery Group made a 3% offer, as well as planned changes to working practices – involving the removal of guards from trains, the reduction in the number of open ticket offices, and the threat of redundancies. It was announced on 24 May that they had voted in favour of strike action, paving the way for the UK's first national rail strike in three decades. Workers at 13 rail operators and National Rail voted to strike, with initial strike dates of the 21, 23 and 25 June. It was also announced that the 21 June strike would coincide with a planned 24-hour strike to be held by workers on the London Underground. The 21 June walkout involved 40,000 rail staff, as well as 10,000 workers from London Underground.

On 22 June it was reported that members of the TSSA had voted to accept a 7.1% pay rise following an ongoing dispute with Merseyrail which had led to strike action. Unlike the train operators involved in the national dispute, Merseyrail is a fully devolved Train Operating Company and therefore not required to consult the government on issues such as levels of pay and industrial disputes. On 30 June, the TSSA confirmed that its members at Avanti West Coast had voted overwhelmingly for strikes and action short of a strike.

In June, ASLEF members voted to strike in a separate dispute. The union, which represents train drivers, announced plans to hold strike action on 23 and 26 June, as well as 13 and 14 July. The train operators affected were Hull Trains, Greater Anglia and Tramlink. On 11 July, members of ASLEF at eight train operators voted to take strike action in a dispute over pay, with 5,500 workers taking strike action on 30 July, with a second day of action on 13 August. On 5 August, Network management staff belonging to the TSSA voted to accept a 4% pay rise, meaning the railway network would be able to continue providing a skeleton service on strike days.

On 31 August ASLEF announced that train drivers from 12 train companies would strike on 15 September. Following the death of the Queen on 8 September, the strikes by the RMT and ASLEF scheduled for 15 and 17 September were called off. On 22 September, an RMT strike was announced for 8 October, but as the strike approached, Mick Lynch announced that members would be balloted to determine if they wished to continue with the strikes. The RMT later announced the strikes had been suspended and that they would enter into "a period of intensive negotiations" with Network Rail and the train operators. The RMT announced on the 22 November, four 48-hour strikes in the run up to Christmas and early 2023. ASLEF meanwhile announced that around 9,500 train drivers at 12 train operators would strike falling in between two strikes announced by the RMT for January.

On 5 December, RMT staff working for Network Rail announced a strike over Christmas, from Christmas Eve until 27 December. In December 2022 the Rail Delivery Group offered the RMT a pay rise worth 8% over two years, but this was rejected due to it being conditional on them agreeing to reforms to Sunday overtime and the expansion of driver-only trains. The Rail Delivery Group made their first pay offer to ASLEF in January, described as being worth 4% in backdated pay for 2022, and 4% in 2023, but was again conditional on accepting worse working conditions.

The RMT announced four new days of strikes during March and April, but on 7 March RMT staff working for Network Rail called off a strike planned for 16 March after being given a fresh pay offer of 9% over two years, which works out as 5% this year and 4% next, a real time pay cut, but Network Rail workers accepted the offer, calling off their strikes on 30 March and 1st April. RMT staff working for the train operators haven’t accepted the offer, and are balloting for further strike action, with the ballot ending on 4 May.

When we look at the struggle on the trains what do we see?

On the one hand the position of the bosses has been made stronger by the government subsidising train operators since the pandemic for any losses, and this includes losses on strike days, which means the train operators are profiting either way and the government has control over what these companies can offer in pay talks.

On the other hand we see the unions failing to coordinate any strike action, interspersing strikes calling them on and off, even out of respect for the monarchy, and negotiating separate pay deals all representing a pay cut. Their standard methods of wearing down workers’ anger and getting them to agree a pay cut. A classic defence of the needs of capitalism.

If we turn to the strikes in the NHS we see a similar sorry story.

The dispute of the nurses started when on the 6 October, the RCN announced their intention to ballot members for strike action, for the first time in their 106 year history. They were calling for a pay offer that is 5% above inflation, because over the last 10 years, their pay has fallen by 20% in real terms, but the best offer they have received was in March and is only 5% and a one off payment worth between £1,655 and £3,789. After RCN announced strike ballots, Unison announced they would also ballot their members who worked across the wider health service and co-ordinate their strikes, so they were on the same days. On the 10 November, nurses voted to strike, with dates on 15 and 20 December. With further strike dates on 18 and 19 January 2023, and then 6 and 7 February. In March, the RCN recommended their members that they accept a 5% pay cut. Instead of 5% above inflation the RCN was now recommending an offer of 5% below inflation. Obviously, after over a decade of pay restraint, to take another pay cut was unacceptable to the nurses, two RCN members put together a petition to hold a vote of no confidence in the union’s leaders. When that petition crossed 1,000 votes – enough to trigger an extraordinary general meeting – the union leadership launched an investigation into whether all the signatures on it were valid. The response of the union was to say that 600 of the those signatures were false, and belonged to members who said they had not signed the petition. The petition was taken offline and the union contacted the police to investigate the petition, while reporting the behaviour of its members to social media platforms and to the nursing regulator. The RCN since announced a 48 hour strike, starting at 8pm on the 30 April, which the government has responded to by taking legal action. In response to a court order, the RCN suspended the last 20 hours of strike action. They did this because the RCN's 6 month strike mandate expired midnight on 1 May. Why would the RCN announce a strike outside of their mandate, if when the government challenges it, they are only going to roll over and accept it? Did they not actually want to strike for 48 hours, or are they just incompetent?

On 6 December, ambulance workers belonging to the GMB, Unison and Unite announced two one-day strikes on 21 and 28 December; the strikes would only affect non-life threatening calls. On 18 January 2023 a further four strike days were announced, including 6 February, which would coincide with a walkout by nurses, creating the largest strike within the NHS so far. On 3 March 2023, the GMB and Unison unions called off ambulance strikes in England scheduled for 6 and 8 March after the UK government agreed to open talks on pay for the 2022–23 and 2023–24 financial years. In April, ambulance workers represented by Unison in England voted to accept a 5% pay increase.

As in the case of the train struggle, we see the unions failing to unite, making separate settlements which undermine the general struggle, but in the case of the RCN, even calling in the police and accepting the capitalist courts role in limiting the struggle.

Strikes at Royal Mail started after the CWU announced a ballot on 20 July over Royal Mail's proposed job restructuring. The proposed restructuring of Royal Mail was splitting its postal business from its more profitable international logistics operations, to introduce owner-drivers and become a gig-economy style employer. Royal Mail claimed this was necessary because they were losing up to £1 million per day. The CWU later announced the first round of strikes to be held on 26 and 31 August, and 8-9 September. On 7 September, the CWU said that its members had rejected a 5.5% pay offer and supported another two day strike on 30 September and 1 October. CWU action planned for 9 September was cancelled after the death of the Queen. On 27 September, the CWU announced 93.5% of members had again voted to continue strike action, and said it was planning 19 further days of strikes across October and November to cover peak periods such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the build-up to Christmas. Another strike was announced for 24-hour period from 12.30pm on 16 February until 12.30pm on 17 February 2023, but was called off after a legal challenge by Royal Mail. In April a new offer on pay and conditions was given by Royal Mail, in which they cancelled their plans for restructuring, with what they say is a 10% pay rise, but when broken down is a 2% pay rise that applied from April 2022, a 6% pay rise applying from April 2023, and a 2% pay rise from April 2024, with a one-off lump sum payment of £500, and this was dependent on workers accepting later working hours. The CWU claims this is a good agreement, and suggested that workers vote for it.

As in the case of the health service we see on/off strikes over a period of months and months, bowing to the law, respect for the monarchy, and finally negotiating a pay cut with worse conditions of work. This amounts to nothing more than implementing the bosses plans to increase profits.

On 14 October, the UK's two largest teaching unions, the NEU and NASUWT announced plans to ballot their members on strike action after receiving the offer of a 3.5% pay rise from the Department for Education. Both unions have demanded a 12% pay rise to keep pace with the level of inflation. On 12 January 2023, NASUWT announced that even though 9 out of 10 members voted for industrial action, members working in state funded schools would not be striking due only reaching a 42% turnout; 8% less than the 50% turnout ratio required by law. On 16 January, the NEU announced that its members had voted to strike, and confirmed that seven days of strike action would be held in February and March. The UK government made a renewed pay offer to teachers in England following discussions and which would be put to a ballot, but on 27 March, the NEU urged teachers to reject the offer, raising the prospect of further strikes. Gillian Keegan, the Secretary of State for Education, said the deal, with a £1,000 one-off payment for 2022–23 and a 4.3% pay rise for 2023–24, would be the government's final offer. On 3 April, the NEU announced two further strike dates on 27 April and 2 May, stating that the offer was unacceptable, not fully funded, and did not address the shortage of teachers. On 8 April, NASUWT announced it would re-ballot its members on strike action after 87% voted to reject the government's pay offer. On 20 April, the NEU announced new strike dates for Thursday 27 April and Tuesday 2 May.

In the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales teaching strikes have been settled separately leaving the English schools fighting on their own. The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the largest union for teacher’s in Scotland, voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action in November after receiving a pay offer of 5%. A revised 6.85% pay offer was rejected by the EIS, which meant the strikes would go ahead. In January the EIS announced a further 22 days of strike action. This started with 16 days of "rolling" strike action, whereby each day would see teachers in two local authorities striking. Members of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA) were scheduled to stage a strike in February, but it was called off after they voted to accept the Scottish government’s new pay offer of 14.7% over 28 months. On 3 March, the EIS called off another planned 20 days of rolling strikes scheduled to begin on 13 March after receiving an improved pay offer from the Scottish Government, worth 14.6% over 28 months, which members of the EIS voted to accept. On 14 March, members of NASUWT narrowly voted to accept the pay offer, which stopped further strikes from happening in Scottish schools.

While the NEU in Wales on 10 March called off a two day strike planned from 15 March after receiving a new pay offer from the Welsh Government worth 8%, which they voted to accept, ending their dispute.

As in the other struggles we have looked at, we see on/off strikes and division leading to separate settlements.

What are the main lessons we can draw from all this?

During the last 6 months there have been many more strikes than the four we have looked at. We have seen during this period millions of workers going on strike, and a level of militancy not seen in decades, yet despite this we see in almost every industry, pay deals being settled below inflation, why is this?

The unions are leading the strikes to defeat. The anti-strike laws in Britain demand that unions have to ballot long in advance of any strike action, that they need not just a majority of the vote to be for strike action but also a majority of workers to actually vote, this stops the unions from taking strike action until it can’t be stopped, and then means that the bosses have weeks and weeks to prepare. By dragging this out for weeks, then calling one or two day strikes separated by months, much of the anger that causes the struggle ends up exhausted, and then when the union sells out their members, recommending a pay cut, many workers feel like they have no other option.

Why do the unions go along with this? The legal status of trade unions in the United Kingdom was established by a Royal Commission on Trade Unions in 1867, which agreed that the establishment of the organisations was to the advantage of both employers and employees. Unions were legalised in 1871 with the adoption of the Trade Union Act. This gave a structural position to the trade unions within capitalism, as negotiators between labour and capital of the price of labour power, and the conditions of workers under capitalism. The large assets of the trade unions, and their interest in keeping their position as a negotiator, makes them guardians of capitalism, they can not let workers take action that is too militant, because if they can’t control their members, then what use does capital have in negotiating with the union.

Even with the restrictive laws we have in this country, why do the unions organise the strikes for only a couple of days, with one day one week and another the next? They are scared of being dragged into a strike that goes on for months; but without the threat of extended strike action, what reason does capital have to negotiate? We see unions cancelling their strikes without even asking workers, all so they can negotiate deal’s which sell out their members, how does cancelling a strike strengthen the negotiating position of the working class? We’ve even seen the CWU and RMT cancel strike action because the Queen died, proving their respect for the British establishment and the monarchy, but to what end?

For the most part we see these strikes being kept separate, with at best a couple of strike days being co-ordinated to be on the same day, but it’s clear that uniting the various strikes into one struggle would put workers in a much stronger position. In places where the government doesn’t want to negotiate, like the NHS, or is stopping negotiations, like on the trains, uniting the struggles in to one and trying to spread it to other industries would force the government and businesses to the negotiating table. With the government’s attacks on the rights of unions, the unions could have easily responded with a united struggle, which could’ve stopped the government in their tracks.

This wave of class struggle in Britain has been the largest in decades, for many it will have been their first experience being involved in a workplace struggle. If the unions manage to sell out these strikes, and implement pay cuts, what is the likely reaction from workers? How likely are they going to want to strike again in the future?

What can workers do to win their struggles? The most important thing for workers is to take control of the struggle out of the hands of the unions. This is why the bosses fear wildcat strikes. On 19 oil rigs in the North Sea, for example, workers rejected a 5% pay offer and organised a wildcat with their own strike committee. The bosses refused to negotiate with the strike committee and called in the union (Unite). Negotiations were so slow the workers organised a second wildcat before the unions agreed a pay deal. A number of other wildcats have also won pay increases at smaller workplaces such as Amazon.

If the unions are unwilling to take action to make the struggle effective, then what is the point of using them. Historically, it was because they paid strike pay, but now that’s not always the case, with unions like the CWU not paying any strike pay, and that’s even though since 2009 they have received dues from members of more than £300 million, during a period with no national strikes.

Organising ourselves outside of the control of the unions – across firms, trades, sectors, beyond union demarcations – actually gives us the unity we need to spearhead the fight against the fall in living standards..

We need a real movement of labour which is not the old “Labour Movement” that long ago accepted a role within capitalism. So how can worker’s take control of their own struggles? By getting as many workers in a work place as possible together for a mass assembly, which can decide on the route of action and take it straight away without waiting weeks, giving capital no chance to plan against it, by doins so they can take action which the unions think is too risky or militant, such as indefinite strike action, occupying the workplace or doing solidarity strike action. Workers can set up strike committees, temporary organisations which help co-ordinate actions and use them to try and spread the struggle to other workplaces.

Need for Communism

But even if workers manage this, all concessions that workers win in these struggles are only temporary under capitalism, because as the rate of profit falls, capital will be forced into ever stronger attacks on the living standards of the working class. The consequences of the capitalist crisis are already making life unbearable for vast masses of workers and the poor. We are facing a future of adversity: war, environmental disasters, economic and social suffering. Until the working class comes together and fights to destroy capitalism internationally, that will not change. Only once we’ve replaced our rotten system of production for profit, with a system of production for need, will increases to our standards of living become permanent.

Meanwhile, in the present situation, the real gain from any struggle can only be confidence in self-organisation, greater awareness of belonging to a wider working class and wider recognition within the class of the possibility that a different world is possible.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
6 May 2023
Friday, May 19, 2023


Another important potential gain is strengthening the revolutionary organisation. We cannot offer an effective reformist practice, inevitability there is only worse to come for the majority, regardless of the form of organisation, whilst the capitalist framework is uncontested. What could be gained is an ever more effective revolutionary organisation feeding on the inexorably increasing misery. At some point the situation boils, the revolutionary organisation needs to be in place for that. We are not able to replace the failed labour movement as defender of the class within capitalism, but we can attempt to build a revolutionary reference for the future explosion.