Wildcat Strikes in the UK: Getting Ready for a Hot Autumn

The climate crisis may have brought record heat to the UK this summer but it is not the only way temperatures are rising. After more than ten years of austerity in which real wages have been slashed, after more than four decades in which workers’ earnings as a share of the wealth their labour creates have fallen, there are a few signs that the latest attempt to make us pay is the last straw. The current situation, characterised by rising costs of living, stagnating wages and intensification of exploitation is only set to get worse. The class war is heating up.

The global capitalist economic crisis which has been with us since the post-war boom ended in the 1970s has never gone away, and workers have faced one attack after another ever since. The pandemic, Brexit and the war in Ukraine have – as ever – all been trotted out as alibis for the failure of the system. While these are certainly contributing factors, behind the inflation, skyrocketing prices and supply disruptions ultimately lies the systemic failure of world capitalism. This is a theme we have explored in the recent issues of Aurora and Revolutionary Perspectives.

And now, at last, the frontal assaults on labour are provoking the beginnings of a new resistance in which workers have taken the conduct of their struggle into their own hands. In tandem with official strike actions on the rail, airports, buses and in telecoms, there has been a growing wave of unofficial, or wildcat, strike actions across the UK. Many of these struggles are about wages, but not all. Some are over labour discipline and against bullying at work. In short, workers are once again beginning to dispute bosses’ control over production and such wildcat struggles represent an elemental response to the latest phase of the capitalist crisis.

In the UK news about these wildcat strikes is mostly scattered across local news, leftist sites, and social media. Here we only list a few typical examples:

  • 10 May: some 100 refuse collectors in Welwyn Hatfield walked out in protest against a manager accused of sexism, racism and bullying.
  • 11 May: some 300 construction workers at a refinery in Hull went on strike because of wage payments being delayed or incomplete.
  • 17 May: over a thousand offshore oil workers in the North Sea walked out across 19 rigs demanding their wages match inflation.
  • 27 July: some 100 workers at a food plant in Bury walked out in response to not being allowed proper breaks at work.
  • 3 August: hundreds of Amazon workers at various sites in Tilbury, Rugeley, Coventry, Bristol, Dartford and Coalville have staged walkouts and slowdowns in response to a pay “rise” of only 35p more per hour.
  • 10 August: hundreds of contract workers, including scaffolders and maintenance workers, at refineries, chemical plants and other facilities in Teesside, Grangemouth, Pembroke, Fife, Fawley and Drax walked out in a fight over pay, picketing motorists entering and leaving the facilities.

These may be still few and far between and unconnected for now, but after decades of class retreat they are a start. They hold out the promise of more action against making us pay yet again for the bosses’ crisis. They also give the lie to those who say that we need a union in order to organise resistance. Such people are usually nostalgic for the 1970s and 1980s. In those days workers were in huge production units and most were in unions. This, so the myth goes, gave the workers more power to fight back.

But the reality was the other way round. The unions were (then as now) bloated bureaucracies who only called strikes when they could no longer control what their members were doing. From being organisations built by workers, after the First World War they became vehicles for ensuring that the class war did not get out of control and that workers' demands were kept within the limits the system allowed. When faced with the issue of who ran the country, the TUC called off the General Strike in 1926 after only 9 days leaving the miners to fight on alone. In the 1980s the Tory line of “union power ruining the country” helped to give unions a radical veneer but Tory anti-strike laws (which Labour had also proposed) were not aimed against the unions as such, but against workers’ ability to fight back (the ban on mass pickets, on solidarity actions and the introductions of long drawn out ballots for strikes were not problems for union leaders).

In the UK many of those who identify with the working class are sincere enough, but are both emotionally attached to the “Labour Movement” of the past and want a mass movement immediately, thus they hark back to the old organisations. Since the collapse of Corbynism, attention has turned to the unions. If previously we were told to "vote Labour!" now we are told to "join a union!". This may seem attractive at first sight. But then many of today’s generation do not know the real history of the 1970s. They assume they need a union to spearhead the fight against the fall in living standards. We do need unity – but much wider unity than that offered by the unions. We need unity across firms, trades, sectors, beyond union demarcations. In short, we need a real movement of labour which is not the old “Labour Movement” that long ago accepted a role within capitalism.

This new movement has to be organised from below once again. Without this many workers do end up reliant on the union framework which is the legal framework of the capitalist state. But in the current wave of wildcat actions we already see the possibility of going beyond both. Not only is it not necessary to elect a Labour government for workers to take up the class struggle, it is not even necessary to be in a union. These false solutions will however be, again and again, presented to workers to trap them in the dead-end of reformism and help this or that clique get elected to union and state offices.

Ultimately though even the most independent and self-organised struggle will – to paraphrase Marx – fail if it limits itself to a guerrilla class war against the effects of the existing system. As workers begin to rediscover their ability to self-organise, as they begin to recompose themselves as a class, the potential and necessity to overthrow the system and build a new society in its place becomes tangible. This though would only be the start.

By developing into a real class movement these actions not only fight the vicious attacks on our living standards but potentially pose the question of what kind of society we live in. This can become a threat to the capitalist system but only if it is able to put forward a political alternative of its own. If this does not happen we will either see these struggles reabsorbed into some union framework (grassroots or traditional) or exhaust themselves without a clear direction. Spontaneous responses can only take us so far and will fall prey to the left of capital.

It is the role of internationalists to link the pandemic, Brexit, the war in Ukraine and everything else to the crisis of capitalism and the need for a new society without wage labour, money or states. We have to spread the word of struggles to other workers, encourage and document the development of the class struggle worldwide, and always be clear that reforms which are possible within the system, even where they arrive from within the class struggle – wage and benefits increases, price caps, taxation – cannot provide a solution to the capitalist crisis. The ruling class may yet be able to kick the proverbial can down the road, but as their own political predicaments demonstrate, their options are fast running out. On the capitalist periphery – be it in Ecuador(1) or Sri Lanka(2) – 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.

Internationalist revolutionaries are indispensable to this process. We are a small, but rapidly growing, part of the working class resistance worldwide. To those who recognise the seriousness of the current situation, we say join us in the fight to encourage and defend the independence of the working class struggle, to link immediate demands to the historical programme – a society freed from the logic of capital which produces the misery already here … and that yet to come.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
14 August 2022


(1) leftcom.org

(2) leftcom.org

Monday, August 15, 2022