Notes on the UK Strike Wave

What a difference a few years makes! The period between 2015 and 2019, despite being one of the worst for wage growth, saw some of the lowest levels of strike action in the UK since records began. The period of the Covid-19 pandemic, despite revealing how deeply the divide has grown between the ruling class and the rest of society, did not elicit a wider fightback then and there. Yet come 2022, strikes became part of everyday life. As disputes flared up in transport, post, hospitals, universities, factories, logistics, and even charities, sources estimate we have seen some of the biggest strikes in a generation or since Thatcher was Prime Minister.(1)

For those of us for whom “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”, the current strike wave raises just as many questions as answers.

Cause and Effect

Undoubtedly, the immediate consequence of the rising cost of living coupled with stagnant wages has been the prime motive force.(2) Of course, this is only part of a wider trend, which has seen workers’ share of GDP decline since the 1970s (i.e. since the current cycle of capital accumulation entered its downward spiral). Furthermore, the post pandemic labour shortage was expected to tip the scales on the labour market in favour of job seekers. A tighter labour market usually means more bargaining power for workers.

Trade union leadership has sensed an opportunity and taken advantage of this situation, sending out strike ballots across many different sectors, largely over pay (pensions, casualisation, redundancies, etc., are also recurrent issues). This has affected both the public and the private sector, but mainly those workplaces where union density is higher (though transport disruption caused by strikes has indirectly hit profits in the hospitality industry as well). On a few occasions, workers have even taken the initiative themselves and did not wait for the union to go through the official process.(3)


So far, not many of the strikes have achieved their stated aims. Only few have won above-inflation pay rises, like the Liverpool dockers who after almost two months of strike action have been promised pay rises of between 14% and 18%. Many others however have given into concessions, like the BT workers who after six months settled on a flat rate pay rise of £1,500 (between 3.8% and 8% dependent on the pay scale) rather than the backdated 10% percent pay rise they originally asked for. And some strikes, like those on the railways and in the post, are still ongoing after more than half a year.

Despite certain union leaders talking about the need for coordinated strike action, this has been very limited, even when action has taken place within the same sectors or even the same workplaces. Unions continue to cross each other’s picket lines and, even where they have ignored recommendations on mass picketing, they have made sure that all action takes place entirely within the law and according to conditions laid out in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. In fact, when the Queen died, many unions (CWU, RMT, ASLEF and TSSA) cancelled or suspended their strikes simply out of goodwill. Despite all this respect for the establishment and its rules, Sunak's government is now threatening to further expand anti-strike laws by making it possible to sue unions and sack employees who do not ensure “minimum service levels” during strikes in key public sectors. It looks like the unions will challenge this in court and through symbolic days of action, but it remains to be seen whether workers will challenge such attacks on their right to strike on the streets and in the workplaces.

Scramble for the Real Movement

Simultaneously with the return of strike action, the left of capital has started the scramble for which political faction will channel the movement their way. The fall of Corbyn following the 2019 general election and the openly pro-business direction the Labour Party has taken under Starmer has left a vacuum for other formations to appeal to the Corbyn diaspora.

Already in early 2022, before the strike wave properly unfurled, the People's Assembly, with the ex-Labour MP Laura Pidcock at the helm, organised cost of living protests. This was soon overshadowed by the Enough is Enough campaign launched in August 2022 by Mick Lynch of the RMT and Labour MPs Zarah Sultana and Ian Byrne. On the more activist side of things, the Don’t Pay campaign has been (rather confusingly) encouraging the mass non-payment of energy bills. All these campaigns have tried to build a presence by setting up local groups to limited success. Add to this the various Trotskyist and Stalinist groups which have recruited among the Labour left as well as local leftist councillors now trying to boost their career as “independent socialists”, and there is plenty of confusion to go around. 2023 will only see a continuation of these factional struggles from within the trade unions and the Labour left.

Real Alternative

From the beginning of this strike wave, we have been saying that:

Our power to fight back lies in our own hands as a class, and it is down to us to express it through our own organs, be they strike committees, neighbourhood assemblies and ultimately workers’ councils. We cannot afford to put this power into the hands of politicians and union bureaucrats, however much they pretend to be on our side.(5)

To this end, throughout all of last year, CWO members and sympathisers have been on the picket lines, at the rallies and marches, talking to other workers about the need for a real alternative (which for us includes both the self-organisation of the struggle and a new international political reference point for workers questioning the system). And we will continue to do so. Such an alternative can only emerge from the working class as it makes a break with the union framework, which divides workers across sectors and workplaces, and the institutional left, which simply fights for their space at the trough. In this sense, we are still far from the level of militancy of the 1970s (even if the same danger of “money militancy” looms large: isolated sections of workers exhausting themselves through quite draining strikes fighting over what amounts to crumbs).

We know many workers already see the need for coordinated action (even if they are still waiting for the union leadership to announce it). Many also recognise the current wave of strikes has a political dimension (even if for now this remains only at the level of “Tories out”). While capitalism in crisis is able to provide certain concessions and pay off workers in certain sectors, whichever government is in, it will not be able to overturn the developments of the last 50 years (at least not without a catastrophic destruction of capital that could trigger a new cycle of accumulation). Globally we are seeing infrastructure which provides essential services like healthcare crumble, while rival imperialist powers jostle over a planet whose ecosystems are increasingly being destroyed. As we enter the new year, the question remains whether the working class – the only force capable of creating a new society – will strike over more than just pay. After all, we have a world to win and a world to save.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
10 January 2023


(1) E.g.

(2) For our analysis of the so-called “cost of living crisis”, see:


(4) For our last comment on Corbynism, see:


Wednesday, January 11, 2023