Britain: Tories prepare for class war escalation, union leaders must act

Current TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady meets Tory chancellor Rish Sunak and head of the CBI. We need fighting trade union leaders (Photo: HM TREASURY/CC)

Tory chancellor Rishi Sunak’s screeching windfall tax U-turn was a vain attempt to cut across growing anger at falling living standards, and the mass protests that could result. As even the right-wing Sunday Times pointed out, however, the amounts offered “won’t touch the sides of this crisis”. For example, “By autumn, Ofgem expects the energy price cap to stand at £2,800 – £1,500 higher than at the beginning of the year. So for millions of working households, an extra £400 is a plaster, not a painkiller.”

We urgently need the trade union movement to lead the kind of struggle that the Tories rightly fear could force them out of office: focused on a serious fight for a £15-an-hour minimum wage and for pay rises across the board that, at least, match real inflation. These demands should be combined with others, including the nationalisation of the energy companies under democratic workers’ control.

TUC demo

There are currently 6.6 million trade union members in Britain, a potentially very powerful force, and a serious campaign on these issues could win millions more. The TUC demo on 18 June to ‘demand better’, if organised on this programme, has the potential to be huge, and could act as a springboard for the kind of coordinated strike action that is needed.

There is another demand that needs to be emblazoned on the banner of the TUC demo. It should declare complete solidarity with the struggle of the transport workers’ union, the RMT, and pledge to mobilise against any attempts to introduce new anti-trade union laws, or use the existing ones to block strikes.

The RMT is in the frontline of the struggle against inflation austerity. As reported opposite, its members have delivered huge ‘yes’ votes for strike action on pay, jobs and conditions, first on London Underground, and now nationally. Immediately, the government responded to the national ballots by threatening a new raft of anti-trade union laws to ‘ensure minimum service levels’ which, if implemented, would undermine effective strike action by rail and other essential service workers.

Frightened by the scale of the RMT’s ‘yes’ vote, Johnson and Co have dusted off this proposal they first raised back in 2019, although there have not yet been any moves to bring it into law. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the Tories’ threats can be dismissed as empty posturing. The Tories know that the RMT is in the frontline of the battle to defend workers’ rights and has already taken some measures to prepare to take them on.

The government’s Great British Rail initiative was the biggest change to the operation of the railways since the Tories initiated privatisation of British Rail in 1994. While a confession of the bankruptcy of the profit-driven rail system, it was also an attempt to prepare for battle with the RMT and other transport unions by guaranteeing the income of the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) regardless of ticket sales.

A victory for the RMT would be a huge defeat not just for the TOCs and Transport for London, but for the government, and would be a major victory for the whole workers’ movement and the fight against inflation austerity. Therefore the whole workers’ movement needs to stand shoulder to shoulder with the RMT in its struggle.

In response to the threat of new anti-union legislation, outgoing TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady declared: “We will fight these unfair and unworkable proposals to undermine unions and undermine the right to strike, and we will win.” These ‘warm words’ are welcome but they need to be accompanied by a preparedness to act, and to show that the trade union movement will not be prevented from defending its members by undemocratic and unjust laws.

When, in 2016, the last round of vicious anti-trade union laws was introduced, they passed without a struggle. The TUC leadership, including O’Grady, never went beyond ‘warm words’. This time needs to be different. If the TUC leadership doesn’t both act in solidarity with the RMT, and also to coordinate strike action against inflation austerity, then the left-led unions need to form a ‘coalition of the willing’ to do so.

The statement of Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite, gave a hint of the kind of determined approach that is needed, when she declared, “If you force our legitimate activities outside of the law, then don’t expect us to play by the rules.” We are suffering the worst fall in living standards since 1956; the anti-democratic anti-trade union laws cannot be allowed to prevent an effective struggle to defend workers’ rights.

Political voice

Alongside industrial action to defend our pay and conditions, the working class also needs a political voice. As Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT, has pointed out, Keir Starmer and the Labour frontbench have said nothing in support of the RMT dispute. Mick Lynch also pointed to the strikebreaking behaviour of Coventry Labour council, and predicted that more unions would disaffiliate from Labour, saying: “My union isn’t affiliated with the Labour Party, but I see many other unions, general secretaries and leaders thinking: what is the point of this connection?”

Disaffiliation alone is not an answer, however. For the trade unions to stand aside from politics would just leave workers with a choice between different brands of capitalist parties. Look at the question of the London mayoral election, for example. One of the major battles the RMT is facing is on London Underground, where the Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, is dutifully implementing cuts in jobs, pensions and conditions of the workforce. Yet back in 2020, the RMT London Transport regional council, noting that “Ken Livingstone won his first mayoral election standing against the official Labour candidate”, proposed “that Jeremy Corbyn be approached by the RMT and offered support should he be prepared to stand” in the mayoral election scheduled for May 2021.

A Corbyn mayoral candidacy, backed up with anti-austerity candidates for the London assembly, could well have been successful. Then the current battle of the RMT to save jobs and pensions could have been on a completely different terrain, with a supportive mayor (of one of the biggest cities in Europe) and the potential to mobilise public support against a weak Tory government. That is an illustration of how the struggle against inflation austerity would be immeasurably strengthened by the trade union movement taking the steps needed to building a mass party of the working class, which would fight in our interests in parliament and in the council chambers. The RMT is affiliated to the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition – a small first step which provides a banner for trade unionists to stand in elections – but can play an even more critical role in the struggle for working-class political representation. A conference called by all those unions looking for a left alternative to Labour would be an important next step.

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June 2022