The ‘Winter of Discontent 2022’ is on. Forty-four years after millions of workers went on strike in the one of the biggest periods of struggle since the 1926 General Strike, the phrase has continued to haunt the bosses and the capitalist establishment. Like then, the current strike wave, building by the week, has been driven by spiralling inflation and a brutal cost-of-living squeeze.
Autumn officially ended on 30 November, another day of joint strikes, when 115,000 postal workers in the Communication Workers Union (CWU) were joined by 70,000 University and College Union (UCU) members in higher education, striking along with Unison members in a number of universities and National Education Union (NEU) sixth-form college teachers.
As seems to be the case every day, there were also workers taking action in localised disputes, such as Unite and GMB members at Fawley oil refinery.
December will see the strike temperature hit a new level. For the first time in their history in England and Wales, members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) will be taking industrial action, seeking to win a pay rise that keeps pace with RPI inflation of over 14%, and trying to wrest back at least some of the 20% that nurses have lost in wages since 2010.
On the first day of their action on 15 December, RCN members will be joined by postal workers. Either side of that day will be two 48-hour strikes by 40,000 RMT members in their national rail dispute.
At the same time, teaching unions NEU and NASUWT, along with the Fire Brigades Union, will be in the middle of national strike ballots. The British Medical Association has announced it will ballot junior doctors on whether to strike in a vote opening 9 January. Scottish education union EIS shut down every state school on 24 November and has announced 16 more strike dates in the new year.
There is a real prospect of public sector action approaching the scale of what took place on 30 November 2011, now known in the movement as ‘N30’. Then, two million workers took action together in what was effectively a public sector general strike, to defend their pensions against the austerity offensive of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition.
But unions shouldn’t wait until everyone gets over the line with their ballot result. The 30 November 2011 strike wasn’t the first joint action. Four unions went on strike together in June that year, providing a vital step towards the mass N30 action.
One of those four, the PCS civil service union, already has a mandate to call out over 100,000 of its members. However, the initial small-scale targeted action called by the union’s leadership is a mistake. It should deliver on promises that it made to coordinate with other unions. Surely this would pose bringing out all these members who have secured the necessary ballot thresholds with the RCN and others on 15 or 20 December?
Those nurses’ strikes are taking on a significance wider than NHS pay, as vitally important as that is, with health workers reporting food banks being set up for hospital staff. Increasingly, they are seen as a struggle to defend the NHS itself from Tory cuts and privatisation.
Therefore, the strike days have to be turned into mass solidarity rallies and demonstrations, bringing together all other workers in dispute with working-class communities determined to save the health service.
But, as well as the NHS, Royal Mail and the rail industry are on the line. If the bosses see through their plans, Royal Mail as we know it will cease to exist. The fingerprints of the Tories can be detected as talks in both sectors have ground to a halt. Both sets of bosses seem determined to want to inflict a decisive defeat on the unions.
In response, the CWU and the RMT have escalated their action, the latter after its members smashed the undemocratic Tory anti-union ballot thresholds in the reballot. Both the posties and railworkers can sense the size of the stakes. The reported suspension of 60 CWU union reps shows the vengeful spite of Royal Mail bosses. Postal workers are determined to fight to defend their reps, knowing full well this is a vital part of maintaining the CWU in Royal Mail.
Take on the government
So as with NHS workers, the CWU and the rail unions cannot be left to fight alone. These are battles with the employers, but also with the government, and the trade union movement needs to prepare to take them on.
This divided Tory government is the employer of millions of public sector workers, and the political backer of the privatised Royal Mail and rail companies.
Workers have no option but to fight, and are showing their determination to struggle. But on every picket line, from posties to university staff, from bus drivers to rail workers, and more, striking workers are saying: “We should be striking together.”
Coordinated action, particularly on the scale of a 24-hour general strike, bringing together workers from all sectors, would be a huge moment in raising workers’ sights and confidence. It could put massive pressure on the Tories, posing the prospect of finally pushing them out of office.
That prospect poses the political programme and vehicle needed by workers. There is already huge suspicion of Starmer and his ‘new New Labour’. His refusal to support strikes is not lost on workers. Nor is the recent disgraceful expulsion from Labour of Unison’s national president Andrea Egan. It’s clear whose side he is on – and it’s not ours!
Starmer could lever massive pressure on Sunak and Royal Mail management right now if he promised that, in office, Labour would deliver on the policy passed at its recent conference to renationalise Royal Mail.
But his silence on this is deafening. He was loud enough, however, at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) conference, when he told the unions that his government would be one of “sound money” and “difficult choices.” He has already accepted the pro-austerity spending limits of Sunak and Hunt.
But Starmer should be aware, the original winter of discontent wasn’t against a Tory government but a Labour one, choosing to make workers pay for a crisis not of their making. This escalating strike wave has the potential to drive out the Tories. But it is also a warning that any incoming New Labour government will be put under immediate pressure by workers.
But this needs to be both industrial and political, raising the urgency of establishing the basis, at least, of a political party that represents the interests of workers, their families and communities.