Britain: 1 February – 500,000 workers taking national strike action across five unions

NEU members on the march. Photo: Paul Mattsson

The 1 February strike will see up to 500,000 workers taking national strike action across five unions: NEU, UCU, PCS, Aslef and RMT. It is the biggest single day of workers’ action yet in the strike wave that has developed in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, and taken off especially since last summer.

Actually, it is the largest strike since the public sector walkout of 30 November 2011. That day of action, just over 11 years ago, was effectively a public sector general strike, when 2 million workers in 29 unions walked out together to defend their pensions from the Tory-led coalition with the Lib Dems.

Such action and more still will be needed to defeat the cost-of-living squeeze of the bosses and their Tory government, and Sunak’s planned new anti-union laws. But this is a very important step towards what is needed.

The 1 February strike will show the power of workers taking action together, the fact that the schools will be closed and the rail network will be shut down in particular. It will raise the confidence of workers and prove beyond doubt that there is the potential for the unions to come together and co-ordinate mass joint strike action. The National Education Union (NEU) has recruited 22,000 members in a week after announcing its strike mandate, showing the appetite to join the growing strike wave.

Two days before the 1 February strike, the Tories will seek to move their anti-union legislation through the next parliamentary stage. This is on top of what are already the most restrictive and undemocratic anti-union laws in Western Europe. Grant Shapps tried to argue that they were commonplace in countries like France but the beginning of mass strike action there against Macron’s pension attacks have blown that lie away. Workers here and in France are moving in increasing numbers to take on big business governments, who want to make us pay for the capitalist crises.

The Tories’ new laws would give the government and the bosses powers to dictate a ‘minimal service level’, demanding under threat of fines that unions ensure enough workers work, effectively asking unions to police their own strikes, even organise their own scabbing.

But one of the main demands of the striking nurses and ambulance workers is to ensure that there is a safe minimum of NHS workers in place every day. Such is the shortage of NHS staff because of the exhausting work pressures and low pay, caused by the Tory health cuts, with wages cut by around a fifth in the last decade.

It won’t be lost on workers the clear class bias of the law. Last March, 800 P&O workers were brutally sacked, with bosses admitting to MPs that they knew they were acting illegally. Yet they have been allowed to go scot-free while the government looks to use the law to further restrict workers’ rights.

The money is there

In the same vein, they say there is no money for workers’ pay – yet the number of UK billionaires has risen by 20% and the scandal of Tory crony Covid deals grows. The family of Tory peer Michelle Mone, who made millions in PPE contracts, has now been caught in tax avoidance scandal. So too Tory Party chair Nadhim Zahawi, who faces calls to resign after he made a settlement of £5 million with the tax authorities when he was chancellor. While they had their noses in the public trough, health workers who braved the pandemic to save lives are now attacked for being forced to take action to keep their heads above water.

For years, the unions were written off by some as a relic of the past. But now workers are fighting back, the Tories swiftly move to new repressive legislation. But along with his lack of movement on pay, these aren’t signs of the strength of Sunak’s government. The opposite, he is terrified that giving an inch to one group of workers will establish a precedent.

Similarly, the anti-union laws he now seeks to roll out had been left on the shelf since Johnson won the election in December 2019, because they were worried at workers’ reaction.

But the unions have to take this attack seriously. Cameron got his 2016 Trade Union Act, with its undemocratic 50% industrial action ballot thresholds, into law with no more than verbal opposition from the union leaders. If the unions limit the fight now to just lobbying Tory MPs, the same will happen.

But we don’t share the fatalistic view of some, that if these new restrictions become law then the unions are hamstrung. The Tory anti-union laws of Ted Heath were effectively defeated by mass struggles in the early 1970s. While Cameron’s Trade Union Act may have been an obstacle to national action, as the 1 February joint strikes show, they haven’t prevented them. It is the very thing that the Tories want to curtail – workers’ action – that can defeat their plans. But the fight against these laws and the cost-of-living squeeze must be linked together.

The strikes on 1 February must be the beginning, not the end of the joint action that is needed. On 30 June 2011, four unions went on strike together: PCS, UCU, along with NUT and ATL who have since merged to become the NEU. That day of strikes, and the rallies and demonstrations, was a powerful step that lifted the horizons of all public sector workers, leading directly to the 2 million strike of November that year.

Those unions are out again on 1 February and will be joined on the day by Aslef and the RMT, alongside many localised disputes. But the strike wave is growing with workers out every day. Nurses and ambulance workers will be striking both sides of 1 February, with joint strike action on 6 February being reported as the biggest NHS strike in history. The rail unions and the CWU in Royal Mail have been taking national action since the summer.

Workers are already asking: “Why aren’t we striking on the same day?” The idea of some union leaders that such generalised action may obscure their individual dispute is a mistake. It isn’t about maximising publicity, but what action can win.

As big a day of action as it will be, 1 February could have been much bigger if the unions taking action had declared weeks earlier and publicly called on other unions to join them.

The strike itself will raise the sights of all workers. There needs to be an urgent meeting of the unions, particularly those with strike mandates, to call a strike date that maximises the numbers involved.

15 March

We support any such day of action, but the Tories will be moving their budget on Wednesday 15 March, and the NEU has already called action on that day. It is an ideal date that will inevitably be seen by workers as an opportunity to mobilise behind. It also gives time for unions to discuss and agree coordination of their action. In addition, the TUC and the unions should organise a national demonstration on one of the Saturdays either side of 15 March that could fill the streets of London.

This action would cement the union movement as a pole of attraction to all workers, including those not currently organised in the unions, many of them young. Exactly a week before the 1 February strike, there will be the first official strike by Amazon workers in the UK, organised by the GMB in Coventry, after their walkouts around the country last summer.

A day of coordinated strike action – on the scale approaching that of a 24-hour general strike, particularly if, unlike 2011, there is a programme of escalating action – can lead to Sunak’s Tory government being thrown out.

That would pose the political alternative that workers need. On the 16 January emergency protest called by the RMT at Downing Street, the day of the first reading of Sunak’s anti-union bill, the union’s general secretary Mick Lynch attacked the Labour front bench for their lack of support.

The unions must demand that Starmer commits to repeal this and all other Tory anti-union laws – those of Thatcher and Major were maintained by Blair and Brown. But they should go further and demand that where Labour is the employer, as with the Welsh government, councils and mayors such as Sadiq Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Manchester, they publicly inform Sunak that they will not enforce any new Tory measures.

But Starmer is intent on showing big business that his New Labour is safe for them and their profits. He is choosing a side. His refusal to support strikes, and his sacking of shadow ministers who do speak out for striking workers, is symbolic of this. But he is confident to act in this way because there is no political challenge to him.

However, if a political vehicle with union support, unashamedly standing with workers in the workplaces and outside them on the picket lines, with a political manifesto of public ownership and scrapping the anti-union laws, it would strengthen the workers’ action. But it would also be a down payment on a future Starmer government, that a mass workers’ party will be built in opposition to his pro-capitalist New Labour. The Socialist Party would argue that such a party fights on a clear socialist programme.

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is holding its conference on Saturday 4 February. It is a vital forum in the building of a working-class political challenge, in both the upcoming local elections and the general election that could be forced at any time.

The growing strike wave is building workers’ confidence and shaking the Tory government, the bosses and the whole capitalist establishment. The task now is to take it up to new levels to bring down the Tories, and in the process changing the class balance of forces in favour of the working class.

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January 2023