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How industrial action could make the UK more democratic

OPINION: The RMT, postal workers and nurses are preparing to strike. It's good news for anyone interested in social mobility

David Renton
12 December 2022, 12.01am

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch speaks at a rally outside Kings Cross station, 1 October 2022


Guy Bell/Alamy Live News

The news that strike days in the UK exceeded half a million in July and August – the highest two-month figure in more than a decade – is good news for everyone interested in justice or social mobility.

When progressive causes are at their weakest, opponents are capable of painting them as dividing the public – tenants but not homeowners, for instance, or ‘just’ students.

By contrast, the UK’s 5.5 million trade union members make up the country’s largest voluntary organisation. Among the many unions that have voted to strike is the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), for the first time in its 106-year history. The three largest hospitals in the UK are in Manchester, Glasgow and Nottingham – a north London clique, they’re not.

This week, RMT members, postal workers, and members of the Royal College of Nursing are preparing to down tools. Already this year schools in Scotland have closed for the first national teachers' strike since the 1980s, and up to 70,000 higher education staff have taken part in industrial action.

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The strikes have a democratic mandate that no politician can match. The RCN has more than 460,000 members. Thanks to our anti-union laws, a strike cannot proceed unless at least 50% of those who are eligible turn out to vote and a minimum of 40% vote must vote for strike action.

Compare that to Rishi Sunak’s democratic mandate as prime minister. He is in office after coming second out of two candidates in an election in which only members of the Conservative Party were eligible to vote – a total of just 170,000. His ‘popular mandate’ of 60,000 votes represented just 34% of those entitled to vote and 42% of those actually voting.

After Liz Truss’s catastrophic and absurdly short tenure in charge of the country, there was no second election: Sunak was crowned Tory leader and prime minister after Boris Johnson withdrew from the race at the last minute.

Widespread public support

For the government and much of the press, the recent increase in strike action is proof that something terrible has happened and that anti-union laws must be tightened so that workers can never go on strike again.

Planned legislation includes a Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which would weaken the rail unions, such as the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), which have been at the vanguard of this year’s action, by requiring them to operate minimum levels of service so that strikes would no longer impact on their employer.

So far, however, it seems that the government’s argument is losing. Polling by Opinium found that 70% of the public believes rail workers should have a negotiated pay rise that takes into account the cost of living. One reason RMT boss Mick Lynch is popular with voters in a way that NUM leader Arthur Scargill was not during the miners’ strike in the 1980s, is that high inflation rates are eroding the salaries of almost everyone, from cleaners to cyberanalysts.

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What’s more, many of the worst cost of living increases are a result of government policies – for example, the privatisation of gas and electricity, which contributes to the huge utilities bills that everyone is now paying. There is a popular sense that we the British public are ‘all in this together’, so that when the case for striking is put with confidence, it is welcomed by a much wider set of people than those 5.5 million trade unionists.

People who have been outside the strike wave want to join in. Although the largest groups of workers striking over the summer were rail and postal workers, the next stage of the strike process is likely to involve other groups: lecturers, teachers and junior doctors, for instance.

The Independent has calculated that by the end of 2022, two million people will have been balloted on whether they wish to take part in strike action. Were there to be anything like two million strike days by the end of the year, this would be the highest figure in Britain for 30 years. But this level of striking is a return to normality.

Between 1890 and 1989, there were only two years (1934 and 1940) when strike days stood below one million (and in both instances that figure was only narrowly missed). Strike levels of around two million days have been the norm ever since the birth of the mass unions.

It’s the change since 1989 that is unusual – a historic lull in strike activity caused by a combination of anti-union laws, a growing use of the courts to resolve disputes, and (until recently) deflation.

This year’s strikes could make strikes and confident unions seem normal once again

The last time unions took part in strikes in a coordinated way was 2011, when teachers, nurses, civil servants and lecturers went on strike in a joint effort to resist pension cuts, culminating on 30 November with a day of action and rallies in numerous cities.

Yet for all the mass participation in 2011, with 50,000 marching in London and 3,000 in Truro, the effect of the strikes was blunted. National trade union leaders decided to direct the energy arising from lots of different workplace grievances into a general protest against government policy.

In 2022, by contrast, we are seeing an informal desire for change. What has happened, in effect, is that workplaces have seen the success of the RMT and other rail unions and the support for their strikes, and opted themselves into the movement.

Union executives are approving requests from branches to ballot; the initiative is coming from much lower down. In some cases, unions that six months ago were voting not to strike this year, have reversed their policies, grasping that the mood in November is very different from what it was in March.

What would winning look like?

It’s unlikely that every single workplace will achieve a broadly comparable result. There will be clear winners – such as the Merseyside dockers who won a 14-18% pay rise this month – and many other industries or workplaces where pay rises are won without needing a fight. Inevitably there will also be losers: workplaces or industries where the depth of feeling is less, or union organisation weaker, or the employer more determined to resist.

If we expect it to achieve one single political task – the defeat of Rishi Sunak, for example – the strike wave will probably disappoint. That, after all, is the ultimate verdict on the strikes of 2011; the government succeeded in making its intended changes to public sector pensions.

But what this year’s strikes could do, which would be of greater long-term significance, is to make strikes and confident unions seem normal once again. This would mark a return to something on which a very wide set of democratic causes once depended.

When the principle of equal treatment for women at work was won, that was through trade unions – principally, the Ford sewing machinists strike in Dagenham in 1968. It's not that long ago that national organisations as diverse as Liberty, CND and the Anti-Nazi League all had several trade unionists on their national steering committees; a move universally understood as providing a connection between justice campaigns and hundreds of thousands of working people.

Even a small increase in union power, so long as it was sustained over the years to come, would make the UK a more optimistic place in which to live.

Updated, 12 December 2022: This article, originally published at the end of November, has been refreshed to reflect strike action planned for December across the UK.

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