Will 2023's wave of strikes deliver what the country needs?

Harry Sanderson discusses the revival of trade unionism in Britain, and whether the current wave of strikes rocking the country will help bring about real change.

Harry Sanderson
20th February 2023
Image credit: Flickr.
Just a few years ago, many assumed that trade unionism in the UK was on its last legs, and it's easy to see why. Union membership has declined massively since its pre-Thatcher heyday, with 13 million Britons holding trade union membership in 1979 compared to just 6.4 million in 2021. Thatcher’s war against the unions in the 1980s had a powerful effect on British politics, and her neoliberal anti-union reforms went unchallenged by New Labour in the following years.

But trade unionism is very much alive and kicking. The cost of living crisis has rattled British society to an enormous degree, due largely to stagnating wages that have failed to rise in line with inflation, pushing much of the working class into poverty. It is under these circumstances that unions have risen in importance once again, leading to what has been the biggest wave of strikes in 30 years. 

Equally unprecedented is the extraordinarily wide range of sectors going on strike: rail workers, nurses and university staff to name just a few. Workers of all backgrounds have come to understand that politely asking for a pay rise will result in failure, and it is only through collective bargaining that improved pay and conditions are possible.

Even in times of hardship, workers should be receiving good pay.

Despite the desperate situation in which the working class finds itself, many Cabinet members have attempted to pin the blame for this breakdown in labour relations on the striking workers rather than on themselves. This is wrong for many reasons, but primarily because it ignores the fact that Britain is the 5th richest country in the world, with a very high GDP per capita. Even in times of hardship workers should be receiving good pay. The Conservative Party's determination to govern on behalf of the wealthy corporations which fund it explains why wages are so low. The Tories prioritise bosses' profit maximisation rather than workers' interests.

It is fair to say that the public has not been hugely enthusiastic in its attitude towards the strikes, with most polling showing a fairly even split between those who support and oppose strike action. This is not to say that the strikes don't have a base popular support, however. Grassroots political activism as seen in the the ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign is proof of this. Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT union, is a hugely popular figure due to his effective, no-nonsense communication style - a stark contrast with the duplicitous rhetoric of most Westminster politicians. This has helped rekindle working class political activism, something which has been estranged from the Labour Party under the leadership of Keir Starmer.

Most Westminster politicians exhibit duplicitous behaviour

Although the government has generally failed to negotiate with the unions, recently firefighters were offered a 7% pay rise backdated to July 2022, and a further 5% rise from July this year. While this is just a small step in the right direction, it may be indicative of a wider shift in the government's approach to industrial action. Workers’ legitimate concerns cannot continue to be ignored if meaningful progress is to be made. With nurses signalling that they would would be prepared to accept a similar offer, it is not unreasonable to hope that there may be an end in sight to what has become the new Winter of Discontent.

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