A strike wave building in the UK

Nigel Smith

A number of strikes have been building in the recent period in the UK.

Strike at the largest container port

Workers at Felixstowe, the UKs largest container port have voted to walk out for eight days in a dispute over pay. Bobby Morton, the national officer for docks for Unite the Union told Reuters that, the company “has had, every opportunity to make our members a fair offer but has chosen not to do so.” Felixstowe handles almost half (48%) of the UKs freight and the dispute involves nearly two thousand workers. The workers walked out on Sunday 21st August following an offer of 7% plus £500 from the employers. This award is significantly below the current rate of inflation and way below the rates currently being forecast for later this year of 13% by the Bank of England and rising to 18% next year forecast by the US bank Citi. The employers, The Port of Felixstowe, have accused Unite the Union, of refusing to consult workers, but the union says that they will put an offer to the workers which they consider to be reasonable and that 7% is not a reasonable offer. Unite the Union is open to further negotiations with the port, but insists that the 7% offer must be increased. This dispute is bound to lead to supply chain issues and could result in a further upward hike in UK inflation.

Criminal barristers 

Criminal barristers have voted to go on indefinite strike action from the fifth of September. The vice chair of the Criminal Bar Association, Kirsty Brimlow QC told the BBC that, this is an action of last resort and that it is more costly to keep the courts empty than to find a settlement with the barristers. Criminal barristers have seen a 28% reduction in their incomes since 2006 and are demanding a rise of 25%. They have been offered an increase of 15%. The criminal barristers secured an emphatic 79.5% in favour of indefinite strike action. This industrial action has been a long time in the making with criminal barristers becoming more and more angry at the way that their working conditions and the service they can provide to clients has deteriorated in recent years. Access to legal aid has become more difficult to achieve and therefore justice is not being served to British citizens with low and average incomes. Criminal barristers have become increasingly reluctant to take on legal aid cases because of the poor material rewards from doing such work. 

Postal workers

Postal workers, members of the CWU Union, are also due to begin a four-day strike at the end of this month. A staggering 97.2% voted in favour of strike action. This was in response to the miserly offer from the employers (Royal Mail) of only 2%. This dispute will involve 115,000 workers and is part of a long-term struggle that the CWU has waged with Royal Mail over pay and conditions. The seeds of this dispute go back several years and are linked to the so-called modernisation agenda of the employers following the privatisation of Royal Mail. The postal workers have a proven track record of united action and have had success in the past in resisting the worst effects of the employers attempts to attack pay and conditions.

Other strikes

Recently Amazon workers have walked out over pay at warehouses across the UK and refuse workers in Coventry have received an improved pay offer following an extensive period of industrial action. Bus workers are in dispute in West Yorkshire.

Rail workers in both the RMT and ASLEF unions remain in dispute with employers and their rolling programmes of strike action continue.

The above is all part of a building wave of action and protest by workers across both the public and private sector. With inflation rising at its fastest rate for over forty years and the cost of living rising most for those on the lowest incomes, further disputes are inevitable. Civil servants are due to be balloted for strike action this autumn and teachers, nurses, doctors and other workers will be forced to demand increases in pay. There is also a crisis in the social care sector with staff leaving the sector in their thousands to work in hospitality and retail where wages, although low, are higher. Nursery schools are being particularly badly affected, with many closing because of problems with recruitment.

Situation likely to escalate

It looks as though the UK will experience a massive move against the attacks on living standards that are taking place. With Liz Truss likely to be the next Prime Minister, the situation is likely to escalate still faster. She may have the support of the Tory Party faithful but she does not have the confidence of the British people. The civil service itself held her in low regard as foreign secretary – a woman of limited ability, doctrinaire opinions and a neo-liberal agenda. Truss has made herself incredibly unpopular in Leeds, her home town, where she has unfairly and crassly criticised the education she received at Roundhay High School (a comprehensive school). Truss is a keen advocate of bringing back grammar schools for reactionary and uninformed reasons. Her whole economic agenda will bring her into conflict with workers and unions and is driven from a sense of contempt for the poor and disadvantaged so strong in the Conservative Party. She will also seek to take-on the unions in an attempt to attack the limited trade union rights that still exist in the UK. If Truss chooses to do this she will not be repeating the Thatcher crusade of crushing a single union in the 1984/5 miners strike but will be taking on workers across a range of unions and from a position of weakness.

Workers need unity and determination

The Trades Union Council and the individual unions should seize the moment and unite in fighting back against the attacks that are coming. The Tory government is trying to limit pay increases but to a level that the mass of workers can no longer endure. Conflict is inevitable and the mood amongst the British people is broadly in support of workers demanding decent pay and conditions. Boris Johnson laughably tried to say at the beginning of the Covid pandemic that we are all in it together. Workers are all in it together in demanding inflation busting pay settlements. Workers from a variety of situations are already entering the fray – the movement can only build and it is vital that all those on the Left within their unions and workplaces take an uncompromising position on pay. It’s time for the rich to pay and for workers to realise their power in unity. This could then lead to an increase in political consciousness. There is no chance of the Labour Party proving effective in benefitting workers. Keir Starmer has shown quite clearly his hostility to those in his cabinet and party that support workers in struggle. However, the growing struggles could lead to forms of resistance that by-pass the usual parliamentary channels and new leaders will emerge who are prepared to fight for the working class.

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