The discussion around a general strike in the UK

Nigel Smith

The possibility of a general strike in the UK is now being firmly discussed in trades unions and trades councils across the UK. As far back as August 2022, Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT union (Rail Maritime and Transport), considered the possibility of broad coordinated strike action very close to that which is taking place at the present time, but said that a general strike is, “not in my power, it’s up to the TUC… what you are going to get is a wave of solidarity action, generalised strike action, synchronised action.” Mick’s prediction has been born out and we should now escalate.

The right to strike under attack

The TUC has at last begun to act and has called a day of action against the government’s latest employment bill. The employment legislation around the right to strike can be justly described already as the most draconian in Western Europe. Political strikes have been deemed as illegal by the UK government since the Thatcher government, although their right to enforce this law could be challenge through the international courts. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has consistently held that strikes of a political nature aimed at seeking solutions to economic and social policy questions fall within the scope of the principle of freedom of association enshrined in ILO Convention 87. Not only has the UK ratified this convention, it is considered to be a Core Convention binding all ILO member states by virtue of membership. There would therefore seem to be a way, all-be-it a protracted and expensive way of challenging the UK government on this. 

In order to strike, workers must ballot in their place of work on an industrial matter and receive a minimum of a 50% turnout, with a majority of respondents voting for strike action. The government legislation currently going through parliament would be to enforce minimum service level agreements on strikers. This could mean that a worker could have voted to go on strike, but be forced to cross picket lines and work. If they refused to work then they could be faced with dismissal from their job. This is a monstrous infringement of their freedom.

Halifax ambulance strikers

February 1st day of action

Regional TUCs called meetings to discuss the day of action on February 1st. The regional on-line meeting I attended (Yorkshire and Humberside), was highly controlled and structured and those attending were basically told to contact their local MP, in order to protest against the law, especially if their MP is a Conservative. This appeared to me to be a vapid and spineless response to this situation. In the chat myself and several other participants called for a discussion of a general strike but these comments and questions were not responded to. Yesterday the regional TUC issued a set of guidelines for activists, aimed at directing any media interview away from a discussion around the possibility of a general strike. The TUC and it’s new general secretary, Paul Nowak, shies away from any mention of a general strike but at the same time has to accept its role in helping unions coordinate strike action, which is in fact the main purpose for the TUCs existence. The line between coordination of wide-spread strikes and calling a general strike are concepts that need to be tested in practice if not through the courts.

The new employment law doesn’t only make the need for a general strike important; it makes it imperative. If the new law is passed it will take away a workers most fundamental human right – the right to withdraw their labour effectively. At the present time all the unions involved in strikes are in legal disputes. The teachers have recently commenced their strikes. Doctors as well as other workers are in the process of balloting. The list of strikes is long and getting longer and includes: postal workers, nurses, transport workers, delivery workers, ambulance workers, civil servants as well as teachers and other groups of workers. These groups are being broadly supported by the British people who can understand the reasons for the strikes in spite of the right-wing media attacks on the strikes. The government refuses to negotiate, seeing the strikes, perhaps, as having relatively little economic impact on the economy and therefore tolerable. The government cares not a jot for the suffering of workers, users of the NHS, school student, travellers etc. However, the widening of the strikes into the private sector has been limited, with pay settlements in the private sector well ahead those of the public sector. Private companies have the flexibility to put up prices and pay more; the public sector is subject to the dictates of the political class.

EisE demo outside the odious Grant Shapps constituency office.

The need for a generalised strike plan

It would be helpful to the strikers in the longer term for industrial workplaces to become involved in industrial action, but this doesn’t look likely on any meaningful scale at the current time. The workers in dispute therefore need more than ever to coordinate their action and win the support of the wider population. The TUC should be meeting with all its affiliated unions and secretly (from the government) planning a strategy, in order to avoid legal action against it. Once this strategy is agreed it can be promoted using clandestine methods familiar to those living under dictatorial regimes. The people of China for example, united in demonstrations against the oppressive zero covid policy of the Chinese government. Although these demonstrations were of relatively modest proportions, the idea that people could stop conforming to the covid protocols, quickly spread and the protocols were abandoned as useless by the Chinese government. The abandonment of the protocols also had an economic dimension, but the Chinese people saw that they could defy the state without repercussions. I make this point because the TUC does not have to tell the British state what its plans are. Individuals do not have to carry the responsibility for those plans in a formal sense. There could be a building towards a general strike on May 1st or April 29th without there being a so-called master plan. The idea can be expressed through popular culture and unions and the TUC can coordinate informally. There are already days of action being called beyond February 1st. SOS – NHS is calling for a day of solidarity for the NHS on January 28th and March 11th. The trades unions movement is looking at a wider and bigger event on March 15th and May Day is being trailed more this year than ever before. 

In meetings, on picket lines and across the movement the discussion of a general strike is firmly being held. This would have been unthinkable, even nine months age. Trades unionists, in increasing numbers don’t need persuading of the need for more generalised action. This could include workers refusing to work on a particular day, such as May Day outside of official disputes. It could also include citizens from across the nation, marching with the strikers in solidarity such as: pensioners, school students, students and the unemployed. These tactics were mooted during the climate strikes, but never really materialised, maybe it’s time for them now? 

Weak government

The Conservative government is very weak and unpopular. The Labour Party, its natural successor, sits on the side-lines and waits. Trades unionists and trade union leaders need to step into positions of leadership. Strike committees are being formed in some cities and strike funds are attracting large donations. Enough is Enough and other campaigning groups are working with trades councils and trades unionists to support strikes and strikers. These groups can act as campaigning weapons of unions and the TUC. They can spread the ideas around a general strike through their social media platforms and in their meetings and rallies etc. without the TUC formally appearing to play an exclusive role in the leadership of this movement. Activist groups could use their reach to engage the general population in actions supportive of a general strike. The February 1st event is being built for and regional as well as local events are being planned. In the Yorkshire region for example there are events planned for: Leeds, Sheffield, York, Hull, Huddersfield and Halifax. 

There is a militant mood, but this needs to be reinforced through some clear leadership. These events need to build more broadly and the question of the need for a general strike against this government’s refusal to move on pay needs to be clearly articulated. The people of the UK are getting poorer while the rich benefit. People are increasingly beginning to understand this and to understand that this government has no interest in them, their lives or their needs. The people of Britain are starting to fight back through these groups of workers. If the fight fails to grow and become more generalised then the government will simply sit-it-out and wait for capitulations. Workers must act together and insist on settlements that are mirrored across other groups of workers; to refuse accept offers that would be rejected by other groups of workers and so keep the pressure on. If the nurses for example were to accept a 6% wage offer, effectively a further cut in their living standard, this would not be worth the fight for other workers and would weaken their bargaining position, when the reduction in terms and conditions has been broadly similar across the whole public sector. Recently the barristers were, quite rightly given a 17% pay award. These are the numbers workers should be insisting on and not accepting a further cut in their living standards.

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