Strike to win
Build independent workers committees of action
Bring down the Tory government
Build our strike movement to create a new, integrated, multinational, equal Britain that puts the rights of the working class and oppressed above all
STRIKING WORKERS CHANGE THE WORLD
A balance sheet of our strike wave so far
1. Out of the roller coaster, into the driver’s seat
For the last nine months British unionized workers—especially National Health Service (NHS) workers, education workers, and other government workers—have been on what feels like a series of roller-coaster rides, with each ride offering higher peaks, steeper drops, and faster turns. Fighting to save the NHS and to win the wages and working conditions that we deserve, we have all experienced the anxiety, fear, frustration, and exhilaration that comes with the best roller-coaster experiences. And like every fan of coasters, at the end of each ride, the only thing you want to do is up the ante, find a bigger coaster, buckle up, and get ready to scream in joy or fear, in anticipation of the new twists and turns. The thrill of a roller coaster is that it combines the sense of being out of control, unable to disembark once the ride begins, with the certainty you have ultimate control of your own emotional experience on the ride.
As exciting as it has been, we need to get off the roller coaster or we risk losing much of what our strike movement has gained during the last year. So think theme part go-kart racing or better yet open-wheel Grand Prix racing. We must move into the driver’s seat. We need to be actively controlling every moment of the sometimes scary, exhilarating, often draining course of strikes because in the end, there is no better feeling than winning it all.
From that standpoint, roller coasters are for relatively passive thrill seekers. We have spent too many days keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for the best. We have waited for weeks to find out whether settlements have been rejected, new strike authorizations approved, etc. We have been remarkably successful thus far. But we need to take control of our strikes to assure that no more rotten settlements are put up for a vote, that we end the regime of on-again-off-again, one-day, single-union, and uncoordinated strikes aimed only at getting the government to the bargaining table. This means putting the real rank-and-file leaders of our strikes in charge of our movement.
We have made progress by forcing our recalcitrant union leaders to yield to our pressure and do the minimum of what we have demanded of them, but they’re still sabotaging our prospects for victories.
Our most important victories have come when we rejected the losing tactics of our sell-out establishment union leaders/managers and implemented the commonsense strike to win strategies of Movement for Justice (MFJ). Every time union memberships took control of our strike movement, we made progress, which laid the groundwork for further progress.
2. Rank-and-file healthcare and education workers lead the way
The struggles of the NHS workers and teachers have had the greatest impact on pushing us forward. In December 2022, Scottish Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members ignored their misleaders, voted-down a bad settlement offer and called the Scottish Nationalist Party’s bluff when it tried to impose the rejected settlement on them—and they won.
In February and March, NHS workers and teachers at every level of education forced the union leader/managers to call massive days of joint strike actions, marches, and demonstrations involving community supporters. In March and April, members of all the different NHS unions resurfaced an independent organization called “NHS Workers Say No” and defeated the attempt of the RCN leader Pat Cullen to push through a completely unacceptable settlement.
Inspired by the action of their co-workers, the British Medical Association (BMA) junior doctors took 3 straight days of strike action themselves. This in turn has led senior doctors-Consultants and paid hospital staff doctors such as radiologist and anesthesiologists to start preparing their own strike actions. The NHS workers, representing the gamut from least-paid workers to doctors, have a highly contagious case of strike fever.
The developments in the healthcare struggle are profound. For decades we have watched Thatcher’s and the Tories’ efforts to privatize the NHS and undermine public healthcare and the Blairite Labour Party’s refusal to reverse the Tories’ attacks. Now, many NHS staff members believe we can rebuild the NHS into the best national healthcare system in the world. We are poised to make that happen.
3. Our strike wave: the workers’ real answer to the hyperinflation
Fundamentally this strike wave has always been a workers’ response to the hyperinflation. Millions of British workers have understood the inflation crisis is a result of the crisis of post-Brexit British capitalism and the special crisis of Covid —and the bankruptcy of the “neoliberalism” (actually ultra-monopoly capitalism) of both the Tory and the Labour Party leaderships’ impotent economic policies. Our strike wave has been the British workers’ way of saying:
Our daily struggle for survival is not to blame for the greed and incompetence of the British capitalists and the cowardice of the Parliamentary parties. We and our children refuse to be scapegoated for the failures of the politicians and the economic tyrants of the giant corporations.
For all that we have gained in trade union solidarity and militancy—breaking a government plan to break the back of the labour movement—we have not yet won the wage increases that have rightly been the shared basis for our strikes. The reason for this is that we have not yet wrested control of our unions from the establishment top union bureaucrats, who maintain a policy of collaboration with the managements who remain determined to demoralize and scapegoat us.
We will fail to win our most basic wage demands under our current union leaders because they are in reality misleaders who agree with the management’s positions—not ours. The union misleaders agree that the economic crisis should be “resolved” on the backs of the workers—at the expense of our basic standard of living. These union misleaders agree that the solution to the inflation crisis is lower wages for us, higher profits for the giant corporations, and lower taxes for the corporations and the richest individuals—the Tory programme.
We cannot defeat the Tories’ anti worker, anti people programme with national union leaders who agree with it! We are fighting to defend the livelihood and improve the lives of working people. Our top union leaders want to collaborate with the Tories in raising corporate profits at the expense of the working people. They believe that this is the only way to jump-start the economy. The reality is that these policies will only cascade us into further poverty—if we lose our strikes.
We will not win anything close to the 12% raise and cost-of-living allowances to keep up with inflation that we desperately need, without the all-out indefinite multi-union strikes which our current union leaders/managers continue to oppose. If we continue down our current path, we may succeed in delaying union defeats, and we might even bring down the Tory government—but we will not win. We make our movement vulnerable to demoralization that could set in if our battles for better pay drag on for a long time and end with inadequate wage increases that don’t match what we are fighting for.
So now is the time to take the next critical step forward. We need to change who decides our strike strategy and tactics. We need to shake off our fears of becoming too powerful ourselves, of failure, of the unknown, and form an independent, alternative elected rank-and-file leadership now. We must replace our current leaders with accountable elected well-respected rank-and-file workers. We need to create cross-union, rank-and-file, industry-wide branch, regional and national level “committees of action” to run every aspect of our strikes. Our committees of action—the name does not matter—must take control of our strike movement on a national basis to organize the all-out indefinite nationwide strikes to win.
4. Can the workers win? Lessons from the NHS workers
Newham Refuse workers march through their community, September 2022, as part of their 3 week strike.
What we need to do is within reach. In the NHS, rank-and-file workers have already taken steps to take control of their strikes out of the hands of their bankrupt current leaders/managers and have thus gained control of some aspects of their strikes. In March 2023, members resurfaced an independent multi-union opposition to their betraying establishment leaders. NHS Workers Say No was a preexisting opposition organization that was transformed into a mass workers’ organization focused mainly on voting down the NHS contracts during March and April 2023. This committee successfully organized a rejection of the NHS settlement recommended by RCN General Secretary Pat Cullen. The new NHS Workers Say No committee followed their initial success with an overwhelming no vote by NHS Unite members in April.
NHS Workers Say No was an informal body, led by some experienced and known union activists. While the leadership of the committee was not formally elected, it had the authority to hold regular meetings open to all union members, attended by hundreds of union members. Union members used these meetings to discuss and work out how to proceed. NHS Workers Say No coordinated mass workplace distribution of its Say No flyers, participated in by workers from different unions throughout the NHS. MFJ is proud to have played a leading role in supporting NHS Workers Say No. MFJ continued to organize RCN for a winning strike strategy at the RCN national conference held in May 2023. MFJ leader Anna Pichierri, a voting RCN delegate to the conference, delivered a rousing call to action at a plenary session of the conference and in the Strike to Win bulletin distributed at the conference.
NHS Workers Say No had two understandable and natural problems—limitations that can easily be remedied. First, it functioned as a limited temporary single-issue vote no campaign and stopped organizing after its victories. Second, NHS Workers Say No did not present itself as an alternative leadership for the NHS at any of the NHS Union national congresses. We failed to pull together a slate of candidates to contest Pat Cullen’s stranglehold on the RCN. If we can rebuild NHS Workers Say No now and become an independent, stable caucus within multiple NHS unions, adopt principles of unity, and create a stable democratic structure, we can become a powerful rank-and-file workers committee counterposed to the current sure-to-lose leaders in the NHS unions.
The reconstitution of NHS Workers Say No, as a serious and determined, democratic, membership-accountable leadership, fearlessly willing to take control of our strikes, may also be the only way to get a new strike ballot authorization within the RCN.
5. Can the workers win? Lessons from the education struggle
A second union rank-and-file that has successfully turned coordinated actions into successful challenges to their current leadership are University and College Union (UCU) university lecturers. UCU members have made a fight to get their elected bargaining team rather than their sellout union managers to take over bargaining. They have refused to even acknowledge the legitimacy of the settlement entered into between their union managers and university management this spring.
Instead they have conducted a self-organized, successful assessment and grading strike/boycott for the past two months. Because it is clear that the “official” UCU establishment have lost their authority with their members, university managements have entered into negotiations with representatives from their own faculties. At Leeds University UCU teachers have gone out on an indefinite strike to stop the university administration from withholding 100% of their wages, to retaliate for the faculty grades and assessments strike/boycott.
If the UCU lecturers take the next step and form an independent organization of elected leaders from all the different universities, they could take over national negotiations and call national coordinated strike actions. There is nothing preventing this from happening. The best UCU leaders must boldly step forward and make this happen. Nothing is going to change spontaneously, and the sellout UCU leaders will not surrender control without a fight. Electing the rank-and-file workers to take control of bargaining has already happened in some London buroughs. Rank-and-file workers have formed independent committees of action that include family members and community members. These committees have stepped up to organize the support of other unions and community members for Newham refuse workers, striking bus drivers and teachers in Lewisham, who voted to take local strike action to stop the academization of the four Prendergast schools. These committees have built joint struggles with community members and vice versa. These initiatives need to be replicated in every striking union at every level of union organizations.
6. The playbook of betrayal
Our union misleaders’ only “bright ideas” are the tactics of manipulating their members into bowing to betrayal:
1) Capitulate to the government;
2) Drag things out;
3) Repeatedly put up for a vote variations of the same settlement that has already been voted down;
4) Embark on a few new losing and dead end strikes and;
5) Where possible divide the union members up by professional status, gender, race and national boundaries within the UK.
As things stand now, these are the tactics they plan to employ to end our strike wave. Winning strikes has never been part of their agendas.
The class collaboration union leaders would probably never have called any strikes if they had not felt the pressure from angry workers demanding the 12%+wage increases and making clear their desire to take on the Tories, especially after their unconscionable COVID-19 policies and barrage of attacks on the working class, immigrants and refugees, and oppressed communities.
But the arrogant, drunk-with-privilege-and-power Tories, made a big miscalculation and tried to make 2022 their year to finally break the unions. The government massively underestimated how much public support the strikes would gain. They also vastly overestimated their ability to use racism, anti-Union sentiment, and the scapegoating of refugees to mobilize a middle-class backlash to our strikes.
The government’s decision in the spring of 2022 to forego the usual bargaining charade, sideline the union bargaining team, and unilaterally impose a so called cost saving settlement on the workers was more than the union leaders could accept. For years, the unions and the government had operated on the longstanding principle of union-management collaboration. But this time, if the union tops had done nothing to counter such extreme government overreach and abuse of power, the union bureaucrats knew their members could not swallow it. Even these long-time sell-out union bureaucrats realized they could not be reelected if they allowed the Tories to treat them and their members with such absolute contempt. They would have gone down in history as some of the weakest, most subservient leaders of all time.
7. How we got here: 40 years of attacks, defeats, and betrayals
For some 40 years the British people have been forced to watch a series of attacks and reversals of historic gains in economic rights and social welfare, human rights and basic dignity. The elite of the British economic and political establishment have attempted to resolve chronic historic economic and social problems by making the lives of the British people worse. To cover the realities of their hostile policies, they have employed the standard tactics of divide-and-rule racism and xenophobia, both domestically and abroad. The point has been to divert our attention from the British corporations and their subservient governments who are actually attacking us to imaginary “enemies”—at home, minorities, including immigrants, abroad the EU (Brexit).
It is now obvious to most of the people of Britain that neither attacks on minorities, including immigrants, nor Brexit have made Britain better off. On the contrary, these policies have made us a good deal worse off.
Our strike wave is a profoundly healthy sign that the British people are becoming fed up with endless attacks wrapped in economic gobbledygook and hate-mongering demagogy.
Striking cleaners & porters at South London mental health hospitals, May 2023
8. The original major turning point: the Thatcher government and the miners’ strike
This terrible period in British history began with the election of the Tory government headed by Margaret Thatcher in May 1979. The Thatcher government took power with the avowed aims of:
1) Breaking the back of the organized British labour movement.
2) Reversing the gains for social justice since World War II by turning social services into for-profit-of-a-few private corporations.
The decisive battle came in 1984-85—the attack on the British Miners union—historically the militant spearhead of the British working class. Thatcher naturally used her reactionary Tory parliamentary majority to attempt to crush the Miners’ strike, but went beyond traditional political and governmental methods to mobilize police from all over Britain to break the Miners picket lines, bully the news media and hundreds of other interest groups to create an impression of a vicious monolith of hostility to the Miners across the country.
The reality was that millions of members of labour and community groups all over Britain passionately supported the Miners—understanding that Thatcher’s attack was really on them—on working-class communities, on Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities, on the women’s movement, on mosques, on lesbians and gay men. In other words all across Britain the communities of the working class and oppressed understood that Thatcher was attacking them in attacking the Miners.
All over the UK, the people of the nation’s working-class and oppressed communities organized support, subsidies, demonstrations and marches for the Miners, who toured the country as heroes to whom ordinary working-class families, churches, mosques, synagogues and community centers opened their doors in concrete solidarity and love. A national mass movement of rank-and-file people understood that the miners were on the front lines of the defense of every real progressive and social gain made in the UK during the previous half century.
But the national union leaders of the TUC and the British Labour Party leadership refused to support the Miners’ struggles. In fact some of the most vicious attacks made on the Miners came from the Labour Party leadership and reactionary bureaucrats.
This isolation of the British Miners by the TUC bureaucrats and the right-wing Labour Party leadership led to the defeat of the Miners and—as Thatcher knew it would—the historic weakening of the entire labour movement and of most progressive struggle for the next generations.
The union bureaucrats and the Labour Party that betrayed the miners and instead stood with Thatcher has been, for the decades since the 1980’s, the misleadership of our unions, the Labour Party, and other struggles.
When a Labour government formed under Tony Blair, it had brought to power the perfect realization of the Labour Party leadership that had attacked and betrayed the miners. The years of “neoliberal” (in reality reactionary) Labour Party government that followed did little or nothing to reverse Thatcher’s attacks on unions and social welfare and on the public sector generally, including the NHS and education. And most of the national union leaderships in Britain have continued the cringing policies of retrenchment and retreat embraced by the TUC tops in the 1980’s—never really defending their members, always really on the side of management.
The union and political leaderships that embraced the policies of retrenchment and retreat in the face of Thatcherism in the 1980’s have maintained refuse-to-struggle policies ever since. Yet these have naturally been the leaders we have looked to to lead our fight. Their failure of will and courage culminated in the inability of the British Labour party frankly and boldly to oppose the racism and xenophobia of Brexit in the last general election.
The result—the incredibly reactionary, cruel, and authoritarian Tory governments—with a growing fascist tendency in and out of government—and the accumulated crisis of Brexit, Covid, and out-of-control inflation—and now attempts at sweeping scapegoating attacks on the welfare and rights of the people of Britain.
Striking nurses, February 2023
9. We are changing history for the better: some of our achievements so far
Building our movement has reshaped our lives individually and collectively in ways we never thought possible. What began as a series of separate trade union battles for better wages has blossomed into the most far reaching and effective movement for economic and social justice in four decades. No one would have predicted our amazing achievements in so short a period of time.
If you asked the majority black, Asian, and immigrant Newham refuse workers if their small local strike last autumn, the community marches they led, and the initial actions of their counterparts at London’s King’s College Hospital and South London striking bus workers who followed the refuse workers’ example of turning picket lines into community demonstrations, would be the vanguard of a powerful new strike movement that continues to grow, they certainly would demure at first but after a moment of shy modesty would say “ we weren’t even trying to be leaders, but if our actions sparked all that has happened then we will happily keep stepping forward and leading this momentous strike wave”. The refuse workers of Newham will have the chance to do that along with tens of thousands of other local- authority workers who are likely to join our strike movement this summer.
10. We are changing history for the better: power to the people!
The greatest achievement we have made is shifting the political balance of power in favor of the working class and oppressed. During the last month we have served a series of defeats to the Tories. The Tory government lost seats in the recent elections. We have forced them to back down from their rabid attacks and efforts to criminalize cross-channel refugees. We no longer hear discussions of implementing new union-busting laws. We have prevented the fascist street gangs directly tied to members of the Tory Party from closing down Drag Queen Story Hours or intimidating refugees housed in unsanitary hotels overrun with rodents and bugs from protesting for new accommodations and winning significant victories against the repressive and vicious institutionalized Home Office bullies.
Boris Johnson, the poster boy for Brexit and reactionary politics generally, like his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump, is shrouded in legal scandals and has been forced to resign from Parliament. In the face of the strike wave and his Tory party’s overall crisis, he has even been forced to withdraw from politics altogether for the time being.
Striking cleaners & porters at South London mental health hospitals, May 2023
11. We are changing history for the better: uniting the people in the fight against impoverishment and economic inequality
Our success has placed us in the position to change the course of British history. We have put our movement in a position to begin to close the tremendous income gap between rich and poor and to stop the legacy of social and political inequalities based on national identity, race, gender, sexual orientation and other forms of oppression that have divided us and kept us so effectively from fighting for our own united self-interest.
During the height of the Empire, the rulers of Britain claimed to offer all the colonies a chance to experience a new and better life, but all that materialized in the places they exploited was greater poverty, social and cultural destruction, and increasingly an accelerating free fall into larger and smaller scale wars and desperation.
Brexit was built on the lie that white working class and middle-class people benefitted from the glory days of the Empire and could do so again. But that was a lie stoked by racism and built on fantasies. The living standards of some people in Britain improved for a period of time during the height of the Empire. But the imperial policies also lowered the wages of many British workers. Imperialism also created a rivalry between the nations of Europe, contesting to control each-others’ colonial possessions, and to conquer new territories. The result was two world wars that cost the lives of millions of working-class soldiers across Europe and undercut the international workers’ struggles that were actually needed.
People from the colonial world were forced to move to Britain to support families languishing in poverty in the colonies. At the beginning, they were as a whole scorned, degraded and victimized by racism. But the British economy needed their labour and increasingly British society and culture depended on the contributions of diversity, creativity, and leadership the descendents of colonial people brought to Britain. Now people from Britain’s former colonies are becoming the majority- minority population of Britain. Britain’s immigrant communities have played a leading role in creating our new movement. The immigrant communities have also produced some of the best young leaders of the movement.
A majority of people in Britain are actively committed to defending the NHS, public education and other key aspects of the social safety net won through past struggles. Once upon a time the British Labour Party of Aneurin Bevan and other “leftists” responded positively to workers’ struggles and between 1945 and 1952 created the NHS and nationalized 20% of British industries and utilities including the coal industry, the railways and electrical power. Today’s Labour Party is an entirely different story—they have been and are on the side of undoing the past progress, because that is what the giant corporations want. But today we are in a position to create a diverse multicultural Britain striving to end racism, sexism, anti LGBT+ bigotry and all other forms of oppression and to be united and strong enough to defend those gains regardless of the decrepit, reactionary Labour Party politicians threats.
12. A perspective for changing history, not repeating it
For the first time since the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, there is a movement that has the power to shut the door on all the right-wing “neo-liberal” reactionary policies that have dovetailed into each other. The Parliamentary Labour Party under the leadership of Keir Starmer is a particularly right-wing, vicious, and deeply anti-working-class expression of Blairism. The top union bureaucracies inseparably tied to the Labour Party are committed to one of the overriding principles of Blair trade union politics—preserving the sanctity of the profit-driven capitalist system of production is paramount no matter what the human costs. They have been such effective partners with every post-Thatcher government, precisely because they agree that destruction of the social welfare system, privatization of every public institution, a continuing policy of tax cuts for the billionaires and privileged elite along with austerity measures imposed on the great majority of people in Britain, are the only ideas open to discussion. Our movement is powerful enough to reject the class collaboration politics stemming from the era of neoliberal Labour Party leader Tony Blair. Blair served as Prime Minister of Britain from 1997-2007. Peter Metcalf, a journalist for the Guardian, summed-up neoliberalism as “the ideal of society is a universal market…with the goal to weaken the welfare state and any commitment to full employment and to always cut taxes and deregulate”. Under the Blair regime, parts of the NHS were sold off to private companies, who made huge corporate profits gleaned from the government payments they received for their services. Similarly, local authority schools were forced to “compete” with private academies subsidized by the Labour government. The Labour government also established fees for university students to pay that were initially £1000 but were tripled to £3000 before Blair left office. Management/union cooperation schemes became more prevalent as the new model for pay settlements during Blair’s tenure. Another pillar of the Blair policies was to leave in place the Thatcher anti-Labour laws that have crippled all of our struggles and the Tories’ disastrous privatization of the railways.
The current Labour Party Parliamentary leader Keir Starmer has opposed our strikes and implicitly backed the majority of racist, anti-immigrant, anti-working class and anti-democratic Tory economic and social policies. Since Starmer, like the Tories, can think only in terms of raising corporate profits and making the rich richer, he has to oppose the necessary economic and social measures desperately needed for the survival of workers and the poor. If the price of the task of making the biggest British capitalist corporations bigger means that the living standard of the great majority of the British people will remain in a free fall, well too bad for the people, as far as Starmer is concerned.
Starmer has ordered Labour Party members to stay away from our union pickets and banned them from expressing any support for our strikes. He has expelled left-wing Labour Party leaders, including Jeremy Corbin and Diane Abbott, on the basis of trumped-up charges he knows are false, in order to purge the Labour Party of anyone who supports the traditional socialist programme that many people associate with the Labour Party.
A challenge to Starmer’s Labour Party leadership will occur this summer, if and when local government workers, who are balloting now, go out on strike. Strikes of local council workers are, by definition, political in nature. Every local Labour Party council will be put on the line: side with their local workers and communities or lose office during the next elections. This will present the perfect moment for our movement to demand that Jeremy Corbin, Diane Abbott, and the other expelled left Labour Party members be unconditionally re-admitted to the Party. It will also present the best opportunity for our movement to demand that the Labour Party take up the fight to end the government’s legislative and extra-legal thug attacks against refugees, immigrant communities, and other oppressed communities.
We will have the power to look beyond paralysis by the Labour Party politicians and their policies. We should only back Labour Party candidates who defend the NHS, public education and the whole working-class socialist programme that the Labour Party once claimed to stand for. And, we should demand that Labour Party candidates support our strike or give up our votes. We should back only candidates who actively support us and our just demands.
When the current government is forced to call new elections, the Labour and Liberal Party will be scurrying—not to support our struggle—but to convince billionaire backers of the Tories to switch, at least for the time being, to backing their parties. Labour will have the inside track. They are already tight as thieves with union leaders/managers. It is probably true that some Labour candidates will lie and promise to give us gains in the future in order to win our votes. But the promises they keep will be the ones that they made to the billionaires—to end our strikes and bring our struggle for survival to an end.
We have been down this road before. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Now is the time to call the bluff of the Labour Party traitors and fight for ourselves, with our independent economic and political struggle. We have come this far by shedding our illusions in false friends and allies. If we can continue, we can win our liberation from the vice-grip of political enemies, liars, and frauds. This is our chance now to build real social justice and democracy in Britain.