The crisis of capitalism is sharpening by the day. As a result, trade unions are moving onto a war footing. Already the ruling class is worried about a ‘Spring of Discontent’. This must become a generalised struggle to bring down the Tory government.
After two punishing years of COVID, and relentless attacks by employers and the Tories, on top of a decade of harsh austerity, a breaking point is beginning in the class struggle.
Several major unions are moving to indicative ballots for national industrial action. Signs indicate other unions are set to follow suit. If successful, this could set the stage for a Spring of Discontent.
In the public sector, both Unison and Unite are balloting their local government workers to see if they will take strike action over the disgraceful offer of a 1.75% pay rise.
Between them, these two unions represent virtually all local government workers. That is a huge amount of industrial muscle concentrated in their combined membership.
PCS are also taking a bold stance in response to the ongoing pay restraint being forced on public sector workers. They have launched a consultative ballot as to whether to take action.
Public sector unions are reportedly in communication with one another about these issues and know that “[they] are not alone in this”. Mass united action is therefore inherent in the situation.
Struggle in education
The education sector is also seeing workers preparing for huge battles. The UCU has already taken action in December over the Four Fights and pensions dispute, with dozens of universities seeing staff walkout for three days of strike action.
The union is currently re-balloting universities which were close to achieving the necessary turnout. UCU members are almost certainly going to be taking further action in the new semester – this time hopefully with even more universities joining the fight.
And on many campuses, workers organised in Unison could be joining them, with union branches at 37 universities balloting their members over pay.
Significantly, the NUS has also declared a day of action for the 2 March, calling it a “students’ strike”. If local student unions and activists mobilise for this, it could become the biggest movement of students since the tuition fees battle in 2010.
Should it be in unity with staff strikes, this will put university bosses on the backfoot and will be a powerful display of student-staff solidarity.
There are also rumblings in primary and secondary education too. The NEU, the largest teaching union in the country, is set to run a ‘consultative survey’ over the government’s latest pay offer.
NEU branches have been called upon to organise regional meetings of their members to stimulate participation and ensure the widest possible turnout. Such a mobilisation is unlikely to have been encouraged if the union intends to do nothing with the results.
In fact, the same issues of funding and job cuts have already led to the RMT balloting across the entire Transport for London (TfL) network. For some time now, the RMT has declared itself to be on a war footing when it comes to standing up to government cuts. Now the time for war seems to have come.
And all of this is without mentioning the wave of local strikes and disputes breaking out across the country. From bus drivers and factory workers to bin workers, ferry crews, scaffolders and more: there isn’t a single industry which hasn’t seen some flare-up of industrial unrest in 2021.
Of course, all these consultations, ballots, and strikes haven’t emerged from nowhere. Workers’ living standards have been in decline for years, while the pandemic only served to expose the massive inequality that exists in Britain and internationally.
The spectre of the ‘winter of discontent’ has clearly been haunting the capitalists. This was during the 1970s, when a wave of militant trade union action swept the country, erupting in every sector imaginable. The potential is now developing for the same kind of mass action – the kind not seen for generations.
Indeed, the time for it couldn’t be more ripe. This Tory government appears very strong numerically. But the Tory Party itself is riven with splits and fractures, and Boris’ own position looks increasingly unstable. With the right push it could be made to buckle – or better yet, toppled completely.
This has to be the perspective of the trade union leaders. However, this will only come about through bold united action, across industries. This should begin with a one-day public-sector-wide strike.
Fight for socialism
Of course, if the government is toppled, the question has to be asked: what then? Without a socialist programme – involving the takeover of the top monopolies and the institution of a plan of production – the issues we face cannot be solved for good.
Therefore, the fight against the Tories and the fight for socialist solutions to the crisis go hand in hand. Unite members have recently shown the way in this at their recent policy conference. There they passed a motion committing the union to fight politically for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under workers’ control.
This is the call other unions must now take up. By fighting the capitalists on both the industrial and political fronts, with a bold set of socialist demands that really address the needs of the working class, huge swathes could be drawn into the fight.
The opportunity now stands in front of us to make the fears of the ruling class a reality. The leaders of the labour movement must seize it with both hands.