Workers begin the fight back


The most widespread strikes since Labour came to power in 1997 took place on 24th April 2008 by public sector workers, with more than 50 marches and rallies taking place across the country in opposition to the government’s pay policy. This included the first national teachers strike for 21 years affecting junior and secondary schools (children from 5 to 18 years) under Local Authority control.  The strike was called by the largest teachers union the National Union of Teachers (NUT) alongside the college lecturers section of the University and College Union (UCU) and the Public and Civil Servants Union (PCS). UCU claim that 250 colleges were on strike and 7,000 marched through central London. The Times Educational Supplement[i] said there were approximately 9,500 schools closed with 2.8 million pupils affected which is roughly 34% of all children in public sector education.


The PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said that, “Over 100,000 civil and public servants, from coastguards and driving examiners to jobcentre staff and immigration staff, are coming together today with other public sector workers in protest at the government’s policy to cap public sector pay to below inflation.”


Another strike took place that day in Birmingham (Britain’s second largest city) called by Unison, a large public sector union who called the two day strike to oppose the introduction of new ‘flexible’ contracts, performance related pay, planned closures of day centres and residential centres etc. The union said 10,000 were on strike.


27th & 28th April – Scotland


On the 27th & 28th April a two day strike was called by the Unite union, who were representing 1200 workers at Grangemouth (the largest oil refinery in Scotland), in protest at plans by Ineos to modify its final salary pension scheme, which meant closing it to new workers and seeking contributions from existing members of the scheme.


The strike led to the halting of most of the UK’s North sea oil production and led to queues at petrol stations in Scotland with the government desperately trying to reassure everyone that there would be sufficient fuel stocks and imports to maintain supplies during the strike (the Scottish Government shipped about 65,000 tonnes of fuel, mostly diesel, from Europe to bolster supplies).


The closure of the pipeline also hit Britain‘s gas production from fields connected to the Forties system, which is equivalent to about 30% of gas demand.[ii]  Following the strike it was expected take a week before the plant would be fully operational and it was stated that the strike cost the economy ?50m a day.


The unions went into talks following the strike on the day that oil prices hit a record high of almost $120 (?60) a barrel and Opec, the oil producing cartel, warned prices could keep rising to $200. Unite has said that they were considering whether to give notice of another possible strike as the deadlock over pensions had not been broken.


All the strikes took place one week before the local council elections which were held across the country on May 1st. In the past it was difficult to organise strike action during election periods because of the Labour Party’s control over the union leaderships. This time the anger amongst these workers pushed that control aside.


Public Sector Pay and Inflation


Many public sector workers are low paid and have been struggling to cope with huge increases in the cost of essentials like fuel, food and housing. Support for further action is growing as they want a better deal for the low paid who can earn as little as ?12,738 ($20,000) per year. The Labour government is offering a wage increase of 2.5 per cent to all public sector workers yet inflation is running at 4.1 per cent (according to the retail price index). Thus these workers would be accepting a pay cut if they accept government policy. Inflation is eroding pay and has hit many workers.


The increasing living costs are affecting everyone and the international financial crisis is reflected in sharp changes in the lives of many. A year ago there did not appear to be a problem with the banks or mortgages, house prices, domestic electricity and gas prices, food or petrol. Today average price of petrol is ?1.09 per litre and according to the Automobile Association each day there are “record highs” with prices “going up and up and up.” It now costs ?54 (about $100) to fill an average car, the highest in nearly eight years . “outstripping volatile items such as food, drink, tobacco and petrol, core output price inflation increased by the fastest monthly rate since records began in 1986.”[iii] By February 2008 there was “an all-time high annual inflation rate in ingredients for home-produced food of 36%, mainly due to soaring wheat costs. Bread prices rose by 7.5% last year, while milk, cheese and eggs surged by 15%.[iv]


These price increases are not attributable to workers but come out of almost 30 years of privatisation, the deregulation of financial controls and from the parasitic nature of international capitalism. The rise in oil prices are connected to the war in Iraq and the price-fixing cartels of big oil businesses. Energy price increases (domestic supplies of gas and electricity) are caused by the price fixing of the multi-national energy supply companies that took over ownership of energy when it was privatised. Britain is the fourth richest country in the world but it is deeply parasitic capitalism which will hit it hard as the world financial crisis deepens.


Handouts at Workers expense


The way workers are being treated contrasts starkly to the way the Labour government responded to the crises of the Northern Rock Bank. The main British banks demanded that the government and the Bank of England rescue Northern Rock to prevent a bank run and collapse and they did so[v]. The same amount of money was provided to rescue Northern Rock from collapse as they spend on education in a year. The government has poured money into the banking system yet it continues to experience massive losses. The shoring up of Northern Rock on the one hand and increasing problems that workers have with mortgages and the way the banks treat them is creating anxiety amongst many.


Attacks on education


In addition to cutting wages the government is trying to break up the public sector either directly or through public private partnerships which aim to assist private interests. Education is a good example, as comprehensive education is being fragmented with schools seeking a competitive advantage by becoming “specialist” schools, “trust” schools or “academies”. This is part of the growing internal market inside state education. Privately sponsored academy schools are allowed to set their own admissions criteria independent of any Local Authority arrangements. And they can set policies that will help them improve their intake at the expense of neighbouring schools.


In 2007 Gordon Brown endorsed Labour’s plan to set up 400 academies. Most teachers in academies did not participate in the national strike because they come under the control of charities, churches or private businesses. In return for investing a few per cent of the total cost of the school, they receive expensive rebuilt schools and public funding. Teachers pay, conditions and what they teach are decided outside of public bodies. League tables, so-called parental choice and other means have been created to bring about a growing polarisation between schools and a widening of the class divide in education.


A lack of resources in many areas has driven up class sizes, Britain has the largest differential in class sizes between private and state schools of any developed country. At the NUT 2008 national congress feelings ran high on the question of workload. The excess workloads is created by marking, preparation, endless assessments (perhaps the most assessed pupils in Europe), meetings, school and teacher inspection and reviews which means that teachers work many unpaid hours. One third of all young teachers leave the profession within five years, unable to survive on the wage and the workload. Young teachers in particular are experiencing declining pay rates and heavy workloads. A demand from Congress was for a national campaign including strike action to end the excessive number of working hours.


Many young teachers also face years or even decades of paying off their student loan. The payment of tuition fees by students and the removal of grants means that student loans have soared and many young people start work with debts of ?10,000s. These loans are currently repayable at a rate of 4.8%, initially they were introduced as cheap loans but now that rate is above the rate of inflation.


The increasing use of temporary contracts and agencies (private companies) is another means of trying to break the strength of the union. Agencies can pay teachers what they want. They are private companies and are part of the invasion by business into sco


Denied the Right to Education


Unfortunately, as with many issues regarding the rights of most oppressed that is undocumented workers and their families, the unions have failed to act upon the denial of the rights of these workers including denial of their education rights. The Home Office can also authorise the removal of undocumented children from schools and colleges to face deportation. Another control of the undocumented includes an obligation in legislation for schools and educational institutions to become policing agencies for immigration through the regular checking and monitoring of students and their immigration status. The unions are fundamental to fighting this and supporting any of their workers who refuse to comply


Turbulent Times Ahead


The strikes began over pay but will not end there. The Labour government losses in the council elections will not force a change course. Their strategy is to put the public sector under the control (directly or indirectly) of business. They have introduced internal markets in education, health and other public sectors. Public services are being destroyed. The government want to make Local Authorities, Health Authorities and other public bodies into agencies who buy services that are provided by businesses and are under the control of business, yet falsely retaining the stamp of “public services”. Business journals talk openly about the lucrative and guaranteed profits that can be made from running these “public services”. As poverty steadily increases, as jobs become even more temporary and partial and as real public services continue to decline anger will erupt.


The anti-trade union laws (which makes solidarity action with strikers illegal), the immigration controls and anti-terrorist legislation all play a role in dividing the working class movement. For a moment in April and May there were visible signs of anger. The increasing decadence of British capitalism is going to push the constraints of the old labour organisations deeper. These storms are a beginning and with the world and national conditions as they are today a working class movement can develop that knows what it does NOT want and will carry through a fight for new leaderships.


May Day 2008


Labour was strongly rejected by the electorate on May 1st which saw their worst result for 40 years. The Labour vote fell most heavily in areas where it traditionally received working class support. On that day six Further Education (FE) unions representing 250,000 workers rejected the employers pay offer. Six trade unions each submitted a catch-up pay demand for 6% or ?1500 (whichever is the greater), to establish a minimum wage of ?7.38 for FE workers. The unions are composed of lecturers, librarians, IT workers, technicians, administrative staff, cleaners and canteen staff.


The election defeat translated into a loss for the Labour Party of 331 councillors, loss of control of twelve local authorities across England and Wales and loss of the London mayorship (largest local authority in Europe). The rising cost of living, opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and privatisation has increasingly turned the working class against the Labour government. Before the election 5.3 million people were seriously affected by the removal of the lowest rate of income tax (10%). They are the lowest paid and poorest workers and pensioners.


At this moment the working class have nowhere to turn, they have no political representation. Rejection of the Labour party means not voting or voting for a mainstream party that will carry out the same policies as Brown. The attempts that have been made to build an alternative such as the Socialist Alliance or the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) were dominated by sectarianism or opportunism, and the interests of the working class were subordinated to sectional party interests where only a small minority attempted to build political alliances and a Trotskyist leadership. In the English Socialist Alliance two parties were held up as great examples to aspire to. They were the SSP and the Italian Party of Communist Re-foundation. Readers of IWL publications will understand the falseness of trying to follow Communist Re-foundation. The Socialist Alliance in general has drawn no political balance sheet as to why it collapsed other than to argue that the Socialist Party walked away without a fight and that the Socialist Workers Party used their greater numbers to close it down.


As new movements develop out of the working class they are likely to be more explosive because a lot more is at stake than in the 1990s. It is in the middle of this that the IWL can and must take root in Britain.

[i] A mainstream weekly national education newspaper

[ii]  According to Oil & Gas UK, the offshore industry lobby group

[iii] Guardian , Tuesday February 12 2008

[iv] Ibid

[v] If Northern Rock collapsed many building societies and banks could have followed. This was the first run on a British bank since the run on Overend Gurney in 1866 and the first bank in England to be hit by the present ‘global credit crunch’.