Half of the UK’s population are financially vulnerable, more than 8 million are over-indebted with 4.1 million already facing serious financial difficulties (source: Financial Conduct Authority). At the same time, we are seeing a rise in trade union militancy.

By Matt Prittlewell.


Civil service union PCS have recently conducted a consultative ballot for industrial action to break the pay cap with the largest turnout for a national ballot in the union’s history with 48.8 per cent and a 79.2 per cent Yes vote for industrial action. A UCU (University and College union) pension conference voted to ballot for escalating strike action and a marking boycott if UCU’s conditions are not met, following the historically high turnout and vote for industrial action in the e-consultation of members.

A recent CWU ballot for strike action in the now privatised Royal Mail exceeded, by a long chalk, the limits set on ballot turnouts by new Tory anti-trade union laws, which aim to shackle workers further. Postal workers, however, were prohibited from striking by a High Court injunction. This was due to mandatory arbitration as a necessary stage in any industrial disputes process agreed by the CWU leadership when privatisation took place!

Anger is growing against government pay restraints and the erosion of living standards. There have been important strike movements across the country. McDonalds workers have struck for the first time ever (at two sites in Cambridge and London) and in London, unions that are independent of the official TUC structures (IWGB and UVW) representing precarious workers, such as security guards and Uber drivers are building lively and inspiring movements. They are winning disputes and legal challenges demonstrating that militancy pays.

Action is taking place not just on pay and working conditions alone; rail workers in several cities have taken action to defend the safety critical principle of Guards on trains and could go on to win if joint action was organised and backed with real solidarity from all unions.

The money-grabbing greedy businesses and employers, supported by the Tory austerity policy which includes pension raids and privatisation, will continue unless the working class take mass and national action to end it.

We are seeing the roll out of Universal Credit, a system that is ultimately about ending all social security support and will lead to an increase in poverty and destitution, and at the same time will result in the loss of many more public sector jobs.

Today, many workers are hit by a double or treble whammy and must claim benefit because of precarity and very low wages. Other workers are forced to seek help from charities, as previous ‘safety-nets’ no-longer exist. For example, volunteer run food-banks have been set up to provide food parcels for those in need from donated food items (with 4.1 million hours of unpaid work in nearly 2000 food-banks every year).

The task of defending the poor has become normalised as an act of charity (engineered and introduced by a previous Labour government). Instead, we urgently need action to fight for a restoration of decent living conditions, wages, pensions, and benefits that provide a real safety-net.

Since the 1970s young workers have been recruited to boost union membership, however unions have failed to develop them as militant leaders to fight and defeat the many attacks on the working class. Yet today in this country, there are 10 million workers on casual contracts many of whom are young people, and despite the alleged difficulty faced to organise these workers, many are beginning to organise themselves and are already fighting back.

This contrasts with the relatively privileged public sector workforce, who have a much higher level of union density, and have suffered years of pay restraint but have failed to fightback. This is the longest period in recent history when such restraints have remained in place, and we stress that pay restraint has not ever been and will not be ever be defeated without organised workers’ struggle.

Don’t these workers want to fight? We believe that they would, but have no trust in their union leadership. Some arguments suggest that the working class was demoralised by Thatcher’s defeat of the miners, printers, and steel workers in the 1980s and those effects still resonate. However, it is essential to point out that a consequence of those defeats was that the trade union bureaucracy increased its control over workers. Of course, from time to time workers break through that control.

In November 2011, 2.5 million public sector workers went on the strike over the attacks on their pensions. Many were young and many were taking action for the first time, in one sense they were free from the heavy weight of the defeats of the past. Rather than harnessing this energy to build a fightback that could win, and rebuild the unions to be ready for future battles the union leaderships let their members down and failed to continue the fight.

What about the Jeremy Corbyn factor? Workers should demand that the Labour leadership, who say they are against austerity, lead the fight on to the streets. That will mean calling on all workers to take strike action to defend themselves in the workplace, defend public services and defend their communities. The Labour Party is tied to capitalism (trying to save it) and therefore the leadership do not call on all workers, employed and unemployed, to go to the picket lines, build mass pickets and mass action.

Every issue facing the working class is interlinked, and all the strikes that are breaking out can act as a spark to build a massive strike movement that can be victorious. Workers must take control, and union branches must begin to discuss how to make the link with others, build and prepare for national coordinated strike action.

This is the only way to force the hand of the TUC and build a national general strike — from below. It is the only way we can defeat austerity and pay restraints, and the only way to obtain decent working and living conditions, and decent benefit rates for all.


Originally published @ Socialist Voice #29 – UK.