Barristers, rail workers, nurses, postal workers, civil servants, the list goes on. 2022 saw huge chunks of the British labour force finally stop putting up with a decade of real-terms pay cuts, poor working conditions, and the slow crushing of the public sector. Some have won their demands – most recently bus drivers in Sunderland, who secured an 11 per cent rise after strike action by the GMB union – while others fight on.
The Conservative government, in collaboration with its tame sections of the press, has leaned hard on the old Thatcherite playbook of blaming “union barons” and “greedy workers” for disruption. It has insisted that the seventh largest economy in the world simply cannot afford to pay workers any more money or invest in their workplaces.
Public support has not gone down as much as the government would have liked. Rail workers, who have been subject to an aggressive media campaign to demonise and misrepresent them, have seen opposition to their strike action grow, but are still backed by almost half the country, according to YouGov. Nurses and ambulance workers have two thirds of the public on their side.
With the PR campaign to demonise workers not delivering the results, prime minister Rishi Sunak is now threatening to crack down on workers’ right to withdraw their labour entirely. He has proposed measures to allow unions to be sued, and even for striking workers to be sacked, if “minimum service levels” are not maintained in key sectors. Leaked emails seen by The Observer seem to indicate he at least considered going further, preventing certain sectors from unionising altogether.
Sunak, notably, did not announce any measures to hold the government itself accountable if public services don’t hit “minimum service levels”. Nor has he explained how such service levels can be maintained if industries which already struggle with recruitment and retention sack large swathes of their workforce.
As of the last NHS vacancy figures from June 2022, there was a vacancy rate of 11.8 per cent for nursing staff, with over 45,000 positions either unfilled or staffed by agency workers. If the problem is “not enough nurses”, it seems unlikely that even fewer nurses can solve the problem.
The UK’s public services barely worked even when the workers weren’t striking. In August Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, tweeted: “12 cancellations by @AvantiWestCoast this morning – the first day of a reduced timetable meant to bring stability. This is a failing service.” In 2018, a timetable change saw transport chaos across the North with the introduction of a new timetable, and operators like Northern ran into staffing issues as drivers were, selfishly, only working the hours they were actually contracted to work. Nothing appears to have been done since then to solve the problem that the rail operators do not employ enough staff, and rely on people working overtime to fill in the gaps.
Not enough people, working too many hours for not enough money, using equipment that’s falling apart, while those at the very top hand down ever-madder demands that are increasingly disconnected from any reality on the ground. This is the situation these workers find themselves in, and this is what they are striking to stall and – perhaps, if they’re lucky – reverse.
Last month John Burn-Murdoch published an astonishing article in the Financial Times. In comparison with other peer nations, he showed, investment has plummeted in this country, and outcomes have suffered as well. “Twelve years on from the start of austerity,” he wrote, “the data paint a damning picture, from stagnant wages and frozen productivity to rising chronic illness and a health service on its knees.”
The burden of this has fallen on the poorest. The UK is one of the most unequal of all the developed nations. Those earning the least go to work for wages that don’t cover their bills, in jobs with poor standards, unpredictable hours, and from which they might find themselves fired at any time.
At the other end of the scale, a vast proportion of the wealth that the UK’s economy generates every year ends up in the hands of a tiny fraction of ultra-wealthy households. More and more people in the UK are slipping down the ladder, whether from “doing alright” to “just getting by,” or from “just getting by” to “we can pay for food or heat but not both”.
Many people earning six figure sums for the media have been berating unions for making “unreasonable” demands against this backdrop. Why should someone who already has a good job not have that job made worse, like everybody else? Why should they, too, not suffer every impact of the race to the bottom which is slowly crushing millions of people in this country? None of them ask “why are we racing to the bottom?” None of them ask “when is it enough?”
Workers are striking because they know it will not stop here. This winter might be a confluence of crises, but it could get a lot worse.
The ruling class has more wealth and power than anyone in history, with access to mysteries and treasures and luxuries that would have made Solomon weep, but it’s still not enough for them. Like a toxic fungus spreading through a tree, blindly unaware that its relentless expansion is killing the host it needs to survive, they have been sucking everything out of the country in an unwinnable race to have enough private wealth that it won’t matter to them when society crumbles away underneath them.
If we want to save these services for the rest of us, our biggest and most powerful weapon is the fact that they need us to clean their streets and cook their food and insert their catheters. The ultra-wealthy deeply resent the fact that the armies of workers who support their pampered lives can still talk back. They will do what they can to stop it from happening. But it won’t stop them needing us.
The purpose of Sunak’s new crackdowns on workplace organising is obvious. Carve off support for unions with the threat of poverty. Separate out those who are just about getting by from those who are already at the end of their rope. Convince enough people that they need to keep their heads down or lose their jobs. The threat of unemployment may ultimately be one of the government and rail operators cutting off their own nose to spite their faces, but that doesn’t mean they won’t do it.
If the unions win, that sends a powerful message about just how necessary the ordinary working people of this country are, and how billionaire “wealth creators” are absolutely nothing without the people who do the real work. That’s a message the ruling class really does not want people to hear. So expect to see them fight as hard as they can, to use the power of the state to force nurses back into work and to try to smash the rail unions apart. If Sunak’s new laws don’t work, there’ll be others.
They might even win, because the British state is powerful. Joe Biden crushed a rail strike using state power in the US earlier this year. I would love to simply say “it won’t work, up the union,” but I know what we’re up against.
But if Sunak does win, and we go back to a country that’s falling apart without the excuse of striking workers to blame for it, I hope everyone remembers how they used the power of the state, and remember what you got from it. When they tell you the state can’t do anything, remember that they’re lying. It can. They just don’t want it to do anything to help you.