The working class currently faces the challenge of the combined consequences of the pandemic and the underlying crisis of capitalism. Even though the health emergency is far from over, the wave of redundancies and restructuring has already started. The degree to which workers are able to not only resist attacks on their conditions but to impose their own interests on the ruling class in the next few months will shape the balance of class forces.
In the early days of the pandemic we documented the global working class response. In the UK a number of smaller strikes, some wildcats, initially took place as well (at various Royal Mail sites, Moy Park in Portadown, bin collectors in Thurrock and on the Wirral, etc.). Undoubtedly however the introduction of furlough, the extension of Universal Credit and the ban on evictions have helped to stave off more discontent. But the "honeymoon" period is gradually coming to an end as the need to “pay for the crisis” looms ever closer.
From Heroes to Zero
The state propaganda of "essential workers" and its appropriation of "clap for carers" met with harsh reality when nurses and junior doctors, those at the front-line of the fight against the virus, were left out of a pay deal for public sector workers. August and September saw a wave of protests, some of which we were able to attend, under the umbrella of "NHS Workers Say No to Public Sector Pay Inequality" demanding a 15% pay rise for all NHS staff. A rise in Covid-19 cases, the introduction of new restrictions, and the promise by the government of a pay rise in 2021 put an end to these protests. Although the 15% demand seems to have originated outside the usual union channels, the focus has now shifted to the legal front of applying pressure on the NHS Pay Review Body to follow through. Other key sectors, like the railways, face potential years of wage freezes.
Early January saw brewing concerns among teachers and parents over the reopening of schools, a breeding ground for the virus. The NEU reported 400,000 participants in its #MakeSchoolsSafe online meeting, individual head-teachers were considering closing their schools, and there were rumours of potential strike action. Whatever was going to happen, national lockdown 3.0 nipped it in the bud. Previously, a school strike on the Wirral scheduled for December and January over health and safety, which would have been the first industrial action over Covid-19 in UK schools, was called off by the NEU at the last minute.
Fire and Re-Hire
According to a TUC survey, during the pandemic nearly one in ten workers have been told to reapply for their jobs on worse terms and conditions. September saw strike action by British Airways workers, while December and January by workers of Heathrow Airport Limited and British Gas, all in response to planned restructuring efforts aimed at cutting pay. Despite the lockdown, socially distanced pickets were observed in multiple towns and cities. It looks as if "fire and re-hire" is becoming the go-to weapon for bosses wanting to drive down working conditions, which has led to calls by reformist politicians and unions to outlaw the practice. The British Airways action has now been called off after an agreement between the union and the employers, but meanwhile Manchester bus drivers are being put under the axe.
Save our Site, Save our Jobs
Last year saw a record 800,000 planned redundancies. According to recent estimates, unemployment could rise to 3.5 million later this year. Fighting from a position of losing your job or your workplace closing down is never easy, so it’s no surprise many of these redundancies have gone unopposed. The exceptions are few and far between. In Barnoldswick, 350 jobs out of 740 at the Rolls-Royce plant were threatened by the announcement that aeroplane fan blade production would be outsourced to Singapore. After eight weeks of strike action, the union and employers negotiated a deal which “could” save the jobs and retrain some of the workers. At the University of Brighton, IT staff who went on strike in December over the threat of redundancies are set to continue their action in February.
9k for What?
Despite the pandemic and the shift to online learning, students were told to return to universities as normal. Stuck in their accommodation and away from home, the awareness that this decision was made simply to satisfy the wallets of university bosses and private landlords spread rapidly. In November students at the University of Manchester tore down the fencing installed around their accommodation. Building on this momentum, a rent strike followed in Manchester which was successful in securing a 30% cut in rent for the first half of the academic year. This victory only emboldened student activists across the country and January saw the rent strike spread across the country (involving up to 15,000 students at some 45 universities – although these numbers seem to be more aspiration than reality).
Precarious but Essential
Where the mainstream unions have been absent, particularly in the more precarious sectors where the usual employment protections don’t apply, base unions like the UVW and the IWGB have stepped in. This has mostly been the case in the south of the country: in January workers at a nursing home in Golders Green went on strike, as did (reportedly to some degree self-organised) Stuart couriers in Plymouth.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but enough to give a general sense of what's happening. There is more to come. Just a few days ago the high street retailer Debenhams had been sold to the online retailer Boohoo, putting some 12,000 jobs at risk. And we also have the side-effects of Brexit to look forward to – aside from further economic disruption, the government has already said it might reconsider rules around the working time directive (i.e. maximum 48-hour week), breaks at work, and overtime pay.
The unions, where they have reacted at all, have resorted to the usual tricks: appeals to the national interest, and sector-by-sector, department-by-department negotiations with the bosses. In the case of British Airways and Heathrow Airport Limited, the strikes took place not only at the same airport but also under the same union banner (Unite). Despite this, there was no coordination to maximise the effect of the strikes. The unions are not only unwilling but also unable to organise a real fightback. They have too much at stake within the current set-up.
Meanwhile, the left of capital is going around in circles. Repeating old slogans of nationalisation and taxation it is now falling behind not only progressive think-tanks (which are hypothesising a four-day week, a wealth tax, a universal basic income, etc.) but even the Tory government which has effectively nationalised the railways and furloughed almost 10 million workers. The bulk of the anti-capitalist left hasn’t fared much better, its perspectives stuck at the prospects of safety and rights at work and the championing of base unions.
The crisis will only get worse. And the pandemic is not over yet either, having already claimed 100,000 lives in the UK alone. After 50 years of defeat, the working class response is still at the level of economic resistance (despite the political aspect of the crisis being aired on TV on a daily basis). The working class is not able to go on the political offensive, to pose an alternative. But if it doesn’t want to be gradually reduced to the status of paupers, it will have to eventually organise a real fightback which would open up new possibilities. Otherwise we are looking at a repeat of the failed anti-austerity movement following the 2007-8 financial crisis.
In the struggles to come internationalists have to say what only internationalists can say. Suggesting practical ways in which workers can overcome division (strike committees, mass assemblies, etc.) has to be accompanied by linking the realities of the present to the possibilities of the future, by linking the immediate demands directly with the perspective of class struggle against the system that’s hurling us towards disaster – capitalism. Those of us who see eye to eye will need not only to debate the current situation, as many are doing already, but also work together where possible and ultimately come together in a new international organisation that can become a political reference point for the working class everywhere.
29 January 2021