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Time to take up the challenge

TUC rally, May 2023. Photo Workers.

A short twelve months ago NHS workers and their unions were deep in preparation for what everyone knew was going to be a major battle on that most central of issues, pay and conditions. The workers would be joining transport and other workers who had been in dispute for some time on the same issues. We can say now, a year later, that these were successful disputes, possibly the most successful in recent years, especially within the NHS.

Why do we say these disputes were so successful? There are four reasons.

First, any dispute wresting from an unwilling employer that which it would not give should generally be considered a victory. The flat refusal of the government to move from its Pay Review Body fig leaf, or even to negotiate, was blown away by four days of concerted action, principally in Britain’s ambulance services. Especially is it so when the employer is effectively the government, with all the issues of pride and petty politics such a defeat for them represents.

Second, although a fairly minor point, the dispute effectively brought down a Secretary of State. Health workers pointed out that they were there before Barclay, and would be there after Barclay. They were right.

Third, rail workers in their struggle showed exemplary tactical nous in knowing when to draw the line, to consolidate and prepare for the future.

Fourth, and most significant, we can see how successful it was because the government is changing the law to make it illegal. That is what the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act is about. It should be viewed as the huge and unintended compliment it is. That it is closing the door after the horse has bolted should not lead us to be sanguine about the vicious anti-working class nature of the legislation.

Employers will be obliged to issue lists of names of specific workers prior to industrial action, the failure of any of whom to scab will potentially remove the limited legal immunities which still apply to unions, and render them liable to astronomical fines, up to £20 million. This makes the sequestration of the old Industrial Relations Act of fifty years ago seem paltry. Imprisonment for failure to pay is mooted.

The irony of workers knowing that they did indeed provide minimum service levels during strike days, and even that in some cases service levels were an improvement on ordinary working days, hasn’t been lost on them. But let’s not fool ourselves: if this legislation had been on the statute books a year ago, all our strikes would have been illegal. Are we ready for this? What should our response be?

The right to strike can only be asserted in industrial action, not won in argument nor legislated for in parliament,,,

December’s special Trade Union Congress is a first step. But the right to strike can only be asserted in industrial action, not won in argument, nor legislated for in parliament. Those calling on workers to wait for the next general election are traitorous, as misguided as their forebears half a century ago.

All the relative recent successes bring new challenges, because the ruling class has not relished being set back in its schemes. So it is responding fiercely. In the face of the coming onslaught, the class cannot afford to repeat the diversions of the past.

We cannot put our trust in a possible future Labour government, even if the Labour Party now pledges to repeal this legislation. We ignore the stopped-clock follies of calls for a general strike or for regional assemblies to do the job for us. We know that our resistance brings repression, but we are not looking for glorious defeats and famous martyrs.

Workers making their unions do what their unions are there to do, to wage an economic struggle against the employers and the employing, capitalist class, is what will defeat this pernicious legislation.

But note just how far our class enemy is prepared to go to eradicate opposition. Each ratchet up brings us closer to a state in which the working class itself is outlaw. Which is where we started two hundred years ago.

Steady nerves and cool heads are the order of the day.