Jhe strength of the labor movement, historian Eric Hobsbawm once wrote, cannot be fully understood by looking at the lines on a graph that show membership. Instead, there are “jumps”, “jumps” and “explosions” in the activity. For him, these unpredictable peaks and sudden surges are produced by “accumulations of flammable material which ignite only periodically, so to speak under compression”.
Britain is currently experiencing a moment of ignition. Welcome to what many have already dubbed “the summer of the hot strike”.
Obviously, what happens to our pay packages is a big part of the story. If you take inflation into account, wages are set at decrease by £1,750 over the next two years. The only group of workers whose wages are rising with prices are those earning over £170,000 a year.
But that’s not all. For the first time since records began, a decline in the labor force meant there are more vacancies than unemployed. Struggling to attract people to vacant positions, some employers have sought to impose compulsory overtime on their existing staff – this has been one of the contentious issues during the Caterpillar strike in Northern Ireland.
Then there is the pandemic. While disrupting and reorganizing our ways of working, Covid-19 also laid the foundations for the current unforeseen upswing in workers’ self-confidence. The pandemic is fighting fire and rehire tactics and the reopening of schools have given workers an opportunity to flex their muscles and boost their collective confidence. A key lever in many of the disputes we are currently witnessing – the action of the Communications Workers Union against royal mail and the LV Group, RMT Action against Network Rail, or the Number of Shares by outsourced hospital cleaners and porters – this is the idea of the “key worker”. In the face of excessive hours, pandemic-related job stress and rapidly eroding working conditions, those deemed “essential” have been repeatedly told they deserve better. But, as CWU Deputy General Secretary Terry Pullinger recently said, “We’re not getting what we deserve. We get what we bargain for.
Labor action is now at its highest level in five years, although the average over the past decades is down in historical terms. The RMT industrial action in June was the largest on the rail network in more than 30 years. The CWU secured a 97.6% vote on a 77% turnout for a strike against the Royal Mail, making it the biggest strike mandate since the implementation of the Trade Unions Act 2016 . In the 10 months since her election as Unite General Secretary, Sharon Graham has overseen 63,000 conflicting Unite members. If workers are forced topay the price of inflation“, she warned that there could be hundreds of additional conflicts.
At present, industrial action is largely concentrated in the public sector. This is partly due to a discrepancy in the average wage growth, which for the current year stands at 7.2% for the private sector and only 1.5% for the public sector. It is also due to a gap in membership: the most recent data shows that, while 51.9% of employees in the public sector were unionized, only 12.9% of employees in the private sector were. But this has the effect of giving strikes an explicitly political dimension, since public sector pay is ultimately determined by elected officials. Add to this the way the unions have introduced analyzes and ideas into public discourse that Labor has largely avoided – think of the profit restriction requirements to fight inflation, instead of cutting wages – and you can see why even relatively small strike actions can have an outsized influence.
But those who are excited about the current moment should be cautious. Where the wave of strikes exists in the private sector, it has not made much headway beyond formerly nationalized industries – for example, British Airways or the railways. And, as feelings of injustice turn into activism, it is far from clear that unions are up to the task. In June, as the RMT defiantly went on strike in response to Network Rail’s call 2% salary increasesupermarket workers’ union Usdaw seen negotiating a 2% pay rise for Morrisons workers as a victory. When the pay deal – which trade unionist called the “highest base rate of pay in the supermarket industry” – was put to a vote by Morrisons Usdaw members, they voted to reject it.
What we face today, in the words of American labor scholar Kim Moody, are “opportunities, not certainties”. While this year’s conflicts so far are impressive and significant, they are also defensive: much of the fight is about preventing conditions from getting any worse, even if the rhetoric is more ambitious. The surprise arrival of economic circumstances conducive to worker power – high inflation, a tight labor market and supply chain disruptions – can also lead to the risk of complacency. There are lots of promises in the increased will of both the grassroots and the leaders to act, but the circumstances, likely to fluctuate, do not guarantee success.
As Hobsbawm noted, there is a difference between the accumulation of flammable materials and their ignition. But when workers see each other fighting, sparks can start to fly.