As we enter 2023, the UK is facing the biggest wave of industrial action it has seen for decades and an unprecedented assault on the fundamental democratic right to withhold labour in the form of the government’s reported forthcoming anti-strike law.
Rishi Sunak’s government is reported to have said it will announce a new law in the coming weeks, which would demand workers meet “minimum service levels” in six public sectors: health, education, fire, ambulance, rail and nuclear commissioning. The law will allow bosses to sue unions and sack employees if minimum levels are not met.
We must support those on strike. Key workers deserve better pay and conditions. What's more, we need a strong trade union movement if we are to have a just transition.
The six sectors affected by the proposed anti-strike law are part of the foundational economy, the basis of collective reproduction of everyday life. Seldom would anyone go throughout their day without relying upon, or knowing someone who relies upon, one of these services.
As the pandemic underlined, these people — key workers — keep the country moving. If we don’t create conditions of fair employment the foundations will crumble.
The current strikes come on the back of over a decade of cuts, pay erosion and a brutal benefits system.
Take the NHS: since its creation, the health service's spending has increased by an average of 3.7% per year in real terms. But from 2010/11 to 2018/19, NHS funding growth slowed to 1.4% per year. The NHS saw a real-terms cut in funding of between £4 billion and £9.4 billion in 2022, despite the government setting out an annual 3.8% increase in NHS England’s funding until 2024/25 in its Spending Review in October 2021.
Let there be no doubt, the NHS is failing. In November 2022, 37,837 patients waited more than 12 hours in A&E — an increase of almost 355% on the previous November, when the figure was 10,646. Such delays are causing up to 500 deaths a week. It is, as one nurse in Bury tells us, “a truly terrifying time for anyone to get sick.”
The NHS’s problems may partially stem from the pandemic and an ageing population. Ultimately, however, successive Tory governments have failed to plan long-term and invest to increase the NHS’s capacity.
We might be able to free up hospital beds if the care system was not also in crisis. A shortage of places in care homes now means up to one in three English hospital beds is occupied by patients fit for discharge but unable to leave.
Education is another battleground, with the National Education Union (NEU) balloting its 450,000 members. One secondary school teacher based in Manchester tells us they are voting to strike because their current working conditions are untenable. “I want to provide the best possible education for my students, however ever-growing demands on teachers — including increased pressures on exam results and safeguarding responsibilities — are making this increasingly impossible."
Striking is the last resort of workers who cannot endure any further assaults on their terms of employment and pay. Without the possibility of improving their lot, they will leave these services and industries for good. It's doubtful our foundational services can survive another mass exodus of staff.
In typical divide and rule fashion, the government wants to pit key workers against the general public. But key workers are the general public. According to labour market statistics, approximately 21% of the UK’s population work in health and education alone. The sheer numbers of people employed within the six industries targeted by the government’s anti-strike legislation suggests a significant proportion of the UK’s working population are under assault.
Attacking the right to strike is thus an attack on all of us, just as the labour movement's success is our success. As Jeremy Corbyn recently put it, "organised labour has secured victories for us all", from the Equal Pay Act to the shorter working day and the two-day weekend.
Better working conditions and pay that reflects our worth may be the start of these strikes and to many the primary function of the trade union movement, but it is certainly not the end.
Only with a confident labour movement can we see the transition away from fossil fuels we so desperately need. We need a strong trade union movement that will defend nature itself from the attacks of fossil capitalism.
To reach for a world that conquers scarcity we must defend living conditions now. The labour movement and the climate movement must be the same band of happy warriors, fighting poverty while saving the planet.
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