The working class is back. According to Mick Lynch of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), the working class are “not just back as an idea” but are back “as a movement”. Not only that, says Lynch, but they refuse to be “weak”, “humble” or “poor”.
Enough is enough
The recently launched Enough is enough campaign has received considerable public support and already has over 153,000 followers on Twitter. The campaign – which was founded by unions and community organisations – is dedicated to fighting the cost-of-living crisis, and has five clear demands:
- A real pay rise
- Slash energy bills
- End food poverty
- Decent homes for all
- Tax the rich
By holding rallies, forming community groups, and acting against those profiting from the crisis, the campaign aims to “turn anger in action”. Considering the increasing level of public anger at the government’s unwillingness to listen, or to take any action themselves to resolve the mounting issues, the campaign seems very timely.
Since Brexit, and most especially since Boris Johnson became prime minister, the government has been attempting to strip away our rights. Successive PMs, including the next one, care little for protecting workers rights while doing everything they can to protect company profits, shareholder pay-outs and management bonuses.
Ministers have been telling anyone who will listen that railway workers must accept job losses and real-terms pay cuts. Meanwhile, rail companies are making massive profits, boosted by high inflation, and senior management are being rewarded with £150mn in bonuses in Network Rail alone. It is a story that is being repeated across various industries and is currently being brought home by the obscene profits of energy companies in the face of huge energy bills for the public.
The government is refusing to accept the premise that workers’ pay rises need to keep pace with inflation. To add insult to injury, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has repeatedly refused to meet with the unions. Instead, Shapps berates union bosses for holding the country “to ransom” to protect “outdated work practices that have no place in the 21st century”. Rather ironic from a government that is trying to remove many of the workers’ rights protected by EU law and which the existing, and future, PM is so keen to see the back of.
Attack on the unions
According to Shapps, the rail workers are not striking because they are “hard up” but because they want to stop “reform”. If that reform means pay lagging behind inflation, and the return of unfair/unsafe working practices, then it’s hardly surprising that the government is meeting resistance. Not to worry, though, as Shapps has a 16-point plan, which, in summary, amounts to taking on “these Luddites … just like Thatcher did”.
As Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner pointed out, these strikes could be resolved by Shapps simply “getting round the table” with the unions and “doing his job”. Or in the words of Mick Lynch, Shapps “needs to cut trying to make himself out as some macho, belligerent and militant right winger”. He needs to “calm down and allow a deal to be done”.
Getting round the table is exactly what happened in the case of Arriva – where 29 days of bus strikes ended this week after a landmark deal was reached between the company and the unions representing drivers. The pay increase is believed to be 11.1%, which brings driver pay back in line with inflation and the spiralling cost of living. This final deal is currently being voted on by union members, but strike action is not anticipated to continue.
Public support for the unions
Government attempts to stir up public anger at railway workers, for daring to go on strike, have failed. Yet again, the government has misjudged the public mood. The railway workers’ strike action, despite the disruption it causes, has largely received public support. As will any forthcoming strike action by nurses, or teachers, or any other downtrodden, underpaid, under-appreciated workers.
As the cost-of-living crisis deepens – exacerbated by the prospect of spiralling food and energy poverty – those standing up against the government are speaking to a growing, and increasingly angry, audience. The working classes are becoming poorer while politicians award themselves pay rises, enjoy subsidised meals and generous expenses.
The language coming from employers themselves, such as Royal Mail, is nothing short of insulting. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action (98.7%), yet were ridiculed by their employer on social media for “having their heads in the sand” and for “failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation”. Meanwhile, Royal Mail made £758mn profit in the last year alone, paid out £400mn to shareholders and £2mn to executives. When there is so much evidence that there is money available (at least for some), it’s no wonder that people are saying “enough is enough”.
The Labour Party have also received criticism for their failure to support strike action, even from within its own ranks. That’s despite the party’s long history of association with the unions. Meanwhile, it’s the unions that are standing up against destructive government policies, effectively acting as the opposition themselves.
What have trade unions ever done for me?
Those of us old enough to remember the Thatcher years, and the attack on the unions, will be watching current government posturing and rhetoric with a sense of déjà vu. Those fortunate enough not to have experienced Thatcherism the first-time round may sadly be caught up in Thatcherism Mark II.
Certainly, Liz Truss – leadership candidate and Thatcher impersonator – is keen to remove any/all power from workers and their unions. She recently said she would “legislate to make sure we can’t be disrupted by militant trade unions”. That may be a vote winner with the small Tory audience choosing our next PM, but it won’t win over the general public.
For those unfamiliar with the successes of unions in the past, it’s worth remembering what we have to thank them for. It’s a long list, and all hard fought for. It’s thanks to the unions that we have minimum pay, a five-day working week, paid maternity leave, paid holidays, workplace pensions, equality laws and much, much more.
All those gains are now at risk from a government that is only interested in a small, wealthy group; a government that sees Brexit as an opportunity to strip away hard-earned protections so that shareholders can receive bigger dividends and top-level executives can earn outrageous sums of money at the workers’ expense.
Something has to give. Enough is enough. Any government – indeed, any party – that fails to recognise that fact will ultimately lose the support of the public. Ignore the working class at your peril.