On 1 February, 100,000 PCS members in the civil service walked out in demand of a 10% pay rise, pensions justice, job security, and no cuts in redundancy terms. This strike was alongside 300,000 teachers in the NEU, 70,000 UCU members in higher education, and train drivers in ASLEF and RMT.
This was the most significant day of action in over 10 years, with as many as half a million workers on strike together. This follows strike action by nurses, ambulance drivers, postal workers, and railway workers.
Taking a stand
In the immediate term, this strike wave has been provoked by inflation, which is causing a cost-of-living crisis for many. According to PCS, 1-in-12 civil servants are using food banks to help feed their families.
The NHS is on the verge of a meltdown. Ordinary people are rapidly getting poorer. Energy and food prices are higher than ever.
Young people are forced to take insecure jobs, with little hope of finding a decent home for themselves. The so-called ‘Brexit bonus’ has vanished. ‘Levelling-up’ is a cruel joke for anyone who expected real change at the last general election.
The ruling class are losing their authority to govern. There are almost daily reports of scandals involving the police, the church, the monarchy, or Parliament. Civil servants and other ordinary workers would be dismissed outright for the sorts of activities that government ministers get up to!
PCS members are taking a stand against all of this. We decisively reject the government cutting our wages in real terms, cutting our pensions, and cutting public services.
Last week was busy for industrial action, with comrades attending the FBU, PCS and NEU rally as well as the UCU picket lines. All power to the workers! pic.twitter.com/hv1ZMCqoqi
— Nottingham Marxist Society (@NottsMarxists) February 7, 2023
But this begs the question: Why is the government acting in this way? Is it just that the Tories hate the public sector? Are these cuts just ‘ideological’, as many on the left claim?
No doubt some, if not all, of the members of the Tory Party despise the public sector. A considerable number are ardent Thatcherites. The fact that many accused Rishi Sunak and his pandemic furlough scheme of being “socialist” indicates just how mad they are.
The Tories and their mouthpieces in the media promote the false image of civil servants as bowler-hat-wearing, pen-pushing tea drinkers, in order to denigrate us.
Tory ministers hold all these abhorrent views, and do all these terrible things. But that in itself does not explain anything.
At the root of all this is the fact that British capitalism is facing a huge crisis. It is this economic disaster that is forcing the Tory government to drive down the living standards of workers – particularly for those who they have most control over: public sector workers.
They are doing this to preserve the wealth and profits of the rich and powerful. The less value that goes to the working class – either directly in the form of wages, or indirectly in the form of state services – the more surplus value is creamed off by those who own and control the economy.
The Tories have said, in effect, that the country cannot afford decent healthcare, education, and other vital public services. Instead, they want to ensure that the bankers and billionaires get their pound of flesh.
Politically, the Tories are also attempting to show that they are still in control of the situation in Britain. They think that a showdown with public sector unions will provide plenty of red meat that they can throw at their rabid ranks.
The Tories also hope that this will send a message to the capitalists: that they can be relied upon to run the country in the interests of the bosses and big business. They are also afraid that if they were to make concessions to one union, this would only encourage others to fight for more.
What should be our response in these circumstances? What should trade union activists do?
Firstly, we need to ensure that we win this battle. At a workplace level we need to ensure that we are well-organised for industrial action.
Building on PCS’ existing strike schools, rank-and-file strike committees should be formed to organise industrial action. These should involve not just existing union reps, but all those who want to be involved in mobilising for walkouts and picket lines.
In workplaces with multiple unions present, branches need to organise along with sister unions to form joint strike committees. We need to involve younger and newer activists, those who are being energised by this struggle, in the running of these strikes and of the union.
Industrial action involving all unions currently in dispute needs to be further coordinated and escalated. Following the action on 1 February, PCS itself should show the way forward, with targeted action that aligns with that by other unions, in order to hit the government hard.
At the moment, the TUC leaders are dragging their feet, looking for legal routes to fight these battles. But the courts are no friend for workers.
Instead, the TUC should be organising and coordinating action across all the unions, as was passed as policy last year – building towards a one-day general strike, as part of a mass campaign to topple the Tories.
This government is clearly opposed to every measure that our class needs. It must be kicked out – the sooner the better. Only militant action by the trade unions can bring this about.
Fight for socialism
This is not the end of the matter. Nothing will have been resolved if, after a general election, all we get is a government that continues to implement the same austerity policies as the Tories, but with an apologetic smile.
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has already made clear that, if elected, a Labour government would carry out the programme of massive cuts that the Tories already have planned.
What we need is not Starmer’s austerity-lite, but a complete overthrow of this rotten system.
We need a fundamental change in how society is run. We need an economy that is owned and run democratically by the working class, for the working class; not for the enrichment of a tiny handful of wealthy parasites. In short, we need socialism.
To bring this about, we need a determined and resolute leadership on both the industrial and political fronts. This means building a militant leadership in the labour movement – one that is armed with Marxist ideas, tempered in the struggle, and prepared to go to the end in the struggle against the capitalists and their lackeys.
If you agree, then we appeal to you to join us in the struggle to carry out this historic task.