Interview by CSP Conlutas to Martin Ralph, Vice President of Liverpool TUC

Around 500,000 workers have joined the strike, which is also calling for better pay and working conditions

British workers in Education, Health, Transport and other public service sectors have been mobilising intensely in the last period. The uprising will reach its peak on February 1st, next Wednesday, when a General Strike will take place across the UK.

To better understand the struggles, CSP-Conlutas talked to the vice-president of TUC Liverpool, Martin Ralph, which is an organisation that brings together unions of several categories in the region, strengthening the entities and their interrelations.

It is estimated that half a million workers will take part in this important day of General Strike.

CSP-Conlutas: Can you tell us more about this wave of strikes in the UK?

Martin Ralph: The anger, determination, and struggle for workers for survival has at last created a nationally coordinated strike day for 1 February 2023 of five unions, teachers in schools and teachers and support staff in universities (NEU and UCU), train drivers (RMT and ASLEF), public and civil services (PCS). Approximately half a million workers will be on strike.

The five unions balloted over wages and other issues. But the main banner headline for the 1 February is “The Right to Strike” because the government has started the parliamentary process to force unions to maintain a minimum service level when striking, in other words to organise a union scab group to work during a strike. If unions do not do this in health, rail, fire etc, the union funds may be sequestrated. On Monday 30 January, the government will try to take away the right to strike effectively.

Later in the same week the Public Order Bill continues through the two houses, this is the most repressive piece of legislation, it will be used, if passed, to remove the right to protest and will see more activists and workers in jail, with prevention orders.

That is why the general strike and its continuation is the only effective means of stopping and defeating the government.

Strikes have been rising for a year, expressing deep anger about workers’ lives and the future of all workers’ families. There are many strikes, some national, some regional and some local. There have been wild cat strikes. That, and the 60,000 trade union march in London in June, expresses the anger that increased since 2010.

There are many strikes in January and planned for February across the country. Still, most are not coordinated, even though the TUC congress agreed on 18 October to organise inter-union and inter-section coordinated strikes.

The men and women on strike express much more of what they want to do than many leaders. Almost all pickets that we talk to want coordination and to build a general strike. All striking workers say there is no easy victory; it will take time and a hard struggle against the employers and the government. At the same time, the government is on the offensive. The strikes are in the public and private sectors, and many parts of the welfare state have been privatised.

The greatest feeling is over the NHS. But as for all workers, wage increases have been kept below inflation for 13 years since the start of austerity in the NHS. During this time, “food banks” arose, and last year “heat banks” started because many low-income families cannot “heat and eat” on the same day, or parents go without so their children can eat. Food banks have replaced social benefits to some extent.

The nurses and health workers, such as ambulance staff, have immense support from the public; we can all be patients. During and after COVID, 40,000 nurses have left because the strain is enormous, and nurses tell us, yes, this is a government policy to run down and privatise the NHS; nurses leave because it is easier, for example, to be paid more money in supermarkets. Much has been privatised, but the companies keep the NHS logo as if it was public.

That is why there is massive support for health workers – everyone knows our lives depend on them.

CC: Which sectors are on strike, and what are the demands of each sector?

MR:The national strikes include RMT- rail workers and train drivers, Aslef Train drivers, CWU Post Office, Royal College of Nursing – nurses, PCS (public and state workers) and UCU universities. The strikes are taking place as one to two-day strikes repeated week after week. The RMT and CWU have been striking for six months. There has been one day of coordinated strikes. PCS state workers won the national ballot in over 100 centres for strike action.

At the same time, many factories, bus drivers, care workers, cleaners etc., are also taking strike action. They are members mainly of Unite, GMB or Unison.

The bus drivers have been successful in many regions of the country with all-out strikes for weeks before they won substantial pay raises.

The central demand is inflation parity or above, but many demands exist. On the railways, the employers want to get rid of the guards. The RMT refuse to accept removing guards, yet it has been a demand of the government, pulling the strings behind the many privatised employers who “run” the rail industry.

Jobs have been getting worse for many in addition to low pay: worse conditions, increasing precarity, bullying, workload, and pension reform – both public and private. The private and privatised public companies give considerable sums to CEOs and share holders, dividends paid out to shareholders grow three times faster than wages over the past decade.

That applies to the postal service, rail, oil and gas workers, and bus drivers as workers are offered below-inflation pay rises before they strike.

The government refuse to increase the health, education and public service sector budget for wage increases; the minimum wage is not enough.  That is why the TUC calls for an all-union protest outside parliament on 15 March, the national budget day, for the government to demand an increase in the budget for public services and to stop the anti-strike Bill.

CC: Are these mobilisations the consequences of years of austerity and also because of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine?

MR: There are many issues, but the first one is the economic and financial crisis coming from 2008/09, austerity, COVID and the Russian invasion with the malfunction of capitalist supply and profiteering. But in some areas, the battles from the 1980s remain huge problems because many of the mining areas never recovered from the attacks by Margaret Thatcher.

These factors create a cost-of-living crisis or rather the cost-of-greed crisis, as experienced in energy and food bills. The attacks on wages, public services, jobs and workers’ rights are driving the fight-back. Depending on which official method is used inflation is between 11% to 14%. But every family knows that inflation on essential foods is much higher. Poverty is increasing and recently, the Royal College of GPs said there are alarming rises in vitamin deficiency amongst poor people and an increasing number refusing sick notes from their GP because they cannot afford not to work.

Workers’ living conditions have been driven down; their debt is rising. Energy prices will have risen 300% in nearly a year. Milk, butter, bread, oil and many essentials have increased in price well above inflation. But profits rise.

While poverty is increasing the gap between the rich and poor in income and wealth continues to increase. In 2016, the richest 10% of households held 44% of all wealth. The poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 9%. The top 0.1% had share of total wealth double between 1984 and 2013, reaching 9%.

The profits made by the energy companies, that will continue unless workers stop it. Their profits could pay the wages that are being demanded many times over. This history of British capitalism and its immense greed and arrogance is seen by millions of workers.

CC: How are the activists who are involved in these strikes? Is there a rank-and-file movement to organise the strikes?

MR: The real anger comes mainly from the bottom but the organisation comes from the top. We are at a critical point. The working class shows it wants to fight at a much higher number of strikes than for 30 or 40 years.

There are left union tendencies, but only in some unions, that have pushed for strikes and a plan of action to develop the strike action. But very few have pushed trade union branch policy to build a general strike.

The RCN had a clause for 100 years of “we do not strike”. But the crisis is so deep in the NHS that they had to agree to call strikes. But on the picket lines, they tried to keep other union banners off their picket line, such as the RMT, CWU, Unite Liverpool Dock workers and others. However, the nurses warmly received the other workers.

And in places like Liverpool, demonstrations were organised that started from hospitals led by the nurses and supported by workers on strike or who had been on strike. Nurses were pushing back against attempts to control picket lines in a bureaucratic way.

However, the RCN did call for strike committees to be built inside each hospital. In some cases, this was done. Now the RCN nurses need to develop such organisations. The RCN and all health unions are not participating in the 1 February; they are striking before and after. Other unions are also not participating but could. 

The following coordination can be the 15 March (the government’s budget day); unions are looking to demand more money from the government. The teacher’s NEU union will be striking on that day and demonstrating outside parliament. All unions should be striking and joining them. At this moment, some unions announced strike days that miss the 15 March.

It means the rank and file must put immense pressure through the vast numbers of local branches, in the regions and on and in the national executive committees. Still, that discussion must increase on the pickets lines and in all the rallies on 1 February.

Mick Lynch, the prominent RMT leader, is a class hero because he has dealt very well with all the media attacks. He has often shown the mainstream media interviewers to be asking ignorant, lying or asking farcical questions. He calls for a one-day general strike in May. But why not for a general strike on 15 March, to be followed by one in May? And why just one day?

In some of the strikes, such as nursing, women are in a large majority. Worker activists in some cities have created strike support groups that have made some connections with working class neighbourhood committees and those fighting “Don’t pay” energy bills,  involved in tenant rights, the LGBTQ+ movements, or those fighting for tenant rights against eviction, high rents and awful maintained accommodation.

CC: Is there anything important to say that has not been raised by me?

MR: The government, trade union bureaucracy or Labour Party cannot stop the strike wave at the moment but are trying in different ways. However, the anger remains very deep, but deeper links must be built between the unions. Not just talks at the TUC level but at all levels democratically and transparently by the rank and file to unite all blocks in the struggle for a general strike and develop a programme to bring all the unemployed people and oppressed people into the organised battle to fight inflation, austerity and attacks on our rights to strike and to demonstrate.

Because of union organisations like CSP Conlutas and the International Labour Network of Solidarity and Struggle, many militant unions have sent solidarity messages from Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica, Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, South Africa and the USA.

Part of the background is the increase in workers’ struggle in Europe and other countries worldwide.  Since September, there have been seven general strikes in Europe in France, Belgium, Italy and Greece.

It is essential to deepen the working class’s international connections, solidarity and joint actions. The messages sent in video or text are warmly received and create more interest in what is happening in other countries. Some in the strike support groups, especially in WhatsApp, wanted as much detail of the recent meeting of ILNSS in Paris. The UCULeft has invited a striking French speaker through these connections; a rail worker from London spoke to a national meeting of the Italian No Austerity. German unionist groups are protesting outside the British embassy in Berlin on 1 January for The Right To Strike.

We want to take this opportunity to thank CSP Conlutas, all trade unions in Latin America, and those worldwide who have sent solidarity messages. We thank you and ask if unions have not yet sent solidarity but would like to please do. We will make sure they are distributed widely.

Build the coordination!

Build a general strike to win and bring the government down!

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