Striking workers have great power

By Michael Burke

When is an essential worker not an essential worker? According to this government and the media that supports it, when they ask for their real take home pay not to be cut. If they do, they are selfish and greedy layabouts led by Marxist extremists.

Of course, this propaganda is simply rubbish. Much more importantly it seems to have little traction with the public, where polls and vox pops tend to show strong and rising support for those taking action. This is almost unprecedented in terms of popular support. The likelihood is that this support arises because so many people are experiencing the effects of the attacks on living standards that they feel they are in the same boat. 

It also does not seem to matter much that there is genuine public inconvenience -strikes are not very effective if there is not some disruption. Yet, even though the media have tried their usual campaigns against workers, unions and their leaders, the public is not buying what they are selling.

Unfortunately, current public opinion alone will not determine the outcome of strikes. And this is a government that not only seems intent on defeating the strikes, they also want a once-in-a-generation defeat of the power of organised labour altogether.

Yet the attack itself, from a viciously right-wing government also tells us something about where we stand – and the power of striking workers that worries the Tories and their supporters so much.  There is an important lesson for workers, especially those operating in the public sector (like NHS workers, teachers, civil servants, firefighters, lecturers and others) or in sectors where the government is still effectively in charge of the industry and of negotiations (such as post and rail).

There is an old myth that only industrial unions have industrial power. But at the height of the pandemic we learnt something else. This is that workers in areas like health and education have become essential, even indispensable. This is because structurally the economy itself has become more complex and more interdependent, or socialised.

This is why it became obvious that teachers and NHS workers and others were essential at the height of the pandemic.  If they are not working, for reasons of health, or health and safety or because they are on strike, then many others cannot work.

One and half million people use NHS services every day. There are also well over six million children aged 5 to 14 years old who are at school every day. By comparison, the undoubted power of the rail unions rests primarily on the fact that there are an average of 2.7 million train journeys per day.

As the Financial Times has recently fretted, if workers in those sectors are not at work, large parts of the rest of the economy start to shut down very rapidly. 

The City, big business, and the government have all come to the conclusion that non-industrial workers really are essential. That is why they are prepared to force them into work with new legislation, even while they are not prepared to offer decent wages.

On our side, we should recognise the same truth, that huge numbers of public sector workers and others have great economic power. And we can use it for a just cause, stopping cuts to pay and conditions, against job losses, and to save public services. 

This is an expanded version of a piece which first appeared here on the website of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity