With the increase in collective organising and the hard right position of Truss’ neo-Thatcherite Government on trade unionism, what lies down the line?
Nurses. Transport workers. Barristers. Airline staff. Postal workers. Teachers. Refuse workers. The increasing cost of living, along with the highest rates of inflation in the last 40 years has produced a rapidly growing list of occupations opting to strike or balloting their workers regarding strike action. Strike action at this scale will be unfamiliar to many young people who did not grow up in the era of mass striking, while feeling all too familiar to those who remember the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of the 1970s and the mining strikes of the 1980s. However, what is abundantly clear is that the way striking is carried out has fundamentally changed in the post-Thatcher era, and that an increase in collective organising will have an impact on the future of politics, both through strike action, and at the ballot box in 2024.
Many of the recent strikes have been regarding pay levels, with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) rejecting the 8% pay rise offer in the face of the current cost of living crisis, and the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) pushing for a 25% increase in the level of pay for legal aid cases. Both the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) are also balloting their workers on the possibility of strike action due to the low levels of pay. This is reminiscent of the Thatcher premiership, with workers walking out due to pay levels and working conditions, and the refusal of both workers and the government to compromise on their demands. Arguably, this is where striking has not changed from the mass industrial action of the 1980s, where workers are still balloted and carry out strikes over a period of a few days.
Despite the recent increase in traditional striking, a new, more modern type of strike has begun. Driven by young people, strikes have recently started taking place to try and force government action on the climate crisis, with the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) organizing over 850 demonstrations in 2019, including the Global Climate Strike on 20th September 2019 with over 4 million people taking part worldwide. This represents the future of striking – it is no longer just about pay and working conditions for individual sectors, but about issues that concern the entire population. The ease at which word can be spread through social media has allowed collective organising to increase, making it easier than ever to join the picket line and express support either in person or digitally.
In terms of general striking, this hasn’t occurred since 1926, and current Prime Minister Liz Truss has stated that she will raise the threshold needed for industrial action to 50% (up from 40%), making the likelihood of an organised general strike low. However, if the cost of living continues to exacerbate, the risk of riots and walkouts across sectors also increase to a point of inevitability. As seen in 2010 where protests against austerity measures took place across the capital with small breakaway groups causing violence in the streets.
This growth in striking, and most importantly a modernised form of collective organisation has shaped and will continue to shape the current political landscape. After all, a government that doesn’t fear the threat of mass strikes wouldn’t pass the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act– giving the police increased power over protests. Similarly, a Prime Minister who does not feel threatened by strike action wouldn’t pledge to raise the vote threshold for industrial action. With the state pulling hard on anti-trade union policy and the increase in collective organising online, there is bound to be a snap.