Britain's Summer of Discontent: An Earthquake in the British Labour Movement

What a decisive answer to all the cynics who had written off the labour movement in Britain. In scenes reminiscent of the late 1970s, scenes we were told would never be repeated in Blair's New Britain, more than a million local authority workers took strike action yesterday, the first national public sector stoppage in 20 years. The action by members of UNISON, the T&GWU and the GMB was described in the London Evening Standard as "the biggest strike in Britain since the 1926 General Strike". All over England, Wales and Northern Ireland schools, museums and leisure centres were closed, rubbish went uncollected, architects demonstrated alongside caretakers and dinner ladies and the power of public sector workers was clear for all to see. This is what the size and unity of UNISON is supposed to be used for, not car insurance schemes, but blue and white collar workers united in action. Many of these workers are taking strike action for the first time in their lives, and they gain confidence and begin to draw conclusions like Natasha Izatt, a 27 year old librarian from Hove who earns just £4.80 an hour. "Today's action is fantastic," she is quoted as saying in the Guardian, "I'm happy to be able to do something rather than just whinge." These comments could be repeated by women struggling by on appallingly low wages all over the country. It is no accident that this was the biggest ever strike by women workers.

Despite five years of Labour government and a supposedly booming economy, public sector workers have seen their pay fall further and further behind. Many of those on strike yesterday earn well below half the average salary of £23,000 a year. Public sector workers are increasingly forced to claim state benefits to supplement their appallingly low wages. Indeed according to the Labour Research Department these workers earn less as a percentage of the average wage than they did in 1979. However public sector workers don't need statistics to tell them that they keep getting worse off, while Blair's government threatens them with yet more disastrous privatisation schemes. The employers offer of three percent is a disgrace, as one striking worker commented "three percent of not a lot is bugger all". For a quarter of a million workers this would translate into a measly 15p per hour. Their patience with Blair has run thin. Yesterday a line in the sand was crossed.

This growing mood of militancy is not confined to public sector workers. Yesterday's action cannot be seen as a one-off. On the contrary this strike is not an isolated incident but part of a process of growing militancy which we have charted in the pages of Socialist Appeal over the last six to twelve months in particular. The smouldering discontent and disappointment with Blair which led large numbers of workers to stay at home in recent elections, including the last general election, was a part of this process. So too is the remarkable series of election victories by left candidates in one trade union after another. Discontent with the failures of the Blair government and the growing mood of militancy in the trade unions are two sides of the same coin. Yesterday that anger burst through the surface.

In the editorial of the last issue of Socialist Appeal we pointed out that the magnificent general strikes in Greece, Italy and Spain were a taste of things to come here. The anger welling up beneath the apparently calm surface of society was a warning to Blair and the bosses that British workers' patience was wearing thin too. Our claim that given the breadth and the scale of the attacks facing workers in all sectors and all parts of the country, the militancy which we have traced burrowing away beneath the surface of British society meant that at a certain stage a general strike would be possible here too, was met with cries of derision from some quarters. Yesterday's strike action was another step in that direction. Over a million workers announced - this far and no further!

Local authority workers were not the only ones taking strike action either. A 24-hour strike by RMT members on the Tube closed down the capital's underground service in protest at the very real threat not only to jobs and services, but even to lives, that the proposed privatisation, or part-privatisation of the London Underground threatens. Railworkers are all too aware of the dangers of transporting the penny-pinching, profit grabbing, corner-cutting of Railtrack onto the underground.

At the same time train drivers in other parts of Britain were taking strike action too. Airport baggage handlers have voted by nine to one in favour of industrial action, and firefighters are set to stage their first national strike action in over twenty years in response to the continued erosion of their wages.

No-one can doubt now that militancy is on the march. What we are witnessing here is a profound change taking place. The bosses are clearly shaken by the changing mood of British workers. This morning Ruth Lea, head of policy at the Institute of Directors (one of the bosses' unions), said her members were "concerned" about the apparent backlash against the Blair administration among rank-and-file union members.

She told the BBC: "There are two reasons why we are concerned about the general shift to the left. The first is the rise in militancy. We are having a hat-trick of industrial relations problems this week: we has local authorities yesterday, we have the RMT [London Underground strike] today, and we will be having fuel tanker drivers later in the week."

"The other thing is I think the TUC and other unoin leaders will be more prepared to push for changes to employment regulations - not least the Employment Relations Act - which will lead to more employee rights and more difficulties for employers. We do fear that there's going to be futher militancy, there's no doubt about it."

The growing militancy of British workers is having an effect inside their organisations as well. This is inevitable. We have pointed recently to the election victories of the left in one union after another, CWU, PCS, T&G, RMT, ASLEF, NUJ, but anyone who still doubts that this shift is real need look no further than the earth shattering result in the General Secretary election in the AEEU. Seen by many as the bastion of the right wing in the trade union movement for many years, nevertheless we have pointed out for some time now that a change was taking place within the Engineers and Electricians union. Nearly 200,000 manufacturing jobs were destroyed in the first three months of this year alone. The fantasy of social partnership pioneered by Jackson has failed to stem the tide. At the same time Jackson's close links to Blair have also worked against him as disillusionment with the government has grown. The BBC showing an excerpt from a video which was almost an election advert for Jackson containing a message of support from the prime minister in person, described Blair's praise as the kiss of death for any union leader at the moment. This is even more the case when you consider that Simpson is a Labour man too, but in opposition to the Blairites.

In reality it was out of fear of a left victory and the disarray of the right wing itself, that Sir Ken Jackson tried so desperately to cling on to the position even after he passed retirement age. Despite all the allegations of ballot rigging which forced one of Jackson's right hand men, Roger Maskill, to resign, and despite the fact that Jackson had the entire union machine behind him, while Simpson's campaign was organised and run by rank and file activists, Jackson found that he could no more hold back the tide than could old King Canute. His defeat is a real blow to Blair and the modernising tendency both in the Labour Party and the TUC. It is an earthquake within the labour movement. The victory of Derek Simpson against all odds according to the press is the clearest indication yet of the profound nature of the change taking place within the trade union movement.

No wonder Blair and co are so keen to break the Labour Party's link with the unions. They are investigating state funding of political parties again. No matter what they do they will not prevent the rising tide of militancy being reflected inside the party at a certain stage.

The transformation and retransformation of the labour movement, the unions and the party, is a process. It will not happen overnight, nor will it fall from a clear blue sky. Indeed what we are seeing now is a part of that process. Changing conditions - job losses, pay freezes, privatisation - push workers to the limit and force them to take action. The growing mood of discontent puts pressure on the leadership to do something. This results not only in the election of new left leaning leaders in the unions but also forces Edmonds, Morris and Prentice into open opposition to Blair. In turn this lead (or half lead at least) from the top, caused by pressure from below, results in further action from below.

Of course such a process does not occur in a straight line. There are defeats as well as victories along the way, steps forward and steps back. More local government strikes are being prepared for August. It seems likely that a new improved offer will be made to try to avert any further action. This may succeed in preventing new strikes in the short term. It may be that some union leaders see one or two days of strike action as a pressure release valve. However, any advance made in local government workers pay now will quite correctly be seen as a victory for strike action and a victory for militancy and will prepare the way for more action later.

Fire fighters, rail workers, public sector workers, indeed workers in all sectors can only be pushed so far. Everyone has their limits. A line in the sand was crossed yesterday and all those learned wiseacres who wrote off the British labour movement have had their answer. Of course these strikes must not be overestimated. They do not mean that revolution is on the agenda next week, nor yet even a general strike. More importantly at this stage however, they cannot be underestimated either. Those who will claim that we are exaggerating their importance are the same people who would have told you even last week that there would never be a national UNISON strike, let alone a national local government workers strike involving UNISON, the T&G and the GMB. They are the same people who would have told you that the left would never get anywhere in the AEEU. They are the same people who will tell you that Blair has the Labour Party totally in his control and that it can never be changed.

The mistake such people make is only to look at the surface of events, only to see the here and now. They see things in black and white, they cannot see the wider picture, the process taking place in society. That is the benefit of Marxism, and why theory and ideas are so vital to trade union activists.

This is just the beginning. There will be many more strikes, demos and elections. These will all have an impact inside the movement beginning with the trade unions and then inevitably at a certain stage inside the Labour Party as well.

The pendulum has swung a long, long way to the right in the last two decades inside the British Labour movement. If we remember our school physics lessons however, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The pendulum has begun its journey in the opposite direction. The movement of the working class looked a lot different yesterday to what it has looked like, at least on the surface, for years. In reality the trade union movement has been transformed. It will be transformed again and again in the coming years. Just look at the leaderships of the unions say ten or even five years ago. The civil servants union has been led by the hard right for years. No matter how hard Barry Reamsbottom, the outgoing general secretary, tries to cling on to his post (much like Sir Ken Jackson) through legal action, the mood of the union is clearly reflected in the election of left candidate Mark Serwotka. The postal workers were led by Alan Johnson who jumped ship to became a Labour MP at the 1997 general election and support the Blairites' backdoor privatisation of the post office. Now left candidate Billy Hayes has won the general secretary election in that union. ASLEF was led by Lew Adams, now by left winger Mick Rix. The RMT was led by Jimmy Knapp, now by leftwinger Bob Crow. It is no accident either that these were precisely the unions which have been involved in struggles over jobs pay and conditions in recent years.

Then there's there the final proof for those who remain unconvinced. The right-wing leadership of Gavin Laird and Bill Jordan was succeeded by Sir Ken Jackson in the AEEU. The union's name became a byword for so-called social partnership, in reality class collaboration. Jackson was Blair's biggest supporter in the trade union movement, and in turn Blair heaped praise upon the former AEEU general secretary. Despite all the resources at his disposal he could not hold back the tide which swept left candidate Derek Simpson to victory.

The trade unions look a lot different to what they did just a couple of years ago. They will look different again in the next ten years. All of this will be reflected inside the Labour Party too. The great American writer Mark Twain commented that "history does not repeat itself but it often rhymes". The summer of discontent resembles its winter predecessor of 1979 in many ways. Local government workers on strike. Fire fighters preparing to follow suit. Of course there are many differences too. The movement between say 1976 and 1982 saw a combination of a rise in industrial militancy, the growth of the left in the unions, and the growth of the left in the Labour Party too.

The process unfolding before us now will not simply repeat the same course taken before. What is certain though is that over a period of time the shift to the left in the unions and mounting mood of militancy will see a new left emerge inside the Labour Party too. The tide has begun to turn against Blair already. In the next period there will be tremendous opportunities for the growth of Marxism in the British labour movement.

  • 6% or £1750 increase for local government workers immediately.
  • No to tube privatisation.
  • £30k for fire fighters now.
  • Renationalise the railways.
  • Trade unionists reclaim the Labour Party.
  • For militant action and socialist policies.