Sometimes workers and unions have to strike at times we would not have chosen. The bosses pick a time when they feel secure and can afford a risk of idling their business to victimise union reps or impose worse conditions.
Sometimes we win strikes even when the bosses have done the best of calculations.
This is a time when the chances of winning strikes are better than usual.
On 5 November the Daily Mirror compiled a list of 39 u-turns by the Tory government since early 2020. It is a government with little solid strategy beyond its December 2019 election slogan, “Get Brexit done”.
Brexit is not “done” yet. The Tories want to scrap or drastically change the “Northern Ireland protocol” they themselves signed less than a year ago. They have postponed the full introduction of checks on EU imports to Britain to November 2022. UK exports are down 10%, in cash terms, on 2018.
From February, with the vaccination programme, to mid-October, the Tories had a 5% to 10% lead in opinion polls. Public patience with their handing out of billions to cronies, speeded via the “VIP lane” for Covid contracts, is currently fading. Recent polls show a slight Labour lead.
The feebleness of the Labour leadership limits the Tories’ losses. But, with furlough and the £20 Universal Credit boost gone, increasing numbers will realise that, despite the high taxes it levies, this is a government of cuts in core social provision. The record NHS waiting lists (already, before winter has actually started) and the insulting 3% pay award to NHS workers show that.
Workers in the NHS and local councils face employers directly dependent on funding from central government. If they mobilise, their chances of forcing the Tories into yet another u-turn are better than usual.
Private bosses are generally under pressure too. There is no boom comparable to the short ones that followed the worst of the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, and economic activity may be pushed down again soon by renewed Covid restrictions, but many firms are running to meet increased demand.
The early-2020 predictions of 10% jobless in the UK by late 2020 proved false. The repeated extension of the furlough scheme, eventually until 30 September 2021, helped. The end of furlough has been followed by no sharp rise in unemployment. The current figure is 4.3%, a bit up on 4% in early 2020, but down on 5.2% in October-December 2020.
Hours worked have decreased by 2.5% compared to early 2020, and the percentage of 16-64 year olds employed has decreased from 76.6% to 75.4%. More workers have retired early (or retired when they were already over pension age and previously continuing to work), and more people are studying (or more studying without working alongside). An economic jolt could yet produce snowballing collapse of many firms still carrying big debts from the lockdowns; but that hasn’t happened yet, and it’s possible that debt backlog will reduce gradually rather than setting off a rapid spate of collapses.
Many people lost jobs early in the pandemic: insecure jobs, or jobs that were never likely to “come back” until Covid had faded decisively. Now there are large sectors, notably drivers and delivery workers, short of labour.
Some groups of workers have won pay rises through “market forces”. Only some: the NHS and social care both have around 100,000 unfilled vacancies, and pay rises there are scanty.
For now, most workers in employment face bosses who are keen to avoid stoppages, and who would have difficulty recruiting desperate new workers willing to undercut existing staff.
That many more workers are back in the workplace at least part-time has downsides for Covid spread, but makes union organisation easier.
So workers are in a stronger position to push back. And we need to.
The Resolution Foundation reports that on average “real wages are already falling and are likely to continue to do so for the next six months”.
Official inflation figures are high (4.2% CPI, 6% RPI). Rents are rising at 4.6% per year. Prices which weigh especially on the worse-off have already risen sharply (gas and electricity) or are likely to do so as world-trading price increases work through (food).
France is currently in a strike wave. In Guadeloupe, Caribbean islands formally part of France, a general strike is underway, headlined as against Covid-pass rules (seen as metropolitan imposition), but with demands also raised for “a generalised wage rise” and “integration of all the precariously-employed and massive new hiring”. The USA has a spate of disputes called “Striketober”. In the UK we have a chance to regain some economic ground and revitalise the labour movement after the difficulties of the lockdowns.