Saturday, September 23, 2023

Why is there a wave of strikes in Britain? Inflation, fall in real wages and worsening working conditions

From London, UK.

On February 1st, a few meters from the official residence of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in London, a crowd demonstrated the vibrancy of the British trade union movement.

Millions of people marched in the main cities of the United Kingdom as part of the powerful measures, which together included half a million workers and labourers. Schools, public offices and universities were closed en masse. No work was done on post office, trains, coast guard, migrant control, tourism offices. A few days ago, hospitals and health care centers witnessed the first strike by nurses in the 106-year history of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).

Privatized service companies and the public sector are hotbeds of discontent, but the union movement spreads further and there are few days without strike activity in the calendar for the next few months. Away from all the euphoria of victory, the real dimensions of the situation demand caution.

vote by mail

For readers in Argentina this may come as a surprise, but the restrictions placed on British unions to act, and above all to act together, are surprising to say the least. As part of Thatcher’s legacy, in the UK it is necessary to obtain the consent of more than half the members by post in order to be able to take measures such as regulation or strikes in the union.

Vote by mail – electronic voting is not legal, much less direct democracy methods – is handled by an independent body. That body certifies that the union managed to gather the written responses of more than half its partners and therefore its actions are legal. Furthermore, these are only legal when caused by a “legitimate” dispute between employers and workers, which simply means that general or political strikes are illegal and their consequences are dramatic.

In this framework, the coordination of union votes that began last summer, reaching the levels required by law and the overwhelming majority of votes in favor of the strike reflect the temperature of the situation and allow some hope. But there is more.

defense of the welfare state

The wave of strikes is attributed to a rise in inflation (9.2 percent in 2022) in a country that was believed to be recovering from such ills. But while inflation and the recent jump in the cost of living are factors prompting union action, they are not alone. For example, years of declining working conditions and falling real wages show that if we live with the effects of the pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, even the consequences of Brexit, you can only plant trees. Will see, but not the forest.

The state of the British economy has already been fragile, and the neoliberal commitment (both Conservative and Labor with the exception of Jeremy Corbyn) that “austerity” reigns for the vast majority and a haven of privileges and low or non-existent taxes for minorities , had and have very serious consequences for the social fabric and the public sector in particular.

This was stated on several occasions by Philip Alston, the former United Nations Special Envoy on Poverty and Human Rights, who visited the country several times to verify that the state’s 14 million residents live in conditions of poverty and millions more . This is due to an ideological decision by the state to stand in extreme poverty (many without adequate daily food, depending on state aid, canteen or school meals, and unsustainable housing systems) in the world’s fifth-largest economy. . Fitness.

Condemning this disintegration and defending what is left largely lies behind the demands of the Sangh. It is the defense of public education, the health system, unrestricted and free access to public services and the common interest against the insatiable demands of the market.

role of trade unionism

One final element to consider is who is part of this dynamic movement. Some years ago there was talk in the Anglo-Saxon world that, after the neoliberal counter-revolution, the prospects for trade unionism ranged between forms of co-operation (social partnership) or a mellow return to grassroots organisation, as a ritual More as a strategy.

The options have improved in recent years. Unions have emerged that articulate more aggressive strategies, in a spectrum that ranges from seeking regularization of labor relations in the courts to a return to militant unionism (the Uber case is paradigmatic) that includes campaigns, illegal strikes, and unionization of workers. Is. The most uncertain and worst represented sectors.

But the innovation doesn’t end there. The most important leaders come from traditional unions, such as post or train. Enough of them! (Enough) and willingness to coordinate dates, solidarity and political confrontation with the government. The path of trade unionism, which has long distanced itself (or broken ties) with Labour, is also a sign of a changing era.

conservative aggressive

Everything said so far can be auspicious. But it should be noted that the British trade union movement faced innumerable obstacles. Some are the product of years of regression (a recent investigation highlighted, for example, the disciplinary role that personal loans play in union action in a country where rebates are harsher for each strike).

Others arise from structural conditions. Added to the economic crisis and low growth is a country with low general union affiliation (23 percent), very low union presence in the private sector (12.8 percent) and a collective bargaining coverage percentage of less than 30 percent.

The most important obstacle is, undoubtedly, the determination of the conservative government to set an example and open a new cycle of offensive and looting. As Thatcher had done against the miners in 1984, Sunak is determined not to make concessions and to block agreements that could be seen as a victory for workers. State intervention to thwart dialogue in almost all areas is an example of this.

To date, unions have shown tremendous determination and capacity to grow in the face of these and many other obstacles. But Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers’ Union, is right, victory is not just around the corner. This is, most likely, the great fight of a generation.

* Professor in Labor Relations. Cardiff University, UK.

(tags to translate)cash

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