LONDON — Rail workers, postal workers, ambulance drivers and nurses are joining in nationwide union work stoppages to fight declining real wages, job cuts and eroding conditions of work, and they’re winning support from other workers.
Ten thousand members of the Royal College of Nursing stopped work for 12 hours Dec. 15 and 20, the first strike action in the union’s 106-year history. They are demanding a raise matching inflation, plus 5%. Nurses’ pay has fallen 20% behind the rise in prices over the last decade.
“We need the pay rise to make up for the last 10 years,” Eleanor Kennedy, 27, told the Militant at a lively picket line at St. Thomas’ Hospital here. She described the 13-hour alternating day and night shifts nurses work, sometimes with no breaks. Some 34,000 nurses quit their jobs over the last year.
“The strike is about having enough staff to be able to give safe care,” said nurse Emily Mogg.
The Communication Workers Union, which organizes postal workers, held a national demonstration and rally outside Parliament here Dec. 9, participated in by 15,000 of its members. Some 115,000 CWU members struck that day.
“We need to stand up for ourselves,” postal worker Andy Mason told ITV News. “It’s everything from enforced Sunday working to removal of allowances. At the moment we start at 6:45 a.m. and we finish at about 2:45 p.m. They wish to change that to whatever they need.”
The Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union and the Communication Workers Union have held daylong stoppages for months, and are now stopping work for longer periods. Last week 40,000 RMT members at Network Rail and 14 different train operating companies struck for four days.
Government ministers intervened to prevent rail bosses from making an improved offer to the RMT. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak fears one union victory would open the door to others. He claims that wage raises are “unaffordable” and there is “fuel inflation,” pitting striking workers against fellow working people, as he defends his policies of cutting government spending and raising taxes, and protecting profits. Periodic bouts of inflation are not caused by pay raises but are built into the way the capitalist economy works.
Sunak is threatening strengthened anti-union legislation and sending in troops as strikebreakers. The government is hoping that support for strike action will decline. But a recent opinion poll found 70% held the government and employers responsible for the recent strikes.
Millions know that union action is tackling crucial questions facing all workers. Inflation has soared to 14%, devastating living standards. Despite government claims that unemployment is at historic lows, its own figures show over 5 million on out-of-work benefits.
Alongside inflation and joblessness, workers face the declining provision of health care. The National Health Service is beset with a chronic shortage of hospital beds. More than 7 million are awaiting operations; accident and emergency patients wait for hours to receive care; and ambulances delivering patients to hospitals are stalled by hourslong traffic backups.
Government instability, with three prime ministers in four months, has fed its waning public support.
‘Divide and rule’
The failure to push back union fights has contributed to fissures in ruling-class circles, with some calling on Sunak to change tack. “Beat the rail unions, then pay nurses more,” wrote Times columnist Matthew Parris Dec. 16. “There are some causes more deserving than others,” the paper’s editors claimed the following day.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer labeled the government’s refusal to negotiate with nurses a “badge of shame,” while he refuses to back strikes by unions for wages that would allow workers to provide for their families.
Despite efforts of Conservative and Labour leaders to undermine support for union struggles, workers are finding ways to express solidarity. The Unite union convener at Chep Pallets, Gary Walker, who led a successful 19-week strike earlier this year, joined the RMT strike picket line at Manchester Piccadilly Station.
“Every worker is essential,” he told the Militant. “Right through 2020 Chep were telling us how important we were, but in 2021 they insulted us with their pay offer.” Also on the rail workers’ picket line were John Waddington from the General Municipal and Boilermakers union at the flooring factory Polyflor, in Whitefield, Greater Manchester, and University and College Union members who have recently taken strike action.
“We thank everyone who stopped by our picket to bring solidarity,” Clayton Clive, a train conductor and Manchester South RMT union branch secretary, told the Militant. “And we extend our solidarity to other fighting workers.”