Strikes in the private sector, in industries with a sparse record of industrial action, imply a re-politicisation of work. But this will be a long process, argue Lewis Akers and David Jamieson. And it’s already under attack from employers and governments.
Workers in Kirkcaldy (pictured) went out on strike for pay for the second day of historic action on Monday 1 August. They joined 40,000 colleagues across the BT Group in their first national strike since 1987.
By the second day of strike action, pickets were still going strong the length and breadth of the country and support from across the trade union movement and public has been significant.
It’s no mystery why workers are so angry. The company has imposed a £1,500 flat rate payment on staff which equates to real terms pay cut, without consulting the workers’ CWU union. This despite the fact that the company has raked in £1.3bn in profit, with shareholders gaining £750 million and the CEO pocketing a 32 percent pay rise, the result of prices being bumped-up by 10 percent.
But what makes this strike so important is the position of this group of workers and the relatively unusual action they have embarked upon. It was not only the first major telecoms strike since the 1980s but also the first national strike. This matters because communications workers are strategically important to the modern British economy. As the Scottish sociologist and historian Neil Davidson once pointed out: “By the beginning of this century something like one in ten people in Glasgow worked in a call centre, which is far more than ever worked in engineering.”
Private sector workers are much less densely unionised in the UK, and the trade union movement is dominated by public sector and educational workers, many of whom earn more than the average worker. This is a structural feature of a trade union movement that suffered major defeats in many traditional industries in the 1980s and 1990s.
The geographic spread of the strike was impressive, bringing it to private sector workplaces outside of the major cities. Symington, Ayr, Prestwick, Saltcoats, Rutherglen, Dumbarton, Oban, Galashiels, Portlethen and Elgin were among the non-city sites witnessing strikes, many of them with well-attended picket lines enjoying support from local residents. Even in the cities, many of the striking sites were suburban.
At Langside in the south of Glasgow, one local resident who didn’t work at the site, Lorna McKinnon, told us: “I live locally. I’ve been following what’s been happening to the BT workers, but also workers across the board. I think it’s important people support them.”
“I think things are really changing. I was speaking to some of the workers and they were very aware of what was happening with the RMT, and how that had given them a boost of confidence to come out.”
In Kirkcaldy, the picket line was well supported by commuters and other workers close by who honked their horns and cheered from work vans and cars. This was complimented by a show of solidarity from a range of different organizations such as The People’s Assembly, Unite The Union, and EIS-FELA.
Tam Kirby, chair of Fife Trades Council said: “We always support striking workers and will attend and support all pickets here in Fife. This is a huge issue for all workers, as the cost of living spirals out of control, workers and the poorest are expected to bear the burden, whilst corporations continue to report record profits.”
All of those who we spoke to who were there in support echoed a similar message, that if the bosses are getting richer and making profits then we deserve a slice of the pie. A victory for BT workers would be a victory for the whole working class.
These kinds of infectious attitudes are what concerns big business and the government. BT have tried every trick in the book to curtail the strike. CWU says that managers have been “wrongly telling members that it is their duty to individually inform management of their intention to strike and others telling apprentices they are banned from striking at all.” But despite all these lies, the workers we spoke to on the picket line showed a determination to fight for a fair pay rise.
Two days after the second strike day, in relation to another CWU strike in Royal mail, the union announced: “Royal Mail have started to announce a series of strike breaking actions in recent days. CWU members need to hold our nerve and vote yes in the second ballot – it’s so important.”
We can expect the incoming Tory PM, whoever they are, to drive an even more aggressive anti-union policy. The prospect of a politicization of everyday life, driven by inflation and the desperate need to force wages to keep pace with inflation, holds out the prospect of a more general re-politicisation of society after decades of democratic retrenchment which have seen workers in particular cast out of the public square.
But we also need to recognise that these are stirrings in workplaces commencing from a very low structural level. Most workers are still taking a huge hit in the wallet, and most aren’t union members, let alone taking strike action. Therefore, a degree of creativity will be necessary in joining workplace struggles together with a wider anger at mounting hardship.