Joe Allen: The United Kingdom (UK) is experiencing a strike wave right now that is reminiscent of the workplace struggles last year in the United States. They aren’t confined to a particular union or industry. What’s driving the strike wave?
Ian Allinson: When COVID-19 first hit, unions were unable to run industrial action ballots in compliance with the anti-union legislation and official strike activity stopped. However, there was a flurry of health and safety related action and threats of action, most notably by teachers who successfully pushed back government moves to return to fully in-person teaching under unsafe conditions. Early in 2021, we saw a number of long and bitter disputes over “fire and rehire”—the practice of employers sacking their entire workforce and then offering them their jobs back on worse pay and conditions.
During 2021, inflation took off, with the annual rate rising from 1.4% in January to 3.9% in June and 7.5% in December. It has since risen to 12.3% in the year to July 2022. This, on top of union resistance, has led to a tailing off in fire and rehire. Employers don’t need to take such extreme measures to attack workers’ living standards. They can simply hold down pay. So from late 2021, pay took over as the dominant issue in strikes, albeit sometimes linked with other issues such as employers’ productivity demands.
It is obvious that there is a significant increase in strike activity, although official statistics are no longer being collected. Earlier this year, there were strike votes and strikes in quite a few medium-sized bargaining units in unionized parts of the private sector, particularly unionized pockets of manufacturing and logistics, and in privatized or outsourced public services including public transport. Unite is one of the main unions for these jobs, and its 70-pound-a-day strike pay for all official disputes helped enable a growth in continuous, indefinite strikes. Around Manchester, where I live, we’ve had a few major strikes in the last couple of years, and that has helped build important networks of solidarity.
But things really shifted when the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union took their first national strike day on June 25, bringing most of the rail network to a halt. This was so disruptive that it was all over the media and it really helped popularize the idea of unionization and striking. Unions reported a surge in membership inquiries. In Britain, individuals can join unions whether or not their workplace has collective bargaining. We’ve also seen several wildcat strikes. Rank-and-file engineering construction workers are organizing actions around the country. There was a wildcat strike at the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland. Even more exciting has been the wildcat action by non-unionized workers at a food factory and several Amazon warehouses. Since the first RMT strike, we’ve seen national action by several other unions, most notably the Communication Workers Union (CWU) in the privatized Royal Mail, involving over 100,000 postal workers. So far these national disputes have only involved occasional days of strike action and remain firmly under official control. Many other unions and industries are moving toward action. It remains to be seen whether the unions organizing the huge public sector bargaining units will do the organizing required to meet the anti-democratic ballot turnout requirements needed for lawful industrial action since 2016.
JA: The most costly strike for British capitalism is at the Port of Felixstowe, which hasn’t been on strike in three decades. Can you tell our readers about that?
IA: Felixstowe handles nearly half the container freight entering the UK, so any strike there is very significant. The port is owned by the global port company CK Hutchison, owned by Hong Kong-based Li-Ka Shing,the 31st richest man in the world, worth an estimated 35 billion dollars. The dispute is over pay and involves around 1900 workers who want a pay raise that matches inflation, though [Unite General Secretary] Sharon Graham has stated that the union is asking only for ten percent: “The company [Felixstowe Ports] is making an absolute fortune. It could pay 50 percent more on your wages and still be in profit. We are asking for ten percent. What is the problem?” Since 2017, the company has paid out 198 million pounds in dividends, most of which have gone to parent companies.
The initial eight-day strike, the first at the port for thirty years, is estimated to have cost around 680 million pounds. Unite members at the Port of Liverpool, Britain’s fourth largest port, owned by Peel Ports Limited, have also voted to strike over pay, but no strike dates have yet been set. Dockers at several other ports around the world are threatening to refuse to handle Felixstowe cargo if the dispute is not resolved.
JA: Amazon UK has also seen stirrings of worker discontent. The Teamsters last year declared Amazon an existential threat to the union. Does Amazon present a similar threat to unions in the UK?
IA: Unions certainly haven’t recognized it as such, although Sharon Graham did pledge to take on Amazon, warning,“If we don’t do that, you ignore the beast who is pace-setting bad behavior.” While Unite is the main union organizing truck drivers, the threat of Amazon is also being deployed against the Communications Workers Union (CWU) in Royal Mail. Picketers told me how management was demanding concessions on pay, staffing levels and productivity by pointing to courier companies. Royal Mail’s business has shifted dramatically toward parcels rather than letters and is facing more competition from non-unionized rivals. Although Amazon isn’t offering a general parcel delivery service, many companies sell through Amazon and make use of their delivery network.
The action here has been incredibly exciting. Workers at several Amazon fulfillment centers, including Tilbury (part of the Port of London), staged sit-ins in response to the announcement of microscopic pay “raises.” Some involved hundreds of workers and spanned different shifts. Both Unite and the GMB (another large general union) have made some attempts to organize at Amazon, but have not made any breakthroughs yet. The success of the Amazon Labor Union at JFK8 has been widely discussed by activists in Britain. But if the wildcat strikes at Amazon had any direct connection to previous organizing efforts, those involved have been very successful in hiding it. Some GMB officials played a useful role in platforming the action by sharing mobile phone footage from inside the plants, much to the fury of management. There are several large Facebook groups of Amazon workers and these were alive with discussion about action involving workers at different locations.
JA: The last time we spoke a year ago, Sharon Graham had just won the leadership of Unite the Union, the first woman elected to lead the UK’s second largest union. Has Graham moved the union in the direction that she promised during her campaign?
IA: Sharon Graham took over the Unite leadership in August 2021, just in time for the beginning of the increase in strikes in Britain. Graham has made winning strikes central to her strategy and plays a far more hands-on role in them than her predecessor, Len McCluskey. This is proving very popular with activists. She has also made a good start at creating “combines” which bring together workers who are union representatives from all the workplaces in a particular employer or industry. It was a scandal that a union like Unite, where a large proportion of members are employed by multi-site employers, previously did little to coordinate campaigning between its regions. This was something I highlighted myself when I stood for General Secretary in the previous election. Bringing reps together and providing the combines with resources and support is boosting activists’ confidence and helping them learn from each other. However, they are still at an early stage. We still see many examples where better coordination would give workers more power. For example, the bus industry is dominated by a few major corporations whose subsidiaries run services in many areas across Britain. Yet, we are still seeing strikes at different subsidiaries at different times rather than coordinated action.
Sharon Graham is making progress on other areas of her program as well, such as holding conferences for health and safety reps in each region. Perhaps the areas that cause me most concern relate to the union’s democracy. Graham had promised to build on the networks that campaigned for her election to encourage the development of member networks that could push forward her agenda and hold her accountable, but this has not happened—a missed opportunity. Earlier this year elections were held for nearly every activist position from the workplace level upwards. This was an opportunity to reach out to members, beyond the existing activist layer, and try to draw in new blood. Graham and her team made little visible effort in this direction, so the union’s democratic structures remain largely populated by factions that opposed her. Maybe she hopes to build up the combines first, in parallel to the union’s democratic structures, and then encourage those involved to take them over in the next elections in three years’ time. If so, I haven’t heard it said. Opposition from many of the paid officers of the union and lack of support from the democratic structures will make it harder for her to deliver her promises as well as making it harder for her to act in a fully accountable way.
JA: The UK has some of the worst anti-union laws in Western Europe. There have been threats from the Tory government to impose even more draconian laws on the labor movement as a result of the strike wave. How has that been received?
IA: The Tories have already repealed a ban on employment agencies providing temporary workers to cover for strikers, and they are threatening much worse, including the idea of minimum service levels that must be provided during strikes and a requirement to suspend action and reballot members whenever the employer makes a new offer. Unions have reacted with predictable anger. There is talk of resistance, but little evidence of practical preparation for defiance. Employers’ ability to use agencies hasn’t had much impact so far. There are many jobs where agency workers would be little use without the regular workers being there to show them what to do. The CWU has had great success in getting Manpower, a major agency providing temps to Royal Mail, to refuse to provide staff for strikebreaking. Putting workers in a position where they can’t lawfully take effective action seems like quite a risk for the Tories at a time when the cost of living crisis is generating a lot of public support for strikers and we are seeing a few wildcat strikes breaking out.
JA: Your book Workers Can Win: A Guide to Organizing at Work was recently released at an advantageous moment. You also created a website to facilitate its discussion. Can you tell our readers about it?
IA: As a workplace activist for many years, I got frustrated that, while there are excellent books arguing for particular strategies for the labor movement, and others (though not in Britain) talking about the practicalities of organizing at work, there was nothing that really combined the techniques of organizing with rank-and-file socialist politics. I set out to write a pamphlet to address this gap, but it soon became clear that something more substantial was required. It’s really exciting that Pluto Press has published the book, which will help it reach more people. There were several reasons why I created the website. First, the landscape in which we organize changes, with new anti-union legislation being a prime example. So I wanted readers to be able to sign up to receive occasional updates. Second, no book has all the answers. I hope that readers will try out some of the ideas in the book and send in reports of what worked for them, how they adapted some of my suggestions, and what didn’t find useful. In writing the book I drew on ideas from hundreds of activists and writers. The collective process of working out how to organize effectively doesn’t stop just because a book has been published. Third, in the book I encourage workers to build their networks for advice, support and solidarity. I have always found it invaluable to have a pool of people whose brains I could pick when I was grappling with a problem. I want to help readers build such networks for themselves.hat will make them more effective organizers and help them build the power they need to win.
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Joe Allen is a long-time labor activist and writer. Ian Allinson is a Ian Allinson, a member of rs21 and former rank-and-file socialist candidate for General Secretary of Unite the Union in 2017, and the author of Workers Can Win!: A Guide to Organizing at Work published by Pluto Press.