Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

‘The Chances of Coordinated Industrial Action are Real’

As Liz Truss vows to crackdown further on union action and the cost of living crisis escalates, Josiah Mortimer reports on the prospects of a general strike

Liz Truss during a visit to Jaguar Land Rover in Solihull. Photo: Jacob King/PA/Alamy

‘The Chances of Coordinated Industrial Action are Real’

As Liz Truss vows to crackdown further on union action and the cost of living crisis escalates, Josiah Mortimer reports on the prospects of a general strike

Newsletter offer

Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.

When the Trades Union Congress (TUC) announced that it would be dropping some big news in recent weeks, parts of the left were aflutter with anticipation that a general strike could be on the cards.

When the announcement was made – that the TUC would not be calling for a general strike but a £15 minimum wage by 2030 – social media went into overdrive, with #generalstrike trending and a fair dose of socialist ire directed at the union confederation. Where was the boldness needed to meet the scale of the cost of living crisis?

Linda Taaffe, secretary of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), a group supported by major unions, told Byline Times: “This is just the beginning of unrest. I was on the CWU [Royal Mail] picket lines – there’s a feeling that, once the unions have seen through their individual strike days, the next stage is to strike together.” 

The NSSN has organised a rally at the TUC headquarters this month to pressurise its leaders into “striking together”. “We’ll face legal barriers,” Taaffe said. “Everyone wants to ensure we don’t create even bigger [legal] problems… People in leading positions will have to calculate what they can do at each stage.”

Could we see unions or workers breaking anti-union laws? “If they calculate they have no option… they might have to get to that,” she added. “But the first option is to do it within the law if we can. That’s what’s happened so far. We’re at the start of a big struggle. Going by the mood on picket lines, it’s absolutely solid everywhere.”

The legal barriers to an all-out strike are significant – with political strikes banned and secondary (or solidarity) action also illegal. But trade union lawyer and Labour peer Lord John Hendy QC stoked the flames of widespread action. “Has the time come again to organise a general stoppage of work?” he wrote in the left-wing Morning Star newspaper. “Because the response of the Government to the unfolding catastrophe is nothing short of class war”.

“Unions and workers are not going to wait for the lawyers to challenge these measures; they are going to vote with their feet,” he continued. “Solidarity to them. Enough is enough.”

Resistance Grows to Liz Truss’Plans to ‘Rob’ Workers of their Rights

Josiah Mortimer

Calling a general strike is easier said than done, however. TUC figures believe it is highly unlikely given the huge legal barriers of decades of anti-trade union laws. For a workplace to go on strike, it has to launch legal trade disputes against a specific employer and meet high ballot thresholds of 40% voting in favour (with non-voters effectively classed as no voters).  

“To call a general strike, every union would have to ballot, in every workplace,” one senior trade union source told Byline Times. “Nearly 50 unions are affiliated to the TUC. Some unions won’t be able to organise a strike. You need lots of resources to go in with. You might get [unofficial] walkouts – people just saying we’ve had enough. But there’d be no possibility of organising a general strike.” 

The current disputes at Royal Mail, train companies, the Felixstowe port and elsewhere have followed savvy ballots where recognised unions have known they can win. “The ballot results are all massive,” the union figure added. “They’re not squeaking by – they’re at 96% or so. These are people being balloted when they can win. Unions are being strategic.”

There were about five million trade union members in 1926, when Britain’s only – and unsuccessful – general strike was called. There are fewer than seven million now, but with a population 50% per cent larger.

The 1926 general strike was called by the TUC without the need for ballots, and left over a million miners demoralised and hit with wage reductions and further anti-union laws. To avoid unions having their assets seized while winning ballots in every workplace would be an almost unfathomable organising task unions are not prepared for.   

But while a general strike is unlikely, there is a strong chance of large-scale and growing industrial action.

Rail unions, posties, utility workers, and public sector staff could hold strikes for their individual disputes on the same day – with the overarching message ‘enough is enough’. Talks are taking place about coordinated action among TUC unions.

Perhaps picking up on the unrest, within days of the TUC’s minimum wage announcement, a plan began to emerge. Unite and Unison launched bids for coordinated strike action in the autumn, to be proposed at TUC Congress in just a couple of weeks’ time. 

“The chances of coordinated industrial action are real,” a union source told this newspaper. “What scale that will be no one knows.”

A TUC spokesperson said that “working people decide themselves if and when they are going to strike” and that “every strike is a democratic process with a ballot”.

“But this Conservative Government is now putting together a coordinated plan to stop workers from protecting their pay and conditions,” they added. “So if more strikes coincide, it reflects the broad attack on working people and their living standards coming from this Government. It is clear this Government is not on the side of working people.”

TUC President Frances O’Grady has acknowledged the growing likelihood of coordinated strikes, saying “it always makes sense for workers to work together”.

Martin Furlong, vice chair of Unions21 – a union forum backed by train drivers’ union ASLEF, the Bakers’ Union (BFAWU), the National Education Union and others – told Byline Times that individual unions will take whatever action is best for their members when dialogue breaks down.

Don’t miss a story

“Strike action by unions is not our default position as we would prefer to work together for the good of all,” he said. “A general strike would not only be a last resort but also a sign that the Government does not want to engage and it is therefore avoidable. The current legislation makes legal industrial action difficult to achieve but we have seen recently that members, for example in the rail industry, are prepared to meet those requirements.”

He added that unions would “resist” further clampdowns on their freedom planned by Conservative leadership frontrunner Liz Truss. 

Unite Leader Sharon Graham – who recently helped secure a 13% pay rise for BA workers – has suggested that, if laws get too strict, workers could take matters into their own hands by downing tools (or laptops) and walking out, outside of formal union processes. As one union source put it, “this is a summer, autumn, winter and spring of discontent… People will just get pissed off and do it themselves, and go outside the law”. 

For Ellie Mae O’Hagan, director for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) think tank, “it is shameful that, rather than working to provide a lifeline for those who will have to choose between heating and eating this winter, politicians like Liz Truss are instead mounting an attack on trade unions”.

“The very unions who have been tirelessly campaigning for better living conditions for working people, at a time when this Government has stuck its head in the sand,” she added.

Byline Times understands there only a handful of journalists from right-leaning newspapers usually attend the TUC Congress. This year, there are believed to be that number from the Mail alone. Some right-wing journalists are believed to be salivating over the idea of a general strike – faced down by an emboldened new Conservative Prime Minister. 

Written by

This article was filed under
, , , , ,