Trade union militancy in the 2020s starts here

James Meechan argues that the past few months have seen an increase in trade union militancy
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If 2020 was the year our ruling class extolled the essential workers enabling capitalist society to survive a pandemic, then 2021 was the year they balked at the prospect of remunerating our class for its monumental efforts amidst the fickle situation. After the ruling class praised key workers toiling in a global pandemic, it was very much a ‘return to normality’ when they returned the favour with milquetoast remuneration. As we go into 2022, however, workers have increasingly shown initiative and resolve to fight for themselves.

Footage was published on social media last week showing scaffolding workers at the British Steel Scunthorpe site successfully blocking road entry with their picket line, accompanied with a Scabby the Rat inflatable. Scaffolders have been gathering at three of the site’s entrances from 05:30-14:30 every day since the 4th of October, as part of an escalation in a dispute over pay going back to 2019 when they were employed by Brand Energy, until March this year, when their employment was taken over by Actavo. The scaffolding workers at the site have been paid at rates lower than their colleagues employed by Actavo at other sites, and lower than the standard set by the National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry; Unite estimates the workers were being paid as much as 15% below the standard. A rather Dickensian image is evoked of this rapacious management- doubling down with full knowledge Christmas approaches and family budgets are stretched thin.

The fact the scaffers remain resolute in their fight is a testament to the strength of our class. What’s even more impressive are the tactics they have adopted amid the extremely anti-union political climate from a government desperate to make any protest that “causes annoyance” a criminal offence punishable by prison time. Months have gone by but these workers report morale is higher than ever as they daringly turn traffic back from the British Steel site in defiance of capitalist laws, and have even began forming fraternal relationships with their counterparts in Denmark in the spirit of proletarian internationalism. 

The dispute at the Scunthorpe site occurred alongside industrial action by Glasgow’s cleansing workers, a campaign which took on political as well as industrial character by correctly identifying the role of neoliberal local councillors and their bourgeois visions of ‘cutting deficit’ in creating the miserable conditions for workers. Glasgow, despite having hosted the COP26 global conference on climate change, has been neglected as a city in terms of its civic hygiene. Threadbare budgets by successive councils since the recession have seen wages for binmen actually decrease in real terms, along with a rise of complaints regarding inadequate safety measures as workers reported vermin bites and other hazards that fell on deaf ears. A joint campaign led by GMB and Living Rent organisers has galvanised the city’s binmen into a united strike action, with leaders utilising social media to spread their own propaganda and information to the wider working-class, receiving waves of support and solidarity.

The election of Sharon Graham as Unite General Secretary this year is another sign of the turning tide. The union of over 1.4 million workers has elected a leader with real credentials as an organiser and an honest commitment to fighting for members. Her campaign was distinguished for its rejection of the Keir Starmer’s Labour leadership, instead pledging to focus Unite around members’ pay and conditions. Her short time as General Secretary has so far been quite spectacular, functioning as a national leader for the working-class at a time when the Labour leadership has abandoned us. Perhaps the fact Graham went out and met with the striking scaffolders at Scunthorpe, and gave them reassurance that the whole of Unite is behind them, whilst Labour’s Mayor of London Sadiq Khan described RMT members’ strike action as “unnecessary” is the most illuminating disparity between the waxing working-class and the waning forces of social democracy. 

Across the Atlantic, a mass strike at four Kelogg’s plants has seen approximately 1,400 workers take action against unfair tiered-off pay rates and benefits, receiving massive public support in an online anti-scab campaign as their bosses announce permanent replacement of all striking workers.

This month, 6 Amazon workers were killed after a tornado struck their warehouse near St. Louis. From the details that have came out, it is apparent that workers were kept in the warehouse despite tornado warnings in order to meet extreme quotas. This is obviously a very stark reminder of the bourgeoisie’s apathy towards working people’s lives, and it is a strong likelihood that Amazon workers, an extremely downtrodden workforce, could be pushed into militant union tactics, perhaps irrespective of how management handles the aftermath of this incident. Their bereft colleagues will know more than we know about the exact details that lead to their deaths, but we can be certain that the blame is on the management. It seems needless to say, but this tragedy will certainly push the particularly downtrodden Amazon workforce to look to militant trade unionism, regardless of the great reconciliatory PR stunt we can expect from corporate bosses (the same ones who defended patenting a dehumanising ‘employee cage’) desperate to sweep things under the rug.

I’m prepared for the embarrassment of making predictions like this if they turn out wrong, but when we see more and more workers taking militant tactics to fight their disputes, I cannot shake the feeling we are witnessing the process of workers becoming advanced as a class, not just in Britain but even in the United States as well. It’s as if they have decided to put the late, great Bob Crow’s quote: “If you fight, you might lose; if you don’t fight, you definitely lose” to an empirical test. I’m an extremely cynical guy, and cannot believe any other explanation for this, other than there has been rising class consciousness as we come out of this pandemic. Why wouldn’t there be? We were treated like absolute shit and left to die as multi-billionaires LARPed as astronauts. It is apparent workers are fed up with waiting for the established left to fight for them; they will act on their own and role of the left should be to support and help tie these disputes into one larger struggle.

That’s where the YCL comes in. Whilst the YCL has certainly thrown what strength we have to support the fight of workers against the ruling class, we can do more to build on this commitment. Our organisation grows in tandem with the escalating volume and intensity of industrial action. We should make standing with workers in all industrial disputes our number one priority. Any Communist organisation worthy of the name should actively seek to recruit these advanced members of the working class. We had a rough start to the 2020s due to the pandemic, but workers have the chance to make significant gains for our class by the end of the decade. It is up to us Communists to utilise those gains and conquer a new proletarian society by the end of the century.

Bring it on.

James Meechan, is a member of the YCL’s Glasgow branch

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