As 2022 closes and 2023 opens hundreds of thousands of public and private sector workers are taking strike action, standing together on cold picket lines. There are so many disputes that it has become difficult to keep up to date. Among the largest groups taking action in Northern Ireland are council, postal, university and health workers. Council workers have been involved in intermittent action that has been going on for over 6 months. Postal workers were out on Dec 9th, 11th, 14th, 15th, 23rd and 24th December, striking for a decent pay rise and against casualisation. University staff walked out for three days in early December, fed up with falling real pay and insecure forms of employment. Unison, NIPSA and GMB members in the Northern Ireland health service took strike action on December 12th. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) took its members out in Northern Ireland on 15th and 20th December.
In September, 205,000 working days were lost in strikes across the UK, and the figure was 417,000 for October. The numbers out in December is expected to touch one million. Against this there were only 276,000 working days lost due to strike action in all of 2017. This was the sixth lowest annual total since records began in 1891. The number of stoppages (79) and the number of workers involved in disputes in 2017 were both the lowest ever. The last peak in strike days lost was in November 2011 when 997,000 days were lost during generalised public sector action in defence of pensions. The last time there was an upsurge of disputes over pay comparable to today was in 1989-34 years ago.
This wave of strikes has been driven primarily by a ten year long decline in real wages, which has now been accentuated by soaring inflation. The decline varies from sector to sector but in some cases, it is more than 30%. As NIPSA Deputy General Secretary Patrick Mulholland stated in a radio interview in early December “wages have fallen off a cliff”. It was inevitable that increasing working-class anger would eventually result in action, and the dam broke in 2022.
Ruling Class Preparations
The resurgence of strike action after such a long break means that the working class is having to learn lessons in the heat of battle. The government and the employers are far-sighted and have prepared well for this strike wave. Over decades the ‘right to strike’ has been effectively undermined. The law has been used to make it more and more difficult to achieve a successful vote for action. In England, Wales and Scotland (but not Northern Ireland) a majority of the unionised workforce must vote for a strike, not simply a majority of those voting-in other words more than 50% of those eligible to vote must vote for action. This is a much higher bar than is applied in general elections. All United Kingdom governments over the last 100 years have been formed with the support of only a minority of voters-less than 50% of those who voted. The highest vote achieved by the Conservative Party was 49.7% in 1955 and for Labour it was 48.8% in 1951. Both percentages would be insufficient in a strike ballot. The 2015 government was formed after 36.9% of those who voted opted for the Tories. The turnout was 66.1%. In other words David Cameron assumed power with less than one quarter of the electorate backing him.
After the law the second weapon of the employers is the right-wing press. The Sun, the Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express have heaped abuse on strikers, but to no avail. A series of polls by Savanta ComRes have found that 60% of the public support workers taking industrial action, with 33% opposed, though support varies by sector (highest for NHS staff) and other polling companies have suggest less support.
The third, and the most important, strategy of the employers is to atomise and demoralise working people. The penetration of insecure forms of employment to all areas of the public and private sector is no accident. Workers on temporary contracts or working in the “gig economy” are less likely to join a union. Unorganised workers are not as aware of their own strength. Joining a union and standing together with fellow workers is the first step to dignity in the workplace. As one striking postal worker outside the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office in London told the BBC on December 9th “It is a good job and you have a bit of pride. You’re servicing customers and you do feel like you’re valued.” Another asserted that the workers are defending a “500-year- old” service against the owners and senior management.
“What means this strike?”
Despite the anti-union laws and media hostility sector after sector has voted to strike. It is important that the workers movement in the North learns the broader lessons of this strike wave. In 1898, 125 years ago, American socialist Daniel DeLeon addressed striking workers in New Bedford, Massachusetts. His speech became famous and was published as a pamphlet called “What means this strike?”1. He asked the workers to look beyond the immediate issues and to draw political conclusions. He explained that every strike poses questions: How is society run and in whose interests? Where does profit come from? If the workers can stop everything by withdrawing their labour, why shouldn’t the workers own and run the major sectors of the economy all the time? And crucially he explained that industrial action would never be enough on its own. Every victory would be followed by new attacks from the employers. Ultimately workers needed to take political action
These questions will be forming in the minds of more and more workers, and they will be drawing their own conclusions. In Northern Ireland there is another important conclusion which workers must draw. The experience of being on strike reinforces what most workers instinctively recognise; we will only win if we are united.
There is no recorded dispute in the history of the last fifty years which was defeated by sectarian division. There are many examples of the contrary situation, when workers stood together despite the violent storms breaking all around. One vivid example paints the picture:
In December 1974 shop stewards in the milk industry in the North called a strike in support of a claim for £40 for a 40-hour week.2 It was an unofficial strike, led by a strike committee whose chairman was a Protestant and secretary a Catholic. The strike quickly spread, especially in Belfast, where all the dairies were closed. By the third week in January 1975 however, workers at Cregagh Foods in the predominantly Protestant Village area of South Belfast had gone back to work. Workers at the nearby Kennedy’s Dairies were still on strike and maintaining a picket line. On 21st January, Loyalist gunmen opened fire on these mainly Catholic pickets, injuring one. The strike committee leaders intervened by calling a mass meeting of the Cregagh Foods workforce and a vote was taken to immediately re-join the strike in order to demonstrate disgust at what had happened. The gunmen sought to create division and end the unity of Protestant and Catholic. Their attack had the opposite effect.
Working class Solidarity on the Picket Line and at the Ballot Box
The milk industry strike was one of a wave of strikes in 1974 and1975 which partially re-invigorated the workers movement after years of setbacks as violence wracked working class areas. In late 1975 and early 1976 trade union activists in Newry and in the Lurgan/Craigavon/Portadown area felt sufficiently confident to call local strikes and rallies after a series of particularly vicious sectarian massacres. The movement had moved from the industrial arena, defending workers livelihoods, and had stepped into the political arena, acting in defence of workers lives.
The next step should have been to go further and to intervene in the electoral process. If a trade-union linked party had been launched at this time it would have consolidated the instinctive unity of working people and over time made an impact with the election of anti-sectarian workers representatives. This is how history is made-identifying an opening for unity in action, however small, and seizing the moment.
The opportunity was lost but in 2023 the struggle continues. Workers are united in their trade unions but mostly divided at the ballot box. The local elections in May provide an opportunity to put down a marker and to build for the future. The election of Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh to Fermanagh and Omagh Council in 2019 illustrates what can be achieved with clear politics and hard work. All serious activists have a duty to come together and to provide young people and workers with a political alternative wherever possible in May.
- “What Means This Strike?” by Daniel De Leon was published in the newspaper of pamphlet by the New York Labor News in March 1898. It has been republished many times since and is widely available online.
- For an account of the milk-workers strike and many other disputes in the 1970s and 1980s, and of the Trades Council-led strikes against sectarian atrocities in 1976, see Peter Hadden Common History, Common Struggle (Herald Books, 2018).