British Strike Wave Approaches General Strike Levels

British rail workers strike along with many other unions
British rail workers strike along with many other unions. | Photo:

By Gerry Scopppettuolo

Since Britain’s Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) went on strike last June a torrent of working-class anger throughout the United Kingdom has been unleashed that today resembles a general strike across many industrial sectors.

The Trade Union Congress (similar to the U.S. AFL-CIO) fully backs the RMT which is a member of the World Federation of Trade Unions, the progressive/socialist global labor federation representing 100 million union members and internationals from Bangladesh and Vietnam to Italy and Greece,

The RMT and its 45,000 members have launched days-long rolling strikes across the UK. In December 100,000  nurses in England, Northern Ireland and Wales also walked out over salary and staffing shortages. Nurses, represented by the Royal College of Nurses Union (RCN), had never gone on strike before this month. At the same time, 115,00 postal workers were on strike for a week. The British Postal service was sold off and privatized in 2013. At this moment 45,000 teachers are on strike in Scotland and 20, 000 ambulance drivers have just gone out. 100,000 unionized Government workers will be going out on strike on Feb 1. London bus drivers have engaged in intermittent strikes and today (January11) ambulance drivers have also initiated rolling strikes.

Under pressure from the private sector, the Conservative government in Parliament is seeking to pass a so-called “minimum hours” law which would require workers in certain industries to provide minimum hours of work, ostensibly to keep essential services running, essentially a forced labor tactic. The introduction of this proposal last week seems to have increased strike activity as workers thus far show no signs of backing down with literally tens of thousands joining the strike wave every day. An historic confrontation between labor and the state is looming with predictions of up to a million strikers hitting the bricks by Feb 2 when, as announced by its executive board, the RCN will be sending  300,000 more nurses out on strike.

Overriding issues of health and safety and an official inflation rate of 12% are driving desperate workers to stay out and picket in freezing temperatures. British railway workers are required to work a mandatory 7-day workweek, the kind of unsafe and grueling schedule they share with their sisters and brothers in the U.S. where engineers and signalmen in the 110,000 members union workforce toil with no guaranteed sick days.  The Biden administration attempted to crush an impending strike with a tentative agreement that was rejected by the rank and file, leaving a stalemate.  Massive nursing vacancies in the UK.  have led to intolerable nurse-patient ratios in British hospitals, stretching out labor just as in the U.S..

If, as it appears likely, labor will defy the new minimum hours’ law if it passes parliament, there may be a replay of the national Coal and Railroad strike initiated by the Trade Union Congress in 1926 after the British capitalists locked out 1.7 million striking miners and the British Government organized a massive scab recruitment campaign, directed by Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill.

Miners struck in 1926 because of great wage cuts after the price of coal fell due to a sudden glut in the global supply of coal in 1925  causing a drop in demand for British coal exports. There followed a lesson in the inevitability of capitalist crisis in a painful postscript to the utter devastation of the recently concluded imperialist War (World War I). The victorious Allied Powers exacted punishing (and as it turned out impossible) war reparations from Germany mandated by the 1919 Versailles Treaty prohibiting the restoration of the German coal industry after the war.

International finance capital dealt a  blow to workers when American financier Charles G. Dawes – as head of the Dawes Committee – offered a solution to bail out German capital by reducing German reparations to  $1 billion in the first year, resuscitating the German coal and steel industries and fattening the treasuries of the victorious allied powers with reparations payments  The Dawes Plan consequently led to the production of vast quantities of coal that drove down the world price of coal – and the wages of British miners..

In 1925, Winston Churchill, acting again as chancellor of the Exchequer, worsened the crisis by reintroducing the gold standard. This made the British pound too strong in relation to foreign currencies to effectively kill British coal exports. Thus the British working class paid this additional bill for the imperialist “victory” in World War I. Today, in a much more harmful global attack on workers, the U.S. Federal Reserve’s increase in interest rates has similarly strengthened the U.S. dollar so much that many countries in Africa and Asia cannot repay international debts that must be paid in U.S. dollars. Countries like Ethiopia, Ghana, and Sri Lanka can not now purchase costly dollars in order to pay debts or purchase needed commodities or raw materials. Today, Ethiopian children must pick coffee beans for pennies an hour for Starbucks global subcontractors to secure payments in U.S. dollars so that these dollars can in turn be used to pay off a foreign debt owed to the World Bank, the IMF, and U.S. and European banks.

In the United Kingdom, today’s great strikes may bring down the Conservative Government but that would only change the face of exploitation until the current economic strikes become political strikes – revolutionary strikes.

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