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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

That was the year that was

by New Worker correspondent

THE YEAR of the Three Prime Ministers saw levels of industrial action not seen in Britain since the 1980s. A notable feature is that some workers, such as nurses, voted to take strike action for the first time in history. The year was the first since Covid-related issues were no longer dominant. Bosses have, however, found Covid a useful weapon in the class struggle.

Even staff at the British Council, the branch of the Foreign Office which claims to “build connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and other countries through arts and culture, education and the English language”, took strike action against proposed job cuts across the globe. Even trade union officials at shop-workers’ union USDAW went on strike, demanding the right to work from home. Another unlikely group of strikers were those at the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) who opposed “a programme of severe cost-cutting, which is set to turn the FCA into a bargain basement regulator”.

Unlike 2021 when the three largest unions elected new general secretaries, there have been no major leadership battles. The Musicians Union, however, elected their first woman General Secretary, Naomi Pohl, predictably a long-term full-time officer whose election inspired a massive 12 per cent of the membership to vote.

This survey of the past year is necessarily highly selective: it has largely sidestepped important ongoing actions such as those of the postal workers and in the NHS, whose outcomes are uncertain. Many other areas such as struggles in the food and drink industries, education and engineering have also been passed over simply for reasons of space, despite their importance. Hopefully workers will learn useful lessons from the outcome of the present wave of industrial action, whether the result is victory of defeat (and anything in-between), to equip them for the greater battles that are sure to come.

Transport Battles

In the transport industries there was no shortage of strikes. On the buses there were a large number of local strikes, whilst on the railways action took place at a national and regional level. Many of these were successfully in securing decent wage increases. One of the first group were the 550 Stagecoach workers in South Yorkshire who won 10.7 per cent in January. At that time Unite won an important case in Manchester where a women driver was demoted for being too small to drive a new design of bus.

bus drivers

In September 1,600 London United bus drivers secured a 10 per cent raise whilst in West Wales 14.3 per cent was secures by First Cymru drivers. Doing even better in Hull, 250 Stagecoach workers won a 20 per cent pay raise, whilst 2,000 Arriva North West drivers won £2,900 extra.

Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham noted that in 2019 there were 11 Unite bus strikes, but since the new Combine was formed in August 2019 there have been 102 passenger transport disputes with tens of thousands of workers. Some critics argue that national action by Unite could have been a better option and that in any case, the shortage of drivers was caused by many departing the industry to take advantage of the boom in supermarket home deliveries means that bus workers could be doing much better.

Although the ongoing national rail strikes for decent wages and in opposition to job cuts have been one of the actions that the Tories use to justify even more anti-trade union laws, perhaps the most serious single event facing the working class was the sacking of 800 staff by ferry company P&O. The workers on cross-channel and England to Ireland routes were sacked by Zoom call and replaced by Indian seafarers on the cross-channel routes on $2.38 per hour and Filipino sailors on the Irish Sea routes on hourly rate will be $3.47 per hour. Many soon walked off. Even Tory ministers agreed it was disgraceful. There was nothing actually illegal about P&O’s action because shipping companies are technically registered abroad and so operating routes from Britain to the continent can get away with paying below the minimum wage. And despite widespread protests and opposition from the most unexpected quarters, P&O seemed to have gotten away with it.

In comparison, other disputes involving ferry services at Woolwich in east London and on the Isle of Wight routes did not involve any job losses.

The effective organisation of unskilled workers is often said to have started with the 1889 London Dock Strike that won the “Dockers’ tanner”, so it is good to see that tradition continuing in 2022. At Felixstowe in Suffolk, Britain’s largest container port which was ironically established to get away from the bolshie London dockers strike, action in August and September was rewarded only on Monday when workers accepted an 8.5 per cent pay rise.

On the other side of the country in Liverpool, 500 port workers employed by the privatised Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) also took strike action.

Local government

In the municipal arena, refuse collectors seem to be at the forefront of action.

During the Edinburgh Festival overflowing bins and rats as large as cats were one of the attractions. One wonders if any gullible visitors thought the bins were works of art, but in the end the refuse collectors got a decent award. Further south, refuse workers from Newham in east London to the grander Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead fought both municipal and outsourced employers.

In the good old days, refuse collectors were direct government employees. Then competitive pay, the security of employment and a pension ensured it was not too bad a job. Nowadays, however, contracts for cleansing services have largely been outsourced, either to multinational companies or to “arms-length management organisations” (ALMOs), in which council cleansing departments were transformed into companies enabling councillors to become highly paid directors.

It was Lady Godiva’s home city of Coventry that saw the most important refuse workers’ strike. They won nearly 13 per cent – but only after the Labour council had spent more than £4 million on a scab service that saw drivers paid much more than the striking drivers.

The dispute was one in which Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was busy behind the scenes encouraging the council not to give in so that Labour could be seen as a ‘responsible’ government-in-waiting, it was also one in which Unite made clear it would put its members first. Starmer continued this stand last Monday by refusing to back the nurses’ pay claim.

In Glasgow the long-running equal pay dispute that has seen the city council forced to sell off its prestigious museum building to settle equal pay claims from female home helps and other workers compared to largely male janitors and refuse workers was finally settled, but we have heard that one before.

At the TUC

The Trades Union Congress held its first in-person meeting since the pandemic, postponed for obvious reasons.

It distinguished itself by a narrow vote in favour of Britain embarking on a military build-up to rebuild British manufacturing. This was no fluke, just last week a Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced a project to develop Tempest, the sixth-generation fighter aircraft set to replace the Typhoon in 2035 in conjunction with Italy and Japan. This, said national officer Rhys McCarthy, “will not only play a key role in defending our nation but also will boost the UK economy by supporting tens of thousands of aerospace jobs across the UK at BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, Leonardo, MBDA and throughout these companies’ supply chains.” Hip-hip hooray; that will show Johnny Foreigner a thing or two as the NHS crumbles and its workers troop off to the foodbanks.

In comparison, the Scottish TUC simply avoided any discussion of industrial policy because it would mean having to make an actual policy decision on the desirability of nuclear energy and North Sea oil and gas exploration that would naturally upset one side or another.

Energetic Minnows

We should not forget the role of the small street unions outside the TUC who have had some useful victories.

The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) forced Management of the London School of Tropical Medicine to remove their contractor employer and bring them back in house. After this was secured bosses reneged on promises to put them on the School’s own pay scale, a battle which is still continuing.

In May the same union suffered a setback, however, when GMB signed a recognition deal with courier company Deliveroo thus shutting out the IWGB, which had been organising couriers for years. After the deal (which ignored many key issues) was signed, GMB’s activity at Deliveroo was hard to detect.

October saw a bar manager in trendy Brighton win an Employment Tribunal case after he was wrongly sacked for organising fellow workers. This case was taken up United Voices of Workers (UVW). Not an earth-shattering case, but as Petras Elias said: “This win is not just a lesson to St James Tavern bosses, but to all bosses out there, that we’ll never let you get away with victimising any of our members and if you try we will fight back and we will beat you. Next time, don’t even bother trying.”

In September we all raised a glass of claret to celebrate the fact that the Criminal Bar Association won 15 per cent pay rise, which will enable them to buy nice new £466.67 horsehair wigs from Stanley Ley & Co of 23 Fleet Street. Barristers complained that the £250 daily average they get on Legal Aid does not go far, and with preparation time is below the £350 per day plumbers can get.

Basic Statistics

There is one area of trade unionism that give no cause for satisfaction. This is the basic membership statistics.

Last year there were 6.44 million trade unionists in Britain, well below the peak of 13 million in 1979. Government statisticians say that “this represents the lowest union membership rate on record among UK employees for which we have comparable data (since 1995)”. The overall size of the workforce is at a record high of 28.1 million, which means less than a quarter of the workforce are unionised.

The 2021 figure ends a four-year period of a little growth, when in the first year of the COVID 19 pandemic hitherto unorganised workers being laid-off or furloughed suddenly discovered the merits of trade unionism.

In the public sector about 50 per cent of the workforce is unionised, compared with a miserable 12.8 in the private sector. This imbalance is not surprising as central and local government and the NHS do not employ the same brutal union-busting techniques used by the likes of Amazon. Ironically, most of the present industrial action is taking place in the private sector. In recent months trade unions have not boasted of great numbers joining, indeed most action has been taking place in those already well-organised sectors that have comparatively little room for growth.

Active trade unionism is no longer an escape from the drudgery of work. The loss of facility time in the white-collar sector means that only the most dedicated are prepared to give up hours of their own time and sacrifice holiday breaks for the sake of the union. In the halcyon days of the 1970s there was no problem in finding young reps to do the donkey work on the shop floor. Now most activists are older than the average workforce.

Increasingly trade unionists have more educational qualifications than non-members, a dramatic change from pioneering days when miners and factory workers were in charge.

It is not yet a case of “Would the last person leaving Congress House please switch off the lights?” The burden of work falls upon too few shoulders, however, either a few officials with an active interest in the work or an equally small number of dedicated lay activists.

Effective strike action always boosts membership, but at the same time defeats can be demoralising and make defeated workers wary of having another go. The future will depend on how present struggles pan out.

One drag-on industrial action is the low turnout in many strike ballots. Amongst other cases RMT, UCU and Unison failed to persuade 50 per cent of their members to put their cross on a ballot paper at various train operating companies, universities and health trusts. It cannot be denied that the aim of that particular threshold is to frustrate industrial action however any union worthy of the name should have shop stewards in the workforce encouraging people to vote for action. If members are not motivated enough to spend a few minutes deciding, it is unlikely they will be keen to spend much time on cold picket lines. In one case a Royal College of Nursing ballot in Scotland had only a 23 per cent turnout, which strongly suggests that any action endorsed by a majority of a small minority would soon fizzle out.


2022 saw the Certification Office for Trade Unions and Employers Associations use her pen to drive a stake through the heart of several trade unions.

With only 10 members the end of the Poole Greyhound Trainers Union was inevitable as they last had the energy to file returns in 2018. Perhaps the 144 members of the Associated Train Crew Union (a split from ASLEF) could have struggled on but it too was struck off.

For old times’ sake we can mourn the end of several National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) components such as The Colliery Officials and Staffordshire Area. In contrast, we can only say good riddance to bad rubbish in the case of the Union of Democratic Miners (UDM) whose rump of 64 members represents the last of the scab union that grew up in Nottinghamshire during the 1984–5 miners’ strike.

We nearly lost TSSA to a very strange merger with the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers which is based in Kansas, fortunately the bride and groom had second thoughts and the marriage was called off before the two parties reached the altar. A merger of Britain’s rail unions would be a much better option.

To compensate, a new “Solid Trade Union” was registered only last month. It describes itself as “an open general Trade Union accepting members from all trades or professions”. It costs £2.50–£10 per month to be a member. Its website offers no physical address or mentions any named individuals or industries on which it will focus, so a cynic might think it sounds as dodgy as a Nigerian prince offering to deposit £10 million in your bank account for a small transaction fee. One wonders how on earth such a thin prospectus secured official certification