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Editorial: Striking while the iron is hot

We have been pleased to see recently that in some parts of Europe the working class of wage and salary earners have been flexing their proverbial muscles. In France, millions have taken to the streets in protest at new employment laws aimed at the young, and have done so with some success as the French President, Jacques Chirac, has now withdrawn the proposals for fear of a further political backlash.

 

Here in Britain there has been the biggest strike wave for many years, and at a time when senior figures in the government are already at one another’s throats. Years ago, Blair and Brown used to claim that the UK had one of the best records on industrial relations in the world. Indeed, in recent years the number of days lost through strike action in the UK have been a fraction of what they were in the 1980s and 90s, and 2004 saw the lowest number of individual disputes on record, at 130.

 

Recently all that has changed. First, university lecturers went on strike in early March (followed since by ‘action short of a strike’), using the opportunity presented by the new system of tuition fees and funding to be introduced in higher education this year to extract pay increases from the employers’ organisation. If successful, it is hoped that this would help close the relative pay gap that has opened up over the last 20 years and more between academics and other professions.

 

Then – and more significantly still – was the action by over a million state sector workers on 28th March. Across the UK, council buildings, and services such as libraries and day centres were shut down, schools and colleges were prevented from opening and other essential services (such as the Mersey tunnels and ferries, the Newcastle Metro, etc) did not operate. This was primarily over an attempt to change the terms and conditions of the main local government workers’ pension scheme, so that they would be forced to accept lower pensions or work longer. However, the union driving much of the strike action, UNISON, also claimed in one of their press releases that “this strike is against an attempt by the Government and the employers to see how far they can go. If they win on pensions they will try it on something else. This is a defining issue for the union”.

 

Since this initial day of action others have been planned. Interestingly, UNISON have developed a tactic of encouraging smaller groups of their key workers (such as meat workers) to go on strike for a few days at a time on a rotating basis, so as to cause maximum disruption, and the union has effectively been paying many of these workers to take selective action out of its strike fund.

 

From a socialist perspective, it is good to see the working class fighting back in this way. The gains made by wage and salary workers over time on pay, pensions and other related issues have not, after all, been granted by benevolent governments or employers – they have been fought for, mainly by workers organised in trade unions.

 

If those gains are to be defended and consolidated, democratic and unified action by workers is necessary to put maximum pressure on employers and their representatives. But workers need to remember one thing – while such action is necessary within capitalism, there can be no lasting solution to the problems the market economy creates within the market system itself. It is the task of socialists to help those struggling within the system to see the bigger picture and recognise that lasting solutions to the problems faced by workers everywhere can only lie in removing the market economy and its imperatives from our lives completely.