The Guardian reports on the end of the unions and the strike weapon.
In 2016, working days lost to strikes was just 322,000, a tiny fraction of the 29m in 1979 and the all-time high of 162m in 1926, the year of the General Strike. Even during the Second World War, when emergency legislation in effect banned strikes, the number of days lost to industrial disputes stood at about 2m a year.
The number of strike ballots in 2016 was the lowest since Electoral Reform Services started keeping data in 2002. In 2006 there were 1,341, but last year this fell to a record low of 488.
In the UK, the single biggest strike last year, accounting for 40% of days lost, was by junior doctors.
Union membership has dropped to just over 6 million – down 4% last year alone –
Yet there persists a mindset among some that unions are too powerful. At the end of 2016, an Express headline read: “Swaggering union bully boys must be brought to heel”, claiming that “a mood of reckless militancy is spreading across Britain”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Six union officials at the Ritzy in Brixton and one at Hackney Picturehouse have been suspended. Gerry Morrissey, the leader of Bectu, which is part of Prospect, said: “Bectu members in Picturehouse have been striking for over 10 months for a ivingl wage, company sick pay and union recognition. It is appalling that Picturehouse and Cineworld would rather intimidate and threaten to dismiss their staff than enter constructive negotiations. This is clearly an attempt to break the union by undermining the strike and intimidating other workers.”
An overtime ban by drivers that was set to cause major disruption for Southernrail passengers from Sunday onwards has been suspended for two weeks. Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, met Southern managers on Thursday. He said: “Industrial action is always the last resort; we would much rather talk, and negotiate, than take industrial action.
Economic theory suggests that with unemployment so low – now back to the levels of 1975 – and the stock market at a record high, fuelled by record profits, workers should be able to negotiate better pay. Instead, wage suppression continues. Why? Because with unions crippled, and “new economy” jobs in lowly paid retail and distribution sectors, employers have been in a position to offer almost whatever terms they wish. The ONS figures show the total number of stoppages across the entire retail, accommodation and food services trades in 2016 was one. Yes, one. The ONS could not even calculate a ratio for working days lost per 1,000 employees, as it was so infinitesimally small.
The trade union movement has in the past proven itself to be a powerful instrument of a defensive character. The strike weapon is the workers' only means of defence or attack which it has for the protection of its immediate material interests. Working people are right to jealously guard the right to strike. The Socialist Party fully supports this right for all workers. When workers whose interests are at stake have decided upon a strike, other workers including socialists ought to aid them to gain every possible advantage from the situation in which they have placed themselves.
If competition between the working class for jobs was unrestricted then wages would tend to fall below the value of labour-power, as often happened in the 19th century before effective trade unions existed. Combining together in unions to exert collective pressure on employers is a way the working class can prevent their wages falling below the value of their labour-power and below the subsistence level. To resist the intensity of exploitation and to maintain real wages against inflation workers will have no choice but to struggle for higher wages even if this means using the strike weapon.
Trade unions, then, are defensive organisations of the working class against what Marx called 'the never-ceasing encroachments of capital' but they cannot stop the exploitation of the working class. This exploitation is inherent in the wages system and can only be abolished along with it through the conversion of the means of production into common ownership under the democratic control of the whole community.
We stand with our fellow working class in their necessary battles to defend themselves, but we point out at all times that the real victory to be achieved is the abolition of the wages system.