In Britain, more than in most democratic countries, going on strike is a risk. Your employer, the government, most of the media, much of the public and often the opposition parties are likely to be against you – or, at best, unsupportive. Your loss of income is unlikely to be made up by strike pay. Your behaviour on the picket line will be subject to what Tony Blair described approvingly in 1997 as “the most restrictive” trade union laws “in the western world”.
In very public ways, you will be breaking the rules of the modern economy: refusing to work, inconveniencing consumers, acting collectively rather than individually, and making demands for more money openly – rather than in private, as more powerful people do. If you are on the left, you are likely to be told again and again that your strike is politically counterproductive.
Such are the written and unwritten laws that have constricted British strikes for approaching half a century, ever since the walkouts of the 1978-79 winter of discontent inadvertently did so much to bring Margaret Thatcher to power and to provoke the counter-revolution against workers that still continues today. Many voters have long got used to the idea that strikes are a minority pursuit associated with a bygone age to which the country must not return. Boris Johnson’s government, with its especially strong intolerance of dissent, aims to demonise and marginalise strikes even further.
Yet this summer, more and more Britons are striking or considering striking regardless. From railway workers to barristers, firefighters to doctors, Post Office workers to teachers, nurses to civil servants, council workers to British Telecom engineers, an unusually large potential strike wave is building. Its social breadth, the range of occupations affected and the atmosphere on some picket lines all suggest that something politically significant may be happening.
At the first barristers’ protest, outside the Old Bailey in London this week, an already excited crowd of advocates in courtroom wigs and gowns burst into prolonged applause when they were joined by a few activists in shorts and jeans from the RMT. It’s not every day that you see such camaraderie between self-employed professionals who rely heavily on trains and striking transport workers carrying a banner that calls for “the supersession of the capitalist system by a socialistic order of society”.
The cost of living crisis, and the refusal of the government and other employers to raise wages accordingly, is the immediate reason for this summer’s “wave of resistance”, as Mick Lynch of the RMT union calls it. Yet the causes go deeper: more than a decade of stagnant or falling wages; the long Conservative squeeze on the public sector; and the whole transformation of the British economy since the 1970s, which has effectively taken money from workers and given it to employers, shareholders and the wealthy.
Public dissatisfaction with this model has been growing for years. In the latest British Social Attitudes survey, 64% agree that “‘ordinary people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth” – up from 57% in 2019, and far greater than the support for any party. As Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn tapped into this discontent. But the end of his tenure, and Keir Starmer’s apparent lack of interest in its redistributive ideas, has created a vacuum where a movement with a radical economic agenda ought to be.
It’s possible that the strike wave could become one such movement. While support for the strikes has been stronger than expected - the pollster Savanta ComRes found that even 38% of Tory voters considered the highly disruptive rail strikes “justified”; among younger people this attitude was particularly prevalent. In the same survey, 72% of under-35s backed the strikers. Since few of them have ever been on strike themselves – less than a quarter of trade unionists are under 35 – then the likely explanation is not shared experience but shared disenchantment. Young people, like many of the strikers, have been particularly badly served by the status quo.
Many young people supported Corbyn for the same reason. And there are other similarities between the two movements. Former Corbyn advisers such as James Schneider, Corbyn himself, and the parliamentary Labour left all support the strikers. Green activists, once an important part of Corbyn’s coalition, have joined RMT picket lines. Like Labour’s 2017 election manifesto, Lynch uses clear, populist language – “every worker in Britain” should get a much better pay deal, he told Question Time – and its effectiveness has taken the media by surprise. Support for the RMT strike rose after his TV appearances.
Could the strikers succeed, not just in getting fairer pay deals but in beginning to change how the economy works? It’s an immense task, which Labour under Corbyn sometimes talked about compellingly but never came close to carrying out. And as the strikes widen and lengthen, public opinion may turn against them. Walking to work because of a train strike will seem less of a novelty and more of an imposition if that dispute drags on into the autumn. One of the obvious but often forgotten lessons of the winter of discontent is that voters often hate strikes in cold weather.
Excited union talk about building new mass movements has proved over-optimistic in the past, for example during David Cameron’s government. The proportion of British employees who are union members has stabilised in recent years, after decades of decline, but by historic standards it is still low: less than one in four. And the fact that Starmer is not prepared to support the strikers removes one of the main means by which their campaigns could be amplified.
Yet for almost a decade now, British politics has not followed the expected paths. It may be that an economy built on poor wages was politically and socially sustainable only while inflation stayed low. That relatively stable and docile era may be over. Recently, the leftwing website Left Foot Forward listed some of the pay rises already won this summer by the increasingly assertive trade union Unite: “300 workers at Gatwick get 21 per cent”, “300 HGV drivers win 20 per cent”. In post-Thatcher Britain, such transfers of wealth to the workers – not just matching but far exceeding the rate of inflation – aren’t supposed to happen. But they are.
Unlike in the 1980s, when the iron lady beat Britain’s last big wave of strikes, unemployment is low and the supply of labour is short. If strikers don’t like a pay offer, sometimes they can threaten to go and work for someone who pays more. You could call it an example of something the Tories talk less about these days: market forces.
Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist