A comment often heard at the moment is “While I normally agree with strikes, it's not right when we're going into a recession”. As if the fact that everyone is suffering means that the kindest thing we can do is suffer with them? As if our sacrifices will somehow help everyone else? Will it get laid-off workers their jobs back? Will it bring energy prices down? We must have the confidence to believe that we are right if we put up a strong fight over pay now. And now is precisely the time to fight if we want to not harm but help working-class people suffering the economic crisis.
Our self-sacrifice will not help us out of this crisis because our actions did not get us here in the first place. The reasons for the economic crisis are rooted in capitalism: with its inbuilt cycles of booms and busts, where things produced for profit not need suddenly do not find a market and production grinds to a halt, where speculation boosts unsustainable investment ... things collapse and leave people without jobs, without wage rises, homes being repossessed when mortgage payments fall short.
This economic crisis is new. But the basic battle we are fighting for our wages and standard of living does not change. We should never give up fighting over pay. If our starting point is that wealth is generated by the work we do, we are just asking for a share of that wealth back: that's all wages are. There are no new enemies here. The same system that exploited us yesterday exploits us today. The only difference is that it has turned to reveal its ugly side, proving it cannot guarantee or does not want to guarantee a life free of poverty and destitution. We should not make sacrifices to save this system. Now is the time to fight even harder!
Why does our fight for pay help other people suffering right now? Because when a crisis in capitalism hits, a battle takes place between the capitalist class who created this mess and the working class – people in trade unions, people in industries without trade unions, people out of work, people on benefits – over who will pay for the damage. Working-class people could take the brunt, quietly accepting the bosses' redundancy notices and pay cuts. Or working-class people could take a stand. Refuse below-inflation pay at a time when inflation is pushing costs through the roof. Say that this whole mess just goes to show that cowboys in charge of the economy have been gambling with our lives and we should have no faith in this system that puts our lives at the mercy of the market.
Similarly, the working-class people who travel on our railways and who face ever-higher bills should not have to pay for the crisis through outrageous fares hikes.
Meanwhile, guess who are not tightening their belts? Network Rail Chief Executive Ian Coucher trousered a half-a-million quid bonus this year, with three directors getting bonuses of £200,000+ each. If they are not going without, why should we?!
When it comes to defending ourselves from the effects of economic slump, we can learn important lessons from the past - including lessons in how not to do it!
Soon after the First World War, RMT’s predecessor the NUR (National Union of Railwaymen) and ASLEF won pay rises through a successful national strike in 1919. But the slump which started the following year wiped away the gains of that mammoth fight, as the union leaderships responded inadequately.
Passenger journeys and freight tonnage on Britain’s railways fell dramatically. The government was preparing to hand the railways back to the private companies having 'borrowed' them into government control during the war, and did so by drastically cutting costs. In May 1921, they suspended the guaranteed working week - and bizarrely enough, the union leaders supported them! They were so scared of job losses that they accepted attacks on working conditions rather than fight both. What happened next? The job losses came too: in the year following March 1921, the employers sacked nearly 60,000 railworkers.
If workers strike, it is one part of wresting control of the economy out of the cowboys’ hands and giving us control over our lives. We should couple this fight with other basic demands: a shorter working week; no job losses, taking industries unable to guarantee this into public hands to stay there when the crisis is over; a program of building council houses, schools and hospitals to provide services and employ building workers ...
Of course this would require a government willing to challenge and not just prop up the capitalist class, as it did by bailing out Northern Rock, for example. We need a government that will meet the interests and needs of working class people: a workers' government.