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Trade unions aren’t the enemy of the public – they are the public

As the UK sees its biggest day of industrial action in decades, Zarah Sultana MP from Enough is Enough calls for support for this historic workers’ movement.

01 Feb 2023

Today, in towns and cities across Britain, hundreds of thousands of workers are on strike, in one of the biggest days of industrial action in decades. From teachers and railway workers, to university staff and civil servants, people up-and-down the country are demanding a better deal.

Last week Amazon workers in Coventry made history, leading the first UK strike at the company. Next week it will be the turn of nurses and ambulance workers, with the biggest ever strike in the NHS. And the numbers of workers on strike are set to grow further. 

Firefighters have smashed their ballot and could be striking later this month. They could be joined by junior doctors, who are currently balloting for strike action. Elsewhere, posties are looking to renew their strike at Royal Mail, in a dispute that has rumbled on since the summer.

There may have been a time when stagnating wages would have provoked a union or two to ballot for strike action, and little more. But not this time.

Uniting this new militancy is a common sentiment: workers have had enough. They’ve had enough of falling wages and rising bills; enough of slashed budgets and crumbling services; enough of the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer.

Across the country, workers are saying enough is enough.

“The working class is back”

Mick Lynch

And for good reason: even before this cost of living crisis, workers had faced the biggest peacetime squeeze on living standards since the Napoleonic era. More than a decade of Tory rule has seen punishing austerity imposed on our communities, with schools and hospitals overstretched, libraries and youth centres closed, and poverty running wild.

Now, workers are standing up and fighting back. In the words of Mick Lynch, the figurehead of this new movement, “the working class is back.” 

The immediate background to this is spiralling inflation, which has slashed the spending power of wages and sent poverty soaring. We call it the cost of living crisis, but I think that misleads as much as it illuminates. Because while it’s a crisis for the working class, it’s not a crisis for the ruling class, who’ve enjoyed record profits, a record number of billionaires, and record wealth for the top 1%.

So it’s a cost of living crisis for the many, but a bonanza for the few. 

And like Mick says: “They act in their class interests. It’s time we acted in ours.”

A movement by and for the workers 

That’s why last summer, alongside Mick and other trade unionists, Tribune magazine, community groups and fellow Labour MPs, I set-up Enough is Enough, the campaign to fight the cost of living crisis. The aim is to live up to Mick’s call: to build a movement that acts in the interests of the working class, building solidarity with workers, collecting for food banks, and taking to the streets.

That’s what we did on Monday outside Downing Street, as the Tories pushed through new authoritarian laws.

Two bills were making their way through Parliament that day. First, the anti-strike Minimum Service Levels Bill, which makes effective strike action all but illegal in sectors including education, health, transport and fire and rescue.

The Tories claim it’s about guaranteeing minimum services during strike days, but that’s refuted by the simple fact that they refuse to fund services to guarantee minimum services on non-strike days.

They also pretend it’s about safety, but that word isn’t mentioned once in the pages of the bill. And it’s not, contrary to what they say, about bringing us into line with other European nations. The UK already has some of the most restrictive anti-union laws in the Western world, and this bill will make that even worse.

Instead, like Mick reminds us, this government acts in the interests of their class – and that’s what this bill is about. By using the wave of strikes as a pretext, this bill is an opportunistic attempt to even more radically shift the balance of power in this country away from workers, making it easier for bosses to exploit them and for the government to ignore them.

The second bill in Parliament was no less sinister. Debated in the House of Lords, this was the anti-protest Public Order Bill, which could preemptively shutdown protests, with threats, fines and imprisonment for those that fall foul of its dictates. 

“Real change happens from the bottom up, with the working class coming together”

Zarah Sultana MP

The aim of both bills is clear. The Tories know the public don’t want a government that sacrifices people and planet for profit. So they want to rob our rights and stop us from fighting back, whether it’s on the picket line or at a protest.

I voted against both these bills, but with their majority, the Tories have the power in Parliament to pass what they want. The bills might be challenged in the courts, but progressive movements shouldn’t rely on the generosity of judges. And while we might hope a Labour government will repeal them, we shouldn’t wait around for that.

That’s because real change doesn’t just happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up, with the working class coming together and demanding change.

So in the weeks, months and years ahead, that’s what we need to do: build a mass movement that says trade unions aren’t the enemy of the public – they are the public. A movement that doesn’t pit worker against worker, but unites them. And a movement that says to the country, if your pay is too low and your bills are too high, your problem isn’t striking workers, Mick Lynch or trade unions. Your problems aren’t migrants, trans people, or whoever the right-wing press are scapegoating today. Your problem is a rigged economy and the ruling class that built it. 

So let’s build that movement – from Parliament to the picket line – and beat this rotten Tory government.

Zarah Sultana is the Labour MP for Coventry South and co-founder of Enough is Enough. Follow the campaign here.