The past few months have seen a step change in trade union activity in Britain. We have gone from historically low levels of activity to mass strikes across the public sector, transportation, and more. These have been triggered by the cost of living crisis and a sharp rise in inflation. In response, the leadership of many unions have called strike action on a level not seen in decades. Many union members have now found themselves fighting on two fronts: both against unwilling employers and against the union bureaucracy. The current moment provides an important opportunity to build rank-and-file power, but it is not without challenges.
While these current disputes have mainly focused around pay increases, they have also tied in with a wave of new worker organising in the UK. As in the US, Canada, and other jurisdictions, workers have been organising in the tech and games industries, pursuing union votes at Starbucks, and striking and organising unions at Amazon. Workplace organising has become a more common topic of discussion, with the common refrain on social media of “join a union!” and widespread use of the term the “hot strike summer.” Initiatives like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC)1 in the US and Organise Now!2 in Britain have been supporting workers taking the first steps to building power at work. There has been a surge in training and many, many “how-to” books published on the topic.
These processes are unfolding in the wreckage of parliamentary strategies that have been dominant over the past few years.3 The excitement that drew in huge numbers of younger activists during the Corbyn moment now has the potential to be channelled into workplace organising. Strike Map4 has played an important role in publicising local picket lines and groups to support specific disputes. There is, however, another problem emerging during the current disputes.
As a member of the UCU (University and College Union), representing over 70,000 lecturers, researchers, administrative staff, and other professional job categories in higher education, I have been striking as part of a national dispute over pay, conditions, and pensions in higher education. UCU has been involved in a long running series of disputes over these issues, essentially since its formation in 2006, but particularly since 2018.5 Mostly the disputes have focused around the USS pension scheme. There have been strikes almost every year that I have worked in universities. However, this year felt different. The dispute was called over pensions, but also the Four Fights campaign, including pay, workload, casualisation (referring to the use of precarious contracts), and equality. There was a successful aggregate national ballot, more strike days were called, as well as a serious debate on whether to take indefinite strike action (which we did not), and now a marking and assessment boycott. The union itself has been riven with internal conflict, increasingly spilling out into public discussion on social media.
At the time of writing, the “hot strike summer” is increasingly turning into what The University Worker (a workplace bulletin that is distributed during the strikes) has termed the “shit deal spring.”6 The energy and excitement of the strike wave is now being translated by union leadership into pay deals that are falling way below inflation. For example, nurses unions recommended the acceptance of a one-off payment and 5% for 2023–24, while UCU has previously consulted on a pay cut (a below inflation pay increase) that has already been imposed and some vague agreements to negotiate further.
At this stage the strike wave is increasingly turning away from strike ballots, getting the vote out, picket lines, and solidarity actions. Instead, the directions of the disputes are being negotiated behind closed doors. The leadership of unions are meeting with the employers while rank-and-file members are left to hear about the deals afterwards. The contradiction between the leadership and rank-and-file is becoming visible. Offers, often far from the demands that striking workers were making, are now being put out to the vote. So why is this happening?
The refrain ‘join a union’ was an important starting point for many people taking the first steps to building power at work. Joining a union means making a choice to be part of a collective workers’ organisation. However, the limits of just ‘joining’ a union are becoming increasingly clear. Most of the unions involved in the current strike wave are large and complicated organisations. They have large memberships spread across the country in different branches, employ staff members to take on specialised roles, and have elected leaderships that are paid by the union instead of the employer. In the process, unions have developed bureaucracies. As Hal Draper notes, these bureaucracies differ from other forms of institutions in one important way. The union bureaucracy is caught between two sides: the members and the employers. While we as members might try to put pressure ‘from below’ on the union, they also face pressure ‘from above’ from employers, the state, and so on.7
This current strike wave has been called through fear of pressure from below. Across many unions, the cost of living crisis has made another year of pay cuts untenable for many. With the rising cost of food, gas, and electricity, there has been a push for unions to call strike action. In most cases there has not been an organised and sustained push from the rank-and-file to make these strikes happen. Instead, the leadership has called and coordinated strikes on a much larger scale. Part of this is a pressure to deliver something for union members, most of whom have not had an above inflation pay rise since the 2008 financial crisis. So far, these strikes have not shifted the employers and sections of the union leadership and bureaucracies are now trying to call off action.
In UCU these contradictions can be seen quite clearly. The membership voted to take strike action over two sets of demands. First, the ‘Four Fights’ campaign over pay, workload, casualisation, and equality; second, over the USS pensions scheme. This involves a clash of interests within both the membership and against the bureaucracy. For more senior, secure, and better paid members, a key concern has long been the pension scheme. For casualised members, many of whom are not even in the pension scheme, Four Fights (and particularly anti-casualisation, of course) is a priority.
The current state of the dispute has seen ‘offers’ negotiated by paid officials behind closed doors, excluding the negotiators elected by the membership. In part, the weakness of the offer reveals the leadership’s position on the dispute: that we are not strong enough to get more from the employers and continuing to fight is too risky for the union. The USS pensions dispute has been called off, while Four Fights has become a focus for the marking and assessment boycott (MAB) now underway in universities. This decoupling of the disputes risks undermining action as members more concerned with pensions than the Four Fights could see an end in the dispute. It also risks widening the split inside the membership, pulling back from using the industrial power of the boycott to win meaningful changes from the employers.
More widely across the disputes in Britain, the appearance of these offers is a test for rank-and-file union members: are we prepared to settle for pay cuts this year, or can we fight for more? Levels of rank-and-file organisation have also been at a historic low point, with few concrete examples of successes to point to. While the current strikes may have been called due to pressure from below, in most cases this pressure was not expressed in an organised form. The calling of mass strike action has provided an important opportunity to build rank-and-file power, as well as fight for immediate improvements across many sectors.
There is no better time to try and build rank-and-file networks than during disputes. However, this is also the moment where the stakes are highest and there is often little time for planning. In many of the disputes currently underway, it also means waging a two-fold fight. First, against the employers, whether they are trying to attack pay and conditions, force through redundancies, or restructure the industry. This is a fight in which both sides compete to outlast the other: how much action and how long can workers sustain it, against the cost of this to the employers. In a sense, the pressure of the action needs to outweigh the cost of the employers conceding. None of these disputes are going to be settled by logical arguments or appeals.
The second fight is internal to the union, between the rank and file membership and the bureaucracy. During strikes, particularly the longer forms of action that we have seen recently, the bureaucracy comes under increasing pressure to settle the dispute. This comes from the employers, of course, but also from the state, media, and other actors. As the function of trade unions is to negotiate the price and conditions of the sale of labour-power, ultimately the interest is in reaching a settlement on the terms under which that happens. Due to the mediating role of the bureaucracy this means finding a settlement that is acceptable to union members and the employers. The pressure from above—along with a pervasive sense that workers are not able to win more—has led to a series of bad deals being proposed. So far, some of these have been rejected by votes of the union membership.
In many of these disputes, there is a fight ongoing between the rank-and-file membership and union bureaucracy over both the deals being offered, but also how the campaigns are being fought. For example, within UCU there have been debates over the length and type of strike action being called, with membership increasingly pushing the leadership for an escalation. The result of this internal fight is key to shaping whether or not workers are able to win the strike wave more widely. As the contributors to The University Worker have recently argued, there are practical steps we can take to build rank-and-file power, starting by trying ‘to connect people on strike and facilitate a collective discussion.’ For example, by publishing worker written bulletins during disputes, calling independent meetings, and trying to open up debates on tactics and strategies.8 More experiments with rank-and-file organising are needed to build this power within and beyond the current disputes.
This current moment of the strike wave is also reflective of a wider set of contradictions in recent years. As Sai Englert has argued, this has been
highly contradictory: both full of opportunity and repeated major political set-backs. This state of affairs is especially dangerous for a political tradition that bases its liberatory project on the mass action, and ultimate self-emancipation, of the working class. It leads activists all around us to pessimisms, demobilisation, and /or—much worse—a moralistic sense of superiority that dismisses the very people on which the success of our struggles depends, as inherently reactionary, backwards, or unorganisable.9
What is different in the current moment is the breakthrough of worker organising in the country as a whole. This represents a significant opportunity, both at the level of the union bureaucracy with the calling of strikes, as well as worker organising in new sectors and parts of the economy. Across both there is the potential for new and exciting forms of rank-and-file organising to emerge.
We are at a critical juncture in the current strike wave that could either see action called off or continuing into a longer fight. It is crucial that rank-and-file members build through this moment to meet the two fights needed to win. A new generation of rank-and-file organisers are gaining industrial experience at a scale far faster than in recent years. Whether these disputes end in victories or sell-out deals, these organisers could form the base of a renewed labour movement. Beyond this, if we want to achieve more than stemming the declining wages and conditions, this strike wave provides a starting point for building the kind of power needed to transform society.
Jamie Woodcock works at the University of Essex and is a researcher based in London. His research is available to read online and is inspired by workers’ inquiry, focusing on labour, work, the gig economy, platforms, resistance, organising, and videogames. He is on the editorial board of Notes from Below and Historical Materialism.
1 Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee.
3 Jonas Marvin (2021), ‘The Left Won’t Win the 2020s by Clinging to the Corpse of the Labour Party’, Novara Media.
5 The University Worker (2023), ‘UCU and the University Worker: Experiments with a bulletin’, Notes from Below.
6 The University Worker (2023), ‘The University Worker: 20th March 2023’, Notes from Below.
7 Draper, Hal (1970), ‘Marxism and Trade Unions’.
8 The University Worker (2023), ‘UCU and the University Worker: Experiments with a bulletin’, Notes from Below.
9 Englert, Sai (2020), ‘Notes on Organisation’, Notes from Below.