My uncle, a dock worker and active grassroots trade unionist, once said to me “eventually, people say No”. That was about 30 years ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. We were chatting about the seemingly relentless advance of privatisation and casualisation under a Tory government, not suspecting a forthcoming Labour one would only continue the trend. So much has been lost in the intervening years and of course, there have been sporadic resistance and moments of hope. But overall, the values and victories of his post-war generation have been seriously eroded.
It’s too early to talk of a turning-point, but the mood at yesterday’s RMT rally outside King Cross was different to any such gathering I’ve been to for years. As well as holding a week of very successful strike action and steadfastly defending it in the media, the RMT has also connected with the sleeping giant of working class solidarity and a vision of a better, fairer society. This was evident throughout yesterday’s event, when the RMT paid as much attention to the disputes of hospital cleaners, posties and teachers, as their own. Critically, several speakers referred to the paramount importance of union organisation as a means of breaking down ethnic and gender barriers. My favourite moment was when the Australian leader of the International Transport Workers Federation, Paddy Crumlin, said “I don’t give a stuff who’s in the US Supreme Court, a woman has a right to choose”.
As Boris Johnson stumbles from crisis to crisis, there’s now a possibility that, rather than one vile Tory being ousted by others, the organised working class could strike the blow. The leadership of the Labour Party has rendered itself peripheral to this and other struggles. Again, it’s premature to talk about a general strike, but there are strike ballots coming in almost every sector of the workforce. If recent results, like that of BA cabin staff, are anything to go by, the “summer of discontent” invoked by several speakers yesterday, is a real prospect.
There’s no mystery about this. The economic period we’re in is the biggest threat to most people’s livelihoods in my lifetime. The RMT has articulated the fury of those being expected to pay for a crisis we didn’t create, at a time when corporate profits are soaring. Mick Lynch has summed it up, in his inimitable style: “For too long, the media has portrayed unions as strangers in society, interlopers. But when people are being done-in, they’ve got to respond”.
Thank you RMT.