In this “post-lockdown” economy most of the developed world is facing the worst labour shortages since the late 1990s. Workers are facing rapidly rising inflation and huge increases in the cost of living beginning to bite into workers’ pay; along with a continuation of over eighteen months of exhausting pandemic working conditions, some outright dangerous. In the face of these crises, workers are increasingly moving to challenge their bosses and are becoming galvanised, at least at a workplace level, to demand increased wages and better working conditions. This is demonstrated by the sharp increase in industrial action ballots across Britain and the North in nearly every sector of the economy. From food production to logistics, local authorities to health & social care, education to manufacturing. The chickens are coming home to roost for bosses who have taken advantage of workers throughout the COVID crisis as the resulting labour shortage has increased the confidence of workers – we know we can’t be as easily replaced.
Workers in Ulster Carpets are voting on strike action over management’s refusal to backdate their pay deal; 3,500 Tesco lorry driver and warehouse workers were balloted over a meagre pay deal; Unison will be balloting local authority workers over pay; University workers in the UCU began strike action in December over pension cuts, pay and conditions just as NIPSA Education Welfare Officers in the Education Authority embarked on 15 days of strike action in a campaign for pay parity with health and social care colleagues. All of these ballots and announced actions are just scratching the surface, with dozens more disputes brewing amongst bulk tanker drivers, aviation, health and aerospace workers.
This increased confidence and preparedness for militant action was most recently demonstrated by workers at Glen Dimplex, a manufacturer of electric heaters in Portadown. Unite members there managed to win a hugely significant 13.5% pay increase alongside a payment in recognition of their continued contribution to production throughout the pandemic. This was only secured after workers launched three days of strike action with the intent and foresight to recognise which actions would have the biggest impact on production and the profits of the site’s multi-millionaire owner. This, together with a plan to escalate their action into continuous strike action shows that with resolve, organising a stronger union and a willingness to take militant industrial action significant victories can be achieved by workers.
Now is the time for urgent discussions amongst workplace reps and union leaderships about how these disputes can be coordinated, how our movement can be strengthened further by an organising approach bringing in new layers of previously non-unionised workers and how future victories cannot and will not be won through cordial negotiations with employers. It is the threat to the interruption of production of the bosses’ profits that will always win results, a lesson that is quickly being learnt by workers who have never previously been engaged in such action. Whilst there can never be real pay justice under a capitalist system where bosses compete with each other to exploit, profiteer and engage workers in a race to the bottom, workers can fight and win a bigger share of the value they produce by taking a bold, militant and determined approach.