By Sony R.
Most of us know England because it colonised India for 200 years. We’ve grown up hearing about the brutality of the English and the bravery of the freedom fighters and how they won our independence. And they did win us our independence with their heoric sacrifices. But this is not the whole story.
Apart from the freedom fighters, another reason that England finally let India go out of its hands is that its posiiton within the world had changed by 1947. It used to be the world’s strongest superpower, the biggest empire in all of history.
It ruled over one-fourth of the world. but by 1947 this had completely changed and it was now much less powerful than other countries like the USA and the USSR. Between this loss of power and the headaches caused by freedom fighters, it could no longer hold on to India and other colonies.
This loss of power has continued till now. Production is lagging far behind other countries in Europe and prices are rising faster than even in India. Last winter, millions of people across the country had to decide whether to heat their homes or eat their food — because they didn’t have money for both. This is a winter when it snowed in most of the country, so they desperately needed heating.
Historic Strike in England
As a result, workers in England have been going on strikes for the last year. A lot of them. There haven’t been these many strikes for 40-50 years at least. It started in late May 2022 with the rail workers.
Then it quickly spread to the airplane workers, bus operators, freight workers, lawyers, postal workers, doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, telecommunications workers, schoolteachers, trash collectors, firefighters, engineers, Amazon workers, college teachers, and many other.
Oil rig workers went on a strike even without a union, something that is techinically illegal. There was one common demand between all of them: that wages should rise as much as prices were rising. Many of these unions are in negotiations and striking for a few days here and these even now, a year later.
And it wasn’t just unions. Since a lot of the living cost increase was due to electricity and gas, there was a campaign called “Don’t Pay UK” which aimed that 10 lakh people would stop paying their electricity and gas bills on 1 October 2022.
They set up a website where people could sign their name to a promise that if a total of 10 lakh people signed then everyone would stop paying. This was set up by 15-20 people in June and they got 1 lakh people to sign in 3-4 months by 1 October.
Despite the fact that they didn’t reach their target and so no one stopped paying their bills, it is still amazing that they reached 1 lakh signatures in such a short time.
Just Stop Oil Campaign
There were other such campaigns also. A group called “Just Stop Oil” staged many headline-grabbing protests to raise awareness about global warming. They blocked roads, stopped footbal games, and threw tomato soup on paintings. Another group called “Palestine Action” took aim at companies that were helping the Israeli government carry out the mass murder of Palestinians. Palestine Action occupied their factories and broke a lot of machinery.
On the other side, the government and the police started cracking down on the masses. Early last year, the government passed a new law that allowed police to put you in jail for protesting too loudly. It also increased the amount of power the police had in many other ways. Another law allowed companies to hire replacements when their workers went on strike.
Another said that for transport stirkes, the union should make sure that there are a few people working during the strike so that the buses and trains can continue running. Another law made it a crime to block roads etc, and also gave polise the power to stop anyone and search them. There was discussion of passing a new law that would increase the amount of support needed for a union to legally declare a strike.
On top of that, the union leaders were also hell-bent on tiring out and demoralising the workers. They did this in many ways. For example, look at how many different sectors went on strike together. None of these strikes were coordinated.
In a lot of cases, different groups of workers who went on strike were part of the same central trade union, and even these were not coordinated. Even within a single company, strikes were spread out so that capitalists would not feel it very badly.
For example, in the railway strike workers were asked what is the best day to strike. The workers said saturday, because that’s when most people travel. The first set of railway strikes were called on weekdays instead.
The oil rig workers who went on strike without union approval were brought “in line” by the union and their demands were reduced. In many cases, strikes were stopped when they were very strong for ‘negotiations.’
Everywhere, the union leaders spread out strike days in a very odd way: one day this week, three days next week, two days the week after that, etc. Bosses did not feel the loss very strongly and workers los a lot of their energy. In the college teacher and researcher union, one strike was called only two days in advance! Many agreements were reached for wage increases which did not match price rise, but the unions sold these as victories.
The campaign Don’t Pay UK
It isn’t just union leaders also. The campaign Don’t Pay UK redirected the energies of the 1 lakh people who signed into electing the Labour party, even though the Labour party supports the price increases for electricity and gas!
Despite all this, the masses continue to make history. Just like every drop of blood from the asura Rakbeej gave birth to one more Raktbeej, every action against the masses has created a new uprising. Younger and angrier people keep joining and pushing for more demands and stronger action.
Despite the way the union leaders acted, the workers in many sectors have not got tired out and are still as angry and ready to strike as they were a year ago. New unions that organised gig workers, sex workers, and others have come up which actively work with one another and are leading a more militant working class movement — like Mazdoor Adhikar Sangharsh Abhiyan (MASA) in India.
Across the country, various small groups have started fighting against local issues like gentrification, which means landlords pushing people out of their homes so that they can rent to rich people instead. Many groups have been formed to fight against the border police. The border police look for people from poor countries whose visas are not up to date and send them “back” (even if they have lived in England all their lives).
Last May, there was a strike staged by gig workers at a food delivery company, under the banner of one of these new unions, United Voices of the World. Since gig workers are some of the most exploited in England, the jobs are often taken up by immigrants.
So the boses deal with the headache by calling the border police. Those whose visas are not up-to-date will be sent “back,” and even those whose visas are up to date will get scared.
By the time the border police came, a huge crowd of protestors had gathered to protect the workers. The border police and the regular police beat up the protestors as usual. But the ending was happy: none of the gig workers were taken by the border police.
This May Day, let us hope that these positive trends continue and the working masses of England continue to carry the flame of revolt into the next year!
Do read also:-
- Labour in ‘Amrit Kaal’ : A reality check
- Discovering the truth about Demonetisation, edited and censored, or buried deep?
(Writer is a research scholar and activist.)
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