IT is more than 18 months since the undeniable return of unions to public life in the form of the big uptick in strikes that started in the summer of 2022. 

Most were about seeking higher pay rises to keep up the incremental increases in inflation. Around five million days have not been worked due to striking since then.

This has been the biggest period of union revolt since the late 1980s.  Few sectors of public and private sectors have been unaffected.

And yet most of the gains on pay rises have been pretty meagre to say the least – less than inflation while involving lost wages and strike pay from the unions to their members.

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This covers a whole array of unions: the doctors’ BMA; civil servants’ PCS; nurses’ RCN; the rail workers’ RMT; and the public-sector Unison and Unite unions. So, what lessons can be learnt? The first is that unions need to be much better prepared going into disputes. This means establishing, well in advance of any action, strike pay funds that can sustain strikes.

Going into battle means that your supply of artillery and ammunition must be more than adequate and your supply lines to take these to the front must be secure.

Unions must, therefore, assess the extent of the length and breadth of battle that is going to unfold in order to calculate how much artillery and ammunition they need.

Workers are highly unlikely to be willing to take continuous and lengthy strike action – which may be exactly what is needed to win – without knowing in advance that the financial losses they are about to sustain are manageable because there is strike pay to offset some of them. Strike pay should be available from the first day of striking and not be means tested.

The National: RMT leader Mick Lynch has said he has not met a Government minister since January (Jonathan Brady/PA)

In the case of the RMT union led by Mick Lynch (above), for 2021 and 2022, it had more than £25 million in liquid assets – that is, stock and shares – which it could have cashed in in order to fund its members’ strikes for more than the sporadic one or two days here and there.

One of the most successful striking unions has been Unite union, led by Sharon Graham. It has learnt exactly that lesson, having established a multi-million-pound strike fund more than a decade ago.

By mid-September last year, Unite had spent some £32m funding strike pay in more than 900 strikes, involving 200,000 members. More than 80% of these were won, putting £400m extra into members’ wage packets. The £32m was 10 times what was spent in the preceding three years from the strike fund.

The second lesson is that more use of selective action is needed. Furnished with strike pay, smaller numbers of more strategically placed workers can strike for longer periods and have a bigger impact than a few, infrequent one-day strikes by bigger numbers of strikers.

A few, infrequent national one-day strikes make for big newspaper headlines but often little else. They are gone in a puff of smoke.

But take the case of the crucial signallers on the railways, for example. A relatively small band of signallers on the mainline routes – like the west coast London to Edinburgh line – could have been kept out on strike for a long time.

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They could have been furnished with strike pay from a levy on signallers working on the vast array of local lines so that the strategically strongest are used as the workers with artillery that can pierce the enemy’s defences.

We only have to recall the selective action – actual and threatened – by local government workers in Scotland, mainly in Unison, from the summer and autumns of 2022 and 2023 to see how this tactic can be especially effective.

The third lesson is that because the Starmer-led Labour Party is unwilling to support the strikes, the political heat generated upon the Westminster Tory government is much, much less than it otherwise would be.

This means those strikes which are essentially political strikes, rather than economic strikes, such as those in the public sector are able to generate less leverage of the government. And all because Starmer wants to be seen as the responsible PM-in-waiting.

The same point is also true albeit in a slightly different sense for the position taken by the Labour Party in Scotland on the SNP-Green Holyrood government.

While Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar (below) has visited some picket lines and makes the right noises at times, there is a sense that these are more opportunistic than genuine gestures. It also has to be recalled that the Scottish Government is slightly more susceptible to union pressure because of its own political perspectives.

The National: Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has called for an election once the SNP has a new leader (Jane Barlow/PA)

All that said, it remains the case that unions need to establish their own independent political voices. This may mean setting up a new organisation which is not necessarily a new political party in order to campaign on the issues and put the politicians of different parties and places under pressure. Again, the likes of Unite have begun to show some signs of being willing to do this. But the best example was the launch of the Enough is Enough! campaign in late 2022 by the CWU and RMT unions, with a couple of Labour MPs in tow.

The weakness of Enough is Enough! was that it was too tied to the fortunes of these two unions and their particular industrial disputes. Other unions and others organisations were needed to come on board to broaden and deepen its roots and reach.

This meant into the early part of 2023, Enough is Enough! became defunct after some big initial launch meetings. But the point about independent political representation was made even if only in an embryonic form.

If these three lessons can be learnt, the future looks promising.

Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds and author of Mick Lynch: The making of a working-class hero (Manchester University Press, 2024)