Tory minister says strikes play into Putin’s hands – here’s why that’s ahistorical nonsense
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Tory Minister Nadhim Zahawi has said British nurses are only supporting Russia’s war on Ukraine by not accepting an effective pay cut. Zahawi said:
Putin’s energy consumption means we’ve had very high inflation rates and we need to try to bring inflation down… We need to come together, this is no time to be divided, [but] I hope to send a very clear message to Mr Putin that he cannot weaponize energy in this way and we will remain united.
He makes the game of linking domestic unrest (the threat of a strike in Britain) to an aggressor abroad (Vladimir Putin). However, his argument is complete nonsense – industrial action in Britain has a tradition going back decades.
Care workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are due to go on strike on December 15th and 20th. LBC Journalist James O’Brien had none of Zahawi’s comments. O’Brien said:
If that isn’t an example of utter intellectual and moral bankruptcy, I honestly don’t know what is.
“He’s a man who put his own money on heating his stables.”
James O’Brien criticizes Nadhim Zahawi’s “intellectual and moral bankruptcy” for arguing that nurses shouldn’t go on strike because that’s what Vladimir Putin wanted.@mrjamesob pic.twitter.com/ItGYymHyg4
— LBC (@LBC) December 6, 2022
Labor’s John McDonnell pointed out that Zahawi is a multi-millionaire whose spending on heating his stables was more than a nurse’s starting salary:
To put in context multi-millionaire Nadhim Zahawi, who threatened nurses and paramedics to call in soldiers to break their strike, recall that his expense report, which included heating his horse stables, was more than a starting-salary nurse asked for .
— John McDonnell MP (@johnmcdonnellMP) December 4, 2022
Satire followed Zahawi’s statement:
Breaking news: Putin agrees to pull out of Ukraine if British nurses agree to 4% pay rise. #bbclaurak pic.twitter.com/9wR5En0818
— Gerry McK (@GMcK2012) December 4, 2022
Equally satirical news website Newsthump published a “response” from Putin and speared the remarks of Zahawi (a minister without portfolio):
Nadhim Zahawi’s controversial statement that NHS staff should accept a drop in living standards to oppose Putin was backed up by the Kremlin after he said the main obstacle to Russia’s winter offensive was a Poole midwife who was being forced to take a payday loan record to repair boilers.
Colonel Semyon Vilyamov, a spokesman for the FSB, admitted that the leader of the British Conservative Party had pointed out that the personal finances of British medical staff were the driving factor in all Russian military planning.
He continued: “Your minister without a job is right. Should English nurses and paramedics refuse to accept an effective 6% pay cut, we are confident that we can take Kyiv within two weeks.
Zahawi threatens to replace nurses with the army
Said Zahawi Sky news:
It’s right and responsible to have contingency plans in place… We’re looking at the military, we’re looking at a specialized response force that we actually set up a few years ago.
Some 2,000 civil servants and military personnel will be ready to lend a hand should nurses go on strike. They are reported to contain:
up to 600 members of the armed forces and 700 members of the government’s specialized Surge and Rapid Response Team and other parts of the public service.
The Tories are apparently trying everything to end the strikes. In fact, in June then-Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng announced how the law was being changed to allow agency workers to break the strike:
Today we changed the law to allow companies hit by strikes to hire skilled temporary workers to mitigate disruption.
This was an offence. Now it’s an option for businesses.
We will not allow the unions to shut down our economy.
👉🏾 https://t.co/cxsa02kLdg pic.twitter.com/W5xooxevt6
— Kwasi Kwarteng (@KwasiKwarteng) July 21, 2022
According to Mick Lynch of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT), the Tories intend to:
making effective trade unionism illegal in Britain and depriving working people of an important democratic right. If these proposals become law, there will be the greatest resistance in the entire trade union movement, rivaling the 1926 general strike, the suffragettes and Chartism.
De facto general strike
Lynch’s prediction of a general strike echoes the views of others. As the canary Previously published what we are witnessing now, says Communications Workers Union (CWU) leader Dave Ward, is a de facto general strike.
Strike Map tweeted a calendar of known strikes for December:
📰Read all about it
📰Read all about it
⚡️STRIKES OF THE WEEK⚡️
📧Subscribe to strikes of the week in your mailbox: https://t.co/CsX70x1v1G#strikemap pic.twitter.com/3ry4EHB0Ft
— Strike Map (@strike_map) December 10, 2022
Strike Map has also provided an interactive map detailing the locations of strikes across the UK.
When you mention a general strike, people think of the 1926 general strike organized by the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
But there was another general strike that may shed some light. In the summer of 1842 there was rioting across much of North West England. These coincided with strikes commonly known as the “Plug Plot” when strikers sabotaged mill boilers by removing their plugs.
In July 1842 there were strikes by workers at Preston, Blackburn, Burnley, Chorley, Bacup, Todmorden, Oldham, Wigan, St Helens and Bolton and by weavers at Stalybridge. The following month workers in Hyde, Denton, Dukinfield and Ashton-under-Lyne joined the strikers. Similar strikes took place at Tintwistle, Glossop, Stockport, Congleton, Macclesfield and the Potteries (Stoke-on-Trent).
The Potteries Riot
A detailed eyewitness account of what happened in the potteries has survived. According to a biography by Charles Shaw, on August 14, 1842, Chartist orator Thomas Cooper spoke at a rally in the pottery town of Hanley. Between 8,000 and 10,000 gathered. This was followed by weeks of strikes by local miners, many of whom starved.
The next day, Cooper spoke to Hanley again. But after he finished speaking, the crowd went to the local police office to release prisoners before searching a courthouse. A second meeting took place in Longton, another Potteries town, where looting took place. A clergyman’s house was attacked and set on fire. Arrests were made after the military intervened. Back in Hanley, another clergyman’s home was attacked along with the home of a local solicitor and a judge.
On August 16, thousands gathered in the pottery town of Burslem. This time, however, they were met by dragoons. After the Riot Act was promulgated, protesters were brutally attacked. But something unexpected happened: weavers from the nearby towns of Leek, Macclesfield and Congleton rose up, along with farmhands, to join their fellow Potteries.
The dragoons opened fire. Several demonstrators at this “Potteries Peterloo” were hit. A young man, Leek shoemaker Josiah Heapy, was killed.
The strikes spread
But that’s not the end of what happened.
Historian Katrina Navickas explained how the Stalybridge and Hanley strikes served as a catalyst:
for a much larger and more political form of collective action. A total of 32 counties were hit by strikes, with turnout being highest in the industrial counties of Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, West Riding, Cumberland and Lanarkshire. Two elements of agitation set it apart from earlier election campaigns and the earlier “National Day” of 1839. First, this was a strike in constant motion: it was spread by large groups of strikers (a precursor to flying pickets) coming from a city moved to the next, shutting down mills, factories and mines along the way by unplugging the steam boilers.
She further explained:
the impetus came from the unions in a syndicalist form of organization first directed against their employers but then aimed more generally at forcing the government to agree to the charter.
A plaque in Stalybridge commemorates Britain’s ‘First General Strike’ which involved nearly half a million workers. At their peak, the strikes covered an area stretching from Dundee and the Scottish coalfields to South Wales and Cornwall. This general strike was organized by word of mouth via what we now call flying pickets.
Currently, we may be witnessing a general strike of a similar form and without recourse to the consent of a single body – in this case the TUC. Zahawi’s clumsy attempt to link nurses’ demands for better pay and shorter hours to events abroad clearly backfired. Because what Zahawi said was nonsense. It also showed his complete ignorance of the centuries-old British tradition of workers’ solidarity. But that’s all we can expect from a Tory.
Featured image via Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/Unsplash