After years of passivity in the face of upper class greed workers have begun to fight back. Recent walkouts in Canada and around the world reflect a pattern of rising participation of workers in strike activity, evident since 2020 as a belated response to years of wage suppression and recent spectacular increases in consumer prices.
A wave of strikes in construction in Ontario in the opening months of 2022 reflected increased worker militancy over wages particularly among carpenters, drywallers and engineers. Tentative agreements reached by union officials were sometimes rejected by members, prolonging the strikes. A second historic flash point came later in the year when Ontario’s right-wing government invoked a rarely used constitutional clause to override the right to strike for 55,000 education support workers. After unions in the public and private sector threatened a province-wide general strike, the government backed down. In April and May of this year, 155,000 federal workers struck mainly over wages. In a deal which is considered trendsetting the government was forced to concede a four-year deal including strong wage increases and other measures.
Demand for higher wages has played a central part in these strikes. But the role of government in supporting business rather than labour has been a significant feature in Canada and elsewhere. Since 2017, 400 significant anti-government protests have erupted worldwide and of these, 135 were inspired by economic concerns. A central feature of neoliberalism has been the open intervention of government on behalf of capital. In response, strikes have increasingly assumed a political form. The politicization of economic protests consequently indicates a rising level of class consciousness among workers.
In the United States in 2022 Joe Biden and the Congress imposed a settlement blocking a railway strike, claiming it would have a negative economic impact. Nonetheless, Time magazine has reported a wave of labour unrest sweeping the country. Strike numbers rose in 2022, reflecting a trend of more US work stoppages in recent years. This is according to a report published in February by the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) at Cornell University. The school’s Labor Action Tracker, a comprehensive database of work stoppages, shows there were 424 work stoppages in the US in 2022, including 417 strikes and seven lockouts, up from 279 in 2021. These stoppages involved 224,000 workers (up from 140,000 in 2021, a 60 percent increase).
The UK’s 2022 winter of worker discontent extended into 2023 as the country endured its largest wave of strikes in over 30 years. Most are in the public sector, where pay offers are well below inflation and significantly lag private companies. The sense of grievance is high following the austerity and real-terms pay cuts of the 2010s. Strikes—estimated to have cost the UK economy £1.7 billion in 2022—are being coordinated across different unions. Germany has witnessed some of its most disruptive strikes in decades since last year, when the war in Ukraine sent energy and food prices soaring, leading to union pressure for wages to rise in line with living costs.
Sri Lanka has been the site of massive mobilizations since 2021. Notable were the political character of the strikes. The popularity of the government, led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, began plummeting in the last two years due to its poor handling of the economy including an uncontrolled foreign exchange crisis. Moreover, the decision to ban chemical fertilizers overnight created a huge backlash, especially from farmers who were critical of the government’s poor planning.
The impact of the sudden ban was felt in purchasing behaviour as Sri Lanka witnessed lengthy queues to buy important essential food items and other products including sugar, milk powder, kerosene oil and cooking gas, the prices of which increased dramatically. In September 2021, the government declared an economic crisis, invoking emergency regulations to control prices of essential food items.
A series of mass protests began in March 2022. The government was heavily criticized for mismanaging the Sri Lankan economy, which led to a subsequent economic crisis involving severe inflation, daily blackouts, and a shortage of fuel, domestic gas, and other essential goods. The protesters’ main demand was the resignation of Rajapaksa and key officials from his family. He was later forced from office.
The Sri Lankan left, including communists and Trotskyists, is very strong and since 1970 has formed part of united front governments. On the other hand, trade union membership is relatively low and the alienated Tamil minority withheld its support for the protests. In any case, the mass upheavals failed to produce a left-wing alternative to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) proposals for resolving the crisis which were adopted in May 2023.
India has seen one of the biggest nationwide strikes by workers. Joined by protesting farmers, several states saw a complete shutdown on November 26, 2020. Over 250 million workers across various sectors participated in the strike, called by 10 central trade unions and hundreds of worker associations and federations in perhaps the biggest ever coordinated general strike anywhere in the world. The strike was also supported by the Indian National Congress, the Communist Party of India, and other left-wing parties.
The labour action was followed by a farmers march to New Delhi, which arrived there on November 30 with tens of thousands of farmers surrounding the city. The farmers remained unwavering in their commitment to their call for a complete repeal of the new Farm Bills, which they believed were “pro-corporate” and passed behind the backs of farmers. The strikers demanded a guaranteed food ration and a basic income payment, guaranteed employment and higher wages, removal of all anti-worker legislation, and an end to the privatization of pensions for all citizens. The strike helped to weaken the hitherto invulnerable Narendra Modi government which has dragged its heels in addressing these demands. Strikes and protests have continued into 2023.
But by far, the most political of all of these strike movements occurred in France. Between January and the end of May 2023 millions of workers have been involved in mass protests against the neoliberal pension reforms of President Emmanuel Macron. The massive rejection of the postponement of the retirement age to 64, with a law imposed by several institutional diktats including Article 49.3, which allows the government to force a bill through the National Assembly without a vote, the prolonged popular mobilization on an undoubtedly unprecedented scale, are obvious manifestations of the social crisis.
Demonstrations around the extension of the retirement age crystallizes a deeper crisis. The popular classes have been attacked for several months by the consequences of inflation, the rise in the cost of living in general, food and energy in particular, and the aftereffects of the pandemic. Added to this are longer-term attacks that have led to the immiseration of the public health system, public housing, difficulties of daily life, low incomes, problems of stable employment, transport, the schooling of children, and care for the elderly. All these difficulties are experienced just as much in popular neighbourhoods as in small peripheral towns. They all reflect the will of capital to further reduce the share of value devoted to the popular classes, directly through wages, and indirectly through compulsory levies and redistribution.
All these concerns of daily life have been reflected in the demonstrations since January, even if pensions are the point of crystallization and the sole basis of inter-union action. The constancy of the rejection of Macron’s law cannot be understood without considering all the anger that is found in the current movement. It is therefore, generally, the living conditions of the popular classes that determine the unfailing popularity of support for strikes and demonstrations and even blockades.
Macron’s political isolation obviously corresponds to this social reality as he is the representative of a society where the wealth produced is captured for the profit of the capitalist class—whose wealth, through the companies it owns or through other assets, has continued to increase in recent years. Five percent of households own 95 percent of industrial assets in France. Moreover, these prolonged protests, which are of course intensely political, are the culmination of years of worker agitation beginning with a series of general strikes dating back to 1995. Protests of an increasing amplitude over pension reform but also over fuel costs, neoliberal labour reforms, and wages have marked 2006, 2007, 2010, 2018, and 2022.
We can say that the unity forged around the national intersyndicale (inter-union coordination) since January has allowed the construction of the movement and its vigour, especially in small towns usually less mobilized in social movements. But this intersyndicale, if it has until now brought together all the unions, has voluntarily limited itself, to maintain its unity, to the demand for the withdrawal of the measure of retirement at 64, the only common basis. It can therefore be said that in the country a general, complete united front of the trade union and political organizations of the workers’ movement has been built, reflecting and strengthening it.
But most also understand that this obligatory self-limitation of the inter-union rank and file means that this movement does not take the political place which, objectively, corresponds to its depth, to its radicalization. It is not that those who demonstrate, the activists in strikes and blockades, the participants in the hundreds of demonstrations, do not express all the demands that underlie this movement, but that the self-limitation of the intersyndicale limits its passage to a political stage.
Objectively, the movement challenges power, the organization of society by the parties and the capitalist class, and puts forward the main social demands. It weakens the intellectual and political hegemony of the ruling class, which has lost the battle on the question of its reform, but the movement does not produce its own political expression to collectively advance another policy, other social choices for the benefit of the working classes. In this we can say that the content of the demands of the intersyndicale is not the emanation of the level of consciousness, but is well behind it. On the other hand, the movement does not have the strength to create its own structures capable of shaking up the intersyndicale. Like the unions the two main radical political parties, La France Insoumise and the Parti communiste français, remain divided.
What is required in France and in the other cases we have mentioned is the emergence of a unified ideological program and the appropriate level of political organization to challenge the capitalist system. Clearly, though, this review of strikes internationally—and we could have mentioned Portugal, Argentina and above all revolutionary Haiti—demonstrates that in the face of rising levels of exploitation a global awakening of the working class has taken place. Moreover, when we compare the quietism of the working class during the 1980s with the situation today, we believe that intensified repression and exploitation will only strengthen resistance unlike during the neoliberal period.
Henry Heller is a Professor of History at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of The Birth of Capitalism: A 21st Century Perspective (Pluto Press, 2011), The Cold War and the New Imperialism: A Global History, 1945-2005 (Monthly Review Press, 2006) and The Bourgeois Revolution in France (Berghahn Books, 2006).