The coming together of economic and political crisis with mass strike action is an historical opportunity for the left, argues John Rees.

TUC voteThe 30th November strike day called by the TUC is a dramatic enough escalation of the struggle against the Tory-led coalition on its own. But it comes at just the moment when the crisis in the Eurozone is reaching a new tipping point and another slide into an ever deeper recession looks probable. In short, turning points in the political and economic crises are coming together in a perfect storm.

The resolutions passed at the TUC make this year’s conference the most important in living memory. The co-ordinated strike action by 14 unions will create a serious crisis for an already weak and illegitimate government, so long as the union leaders don’t find a reason for stepping back from the brink during the ongoing negotiations.

It’s worth recalling what brought the TUC to this point if only because this year’s conference was, at least in surface appearance, the least likely of all TUC conferences to make such decisions. It was after all both shorter and smaller than most TUC conferences. Held in the unprepossessing basement hall at Congress House in London its delegates were older and less representative than most TUC congresses, and that’s saying quite a bit. The Labour left in the unions, as elsewhere, is historically weak and, as Ed Miliband’s disastrous speech to the Congress showed, the leadership is still fully Blairite in its attitude to the unions. Miliband seemed unabashed in telling the unions to get a ‘reality check’ by the fact that in reality he owes his position to the cheques the unions gave him in his leadership bid.

Moreover the TUC was under no industrial pressure to move. The union leaders were under virtually no pressure from strike action, official or unofficial. Neither is there any strong rank and file organisation in any union putting pressure on the officials. Indeed, as the TUC’s own report issued ahead of the Congress noted, union organisation and strike levels remain at historically low levels.

Nevertheless the TUC was under a different kind of pressure. Firstly the TUC unions were under the pressure of the political movement created by the scale of the crisis. This is for many union members and for the unions as a whole close to an existential crisis. As some union leaders have realised, the long decline of the unions will become terminal if they don’t take action now. They realise that the chorus of ‘if the unions don’t do something now what are they for?’ is too loud to ignore. Paradoxically, from weakness has come forth strength.

And there has been enough of a political fightback to highlight the fact that resistance is possible. The student movement of the last half of 2010 is largely responsible for blazing this trail. That is what opened the path for the 500,000 strong TUC demonstration on 26th March and that success fed into the joint strike action on 30th June. In all these cases the activists in the wider political movement, among them those in the Coalition of Resistance, gave a sharpened political form to the protests. Trade union hearts began to beat faster. Finally, the summer riots, though they cannot be said to have especially aided the left or the labour movement, did dramatise what combustible material is being created at the bottom of British society. The TUC’s own report on the riots showed that this fact was registered inside the unions.

This political mood long predated recent events, long predated the economic crisis itself. From the anti-capitalist demonstrations of a decade ago through the anti-war movement there has been a growing propensity for political action and radicalisation. This was still apparent at this TUC, when Congress voted for a Unite motion proposed by Andrew Murray, the chair of the Stop the War Coalition, calling for an end to the Libyan adventure, troops out of Afghanistan and freedom for Palestine. In the unions it was this mood that manifested itself in the election of the original ‘awkward squad’ of union leaders. Most recently the re-election of Mark Serwotka and the election of Len McCluskey as leader of Unite proved that this mood was enduring.

So the pressure to act was met by union leaders who, in their majority, are probably more left wing than at any time since the 1970s. Some too are committed to the ‘social unionism’ model of organisation which seeks to rebuild the unions by partnership with campaigning movements and using less traditional methods of recruitment. Len McCluskey’s speech to the TUC referred to this when he talked of bringing ‘Wisconsin to Westminster.’ He also said the union must learn ‘from the student movement’s struggles to support decent education’ and ‘building on the impetus of the magnificent trade union march for an alternative this year, the biggest in our movement’s history. It will mean learning from our best fighting traditions.’

It is this peculiar alignment of forces that has produced the TUC decision for a united day of action. But there are dangers ahead, not least because of the economic crisis that now looks set to suddenly worsen dramatically.

In the UK itself the ‘keep cutting and the economy will revive’ plan of the Coalition government is now fully revealed as the fraud it always was. Unemployment is up to 2.5 million. Inflation is up. And the cuts are biting more deeply week by week. The government was illegitimate from the start: most people voted left of centre, for Labour or the Liberals, who many saw as to the left of Labour at the time of the election. The government they got, thanks to the Coalition, was right of centre and has become more so since the election. Hackgate, the Libya war and the uber-draconian response to the riots have simultaneously made old style Tory warmongering, corruption and social conservatism the dominant public face of the Coalition. It is almost as if Clegg and Cable no longer exist.

But if the crisis in Britain is intractable it is even worse in Europe. Austerity as an answer to the crisis has made Greek society virtually ungovernable for the ruling class. The inability to force through the latest demands for cuts is now certain to produce another Greek debt default which may take the whole of the Eurozone single currency structure with it.

Counterfire has long argued that the debt bailout at the start of the recession would not solve the crisis but merely push it from the giant private banks onto whole nation states. This is exactly what we have seen happening with ever increasing rapidity in recent months.

Now this latest spiral of decline in the economic situation is combining with a moment of heightened resistance by the unions and the anti-austerity movement in Britain. It is however not automatic that these elements will combine in a way that assists those who are fighting the elite’s austerity drive.

Here are some of the problems the left and activists in the unions need to consider:

  1. The stakes are high for the ruling class. This makes them vulnerable but also leaves them with little room for making concessions. So the fight will be tough and is unlikely to be won by a one-day action (or even a succession of one-day actions) no matter how welcome these strikes and protests are.
  2. We are overly dependent on the union leaders to call action. What is called by union leaders can be called off by union leaders, if not before the first battle then at least before the last battle.
  3. The left is prone to syndicalism. That is, to the belief that trade union action will, in and of itself, solve the crisis. This reaction is all the greater because of the long drought in union action. After so long without drink any strike action seems to produce dizziness.
  4. Localism is also a danger: this crisis is not about individual towns or cities in Britain, or even about Britain as a whole. It is an international crisis and this dimension should not be forgotten. This is not because we do not have to act locally, nor because our immediate strategic aim should not be to get rid of the Coalition government. It is because how we fight is determined by where we think the problems originates. The system as a whole is the ultimate generator of crises.

In order to respond to these dangers our immediate priorities should be:

  1. To bend every effort to make 30th November the most crushing day of anti-austerity protests the government has yet faced. The Coalition of Resistance did an outstanding job of mobilising for the TUC 26th March demonstration. We should adopt that method of work again. Every workplace and college, school and community should be leafleted and drawn into activity. Trade unions and student unions should go out to stations and tubes to build support. It would be best if the proposed student day of action were moved from 9th November to coincide with the action on 30th November. Mass rallies putting the union case should be held in every possible locality. Following the ‘social unionism’ model, 30th November should be seen as a class-wide revolt with the unions at its heart, but not limited in any way to union members.
  2. Both in the wider society and within the unions, activists need to strengthen their own independent organisation which is capable of sustaining the struggle, whether it continues to be led by the union bureaucracy or not.
  3. The government will use every weapon at its disposal to undermine the action. The post-riot clampdown will be invoked. The Labour leadership want to, and will be pressurised by the media into, trying to stop the union leaders seeing the action through. The ideological argument that ‘it’s a world crisis’ and ‘there is no alternative’ will be deployed. These arguments will require political responses which pick apart the whole neoliberal defence of free market economics and the ‘we are all in it together’ class collaboration nationalist discourse. Political movements are uniquely well placed to do this. The CoR Europe Against Austerity conference is an absolutely central arena for this discussion.
  4. Finally, the left needs to re-build itself. Unions are not built without committed socialists and Marxists at their core. They never were. The Chartists, the first working class organisation in Britain in the 1840s, had socialists and revolutionaries at its heart. So did the new unions of the 1880s, including Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor. The great unrest before the First World War had James Larkin and James Connolly among it heroes. And the militancy of the 1970s relied heavily on socialists and Marxist organisations to sustain the shop stewards movement. Today the revolutionary left is weak and divided. It now has a chance to rebuild itself.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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