Mass demonstrations over political issues have become more common whilst union militancy is at an historical low. Alex Snowdon looks at how the unions can be moved to use their power in the workplace.

Tower Hamlets strikers

One of the most interesting – and sometimes frustrating – features of the resistance to public sector cuts is how action in the workplaces lags behind action in the streets. We have endured a long period marked by a low level of industrial action, which influences the current shortage of workplace militancy.

The higher level of street mobilisation, conversely, continues the tradition of mass protests in the last two decades or so, from the anti-poll tax protests through mass demonstrations opposed to pit closures, the BNP and the Tories’ Criminal Justice Bill in the 1990s, to the massive anti-war protests over the last decade. Whether it’s climate change or the G20, Gaza or tuition fees, we’ve seen significant and large-scale street protests in the last few years.

We live in an age of mass street-based protest movements – regardless of the inevitable peaks and troughs in particular movements – rather than an age of assertive industrial militancy. That may yet change, but it’s an undeniably accurate characterisation of where we are coming from. It means it is possible to have this country’s largest ever labour movement demonstration (26 March saw around 500,000 take to the streets) at a time, remarkably, when there aren’t many strikes.

Mass demonstations over what are basically political issues – most obviously the war in Iraq – paved the way for the same tactic, of mass protest, being deployed in response to the biggest attack on working class living standards for generations. We can expect more such protests.

The continuing low level of strike action is shaped, broadly speaking, by three factors. First there’s the toll of serious defeats for the union movement, most famously the defeat of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 but also across a range of sectors from steel to printing. Defeat breeds demoralisation and defensiveness, just as victory spurs us on to further action.

Then there’s the impact of repeated recessions and bouts of high unemployment, with some industries devastated and a more precarious workforce. In fact the unions have held up reasonably well – in terms of membership – but restructuring of the economy inevitably damages stable union organisation. Waves of unemployment were also a factor in holding back union militancy because the threat of the dole was used to intimidate workers.

Finally, there’s the anti-union laws passed by the Tories and maintained by New Labour. Together with the impact of defeats, especially in the 1980s, they strengthened the grip of union leaderships over the union grassroots. They have encouraged a slower, more cautious and bureaucratic approach.

The decline of the unions’ industrial combativity can be exaggerated. The potential is still there. Union membership in the public sector is high. Often merely threatening strike action has at least won concessions. It’s worth recalling, too, that Thatcher’s government couldn’t go nearly as far as it wanted in eroding public services, the welfare state or living standards for the majority.

But the decline, sadly, is real. One consequence of this is the media’s ritual rubbishing of trade unions as ‘dinosaurs’ from a bygone age.

But another, less obvious, consequence is that radicals and activists don’t automatically recognise unions as important, or necessarily as A Good Thing. This is hardly surprising. Unions have to a great extent become ‘professionalised’ and can seem tame. Their slowness of response to the cuts – the TUC was correctly criticised for not having a major national demonstration earlier – didn’t exactly persuade the newly radicalised that they were major players in the resistance.

Most importantly, the lack of large-scale strike action can make arguments about the power of the organised working class seem abstract and therefore rather unconvincing. Nothing convinces people like seeing something actually happen.

The action has been on the streets – student protests, UK Uncut actions, 26 March, numerous local anti-cuts rallies – much more than it has been in the workplaces. Yet it’s also important that it was the TUC that organised the 26 March demo, which dwarfed all previous anti-cuts protests. It was a powerful reminder that nobody other than the unions has the resources and strength in numbers to mobilise on such a large scale.

Students and school students detonated anti-cuts resistance last November, inspiring millions, and they continue to have a vital role. But it’s the unions that were able to take the scale of the movement to a higher level. Crucially, it’s not just about the unions, but rather a broader movement in which the they are centrally involved. Still, it was the unions that did the bulk of the mobilising for 26 March.

PCS leader Mark Serwotka, addressing the crowds in Hyde Park, said that if half a million of us can all march together then we can strike together too. This got a huge roar of approval. He tapped into a widespread sentiment for unity and co-ordination together with the recognition that strike action is necessary if we’re to extend the movement’s impact.

That doesn’t mean, as some on the left perhaps think, that once we have more strikes nothing else really matters. For one thing, continuing mass demonstrations make an enormous difference to workers’ confidence to strike. For another thing, the cuts affect the vast majority, whether trade unionists or not, and we need a movement that encompasses all those opposed to cuts. The combination of strikes, demonstrations and other campaigning methods is crucial.

Some on the left are currently calling for a general strike. It’s not always clear who they want to call this general strike, but if anyone is ever specified it is the TUC. That’s despite the fact the TUC general council is not only painfully moderate but largely irrelevant to what industrial action unions take. It is the leaderships of the major unions they should be addressing.

But even then the ‘general strike’ slogan fails to hit the mark. It isn’t a call that has resonance in workplaces the length and breadth of this country. Until there is widespread grassroots pressure for a general strike, it really is just sloganeering: a way of distinguishing yourself as militant, without advancing anything practical (indeed it serves as an evasion of the challenge to establish next steps for our movement).

It is sometimes argued the general strike call is justified because there have already been general strikes in a number of European countires. That may be, but Britain isn’t France or Greece. We haven’t had a general strike since 1926. General strikes elsewhere simply haven’t impacted on popular working class consciousness, inspiring a similar resolve here. It’s wishful thinking to believe a general strike is on the immediate agenda, though of course it’s something all socialists would love to happen.

What is on the agenda is co-ordinated public sector strikes – probably over pensions, almost certainly one-day affairs, likely to involve 3 or 4 unions (at least to begin with), perhaps at national level. What we certainly should be doing is pushing for co-ordinated national strike action across a range of unions.

This is what Mark Serwotka was encouraging in Hyde Park, though he’s well to the left of union general secretaries like Sally Hunt in UCU and Dave Prentis in Unison who are noticeably more cautious (though UCU has, commendably, been first into action to defend pensions).

It’s also a matter of convincing the rank and file. We have little experience of striking and there are few victories to take inspiration from. Levels of combativity remain fairly low, but that may soon change under pressure from the government’s attacks. It will also help if there’s visibly a movement organising against the cuts – that’s one reason 26 March was so important. The spirit of the streets has to be taken into the workplaces.

There’s a great deal of impatience among many student and ‘direct action’ activists, getting frustrated with the unions’ apparent conservatism and lack of dynamism. There’s something in this – there was, for example, an undeniable sense towards the end of last year that unions were thoroughly left behind by the students. A speech from TUC leader Brendan Barber is unlikely to impress anyone furious with the bankers and tax cheats and wanting a real fightback.

What is less excusable, however, is the indifference verging on contempt witnessed in some of the responses to 26 March. Some of those who identify themselves as ‘radical’ have failed to grasp the significance of the mass mobilisation on that day, fetishising supposedly more ‘militant’ but small-scale methods over mass protests.

Reassuringly, there are many other people – also mostly young and enthused by UK Uncut protests and student occupations and demonstrations – who realise that 26 March represents an extension, in scale and breadth, of the existing movement. A movement can be both broad and radical, capable of mobilising on a mass scale without compromising its dynamism.

The unions don’t always reach out as they could to build alliances, for example with students, partly because they are bureaucratic, partly due to having been through a long period in which they haven’t fought. But it is vital that activists recognise the role unions can play.

Working with others, they are indispensable to building anti-cuts coalitions with real social weight and roots in working class communities. Working together – co-operating across a number of unions – they can take action which will potentially involve millions of working people. The recent UCU lecturers’ strikes – actively supported in many areas by students – and the Tower Hamlets Unison/NUT strike provided a taste of what is possible.

But it’s more even than that. We have power when we act collectively in the workplaces. It’s not the only place we have power, but it’s central because it’s where we are exploited – and therefore also the place where we can bring the system to a grinding halt. In the long run, nothing short of mass collective action in the workplaces – as well as the streets, colleges and local communities – will be required to stop the cuts.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).