Trade union leaders have accepted a deal that falls far short of what could have been won. Chris Bambery looks at strategies for rebuilding resistance.
The ever growing reality that the trade union leaders have, in the wake of the hugely successful 30 November public sector strike over pensions, sat down to agree a bad deal with the coalition government, will leave the two million plus who walked out on the day with a bad pre-festive hangover, shared by their many supporters who joined their protests.
The danger is that it can reinforce a feeling that Britain’s trade unions cannot be depended on to lead the fight against austerity and, at best, are just one component of the movement against the cuts, an unreliable one at that.
For many trade unionists this will be the third time in recent years they’ve been called out on one day strike nationwide action and then told their leaders have decided to prematurely cut the action off – once before over pensions in 2005, over pay in 2008 and again on N30.
Despite this bad experience we should point to the fact that working class action was headline news on N30 and impacted on life in Britain in ways that other protests rarely do. Mass strikes are how working class people discover their own power to change the world.
Nor is it time to dish the working class, it makes up the majority of the world’s population and that of the UK, far exceeding its size back in the days of Karl Marx.
We need to patiently explain that trade union officials sit between the working class and the employers, seeing their role as negotiating a compact between the two. Strikes are seen by these leaders as sometimes being necessary to put pressure on the employers and government but they fret that if things get out of hand the rank and file can get off the leash.
After N30 the trade union leaders either had to up the stakes and call more action, which meant mounting a political challenge to Cameron and Clegg, or retreat. British trade union officials have always accepted that the economic power of the working class cannot be used to effect political change- that’s the job of the Labour Party. It reflects a golden rule of bourgeois democracy that politics equals parliament and trade unions must limit themselves, at best, to securing economic concessions. Faced with the task of toppling Cameron, they took fright.
Mention of the Labour Party leads to another explanation for the timidity of our leaders – they are, in the main, loyal to Labour and put its electoral fortunes before those of their members. Miliband did not denounce the strikes but he did not like them and accepts the substance of the government’s case on pensions. Barber and his ilk accept Labour’s argument that you can’t oppose austerity as a whole, just the sharpest edges of it.
One further reason behind the decision to agree a deal was that it was seen in some circles of trade union officialdom as a way of isolating Mark Serwotka of the PCS and the left in general.
The success of N30 showed that public-sector workers are up for a fight when given a lead. The strike did not, however, stem from the intense pressure of the rank and file. The Yes votes showed their readiness to strike but they were following the lead of their union leaders. The low strike figures and the reality of the absence of meaningful shop stewards organisation show that there is no grass roots rebellion taking place.
Of course the rank and file could rise up in rebellion against any pensions deal or they could rally to the PCS and Serwotka if they take further action, and we should do what we can to encourage that to happen.
But it is time to look at how we see things moving forward. Three models have been pointed to by a number of those on the left. Its time we took stock.
Over the last decade we have seen a series of mass movements repeatedly hit the streets of the globe. Never in human history have such numbers protested and taken part in direct action. The hope was that a new layer of activists would translate that spirit of rebellion into their workplace, connecting and revitalising older activists and the strike level would rise as a result.
It is important to say that whenever there is strike action or trade union protests like that of 26 March 2011 young workers have responded with verve and brought their anti-capitalism to the fore. But they have not been the shock troops of a revived trade union movement.
Many may hold trade union cards but they don’t always see that as the locus for their political or social activity. Many others are in non-unionised workplaces.
The plain truth is those millions of people who’ve marched and protested are not going to morph into the equivalents of the shop stewards of the 1970s. They are active elsewhere and we need to be alongside them.
Another possibility was that a number of rank and file led strikes would secure victories which would inspire a more generalised rebellion. The model were the victories won in 1934 by San Francisco longshoremen (dockers), Minneapolis teamsters and at Auto-Lite in Toledo. The first was led by Communist Party members, the second by Trotskyists and the third by radical socialists.
The victories were the overture to a nationwide Labour unrest which unionised the car, tyre and other key industries in the USA, throwing up a new, militant trade union federation, the CIO.
A similar movement in Britain saw rank and file led strikes at the Cowley car plant in Oxford, the South Wales and Nottinghamshire coalfields and at the Firestone plant in West London. It led to the creation of strong shop stewards organisation in engineering and the rebuilding of the miners union following its defeat in 1926.
Another model was that a one day strike called by the trade union leaders would give confidence to the rank and file to continue striking. That happened in France 1934 when the main trade union, the GCT, called a one day strike following an attempted fascist coup in Paris. It led to a growing number of strikes which culminated in May and June 1936 with the mass occupation of workplaces.
In May 1968 the trade union leaders called a one day strike as students challenged the right wing rule of General Charles de Gaulle. They hoped it would allow workers to let off steam but instead one plant went into occupation sparking another nationwide spate of occupations.
The problem with these models is that from my experience we have been waiting for a number of key strikes to coincide and to secure breakthrough victories since the start of the 1980s, when we recognised the working class was on the defensive. We cannot just wait and hope.
Secondly, we have now seen lots of one day strikes across Europe which have failed to spark a May ’68 type upsurge. It came near to it in France in 2010 and they have led to constant protests in Greece, though not an all out general strike.
The reality of these examples must be taken into account, just hoping that the tide will turn will not get us very far.
There are some interesting things to say about the examples from the 1930s mentioned earlier. Firstly, in the 1930’s the upsurge in the workplaces followed from and was deeply connected to events outside the factories in the lives of the working class.
The Nazi victory in Germany in January 1933 had come as a deep shock, particularly the absence of resistance by Europe’s most powerful working class. The response was a widespread feeling that that should never happen again. In February 1934 the workers of Vienna fought, unsuccessfully but with inspiration, after the right wing Chancellor of Austria suspended parliamentary rule. Together with the reaction of French workers to the fascist attack on parliament this popularised the idea of resistance. A further example was provided by the workers of Asturias in Spain who in October rose up after the election of a right wing government widely seen as a precursor to fascism. Again they were defeated but, again, their example, was an inspiration.
Anti-fascism was key to the restoration of working class confidence.
Secondly, movements among the unemployed preceded the upturn in the workplaces and also played their part. In Toledo the radical socialists had been building an unemployed movement for some time before the strike at Auto-Lite. They were able to mobilise thousands of jobless workers to help successfully blockade the plant, battling the police.
In Oxford a committee had been set up prior to the strike at Cowley to organise the reception for an unemployed Hunger March which passed through the city from South Wales en route to London. Once there newsreel showed the 2000 unemployed fighting the police as they tried to reach parliament, and had an electrifying effect on working class audiences. The Oxford committee maintained itself and when women workers at Cowley walked out demanding union recognition they went to it for help in organising the strike.
Thirdly, the strikes often involved workers regarded as ‘unorganisable.’ This was true for car workers on both sides of the Atlantic and for the teamsters in Minneapolis. In the United States they helped break down barriers between ‘indigenous Americans’ and recent immigrants, Jews and Slavs in particular (black workers less so). In France the CGT and the Communist Party built a significant base among Jewish, Armenian, Polish and Italian migrants, key to the construction of the Paris ‘Red Belt.’
Virtually every upturn of working class struggle has seen the previously ‘unorganisble’ take to the battlefield. In Britain the last great strike wave which occurred from 1969 to 1975 saw the creation of mass trade unionism in the public sector with council workers, civil servants, teachers and health workers striking for the first time. It also drew in women, Asian and Black British workers in huge numbers. Of course they were striking alongside dockers, car workers and miners but they too had been viewed as ‘unorganisble’ a few decades before.
That’s why I found it strange that so many on the left in the build up to N30 were stressing the centrality of the ‘organised working class’ when the need to build basic working class organisation where none exists is of paramount importance. It dismisses the vast majority in the private sector who belong to no union and will be key to future success. Marx said the ‘self emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class,’ the word ‘organised’ does not appear there.
Talk of organising rank and file or shop stewards movements misses the fact that in the past they have rested in this country on strong shop steward organisation which is absent today.
This is not pessimism about the ability of the working class to fight and change society but its recognition there are now whole sectors of the economy and of our communities where working class organisation is weak or non-existent.
Unless there’s a Marxist with a crystal ball hidden away under their bed we cannot predict how working class struggle will break through – that will happen spontaneously to the surprise of us all as has always been the case. The key is how the left then reacts to the unexpected.
The worst thing is to retreat into the traditional safety zone of the British left which is to combine economistic struggle with a propagandist message of socialism. Sectarianism is the consequence and we have to say the failure of the left to build a united student campaign in the autumn of 2010 or to react to the riots and unrest of this summer is an example of this.
However there is some broad outlines that we can identify about what we need to do to strengthen the working class.
We need to be part of the movements which are taking place outside the workplace from community led campaigns to the Occupy movement. They can inspire and link up with those trying to mobilise in the unions and at work.
We need to build political movements which challenge austerity and the constant erosion of democracy. The revival of struggle in the 1930s flowed from the mass anti-fascist and unemployed movements and was strengthened by the ‘Aid for Spain’ movement. The New Unionism of the 1890s, which saw the unskilled organised for the first time, was preceded by mass movements fighting for free speech, against unemployment and for Irish freedom.
We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the economic crisis will rapidly intensify at some point in 2012, this will lead to calls for even more austerity from the Con-Dem government. A sharp political response will be required that pins down austerity and the government as the problem, not the solution.
We need to hit pressure points: at Westminster George Osborne’s economic plan has clearly failed, we should campaign to force his resignation. At Holyrood, what is the SNP majority government doing to protect Scottish people from austerity? Youth unemployment in Scotland is running at over one in four whilst RBS and HBOS (based in Edinburgh) continuing to get away with huge bonuses.
For the unions, wherever possible we should join and be active where we work. Whether the union exists or is recognised we can all build round political issues – opposition to cuts or tax evasion, against an attack on Iran or in solidarity with the construction workers. Whenever a strike happens you can build basic solidarity – collections and so on. Within our union we need to mobilise to get them out with their banners on the protests which will occur.
But we need to go beyond this. Its about time the Left started to put forward a different vision of trade unionism in Britain. We need a fighting, social unionism that engages young activists because it is political, combative and supportive of all those taking action against the government. Broad Lefts in unions need to fight hard against the creeping notion that the union’s role is as a service provider, and if that means standing for positions in unions to take up that message then we should do that too.
This should include organising among the unorganised – whether its supply teachers, interns, call centre, bar or supermarket workers.
The danger, and we should spell it out, is as union activists we can sink under the case work union reps now have to carry and by the grind of maintaining union organisation and of surviving the harsh reality of work – which is worse than it was three decades ago. The job of those on the left must be to attempt to transform the unions politically, not to hold them together bureaucratically.
To bring all this together and connect union struggles organisationally to political movements we need a coherent, national movement against austerity. This should bring everyone together to share, participate and benefit from a strategic and tactical discussion on how to fight austerity. It’s also vital that it connects to the anti-austerity movements across Europe. The Coalition of Resistance is the one candidate for that job at the close of 2011.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
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