Category Archives: Industrial Relations

Quick thoughts on the student-worker problem

“Why don’t you bloody well get a real job?” ask Workers’ Liberty in their new pamphlet.

Well, not exactly. “Change the world – organise at work!” is aimed at left-wing students about to graduate, and it’s a welcome, and rare, piece of propaganda from the left that tries to tackle the problematic student-to-worker transition.

What should politicised students, not least those radicalised during the 2010-11 movement, do with their lives once they’ve left university? It’s a big question for a lot of us. Workers’ Liberty want us to become rank-and-file union activists, an emphasis I agree with (should we become Labour Party activists too though? That question, where I disagree with the AWL, is left lying in the pamphlet).

Certainly it’s struck me for a long time that more and more good student activists I’ve known have started Masters courses, then PhDs, and will, presumably, stay in academia. Because universities have been the left’s biggest recruiting ground for ages, this is having a long-term impact. Sometimes it seems like the industrial base of the SWP, for example, is shrinking to just the UCU (this is just an impression so correct me if I’m wrong).

Some good things have come of this. There’s more post-grads joining the UCU, for example. And the GMB’s student-worker conference at Goldsmiths was a good initiative. But generally speaking, the funnelling of left-wing activists into academia will be a bad thing in the long run.

For those of us too thick or too sick of it to want to stay in the bubble, the pamphlet suggests we take jobs in strategic workplaces; health, communications, rail, local government, rather than, for example, working at a “worthy” job in the charity sector.

The criticisms of charity are well and good. I found myself thinking, though, about the Shelter strike in 2008. Those workers were workers like any other. Surely it’s not working for a charity that is a problem in itself. It’s being a boss in a charity, which is, I imagine, much the same as being a boss anywhere else.

So should we urge people to turn away from “graduate-level” jobs and go into workplaces on the bottom rung? There’s a more complicated problem here. Some graduates have found they can’t get those jobs anyway, and have to work minimum wage jobs in cafes and the like because nothing else comes up. On the other hand, I think there can also be a problem for graduates applying for “low level” jobs: employers see your degree, assume you’ll sod off when something better comes along, and don’t hire you.

How has it worked out in the past when groups have urged their university-educated young members to take jobs in factories and the like? I know it’s happened, but my history of the movement isn’t good enough to comment. Some more information and testimony about that would be useful. Did the bosses get wise to it and do the 1970s equivalent of a Google search on prospective employees? It’s difficult to parachute yourself into a workplace and fit in. “Engels was a mill owner.” Sure. But he wasn’t a union rep. He was, in fact, a boss. Not the best example.

Urging people to get jobs in strategic industries is fine, but let’s recognise that it’s far from always possible. In the post, there’s no jobs. In local government, very few. On the railways, even fewer. We’re not really in a position to pick and choose. Obviously AWL comrades know this, so they’re sort of urging us to get whatever jobs we can, and apply for this other stuff in the meantime. But for a lot of people, it’ll never happen, we just won’t get jobs on the tube or wherever. The unions need transforming in other areas too. Bar work, retail work, other areas where grads and non-grads work side by side (I can’t talk with great authority about this, having made no headway in my current job).

For me, the most interesting point in the pamphlet is this:

Today’s older union reps who started activity in the 1980s are, in many ways, the best of their generation. They stuck with the movement while others fell away. Yet many of them – on the evidence of the pensions dispute, a majority of them – have suffered an erosion of spirit, even if they are still nominally left-wing or revolutionary minded. For twenty or thirty years they have been trained in union activity as damage limitation.

I think this is more or less bang on. The spirit of the student movement was that a token protest is not enough, and that the point of fighting is winning. This is something the unions need to rediscover; strikes not just as protests or bargaining chips, but strikes as a form of industrial warfare. It was difficult, probably impossible, for the student movement to teach this to the workers’ movement “from without.” Student activists have a better chance of doing it by becoming union activists themselves.

Take everything I’ve written here with the caveat that I’ve not been very active myself for a while, but I broadly agree with the thrust of the pamphlet. All I’d say to the comrades who wrote it is, recognise that at the moment a lot of people will just take whatever employment opportunity comes along, rather than dropping in to one of your favoured industries. Those of us who work casual, part-time, short-term hours need some political and industrial help too. Maybe that’s a discussion for another day.

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Filed under Industrial Relations, Political Strategy, Student Issues

The General Strike debate

There has been lots of talk recently (on the left at least) of a general strike in the UK – the NUJ has voted in favour of a 24 hour general strike, and most left groups have been pushing the slogan strongly on March 26th and since.

However, there seems to be little understanding of how we can move from sloganeering towards helping to create a situation that could be called a ‘general strike.’

The writers here at the Great Unrest have tried to put down some of their thoughts and ideas.

This kind of reflection is crucial, otherwise we’re just ‘calling’ for something without understanding what ‘calling for it’ means, and without understanding what the thing we’re calling for actually is. And that’s not a good situation for a revolutionary to be in.

We encourage all readers to share their own thoughts on the general strike debate in the comments.


Patrick:
The TUC does not call strikes – trade unions organise ballots and workers vote to call strikes. Even if the TUC did have the power to call a general strike, it almost certainly would not call one.

A general strike can only develop in an asymmetrical way – with more organised sectors striking, and moving into more militant tactics – real picket lines, indefinite strikes, and perhaps most importantly, use of social movement unionism – service users materially supporting strikes against cuts, communal provision of services (food etc) on picket lines, even (at the most militant end) work-ins at public service buildings. The latter could take the form of schools continuing to run but teachers refuse to fill out forms, adhere to tests or the curriculum, for example.

The less organised may begin with work-to-rule, and build support within the membership from there. Temporal coordination of strike action will surely come at a relatively late stage in this process.

Would a general strike be effective? Not if it was a one-day affair, like Greece, Spain, and Portugal have all seen recently. A one-day general strike may be an important confidence boost (like March26th could have been), but an effective general strike would have to be longer (or at least very regular), with strikers using their days to raise support, organise mutual aid services, and hold public events to pull convince the undecided that disruption is a necessary price to save public services.

Liam McNulty:
One thing which worries me about the ‘General strike now‘ slogan is that it conceivably represents for the organised far left what the March 26th demonstration represented for the TUC: a one-off event involving months of planning with little consideration given to what happens afterwards. As with the ‘March for the Alternative’, in which the ‘alternative’ was left purposefully vague, the content behind the slogan is by no means clear. There is a danger that, if it were to happen, it would at best be a spectacular gesture; at worst could lead to demoralisation if it failed to have any palpable impact on the government’s political agenda. Indeed, by what measure should we, and the workers’ who take part, judge the ‘success’ of a general strike?

I have some sympathy with the view that if socialists do not raise the slogan of a general strike then no one will. However, I fear this is a mistaken attitude to take towards the labour movement. Unless accompanied with rank-and-file work within trade unions in various sectors to prepare the way for such an action, there is a sense in which the slogan of a general strike is being ‘handed down’ by exogeneous organisations from on high. It seems to me that this is indicative of a bureaucratic and formalist conception of politics, as opposed to one which is rooted more organically in the class.

It would surely be better if the slogan was raised in a manner more in keeping with the flow of struggle. Rather than being a corollary of the tactical vacuum post-March 26th (well, we have to propose ‘something’!), the call for a general strike might make more sense if proposed, say, as the extention and escalation of a current ongoing wave of industrial action. In this sense, its emergence would be tactically more concrete and less akin to a generic formula. The role of the organised left is not just to shout slogans from the sidelines in the hope that they fall on fertile ground but to judge the best opportunities for intervention, guiding the flow of struggle and providing leadership when it is most needed.

Anne Archist: Workers’ Power have formulated one of the more reasonable takes on the ‘general strike’ formula, telling us to “raise the call now for a general strike, call for the TUC to do it but don’t rely on them, and crucially build the anticuts committees … to coordinate action from below.” They’ve also made the case for indefinite action and private sector inclusion, contrary to the Socialist Party for instance.
Even when formulated like this is strikes me as a tactic that involves playing with fire. The only serious general strike Britain has ever seen was in 1926, and it teaches us some harsh historical lessons. Socialist Worker and other Trotskyist papers are willing to learn from the positive lessons like Churchill’s comment that the strike was “a conflict which … can only end in the overthrow of parliamentary government or its decisive victory”.

As usual, the same groups are largely unwilling to learn from the negative lessons o the experience: the general strike came out of coordinated action in a few industries that threatened to spread; the TUC sent a negotiator (both in order to avert the strike and during ongoing negotiations once workers had come out) who was notorious for refusing to take solidarity action and who was clearly on the government’s side, saying “God help us unless the government won”; the army, special constables and scab volunteers were called upon to run services and police pickets, leading to violent confrontations; the councils of action were unable to sustain industrial action for a significant length of time in the face of the TUC’s aggressive withdrawal; the failure of the strike led to a significant fall in TUC-affiliated union membership and to legislation that first made general strikes illegal (which was on the books for nearly 20 years before Labour removed it – it’s now illegal again, incidentally).

The questions we should be asking are: how we can build the kind of confidence that would lead workers to take non-tokenistic action in defiance of the law and the TUC leadership; how can we build the kind of organisation that would make such action successful (ideally through forms of action that are disruptive to employers and build class strength and consciousness while being sustainable and conducive to solidarity, as Patrick touches on in this article); how do we circumvent the official leadership of the unions and provide political leadership to the anti-cuts movement through this action; how do we minimise the possibility of a backlash that could do serious harm to the organised workers’ movement in the face of an unsuccessful general strike? Another vital question that is neglected by every discussion I’ve come across is quite what we expect to come out of a general strike at a time when social revolution doesn’t seem to be a short-term option like it might have been in 1926 – do we stop short at bringing down the government, do we expect to beat the cuts entirely if we bring a Labour majority to office, do we push further and go on the offensive (e.g. for full employment), do we struggle for political revolution to replace even Labour with a workers’ government within broadly capitalist relations…?

Edd Mustill: The Tower Hamlets strike rally a couple of weeks ago was interesting because it showed both some of the contradictions in the public sector unions, and some of the left’s current approach. Made up of teachers and local government workers, the majority of the room were women of various ages and backgrounds. All the main speakers, except one, were middle-aged men. A crude observation perhaps, but one which maybe underlines the disconnection between leaderships and membership, especially in the public sector. The chair, a young NUT member, did a good job of telling people that members make the unions, and that leaders need to be held to account. She urged people to get involved in their branches.

There was no floor discussion, no discussion of tactics and strategy, at the rally, so perhaps chanting was the only way to get an idea across. The danger is that, like some chanting on demonstrations, it comes across as pleading for someone else to act rather than self-organising. This is perhaps reflected in the behaviour of the left within union leaderships. This report from a Unison NEC (take it or leave it) says:

“…one after another on the ultra left accepted that we are neither administratively industrially ready to launch successful industrial action with the NUT and PCS in June and recognised the importance of planning for this properly. Only the Socialist Party representative from Yorkshire believed in the need for immediate action, if not a general strike…”

In fact the Socialist Party’s leaflet for the Unison NEC election mentions co-ordinated strike action, but not the ‘general strike’ at all. So how seriously are the left really taking it?

The groups pushing most strongly for a general strike, the SWP and Workers’ Power, wrote in their reports of Tower Hamlets that their general strike chant was taken up by most or all workers in the room. Apart from not being true, this doesn’t bring the general strike any closer. The idea that a group of workers “throwing their weight behind the call for a general strike” will push union leaders into calling one is tenuous. That’s not how union leaderships are forced into taking decisions like that. There needs to be an alternative pole built up in the unions, a rank-and-file pole. To be fair to Workers’ Power, they seem to be involved in a new “Grassroots Left” movement in Unite.

Rather than a question of what calls we make or what headlines we put on reports, bringing about a general strike is really a question of what forms of organisation we need.

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Some thoughts on effective unionism (I)

Why going on strike is as effective as it ever was

by Edd Mustill

This article takes up some of the post-March 26th discussions on this blog. It is the first of a series of posts about trade unionism, what it is and what it should be. This post is written by way of an introduction.

The idea that “these days” people are less powerful as workers than they are as consumers, service users, students, citizens, or actors in “civil society” (whatever that is) is, I think, common among people who are generally left-wing.

This is reflected in the idea that unions are just a constituent part of a broad anti-cuts or anti-government alliance, and that industrial activism is just another form of protest or “resistance.”

I think there are a number of assumptions underlying this attitude:

The unions are intrinsically weak because they haven’t done anything for a long time

I’m not going to go into economics here. Workers’ Liberty have recently attempted to briefly deal with this attitude here.

I’ll just add that, historically speaking, there have been long stretches when the unions have been relatively dormant in Britain. The 1860s-1880s, 1940s-1950s, 1990s-now, and so on.

The TUC is the same thing as “the unions”

Because the March 26th demo was called by the TUC, articles that appeared since then (my own included) have sometimes used “TUC” as shorthand for the trade union movement. This isn’t the case. In fact, far from the TUC being more than the sum of its parts, at the moment, arguably, the opposite is true.

The nature and historical role of the TUC is a topic for another post, but what I will say here is that it is an umbrella (or shell!) organisation. Local trades councils are not like branches of the TUC. Member unions conduct their own affairs and have their own policies.

Incidentally, the slogan “TUC call a general strike” is not helpful in this regard because it assumes the TUC is something more than it is. Whether the General Council could even “call” a general strike is debatable. Certainly it’d be breaking some laws. Should we be making a central plank of our strategy the idea that the most moderate sections of the movement should break the law en masse, when even the most militant have so far not shown much appetite to do so? But as we know, the general strike debate is a whole kettle of fish by itself.

So, when people say things like the TUC is too slow, too moderate, and so on, they are right. But just saying that risks glossing over the fact that there are ongoing battles within the TUC’s member unions over tactics and strategy. Even at leadership level, there is a notable gap between those pushing openly for united industrial action, like Mark Serwotka of the PCS, and those who can’t even pronounce the words “industrial action,” like Dave Prentis of Unison.

People don’t work in large workplaces that make class consciousness come naturally

There’s a bit of a myth that, when Britain had a big industrial workforce, everyone worked in huge factories employing thousands of people, where a strike could easily paralyse production to a colossal degree.

Most industrial workers worked in small workshops rather than huge complexes. Today, we have our own huge workplaces everywhere. Town halls each employ hundreds of people. How many thousands of staff are on the books at every big hospital and university? What about airports? And big call centres on “industrial estates”?

The problem is that workers in all these places are divided by profession and grade, which means that, more often than not, they are divided into different unions. Lecturers will be in the UCU, other staff could be in Unison, Unite, or the GMB.

But even where workers are in the same union, the law enforces division. Perhaps the current British Airways dispute could have been won at a much earlier stage through extending the strike to other sections of the workforce, like Heathrow baggage handlers who have something of a tradition of sympathy action. This would probably have been illegal, but it could have been successful.

So there are big workplaces where class solidarity could be fostered, but organisation within them is often uneven and fragmented. More on these problems in the next post in this series.

Service workers are more easily replaceable than industrial workers, so it’s much harder for them to strike effectively

There is another myth here, albeit one that has more truth to it. There were and are, of course, many skilled workers in heavy industry. But such industries have always relied on semi-skilled workers and labourers just as much in order to function. Organising people like this has usually been the source of the most radical forms of unionism.

The most famous of the general unions which changed the face of unionism a century ago was the Dockers’ Union. Their success was based on organising workers who actually faced some of the same conditions that most young workers face now. Irregular hours, not knowing what shifts you’re going to work until the day you have to work them, little or nothing in the way of pensions or sick pay, sacking at a moments’ notice… all these are familiar to people working in the service industry today.

Any workers we think of as having had stable work patterns, strong organisations, good pay and benefits, began as precarious, super-exploited workers. The miners are the most obvious example.

So it’s not impossible to organise service workers, it’s just difficult. But the fact that they are untouched by the rather sterilising experience of bureaucratic unionism can open up opportunities for radical unionists. Again, more on these problems will come in a future post.

Strikes are just another form of protest

For many years, the vast majority of strikes have been 24-hour, perhaps 48-hour affairs. Strikes of this nature are essentially protests. They will have a minimal economic impact even if they are solid, because bosses can plan around them, get people to work overtime in the weeks before and after, and so on.

One of the first strikes I ever raised money for was a strike of bus drivers in South Yorkshire. The strike was all-out, and won after about three weeks. Public support by no means fell away during that time.

It was effective because the company in question, First, ran the vast majority of the bus routes in the area, so they stood to lose a lot of profit and alternative transport was more or less non-existent.

Too often strikes are just seen as a way of keeping a dispute rumbling until the inevitable defeat, or compromise in favour of the bosses. What needs to be rediscovered and rebuilt is a culture of actually striking to win.

Everything gets made in other countries, all we do is buy it

Well, we do still “make things,” goods and services, commodities, in Britain. But it helps anyway to think of production lines as international.

Say, for example, there is a textile workers’ strike in Bangladesh. The clothes being made are bound for high street stores in dozens of countries, including here. Perhaps, for whatever reasons, the strike does not succeed in totally shutting down production. While the employers can get some goods out to sell anywhere in the world, the strike is undermined.

Workers in the retail industry in Britain find themselves at the end of chains of production that could have passed through several countries. Any broken link in this chain can potentially stop it completely, including at the point of sale.

A strike in the shops selling the clothes would be a thousand times more effective than an appeal for a consumer boycott, if only because a relatively small number of people need to be up for it. A picket line can keep a shop closed day after day in a way that a UK Uncut-style bail-in can do for an afternoon.

So that’s just a sketch of some of the reasons why I think we should be seriously engaging in discussions about how to mount effective industrial action.

The main problem is not that striking doesn’t work. The main problem is that strikes rarely seem to be conducted as a fight to win. Everything I’ve touched on here will be elaborated in future articles, so if you’re interested, keep checking the site in between all the hilarious comedy gold we’ve been churning out recently.

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Three years since Mahalla

by Edd Mustill

Today Egypt’s April 6th Youth Movement is celebrating its 3rd birthday.

On April 6th 2008, an attempted general strike occurred in Egypt, called by the textile workers of Mahalla. The April 6th Youth Movement was formed initially as a group in solidarity with the Mahalla workers.

The police attempted to stop the strike by forcibly taking over the factory. Within two days, the security services had moved to arrest the strike leaders. They shot and killed Mahalla residents, including a 15-year-old.

The events of April 6th 2008 were part of the strike wave that took place in Egpyt in 2006-8. Some said it marked the broadening of the strikes into political strikes. It gave impetus to other social movements in the country.

April 6th were among those who first called this year’s protest which ousted Mubarak, and are working for further democratisation and for a continuation of the revolution. They recently campaigned against the constitutional changes drawn up by the military, arguing that Egypt needs a completely new constitution.

Today we should remember that the struggle of the Egyptian workers did not just appear on our TV screens out of nowhere. It has been, and continues to be, a long, hard, and bloody fight. Mahalla has been, and will no doubt continue to be, on the front line.

To the workers and students of Egpyt, to the twentysomething-year-old veterans of revolutionary agitation… solidarity on April 6th.

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Rallies and Riots: Hyde Park to Piccadilly

by Edd Mustill

I’m going to add my personal account of Saturday’s protest to the many that are already out there, and hopefully draw some political conclusions from it. As always, discussion is welcomed and encouraged.

Marching and Uncutting

On Saturday I spent most of the day, more by accident than design, leaving areas just before things kicked off in a big way. This happened at Fortnum and Mason’s, Piccadilly Circus, and Trafalgar Square.

The march itself was, I reckon, at least half a million strong. Why the TUC still seem to be playing down the numbers is baffling, and perhaps a worrying indication of their (lack of) future plans. I spent the early part of it finding, losing, and finding again people I knew in places. I was still on the Embankment by the time the rally in Hyde Park was under way.

Ed Miliband’s Hyde Park speech pulled out the usual cliché about the “peaceful” movements of the past, including the suffragettes, who burned churches and whose window-breaking antics make today’s students look like Autoglass. There was not only nothing in his speech about class (we expect this from Labour by now), but nothing even about what Labour’s “alternative” is. No hint of policy, except to say that “some cuts” are necessary.

The trade unions were out in force in their contingents, and it really was a sight to see. Uniformed firemen, the huge banners of the RMT, doctors in their uniforms. Encouragingly, many in the trade union contingents were younger than I expected. The left was organised and engaged with the marchers.

There are moments, on huge demonstrations, where you can see and feel the ocean of people surrounding you, the jokes being cracked, the songs being sung, the drums beating. You lose a friend in the crowd, swap an anecdote with a stranger, and you think, “How can this possibly not make any difference?”

Then you walk past Parliament and Downing Street, and you remember that just marching never makes any difference.

When I saw the UK Uncut flag appear out of the window of Fortnum’s, I had to ask someone I was with what the shop actually sold. Perhaps this shows how unlikely it is that “normal” people will ever shop in those places or, for that matter, be able to stay at the Ritz. But some people were dismayed by the choice or target, and some people by the use of direct action (both from UKUncut and from the black bloc) altogether. “Look at that,” one Unison member said to another as we went past the Ritz. “That’s terrible.”

I spoke to some who were very much in favour of direct action, but wondered why more “political” targets hadn’t been chosen. UKUncut’s targets are softer and easier, and revolve around the central political demand of “pay your taxes,” which is hardly radical. The politics of the group is unavoidably amorphous, but seems to be based around the sub-Keynesian assumption that getting tax-dodging companies to pay up can solve the current capitalist crisis.

The obvious potential contradiction here is that you’re demanding that the state, currently steered by a Tory government, acts against these companies. We don’t have any tax-collecting powers.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the UK Uncut actions have been very good, but the disciplined Marxist in me is saying, sooner or later you need a strategy for confronting the state.

A narrative quickly developed, pushed by both the police and the TUC, that there were two separate protests, and the direct action had nothing to do with the main march. But by the time we passed the Ritz it had been done in. Also, this had the immediate effect of confusing UKUncut and the black bloc protesters on the day itself. The BBC News ticker on Saturday night read “Police clash with protesters from UKUncut in Trafalgar Square.” This atmosphere possibly contributed to many knee-jerk condemnations of the direct actions from the left, like this from Andy Newman and this absolute garbage by Anthony Painter on LabourList.

Those complaining that the later action took media coverage away from the main march are just wrong. There was a lot of coverage of the march, then something else happened, which got covered too. That’s how the news works. I’m pretty sure that, with everything going on in the Middle East, the networks would have moved on pretty rapidly anyway.

To paraphrase Matthew Perry’s character in Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60, I’m sure the media would be happy to cover the TUC if only anyone from the TUC would say or do something.

Rioting

It didn’t really dawn on me until later on Sunday that I had spent my Saturday evening wandering through a riot. I came to the conclusion that riots are weird. Does this have any political implications?

Having left Hyde Park we decided to check out Oxford Street, but there was nothing going on. Several shops were shut and guarded by riot police. People were shopping away. Normal life continued around a huge demonstration that could have been a life-changing experience for those on it. Later, as I went home on the tube, there were no excited conversations, or even indignant rants against violence. There was no-one heading home with their home-made placard. So obviously we have a lot of work still to do.

On Regent Street a group of people were dancing in the middle of the road, holding up four riot vans. Shoppers came out of H&M to take photos, then wandered away. After a while the vans turned round and left. I have no idea if this logistically helped any protesters in other parts of London. Soon after the vans left another one pulled up, a short-shield riot squad formed up and charged up the street. So the police tactics were confused. That’s when the fundamental characteristic of a riot hits home; it’s weird not just because you don’t know what’s going on, but because no-one else does either.

The police appear clueless, just responding to the latest event. The black bloc appears to have fragmented and is running around choosing targets somehow. Two people sit down in Piccadilly Circus and begin to paint a picture of protesters on the Eros statue, before noticing that a building appears to be on fire, and a line of riot police have silently appeared in front of Boots, as if from nowhere. On Haymarket, a man is tackled to the ground by seven police officers and an attempt to de-arrest him leads several dozen anarchists to congregate outside a hotel where Ho Chi Minh used to work. As we turn round, a squad of TSG rush out of a van straight through us. We don’t hang around.

Is any of the chaos useful? It’s difficult to know straight away. It is probably no more or less useful in itself than a TUC rally in Hyde Park. We have been treated to the usual cliches about how all the anarchists must be middle class, but the black bloc didn’t seem any more or less middle class than, say, the teachers’ unions’ contingents. And the crowd in Trafalgar Square certainly wasn’t.

We need to recognise how complex people’s political positions can be. Could it be possible that there are people who think that smashing up the Ritz is an important political statement, and also think that trade unions are organisations crucial to the fight against the government? Could be. Could people exist who want to march, go to a rally, and do some direct action? Let’s hope so, for the sake of the movement.

Opposing or denouncing direct action in order to seem more “serious” or “responsible” is meaningless. Does anyone on the far-left who calls for a general strike seriously think that it would or could pass off without some picket-line scuffles or property damage? Does no-one in the trade union movement remember that there was a time when industrial sabotage was a feature of many big strikes?

Strikes are a form of economic warfare, or sabotage, and they cost people money. Of course, it’s “better” when this sabotage is organised, directed, and sustained democratically by unions. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that any other form should be dismissed as useless. Why not argue that strikes are counterproductive because they might “alienate” people from the cause?

Doing the rounds on the Facebook walls of a lot of lefties is the following quotation from Martin Luther King Jr: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Catchy. But in its full context, it is clear King is criticising riots as a childish exercise. Could we take more from Malcolm X’s discussion of “extremism”?:

“When one is moderate in the pursuit of justice for human beings then he is a sinner… Patrick Henry said ‘liberty or death’, that’s extreme. Very extreme.”

Like it or not, the West End riot was a series of political acts. To pretend otherwise is to accept the police narrative that it was just criminal elements in it for themselves. If that was true, why wouldn’t they do it on a weekend when 4,500 cops weren’t on duty in central London?

Closing the gap

There’s obviously a huge political problem confronting the anti-cuts movement. Only a tiny minority of those opposed to the cuts are at this stage comfortable with taking direct action, just as only a minority are in favour of taking militant industrial action. There are also differences over what forms of direct action to take.

The crucial question now is this: how do we get more people more militant while still being able to engage with the people who carried on shopping around Oxford Street?

We know from the student occupations that militant action can (and if it is to be successful, must) be part of a political debate. The Fortnum and Mason action did not “detract” from any debate; if anything, it at the very least highlighted the tax-dodging behaviour of the business. It concretely highlighted the sort of “alternative” that the TUC figures were nodding towards in their Hyde Park speeches. That is, a limited one. The anarchists and the organised far-left have, of course, nominally got a much more holistic alternative in mind: revolution.

On Saturday we saw, broadly speaking; moderate activity with reformist goals (from the TUC), moderate activity with revolutionary goals (from the far left), militant activity with reformist goals (from UKUncut), and militant activity with revolutionary goals (from the black bloc).

Individuals in the anarcho-syndicalist Solidarity Federation have published this letter urging UKUncut activists not to fall for the false divide between “good” and “bad” protesters. They rightly point out that “repression is not provoked by violent actions, but by effective actions.”

It seems that, unless the unions and/or the far left are willing to organise more militant actions, they will remain the “stunts” of a few. The direct activists should be union organisers in their workplaces, working to democratise their unions.

The various left groups who are now turning their attention to the possibility of bringing about a general strike should talk about not only the quantity of strike action, but also its form. Will the picket lines do what picket lines are meant to do? Will there be work-ins? Will there be wildcat action? Does enough rank-and-file strength exist in any union to pull this off? If not, how can we change that?

Because unions are big and on the front line, their adoption of militant tactics would involve far more people than UKUncut or anarchist groups can currently mobilise for such ends. But in the meantime there’s no point decrying direct action as the work of a minority – after all, nearly everything is. Even a general strike would be. For its part, The TUC should, if possible, be giving legal support to those who get in trouble on its protests, not disowning them.

Whether or not Saturday was a success cannot be known yet. It depends on how many people go back home determined to carry on fighting, rather than seeing the march as an end. The TUC appears to have no strategy. The left’s strategy is largely to rely on the TUC to call a general strike. Meanwhile, direct activists risk being isolated from the rest of the movement.

In future articles I’ll try to express some more ideas about what I think should be done next. In short, we need to be in a position where direct action and trade unionism are not seen as mutually exclusive. We need, somehow, to redevelop militant unionism.

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It’s kicking off in Wisconsin

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Solidarity with Egyptian workers

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