Tag Archives: Unite

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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The Occupations in Perspective

by nineteensixtyseven


On the 10 November over 50,000 students, lecturers and sixth-formers took part in the largest demonstration so far against the coalition government. A fortnight later similar numbers took part in a ‘day of action’ called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts which saw a wave of marches, demonstrations and occupations all across Britain. Universities including University College London (UCL) and Cambridge were amongst the dozen or so occupations which started in late November, with the London School of Economics and Bristol joining similar numbers occupying in the first week of December.

Against neoliberalism

The occupations have been diverse in terms of their length, tactics and political content. Nevertheless, most of them express a general resolve to oppose what is seen by many as an ideologically-driven attempt to further push the market into higher education. As Stefan Collini wrote in November in the London Review of Books, under the Browne Report vision higher education is seen as ‘a lightly regulated market in which consumer demand, in the form of student choice, is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers’ rather than a public good paid for by general taxation. It is this agenda that the government has attempted to hide by framing the debate around the more narrow issues of fee levels and loan repayments.

The cuts to higher education represent the almost total withdrawal of the state from the funding of universities, and the transferral of the burden of payment on to individual students. The argument underlying this unprecedented shift is that students are the main beneficiaries of a university education. There is no mention of the bosses who benefit from the labour of an educated workforce nor a recognition of the wider social good of having teachers, doctors and writers- not to mention the negative consequences for social mobility that the higher fees will engender. The Browne Report is truly the repackaged vision of the nineteenth-century utilitarian philistine, from a political class so wedded to the dictates of capital that it knows the cost of everything and value of nothing.  Ironically, the site of the UCL occupation is the Jeremy Bentham room.

This struggle is only one frontier against the neoliberal market intrusion into all areas of life; a development which over the last three decades has seen public services wrenched open to feed the rapacious appetite of capital for profit and the systematic dismantlement and privatisation of state institutions. The inherent logic of neoliberalism is that which lies behind Margaret Thatcher’s infamous statement that ‘there is no such thing as society’- a dehumanising logic by which we are supposed to be socially atomised individuals, rendering collective action impossible and subjugating us all to the relentless exigencies of capital accumulation.

Against sectionalism

For this reason the political demands of students must transcend sectional divisions. The occupations were a stark and necessary reminder of the power of collective action. Necessary because of the relentless barrage of propaganda spouting pieties about the inevitability of the cuts and the futility of resistance, and because of the demoralisation induced by three decades of anti-union laws and the erosion of workers’ rights. In the Cambridge occupation, therefore, we demanded that ‘the University commit to ensure the autonomy of education from corporate interests’ and oppose not just cuts to the higher education sector but ‘use its influence to oppose the spending review’s threat to education, welfare, health, and other public services.’

Of course, we had no illusions that the University would do any such thing (and we were proved right) but, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote: ‘Only by demanding from bourgeois society all that it is capable of granting have we succeeded here and there in obtaining a small part.’ Indeed, one of the major achievements of the occupations was to erode the myth of a cosy academic community as an oasis of humanism in an inhuman world, set apart from capitalist society. Finding its power challenged by students and academics, the University bureaucracy resorted to coercive legal action rather than engage in the sort of open and democratic debate it professes to further. On the very first day, without having heard any of our demands or engaged with us in any way, the University sought a possession order from the courts.


In the case of the Cambridge occupation our demands were drafted democratically, the practicality of maintaining access to the building was organised voluntarily through a system of guard duty and the provision of warm meals was carried out collectively by those with the requisite abilities.  The 14th century room that we occupied was once the University’s ‘parliament’ where decisions were made and until recently contained a carpet made by William Morris in 1891.  Although situated in the university’s administrative complex it is now wasted as a combination room for senior members of the institution. Throughout the course of the occupation, however, we put it to a use Morris would have approved of, unconsciously creating the ‘great room’, of which he wrote, ‘where one talked to one’s friends in one corner, and ate in another, and slept in another, and worked in another.’ People were encouraged to share their own knowledge and skills by organising self-education sessions and speakers were invited from academia, trade unions and other occupations to equip us with the intellectual and practical know-how to convince doubters and continue the fight.

Humiliating authority

What give us the edge over some of the occupations which were evicted prematurely was the support of over 300 academics who signed a statement of support, supplemented by an international petition signed by Noam Chomsky and a number of MPs. For the University to use force would have risked international embarrassment and the alienation of a large section of its staff. This was undoubtedly a factor which contributed towards the longevity of the occupation- it lasted eleven days in total and we left voluntarily. Another factor was the openness of the space and the relevance of the cause which meant that this occupation was more genuinely popular amongst the student body than previous actions which I have been involved with. When a possession order was granted three days in to the occupation we informed the University and the press that we planned to defy it and resist eviction. A week passed and the bailiffs had not yet come; we had called their bluff and they were forced to resort to increasingly desperate and petty measures to thwart the occupation.

After a group of occupiers escalated the action by staging a sit-in at the Guildhall the police, accompanied by unidentified heavies no doubt hired by the University management, seized the opportunity to wrest control of the gate providing access to the occupation. A message was sent out to a list of emergency text contacts including academics and students and within minutes people were gathering outside facing the police lines. Several of us regained access by climbing over the fence and, emboldened by the show of support outside, those inside summed up enough resolve to non-violently breach the police lines from behind, re-establishing access for those trapped on the exterior. This was followed by a large and rather emotional meeting during the course of which one senior lecturer described how for the first time in his life he was proud to wear his gown. Several also spoke about how during the course of the occupation the relationship between student and lecturer had been redefined and that the united front should be maintained well beyond the occupation.

The occupation was empowering for many reasons. It is impossible to defer to power in the same way after it has been humiliated and reduced to impotence. This applies not only to the police but the University’s own authorities who embarrassed themselves in the eyes of staff and students by their arrogant refusal to engage with peaceful protesters. One will also never look upon the manicured lawns of Senate House, that hallowed space on which students receive their degrees under the watchful benevolence of the Vice-Chancellor, after it has played host to several subversive games of football and a protest by local sixth-formers who were our guests on the second national day of action.

Envisioning real utopias: towards a United Front

On a less trivial note, however, the occupations have played a concrete role in widening the realm of the possible beyond the constrictive paradigm of the status quo and ‘common sense.’   They have contributed to what Erik Olin Wright called ‘envisioning real utopias.’ Or rather (for we socialists have hopefully left utopian socialism behind) towards challenging the real utopian idea- that of the capitalists and their mouthpieces- that it is possible to continue indefinitely under a system which is so weighed down by its own contradictions that it throws millions on to the dole queues with a tragic periodicity and which is predicated on the unsustainable overexploitation of diminishing environmental resources.

However, while any action which marks a transition from inertia to positive political action is to be welcomed it is important that occupations as a tactic are not fetishised as an end in themselves. To be sure, they are an end in the important yet limited sense described above, in so far as they raise consciousness of the possibilities of political action. They are, however, a means towards more profound action aimed at more generalised and systematic change. Students, it is well known, have the spare time to devote to political action and- it is hoped- that the time spent gaining a critical appreciation of society contributes to a more immediate and informed perception of the changing world around us.

Nevertheless, we are not a powerful social force comparable to organised workers. In Cambridge we called on all research staff to unionise and for the University to recognise the University and Colleges Union (UCU). We also forged links with local trade unions and the trades council, by leafleting workplaces such as the postal sorting depot and the local government offices and welcoming delegations. It was in this endeavour that non-sectional nature of our occupation was crucial. To expand this activity we called for a General Assembly on the penultimate day of the occupation. In attendance were around 400 people, including representatives from the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the UCU, Unite, the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). Delegations arrived from local high schools, sixth forms and anti-cuts groups, and local elected representatives also attended. The diversity of the assembled reinforced to us all the wide range of people who will be affected by the cuts, with women and young people predicted to be worst hit. Speeches were made highlighting the impact the cuts are already having across the community and expressing a desire to unite together in a common struggle. Plans were made to reach out even further to the local community and hold another General Assembly in late January.

In addition to messages of solidarity from occupations across the country we also received moral and material support from members of the public, from local businesses who donated food and other items, a letter of support from the homeless shelter and individual messages from local workers. It is this wide-based sort of movement, based on the time-tested principle that an injury to one is an injury to all, that is necessary to resist the cuts agenda. Being firm in principles but diverse in tactics, it will be necessary to keep up the pressure with marches and demonstrations but also to organise in workplaces, schools and community groups to defend jobs and services. Already good work is being done by Unison and PCS in the north-east of England with a model of ‘Public Services Alliances’ between organised workers and community and voluntary groups. Just as we asked the question of ‘whose university’ in Cambridge, and demonstrators have, in the face of police violence, asked ‘whose streets’ across the country, workers and communities should ask the same question about their workplaces and local areas. The answer should always be the same: ‘Ours!’

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Industrial Unionism and the BBC

by Edd Mustill

The National Union of Journalists has announced that its members at the BBC will be holding two 48-hour strikes in November, after they voted to reject the latest pensions offer.

According the the Guardian, NUJ members voted by 70% to reject management’s latest offer while members of Bectu, the biggest union at the corporation, voted 65% in favour. Members of three other unions which represent smaller numbers of BBC staff – Unite, Equity, and the Musicians’ Union – also voted to accept the latest offer.

The leaderships of the two biggest unions had decided to not recommend to their members to vote a particular way, but the statements the unions gave during the ballot tell that the leaderships of Bectu and the NUJ are seeing things differently.

Bectu said: “In BECTU’s view this is the best that can be achieved through negotiation and we believe that to try and improve this offer would take substantial and lengthy industrial action from all our members with significant loss in salary.”

At the same time, NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear predicted a “winter of growing discontent” at the BBC.

This may lead to an undesirable situation where enough people are working to make sure all shows go out. Without breaking any union rules, members could find themselves rendering a strike by other union members ineffective.

More than one union is present in workplaces in most industries. On the rails, while the RMT is the best-known and biggest union, TSSA and ASLEF have many members. Public sector workplaces could employ members of Unison, the GMB, the PCS and Unite, as well as more specialist unions like the FBU.

Perhaps it’s time for the Left to once again start talking about industrial unionism – the idea that everyone in a particular industry should be in the same union. This helps advance class consciousness and fosters solidarity among “all grades” – people who may be on different contracts or work very different jobs, but still work for the same employer or set of employers.

The beginnings of our modern unions lie in this idea. Many were formed in the periods of industrial militancy before and after the first world war. Industrial unionism, and the consequent merging of unions, was the idea of a movement on the offensive. While the mergers were not a purely “bottom up” phenomenon in this period, syndicalists in the Amalgamation Committees Movement should take much of the credit.

The National Union of Railwayman, which later became the RMT, was founded in 1913 when several smaller rail unions came together. The Amalgamated Engineering Union, forerunner of Amicus, was formed in 1920. Most famously the Transport and General Workers’ Union was constituted in 1922 from a disparate array of, well, transport and general workers’ unions.

These latter two recently merged to form Unite, the biggest union in British history. But what we have seen in more recent years is union amalgamation as a defensive measure, as a method of survival rather than a sign of confidence. Unite is a product of this.

Today’s big “superunions” are not industrial unions. Their memberships overlap. For example, the GMB recruits some dissatisfied nurses from Unison, or vice versa. During the Lindsey dispute, a GMB nurse expressed his frustration to me that, although he was in the same union as a lot of the Lindsey engineering construction workers, he could do little more to support them than if he hadn’t been a GMB member.

An industrial union has its potential drawbacks too. In the case of broadcasting, for example, it would encompass incredibly well-paid star performers. The results of this have been seen in the BBC dispute, where several big-names signed a letter criticising the NUJ’s earlier decision to call a strike during the Tories’ party conference. Of course, in the latest BBC vote, if all the workforce were in the same union, there would have been a majority accepting the offer and there wouldn’t be any strike action at all.

Another question is how far the inclusion of “all grades” would climb up the sometimes complicated structures of management. Many lower level “managers” are in fact just workers with slightly higher pay and more responsibilities, and having them in the same union can, over time, have positive effects on unity in the workplace. But obviously a line should be drawn, as it is now, before higher-end managers.

However, in a period where we want unions to be more aggressive, and where the TUC is at least nominally committed to joint strike action, we should be thinking about ways to break down the historical reality of sectionalism which is still a defining characteristic of the trade union movement.

Networks of shop stewards can play a role in this. If committees of reps from all unions in a workplace are established and strengthened, this can lead to unity at the “point of production” for dealing with many issues. But as long as separate unions exist in the same industry, the constant threat of division at crucial moments will keep resurfacing, as it is now at the BBC.

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Ed Miliband and Lenin

“The differences are so slight between the two brothers, indeed between all of us.”
– Andy Burnham

“Let me say, I believe strongly that we need to reduce the deficit. There will be cuts and there would have been if we had been in government. Some of them will be painful and would have been if we were in government. I won’t oppose every cut the coalition proposes. There will be some things the coalition does that we won’t like as a party but we will have to support. And come the next election there will be some things they have done that I will not be able to reverse.”
– Ed Miliband

by Edd Mustill

Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference on Tuesday was no funeral service for New Labour. He defended the alteration of Clause 4 and the “spirit of 1997,” talked of making Labour “the party of enterprise and the party of small business,” and gave nods to supporting further welfare “reform” and public service “reform.” Anything more positive, such as a foreign policy “based on values,” was so vague as to render it meaningless (which values exactly?).

There were a lot of Cameronish “I met a man who told me…” sort of anecdotes. There were a couple of references to the Good Society. I suppose they will see how that one plays out in focus groups before they decide whether to keep using it, but it smacks of the Blairite logic of beating the Tories by using Tory political language.

Tellingly, Miliband stated out-and-out that he wouldn’t be supporting “irresponsible strikes.” We are not given any indication as to which strikes are “responsible.” It was “the unions what won it” for Ed. But this is no sense means that he stands, or could stand, in the interests of militant trades unionism.

Some on the far left see Ed’s victory as a significant defeat for Blairism and the Right of the party. Workers’ Power and the Socialist Workers’ Party take this line. Workers’ Power go as far as to claim that it will be hard for Labour to ignore the wishes of the union rank-and-file, because it was the rank-and-file that delivered Ed as leader. But was it?

The breakdown of votes from affiliates shows that “Spoilt ballot” came third in the Big Three unions, GMB, Unison, and Unite. This has been blamed on the inability or unwillingness of union members to tick a box on the ballot paper confirming that they were eligible to vote.

Spoilt ballots in some unions
Aslef: 12.61%
CWU: 17.07%
GMB: 14.74%
TSSA: 18.82%
Unison: 15.75%
Unite: 14.32%
Usdaw: 15.32%

I’m not sure what could account for 6% more TSSA members than Aslef members spoiling their ballots unless there was at least an element, albeit an unknown quantity, of deliberate spoiling going on.

Nevertheless, the biggest sign of union members’ disengagement with the Labour Party is the turnout among the unions. Aslef, among whose members Diane Abbott came first, posted by far the highest turnout at 25.2%. Turnout in the Big Three was 7.8% (GMB), 6.7% (Unison), and 10.5% (Unite). Usdaw brought up the rear with a whopping 4.3%, within which David Miliband won a landslide victory.

The Unison figure is even lower than it seems when you take into account that only 419,142 ballots were sent out to a union claiming a million members. This suggests that the majority of workers in local government and the NHS disenfranchised themselves by opting out of paying the Labour levy, for whatever reasons.

The vast majority of unionised workers are totally disengaged from the Labour Party, even at a time when it is electing a leader for the first time in sixteen years. Within the party, we shouldn’t forget that more individual members preferred David than Ed. We may expect the Parliamentary party to back the most right-wing candidate, but for the membership to do so after fifteen years of experiencing Blairism is, to say the least, thoroughly depressing. Given all this, are we to see Labour as still, on some level, a working class party?

When is a workers’ party not a workers’ party?

For those in the Bolshevik tradition, the idea of Labour as a workers’ party that Marxists should affiliate to and work within dates back to 1920. The formative Second Congress of the Comintern held a session to discuss this question, the only session which dealt exclusively with the politics of just one country. This shows how important the Labour Party question was deemed to be. But due to time constraints Zinoviev, chairing the session, only allowed two speakers from each side.

Sylvia Pankhurst opposed working in the Labour Party, saying:

“… all members of the parties which belong to the Labour Party are subjected to the strictest discipline and when it is a question of making a showing in parliament on this or that question then they are officially subordinated to Party discipline.
In the elections, too, a local organisation can choose its candidates, but when it is a question of being put up as a candidate one must be confirmed by the Labour Party headquarters. It is the same with the individual speeches and votes.”

William McLaine, and engineering shop steward who had been heavily involved in the workers’ committee movement during the war, supporting affiliation to the Labour Party because, he said, the unions were being pushed leftwards by the course of events. McLaine went on:

“I insist on two points: first of all that the Labour Party is the political expression of the workers organised in the trades unions and must be conceived of as a political organisation, and secondly that within the Labour Party the supporters of another party retain their complete freedom of movement and of criticism.”

We can see that both his and Pankhurst’s arguments are still put forward today in very similar terms. Sylvia’s arguments about the power of the party machine are arguably even more relevant now. No one could argue that the modern Labour Party would allow revolutionaries complete freedom of action inside it, but McLaine’s view of the party as somehow organically linked to the working class due to the influence of trade union leaderships is at the bottom of the analysis of many who hold that Labour is a “bourgeois workers’ party.”

Lenin, while pushing for Communist affiliation to Labour, strongly opposed the idea that there could ever be anything as simple as the “political expression of the trade union movement” that McLaine had spoken of. He said, famously:

“whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only that determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie

At the time, the Communist International was attempting to mark itself as a clearly revolutionary alternative to the Second International, famously putting stringent conditions on parties that wished to affiliate. Lenin’s attitude to the Labour Party was therefore contradictory, and was based on the following belief:

“the British Labour Party is in a very special position: it is a highly original type of party, or rather, it is not at all a party in the ordinary sense of the word. It is made up of members of all trades unions, and has a membership of about four million, and allows sufficient freedom to all affiliated political parties.”

This is where I think Lenin went wrong, and where we can come back to the present day. No-one, especially given the level of trade unionists’ participation in the leadership election described above, not to mention the policies of the Labour Party towards the trade union movement, would today argue that the party’s membership included the millions enrolled under the banners of the affiliated unions. The Labour Party is not the political expression of the will of these workers.

Comintern tactics in the revolutionary period following the First World War were geared towards the ruthless splitting of the working class away from the reformist movement. For Lenin the point of Labour affiliation was never to build up a “Labour Left”, and the building of an independent revolutionary Communist Party was certainly not to be subordinated to any manoeuvrings inside the Labour Party. His idea was simply that the revolutionaries eventually leave the party in a stronger position than when they entered it. Lenin argued that if the Labour leadership moved to expel the Left, this would be a victory for revolutionaries and would win them support among the class. History has since shown this not necessarily to be true, as the experience of Militant and others shows.

In Left Wing Communism, published just before the Second Congress, Lenin argued for the revolutionaries to support a Labour victory over the Tories and Liberals on the grounds that the working class had not experienced a Labour government before. Such an experience would shatter illusions in Labour and lead workers to revolutionary conclusions. Again, history tells us differently. Our class has experienced numerous Labour governments and their betrayals, and it has not increased consciousness towards revolutionary levels. On the contrary, it has served to demoralise.

The idea that workers will look to Labour in a crisis is not borne out by historical experience, or anything much more than wishful thinking. A party of liberal Fabian types and trade union leaders who have accepted social partnership instead of class struggle, cannot itself be a vehicle for class struggle. Ed Miliband represents no more than a toned down version of the right-wing liberal strand within the Labour Party which realises that it can no longer get away with openly calling for its most dogmatic excesses, like further privatisation of the public sector. He is not, and cannot be, a workers’ candidate, just as Labour is not, and cannot be, a workers’ party.

Thanks, as ever, to the Marxists Internet Archive for making the relevant sources readily available.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Labour History, Political Strategy

The Right to Strike

by nineteensixtyseven

Over at Comment Is Free, Keith Ewing, professor of Public Law at King’s College London, has written a great article on the right to strike.  Bemoaning the media bias in coverage of recent industrial action and a recent Moral Maze programme which asked whether or not striking was a human right, he lists the international treaties which enshrine the right to organise and withdrawn one’s labour:

It begins with the International Labour Organisation’s convention on the right to organise and bargain collectively of 1948, which a British Labour government was the first to ratify; followed by the Council of Europe’s social charter of 1961, which a British Tory government was the first to ratify; followed, in turn, by the UN’s international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights of 1966.

In April 2009 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the right to strike is included in the provisions of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Enerji Yapi-Yol Sen v. Turkey), expanding on the ruling of the previous November (Demir and Baykara v. Turkey):

Freedom of assembly and association
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
2. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.

Nevertheless, as the injunctions sought by British Airways and granted by British judges demonstrate, British jurisprudence has been preventing these rights from being exercised through the Human Rights Act.  Furthermore, the ruling on the ECHR provides that labour rights must be protected to minimum international standards but the UK does not meet its obligations under International Labour Organisation conventions. For instance, in 1994 the report of the International Labour Conference on the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87), and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98) noted that:

Sympathy strikes, which are recognized as lawful in some countries, are becoming increasingly frequent because of the move towards the concentration of enterprises, the globalization of the economy and the delocalization of work centres. While pointing out that a number of distinctions need to be drawn here (such as an exact definition of the concept of a sympathy strike; a relationship justifying recourse to this type of strike, etc.), the Committee considers that a general prohibition on sympathy strikes could lead to abuse and that workers should be able to take such action, provided the initial strike they are supporting is itself lawful.

In 2005 only bureaucratic tricks prevented the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party voting in support of legalising sympathy strikes (outlawed by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992).  Back then Tony Woodley (now of Unite) was general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and called for a change in the law.  Now, Ed Miliband has shown his appreciation for Unite’s backing of his campaign to become leader of the Labour Party by announcing that he would oppose even the legalisation of secondary picketing.  What would Ralph say were he still with us?

As it stands, there are severe restrictions on the right to strike and, therefore, on human rights in the United Kingdom.   The Metrobus Ltd v Unite the Union decision by the Court of Appeal in 2009 that that the statutory requirements relating to ballots and strike notification (Part V of the 1992 Act) do not unduly restrict the exercise of the right to strike has allowed employers to seek injunctions on the smallest technical issues in order to block democratic strike actions, and sympathy strikes have been illegal for almost twenty years.  The Court of Appeal cannot go beyond the Metrobus decision to rule the statutory requirements for balloting to be in contravention of the Human Rights Act but in her ruling on British Airways Plc v Unite the Union (2009), Mrs Justice Cox said:

“Sooner or later, the extent to which the current statutory regime is in compliance with those international obligations and with relevant international jurisprudence will fall to be carefully reconsidered.”

Such reconsideration is long overdue.

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Filed under Industrial Relations, Labour law