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.