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.