Socialist Party documents

British Perspectives, March 2014 congress


Industrial struggle

20. The savage attacks required to achieve this will provoke mass opposition from the working class. However, the failure of the trade union leaders to lead the struggle against austerity can mean that such resistance can take a confused form. Asked why they have failed to organise serious action against austerity, a majority of the trade union leaders would say that the kind of militant, determined struggle necessary to win would not be supported by their membership. The evidence does not bear this out. On the contrary, it was very clear that the big majority of teachers who took to the streets in the massively supported regional strike days wanted to see national strike action. And in the FBU strike it was pressure from below, particularly from the London region, which forced the union's executive to reinstate the strike action, although it did so at a much lower level than the 24-hour action demanded by the London FBU regional committee. Neither the FBU nor teachers' unions' action has, as yet, been on the scale necessary to defeat the employers or the government. They have had more the character of token action to show opposition. Nonetheless, the strikes have been solidly supported, with a mood of grim determination that, even if we can't win, we have to fight. More determined action and aiming to win, if well prepared, could have had the effect of transforming the confidence of the workers taking part in the struggle, as well as winning mass support from wide sections of the working class.

21. Instead, sectional and often token action has been combined with an attempt by the trade union leaders to hide behind the anti-austerity campaigns of other social forces, particularly the Peoples' Assembly. Its founding conference (attended by around 4,000 people) and regional launches showed there is a significant layer of trade union activists who want to be part of a general struggle against austerity. However, as we warned, this has now largely dissipated and has not organised any significant action as yet. Its founding conference was its high point! This is because, instead of being used as a platform to campaign for a general strike and a political alternative to austerity, it has been turned into a tool to avoid discussion on these issues. The basis for this was summed up by Owen Jones when he said that a general strike is 'too far ahead'. On what grounds does he say this? When four union general secretaries called for a 24-hour general strike at the end of 2012 an opinion poll showed 82% support for such a strike. It is the complete failure of the TUC to call such action that results inevitably in the working class feeling that it is further away than was the case a year ago.

22. Of course, the consciousness and level of understanding of rank-and-file trade unionists is a factor. The working class entered this epoch of crisis profoundly unprepared for the huge assault that has been launched on its historically won conditions and rights. The legacy of the collapse of Stalinism and the period that followed led to a pushing back of socialist consciousness and, beyond that, of the understanding by the working class of its own potential power. In addition the working class was left without a mass political voice. Powerful trade union organisations remained but were weakened in terms of membership, particularly in the private sector, and also had a lower level of participation and activity.

23. Nonetheless, the trade union movement showed decisively at the beginning of the crisis that it was potentially the most powerful force in society, capable of organising mass resistance to the cuts, and mobilising the support of the working class not currently involved in the trade union movement, as well as big sections of the middle class. The 26 March 2011 demonstration was the biggest called by the organised working class possibly since the Chartists. Later that year we saw the gigantic one-day public-sector strike over pensions. Without question, if the trade union leaders had used that successful strike to call for a further public-sector general strike, to be followed by a 24-hour general strike if the government did not retreat, trade unionists would have responded magnificently. Instead, the leadership of the TUC, spearheaded by UNISON leaders, settled for a few very paltry concessions.

24. It has never been the case that all workers involved in struggles begin with a full understanding of what is necessary to win. This is truer today than in the past, given the gulf between objective reality - an era of brutal attacks on the working class - and the level of consciousness with which workers entered this period. Workers, however, learn very quickly in the course of the struggle and a crucial aspect of the role of leadership is preparing the working class for what is necessary. The biggest factor in the defeat at the Grangemouth oil refinery was the failure of the UNITE leadership to do just that. The employer, INEOS, and its billionaire owner, Ratcliffe, had suffered a number of bloody noses from a powerful workforce. The employers then set out to prepare to smash the union. The importation and stockpiling of fuel was at an advanced stage in order to try and allow INEOS to sit out a strike. In this situation only a determined all-out struggle on both the political and industrial planes could offer a way forward. The bosses were prepared to try and smash the union while the UNITE leadership was not fully aware of the determined struggle that was needed, and did not prepare the membership for what would be necessary to win. Ironically, it is likely that some recent notable victories - such as over blacklisting on Crossrail, where leverage was central - actually played a part in the union underestimating what was at stake and what was required. If it had understood the scale of action needed - preparing for occupation and solidarity action, alongside a call for nationalisation - events could have ended completely differently.

25. We and our sister section in Scotland consistently argued for this. For example, on 16 October 2013, before Ratcliffe had announced the closure of the petro-chemical plant, Socialist Party Scotland published an article saying: "Mass picketing and the occupation of the plant and the tactics needed for this must be urgently discussed." We were the only organisation to intervene in the workers' demonstrations putting forward a clear programme for victory. The situation, where the workforce understood that not only their livelihoods, but those of the whole community, were resting on their shoulders, required a patient explanation of what was needed combined with the appropriate fighting slogans. The ultra-left were completely incapable of understanding what was required. This does not mean that we based our programme on the mood of the workforce, as always our starting point was what was objectively necessary. Otherwise we would not have raised the need for occupation. The way we raised it, however, took into account the consciousness of the workers themselves. A transitional approach, of course, means telling the working class the truth, but doing everything possible to do in so in a way that connects with their current consciousness and helps them to draw socialist conclusions. As Trotsky put it when discussing the transitional programme: "The comrades are absolutely right when they say we should tell the workers the truth, but that doesn't signify that every moment, every place, we state the whole truth, starting with Euclid's geometry and ending with socialist society. We do not have the right to lie to them, but we must present to them the truth in such form, at such time, in such place, that they can accept it." (The Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution, 1938 - Pathfinder, p232)

26. It seems that, at the eleventh hour, Len McCluskey did tell the shop stewards committee that UNITE would support an occupation. At that late stage, with the threat of the closure of the whole plant hanging over the workforce, the stewards felt that it was too risky to go for an unprepared occupation. Instead, they chose to make the concessions demanded to keep the plant open, in order to preserve intact the basic strength of the union in order to fight another day. If the union leadership nationally had prepared the ground, it is possible that both the stewards and the workforce would have been in a position to occupy or, seeing the resistance of the workforce, the employers could have pulled back. Of course, this is not guaranteed but, even if the union leadership had done all that was required and yet had not been able to convince the membership to take the necessary action when it came to the crunch, this would have raised the level of understanding of workers across Britain of what was required to win in this period. It would have raised the confidence that the biggest trade union in Britain was prepared to lead such action. Correctly, we have publicly criticised the UNITE leadership for this.

27. However, the union leaders still have enormous authority, particularly those who stand on the left like Len McCluskey. In any criticisms we make we take cognisance of this. This requires a clear explanation on the way forward - not, at this stage, crude attacks on union leaders. This applies not only to left leaders bet even those on the right where they are seen to be taking a step forward. This is what informs our approach. The fact that Len McCluskey did raise an occupation, no matter how belatedly, means that he is seen as having been prepared to back UNITE members at Grangemouth, probably by the workers at that plant in particular. In general, since McCluskey became general secretary, UNITE has been much more willing to back strikes where members demand them and this is widely recognised by activists. Facing a barrage of abuse from the capitalist media and a government 'inquiry' into the union, the reaction of most UNITE members will be to defend their leadership as 'the best we've got'. And we defend the union against the attacks of the capitalist class. We also clearly and calmly criticise the leadership of the union where it has made mistakes, as at Grangemouth. We explain that there is a gigantic difference between backing local and sectional action where members demand it, and being prepared to lead a serious struggle, whether against austerity or specific attacks like that at Grangemouth, which the leadership of UNITE has failed to do. Grangemouth was a serious defeat, but not the loss of a war. Far from leading to a period of retreat by the working class we will see a new phase of explosive struggles, as workers feel they have no choice but to fight back. It is not possible to predict how quickly this will develop. The current 'sullen calm' can continue for a period, but will be broken by huge class battles at a certain stage. A delay in major industrial struggles may take place as the general election nears and a section of workers 'hope against hope' that a Labour government will improve their fortunes - a mood which the trade union leaders encourage and play upon. However, we could see sharp explosions this side of a general election.

28. The attacks on workplace rights are one factor that will act, over a period of time, to harden up the trade union movement. The government is in the process of trying to reverse the individual employment rights acquired over the last 30 years. Rights to employment tribunals and other forms of protection, always limited, have been severely undermined. In the workplace there is overwhelming anecdotal evidence of a more aggressive management style, with shop stewards tied up with an increasing number of disciplinaries in a climate of bullying, intimidation and with workers in fear of losing their jobs. In the last 30 years many trade union leaders have accepted the false notion that individual employment rights, many emanating from Europe, could compensate for the weakened collective bargaining position of the unions, and be an alternative to militant industrial action. In the coming period workers will rediscover the essence of trade unionism, and the necessity of militant action as the only effective way to defend their jobs, pay and terms and conditions.

29. The question of broader action - solidarity action, co-ordinated strikes, and above all a 24-hour general strike - remains present. The pressure from below for a 24-hour general strike, which the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) has played an important role in channelling, resulted in the 2013 TUC congress agreeing to leave the previous year's pledge to 'consider a general strike' on the table. Prior to 2013 no TUC congress since 1980 had even discussed such action. The anti-trade union laws introduced during the 1980s were declared an absolute barrier to any kind of coordinated action. It is a sign of the severity of the avalanche of attacks facing the working class that general strikes are once again on the agenda of the TUC.

30. Nonetheless, right-wing trade union leaders have no intention whatsoever of organising a 24-hour general strike. The left leaders see the need for action but draw back from calling it at this stage in the face of all the implications of doing so. There is no doubt that, if the TUC was to do so, it would receive overwhelming support, not just from the minority of workers currently in the trade unions, but also from the multi-million mass of unorganised workers. It would also tilt the class balance of forces towards the working class. A 24-hour general strike against austerity last year would have made it very unlikely that either Ratcliffe/Ineos or Boris Johnson/London Underground would have dared to go on the offensive in the way that they have. Such action would also push aside the anti-trade union laws, and enormously weaken their power to cow trade unionists.

31. However, the TUC leadership has only ever called action after it has started to develop from below, as happened when it last called a general strike in 1972. Today the profound character of the capitalist crisis paradoxically increases the degree to which the trade union leaders are an obstacle to action. In an epoch of crisis all struggles, even sectional strikes, have a greater tendency to come into conflict with the capitalist system itself. An indefinite general strike always poses the question of power: of who runs society. But, in the current situation, even a 24-hour general strike, or warning strike, would at least begin to pose that question. This is more so in Britain, where general strike action is less common than in Southern Europe. The capitalist class is aware of this and exerts enormous pressure on the trade union leaders to be 'responsible' and avoid struggles developing. On the other side, the right-wing trade union leaders, who see capitalism as the only possible system and are therefore bound by its logic, are terrified of conjuring up a movement which they would not be able to control. The alternative to a serious struggle being offered by most of the trade union leaders is the vain hope that a Labour government will offer some respite from the misery. Unfortunately, the majority of the left union leaders have also so far failed to organise serious co-ordinated strike action, which could have exerted unstoppable pressure on the TUC to call a 24-hour general strike. The PCS leadership have campaigned for co-ordinated action, while consistently taking national action themselves. Unfortunately, they have largely been left isolated by the other public-sector trade union leaders.

32. Events, however, are not under the control of the trade union leaders, and they could be forced to call a 24-hour general strike far more quickly than currently seems possible. This is particularly the case if further savage attacks on trade union rights are proposed, such as Johnson's call for 50% of trade union members to have to vote in a strike ballot before action is legal. It is also possible that proposals like this can be kicked into the long grass for now. Nonetheless, we have to continue to raise the slogan of a 24-hour general strike as a crucial aspect of preparing the working class for what is ahead. Even prior to that the question of co-ordinated and solidarity action is likely to be posed. The consciousness that it is better to 'strike together' is deeply ingrained in public-sector workers in particular. The question of solidarity action is also going to come on to the agenda, despite the obstacle of the anti-trade union laws. The release of the cabinet papers dealing with the 1984/5 miners' strike confirm our analysis at the time that there were two points at which the government felt it could be facing defeat: the NACODS ballot and the dockers' solidarity action, until it was called off. On a smaller scale it is unofficial solidarity action - in defiance of the anti-trade union laws - which has secured victories for several groups of workers in recent years, notably the Lindsey oil refinery workers in 2009, and the solidarity that Grangemouth workers were prepared to offer the construction workers in the BESNA struggle. More widespread defiance of the anti-trade union laws, in order to deliver solidarity action, is likely to develop in the coming period, particularly in key struggles - which the London Underground dispute has the potential to become. With determined, well-prepared strike action the RMT and TSSA could secure a victory on the London Underground without solidarity action. Nonetheless, if this becomes a set-piece battle between one of the most militant unions in Britain and the London mayor, solidarity action will be put on the agenda.

33. While the trade unions remain potentially the most powerful force in British society there are still many millions of workers, particularly the young, low-paid and those on zero-hour contracts, who have never been touched by the union movement. The idea of collective action has in many cases never cross their minds. They are, as Marx described, currently a class 'in themselves' (bound together by common conditions) but not yet 'for itself' (conscious of its class interests). But the ground is being prepared for their uprising in a modern version of the 'new unionism' which erupted at the end of the 19th century and which gave birth to the general trade unions. It could be sparked by one victory, as was the case with the match girls' strike of 1888. It is an urgent task for the union movement to organise the mass of low-paid, super-exploited workers. What is more, opportunities will exist to win this new generation, for whom capitalism offers a future harder than that of their parents, in their tens of thousands to the need for a socialist transformation of society.

34. However, it is not automatic that this fresh layer of workers will begin by joining the existing trade unions, although this is likely to be the main trend. But we are in a different era today than the 1970s, when over 50% of the workforce was in a trade union, many workplaces had a high degree of union organisation, and most workers had considerable loyalty to 'their' union. Particularly in the private sector, the situation today is more akin to the period that Trotsky referred to in the transitional programme, when he said: "Trade unions, even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20 to 25% of the working class, and that predominantly the most skilled and better paid layers." Only a quarter of workers are currently trade union members, with less than 30% of private-sector workplaces having any union presence. The ideas that Trotsky raised - of the importance of factory or workplace committees, established in a struggle, and drawing in unionised and un-unionised workers - can become relevant again, particularly in explosive struggles.

35. We have to take a very flexible approach to strikes and disputes. Wildcat strikes can develop from below, with no official union organisation. If the trade union leaders respond positively to this a new generation can be won to the existing unions. However, this is not automatic, and will not happen in every case. Already we have seen some small indications of workers joining new, 'unofficial' trade union organisations partly because they have met bureaucratic obstacles within the traditional unions. The 3Cosas strike of outsourced workers at London University has been organised successfully by the small IWGB. It was following the London Region of UNISON bureaucratically annulling the UNISON branch's elections that outsourced workers first turned to the IWGB. The IWGB does not have official recognition at the university and both the university management and the contractors (Balfour Beatty) have so far refused to meet with them. Nonetheless, following the strike action in late 2013 Balfour Beatty has partially met the strike's demands, issuing new contracts with improved holiday and sick pay conditions. There have also been number of other workers at London University who have left their existing unions (mostly UNISON) to join the IWGB. The 'pop-up' union at Sussex University was of a slightly different character, with most of the workers keeping dual membership with an existing trade union, but it is another example of unofficial forms of organisation.

36. Our approach has to be concrete. In general we encourage workers to join the existing trade union most appropriate to their workplace. We do not accept that even the most right-wing trade union leaderships are immoveable. Our party played a central role in the transformation of CPSA (now PCS) from a union with one of the most right-wing leaderships in the TUC, to the left-led, fighting union it is today. Of course, a left winning the leadership of union does not mean that the right-wing elements of the bureaucracy, which exist in every union, can be removed at one stroke. Nonetheless, the trade union leaders, unlike the Labour Party leadership, remain ultimately reliant on their members' dues and are therefore moveable and removable under pressure. This is not to underestimate the enormous obstacle that the union bureaucracies can be, or the financial basis for that bureaucracy, particularly in the era of 'trade unions as service providers'.

37. Nor can we tell workers desperate to struggle against the employers' attacks, yet blocked from doing so by the trade union bureaucracy, that they should just 'wait for better times'. By the time the union leadership has been forced to act, the jobs and conditions could have been long gone, so we have to support whatever measures best enable the workers to fight to defend their pay and terms. While, in the first instance, that will usually be fighting for their existing union to act, it can also include moving to another union that is willing to fight. This is not a simple issue. Often only the most active, conscious layer may move, especially initially. However, as has been demonstrated in Bromley and Greenwich local authorities, it can open up the possibility of an effective struggle, which was previously impossible. There can also be circumstances where the need to act is so urgent that the NSSN helps to organise completely unofficial action via 'workplace committees'. None of these measures would mean turning away from the struggle to transform the right-wing led unions. UNISON, for example, has 1.3 million members, and the fight to transform it remains a key task. The question of building real fighting democratic broad lefts will be posed in this and other unions in the next period.

38. We need to have a balanced approach. The UNISON bureaucracy is not homogenous. In Yorkshire, for example, we have been able to lead a strike in the NHS against down-banding. Dave Prentis even visited the picket lines. Yet in London, the Whipps Cross UNISON branch is being completely blocked by the regional bureaucracy from taking similar action. In some instances, leaving to join another union - if it enables a successful struggle against the employers to be prosecuted - can have a far greater effect than lobbies or petitions in fracturing the hold of the bureaucracy of right-wing unions.

39. Events in South Africa in 2012 are a warning to the right-wing trade union leaders of what will happen if they continue to be a gigantic obstacle to action. The working class will not accept this indefinitely. It will find a road to struggle, as in South Africa. Part of this process will undoubtedly include fighting to transform existing unions but it could also include new formations. At this stage attempts to found new unions are on an extremely small scale, very far from a common tactic of workers entering struggle. Given the explosive struggles that will develop, however, we should not exclude the possibility of new trade unions being founded, as they were in Britain at the end of the 19th century and in the US in the 1930s. In the latter case, three million workers flooded into the union movement from 1933-36. Marxists played an important role in both developments, as we could in future developments here. Even in this instance, however, we would not 'write off' the workers who remained in the old trade unions, but would argue for new formations to orientate towards them.