Bureaucratic mass strikes: a rejoinder

Issue: 148

Dave Lyddon

Mark O’Brien’s article in 2014, “The problem of the one-day strike”,1 was an attempt to understand “the dominance of very short (usually one-day) national, public sector strikes that have typified industrial action in the UK for at least a decade”.2 My response to him concentrated on the 30 November 2011 coordinated strike (N30) and the earlier union campaign in 2005-6 against New Labour’s attempted “reforms” of public service pensions.3 He agreed with my criticism of the “no J30, no N30” narrative within the Socialist Workers Party, which was my main argument.4 For my own part, I acknowledged Mark’s “particularly useful account of local organisation around N30”.5 Our areas of disagreement are limited but nonetheless significant and these form the first two parts of this brief rejoinder. The third part engages with Mark’s discussion of the
one-day strike.

The bureaucratic mass strike

I challenged Mark’s characterisation of N30 and the earlier pensions strikes in 2011 as bureaucratic mass strikes. The term seems to have been coined in the mid-1980s by Chris Harman and Tony Cliff to understand a certain type of mass strike taking place during that period in several countries. But it has been little used since—until it resurfaced in the debate around N30. Harman and Cliff were developing Rosa Luxemburg’s original formulation in her 1906 pamphlet, The Mass Strike. Harman pointed out that, in the bureaucratic mass strike, workers “are mobilised as a class by order from above”.6 This seemed to me to be one critical feature. Another was that one-day (or, more generally, time-limited rather than indefinite) mass strikes were best designated as “demonstration strikes”, Luxemburg’s term to distinguish them from “fighting strikes”.7

Mark does not engage with Luxemburg’s term “demonstration strike”. But he disagrees with my suggestion that where workers have a vote (as they did in 2011, and do for all lawful official strikes), it is not a bureaucratic mass strike in the way that Harman used the term. Mark suggests that “this is to confuse secondary and primary characteristics; and ‘mechanism’ with ‘outcome’” and that my prescription “inclines towards a historical formalism”. In his opinion the term bureaucratic mass strike can indeed be used in “situations in which bureaucratic agendas dominate completely despite unions bringing out their members en masse”.8

Clearly we must agree to differ. I do not consider it formalist (understood as strict or excessive adherence to prescribed forms) to interpret the essence of the bureaucratic mass strike as one where the workers are ordered out from above and do not have a direct say. They may have an indirect say, as with the vote of the conference of executive committees of TUC-affiliated unions that agreed on the 1926 General Strike, but no more. Mark’s alternative formulation—that the term bureaucratic mass strike can apply where “bureaucratic agendas dominate completely”—clouds the issue. Who determines what the bureaucratic agenda is and whether it dominates completely?

Mark says that my interpretation makes the term bureaucratic mass strike redundant in the current British context. That may well be the case (as I indicated myself),9 but it still applies to many other countries. British unions’ longstanding preference for limited action at national level10 does not require us to give it a label, especially one that was coined in contrast to revolutionary mass strikes.

Unofficial and official strikes

Mark points out that I argued that his account of the strikes against the Industrial Relations Bill in 1971 and the mobilisation for the closure of Saltley coke depot in February 1972 did not capture “the complexity of the relationship between official and unofficial action”. But that is mainly because, as I noted, his account did “not reflect what actually happened”. He acknowledges that his version of the strikes against the Industrial Relations Bill was “perhaps turning shorthand into licence”.11 But he then says: “Beyond simply acknowledging the historical interactions of officially sanctioned action and unofficial action however, I confess I struggle to fathom the point Dave is making”.12 Perhaps I need to put it more ­explicitly: Mark was wrong in his factual detail. His account (which only gives SWP sources) will mislead younger comrades about these critical moments in the upturn of the early 1970s, if left unchallenged.

At this point in his reply, Mark sees “echoes” of my argument “with one put by Richard Hyman in this journal in 1980”, particularly “the implications for revolutionary orientation to which Hyman’s analysis leaned, and the tendency towards accommodation with the trade union bureaucracy that it represented”.13 Yet all I argued was that there was a high level of official support for strikes against the Industrial Relations Bill, even if that built on earlier unofficial action; and that the unofficial action to shut the Saltley depot was promoted through official local union committees. It is my turn to “struggle to fathom” how acknowledging the role of official structures in those key events can be read as making an accommodation with the trade union bureaucracy.

The problem of the one-day strike

To repeat, Mark reminds us of the dominance of very short national strikes often in the public sector in the last decade. This allows the bureaucracy to retain complete control, giving “no possibility for local activists to wrest control…at branch or area level”.14 Yet the following table gives a rather different picture. During 2000-2014, only about half of all (private and public sector) strikes, on average, lasted a total of one day or less (with half lasting more than one day). The one-day strikes include instances where there is more than one strike by the same group of workers on the same issue but the aggregate time lost is one day or less, such as the two four-hour NHS pay strikes in September/October 2014.

Table 1: Strikes lasting one day or less
Source: ONS, 2001-2006, 2007-2010, 2012-2015

As percentage of total strikes

As percentage of total days lost

As percentage of total strikers





























































Because many pay bargaining units in the public sector are very large,15 any action there will dominate figures for days lost and strikers involved. Yet only in 2006 (with the local government pensions strike) and in each year from 2011 to 2014 did strikes lasting, in total, only one day or less translate into over half the annual working days lost. In terms of the percentage of all strikers, one-day strikes have clearly dominated the figures in 2011-14 but much less so in the preceding decade. A mere handful of national public sector strikes have been responsible for this and we should not over-generalise from the experience of these.

Mark rightly argues that even the one-day national, public sector strike “does provide opportunities for agitation and the building of local networks and can keep alive a culture of activism within workplaces.” But his example of “a series of public sector one-day strikes and demonstrations between 1976 and 1979” being behind public sector involvement in the TUC Day of Action on 14 May 1980 is misleading.16 Many of the public sector strikers on 14 May were from nationalised industries (especially miners and railway workers);17 the public service worker involvement on that day would have built on the widespread selective strikes of early 1979 more than anything else.18

As noted above, about half of all strikes (whether continuous or ­discontinuous) currently last more than one day. The large majority of public service strikes are not of the whole national service, but of single workplaces—eg schools, colleges, universities—or parts of local authorities, or individual government departments or agencies. All of these strikes require significant organisation on the ground and involvement by local union activists, as do the roughly equal number of private sector strikes that take place each year.

In conclusion, the Conservative government, in its Trade Union Bill 2015, may have overreached itself in a bout of hubris. Union leaders and activists will be forced to campaign much more vigorously to achieve the required 50 percent turnout in industrial action ballots.19 This will be more difficult in very large national ballots and may encourage some public service unions to prefer more targeted selective industrial action, where that can be organised lawfully. The proposed requirements on spelling out in advance all action to be taken20 may also persuade some unions into calling indefinite (continuous) action or much more frequent discontinuous action. Whatever tactic is decided upon, some of the problems identified by Mark O’Brien may prove to have been historically transient.


1: O’Brien, 2014.

2: O’Brien, 2015, p151.

3: Lyddon, 2015a. One comrade who provided useful feedback on drafts of my article was Angus McKendrick, who died suddenly on 19 June 2015. I record my belated thanks here.

4: J30 was the one-day coordinated strike on 30 June 2011 by three education unions —ATL, NUT and UCU—and the main civil service union, PCS, against the coalition government’s drastic public service pension reforms.

5: Lyddon, 2015a, p145.

6: Harman, 1985, p122.

7: Luxemburg, 1986, pp47-48.

8: O’Brien, 2015, p153.

9: Lyddon, 2015a, p150.

10: Lyddon, 1998.

11: O’Brien, 2015, pp152, 153; Lyddon, 2015a, p150.

12: O’Brien, 2015, p155.

13: O’Brien, 2015, p154, emphasis in original.

14: O’Brien, 2015, pp151-152.

15: Until recently these included Royal Mail, the site of significant national strike action in 2007 and 2009.

16: O’Brien, 2015, p155. Beecham, 1980, p49, who is cited as evidence for this, does not put the case as strongly as O’Brien does. The big demonstrations referred to include the national anti-cuts march of 17 November 1976 and the march (and one-day strike) on 22 January 1979 that launched the public service unions’ pay campaign in the Winter of Discontent—Williams and Fryer, 2011, pp275, 327.

17: Socialist Worker, 1980.

18: Lyddon, 2015b.

19: Trade Union Bill, 2015, clause 2.

20: Trade Union Bill, 2015, clause 4(1).


Beecham, Dave, 1980, “Updating the Downturn: The Class Struggle under the Tories”, International Socialism 14 (autumn), www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1981/isj2-014/beecham.html

Harman, Chris, 1985, “1984 and the Shape of Things to Come”, International Socialism 29 (summer), www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1985/xx/miners.html

Luxemburg, Rosa, 1986 [1906], The Mass Strike (Bookmarks).

Lyddon, Dave, 1998, “Rediscovering the Past: Recent British Strike Tactics in Historical Perspective”, Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, issue 5.

Lyddon, Dave, 2015a, “Bureaucratic Mass Strikes: A Response to Mark O’Brien”, International Socialism 146 (spring), http://isj.org.uk/bureaucratic-mass-strikes-a-response-to-mark-obrien

Lyddon, Dave, 2015b, “Striking Facts about the Winter of Discontent”, Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, issue 36.

O’Brien, Mark, 2014, “The Problem of the One-Day Strike: A Response to Sean Vernell”, International Socialism 142 (spring), http://isj.org.uk/the-problem-of-the-one-day-strike-a-response-to-sean-vernell

O’Brien, Mark, 2015, “Revolutionaries in the Unions: The Reality of the Strike”, International Socialism 147 (summer), http://isj.org.uk/revolutionaries-in-the-unions-the-reality-of-the-strike

Office for National Statistics (2001-2006), Labour Market Trends.

Office for National Statistics (2007-2010), Economic and Labour Market Review.

Office for National Statistics (2012-2015), “Labour Disputes—Annual Article”.

Socialist Worker, 1980, “The Facts on May 14” (24 May).

Trade Union Bill 2015, http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2015-16/tradeunion.html

Williams, Stephen, and R H Fryer, 2011, Leadership and Democracy. The History of the National Union of Public Employees, Vol. 2, 1928–1993 (Lawrence & Wishart).