In the balance: the class struggle in Britain

Issue: 122

Charlie Kimber

“We found out on TV in late November that we were going to close. We just carried on as normal, and it wasn’t until we actually came out and we were all upset when we signed our last bits of paper that we thought, ‘Well, why did we go quietly?’ Why did 30,000 of us go quietly?”
—Jayne Maltman, Woolworths worker, February 2009.1

Everybody interested in the potential for workers’ resistance to the crisis should view two videos shot by BMW workers at a recent mass meeting at the Mini plant at Cowley, Oxford.2 Management announced that 850 people were sacked with immediate effect. Some had been there for four or five years, but there was no redundancy pay because they were agency workers. In one video a management representative reads from a prepared statement which is full of the double-speak management love. At first workers listen in silence as the manager tells them that their shift is to be abolished and their jobs with it. The language is so convoluted that it does not sink in for a while that they are on the dole, without a penny. Anger rises only as they are reminded to hand in their uniforms or face a £25 fine. In the second video the union rep faces the wrath of the workforce, who want to know why they have been treated like this and why the union is so powerless. The union man does not criticise the decision to kill the jobs, only the failure to give three weeks notice. The workers’ anger boils over. One takes the microphone and demands all the subscriptions back from the patently useless union. Others hurl fruit at the union rep.

As you watch, you may well end up shouting at the screen, “Why didn’t somebody call for an occupation of the plant?” The fact that nobody instantly came up with a plan for resistance shows the need for greater workplace rank and file strength, a bigger left and stronger socialist organisation. Who knows what would have happened if the left had been big enough in the run-up to that Cowley meeting to circulate workers with the news that the Waterford Glass factory in Ireland had been occupied and that management were already making concessions. What if one or two well known and well respected Cowley workers were part of left networks that had prepared for just such a moment? What if their Unite union was leading resistance across Britain to every job cut?

All this underlines the importance of subjective factors and the question of leadership. There are times in history when the weight of the material situation is so great that it almost crushes the message for resistance. At other times the mood from below is so strong that even if there is almost no leadership a fight will burst out. We are in neither of those situations. We are at a moment when what individuals do can makes the difference between resistance and surrender. It is a time of alternatives, of volatility, when history is up for grabs.

Britain is not fundamentally different from France, Greece or Italy, countries which have seen mass strikes against the effect of the crisis and are likely to see more. In fact we have already seen the first signs of revolt. The Israeli assault on Gaza sparked a big protest movement in Britain. Large demonstrations took place not just in London but in a score of other cities and towns. It wasn’t just that huge numbers protested; it was also their militancy and readiness to defy the authorities. This movement was focused on the brutal killing in Gaza, and the great powers’ support for Israel and their connivance with the slaughter. But the revolt was all the greater because of the economic crisis and drew some of its impact from the fact that the world was falling apart. A “non-economic” event (the murder of a student by police) led to the recent strikes, riots and demonstrations in Greece. The Gaza protests showed a glimpse of the same character here.

Britain is certainly not different to Ireland where some 120,000 people marched in Dublin on 21 February to demand that workers should not pay for the crisis. Consider the sequence of events: 500 Waterford Glass workers refuse to accept closure and mass job losses and they occupy their factory. Their example electrifies others, and the unions are forced to call a protest over an increase in pension contributions for public sector workers. This demonstration becomes a focus for much wider anger and bitterness over the crisis. That’s what happened in Ireland, and something like that can happen in Britain. But, as events in Britain and the rest of Europe have powerfully demonstrated, right wing forces and the fascists will also try to benefit from the anger and frustration generated by the crisis. When the dam bursts, the pent-up force can go in many directions.

The economic crisis is a process, not an event, and will be the dominant factor shaping politics for years to come. But will workers fight? The answer requires an examination of the balance of class forces. This is not an exercise in prediction; it is an attempt to sketch the general trends and the basis on which we can build towards effective resistance.

Workers’ perception of the need for a fightback is fundamentally shaped by the material conditions they face. That is why the scale of the crisis and the attacks on living standards are so important. Crises never unfold smoothly. They proceed through sudden leaps like the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. Hundreds or thousands of jobs may go every week, but then comes a day that rams home the message of devastation, tearing up people’s perceptions of life and shattering long held assumptions about the system. But ideological, political and organisational factors mediate between economic facts and the possibility of resistance. The history of victory and defeat, the quality of leadership among workers and the ruling class, the level of organisation, the political atmosphere in society generally, international factors, the impact of victory or defeat—these are just some of the factors that matter.

Leon Trotsky wrote of the impact of the crisis that broke out in 1921:

The bourgeoisie will be compelled to exert stronger and stronger pressure upon the working class. This is already to be seen in the cutting of wages which has started in the full-blooded capitalist countries… This leads to great struggles over wages. Our task is to extend these struggles… We have no automatic guarantees of development… There is no automatic dependence of the proletarian revolutionary movement upon a crisis. There is only a dialectical interaction.3

He also insisted on the need to recognise the potential for a rise in struggle, even when it was only in its initial stages:

You cannot deny a beginning of radicalisation because strikes have not yet embraced the main sections of the workers; what can and must be made is a concrete evaluation of the extent, depth and intensity of this radicalisation… Leaders who wish to begin only when everything is ready are not needed by the working class. One must be able to see the first, even though weak, symptoms of revival… The general nature of our epoch…has proved more than once…that, between the first symptoms of revival and the stormy upsurge that creates a revolutionary situation, not 40 years but perhaps only a fifth or a tenth of that are required.4

In Britain today there is a battle in the heart of every worker. On the one hand, fear leads to the feeling, “I can’t afford to resist or protest or strike”; on the other hand, sudden hardship leads to the feeling, “I can’t afford not to put up resistance.” Which wins out is not preordained, and can’t be read off from the retail price index or the unemployment figures.

An explosive mix

There are many historical examples showing how objective and subjective factors combine to influence the impact of crises on struggle. The New Unionism of the 1880s and 1890s was one such British example. It emerged from the interplay of several factors. There had been a squeeze on profits as US, French and German firms challenged the British capitalist class’s economic predominance. The boom of the 1850s and 1860s had given way to a series of crises in the 1870s and 1880s. Capitalists responded by attacking not just the unorganised workers but the class as a whole, ripping up contracts that had given some protection to skilled workers. The philosophy of “partnership” with a paternalist boss was shattered. The conservative unions that had painstakingly grown in the previous three decades were hopelessly inadequate to defend workers. The way was cleared for a revolt of the unskilled, of migrant and women workers, and for the explosive growth of unions that represented the new energy of the movement. But it also required socialist leadership from activists such as Eleanor Marx and Tom Mann to make that potential into reality. There was an interaction of changes in the economy, changes in capitalist organisation and socialist political leadership.

The source of the revival was wholly unexpected: the Bryant & May match girls’ strike of 1888, led by young women with an average age of 13, many of them immigrants from Ireland. Their success rolled on to the great dock strike a year later, which virtually closed the Thames to river traffic for a month. That victory in turn inspired a wave of organising the unorganised, a growth of powerful general unions that welcomed women, unskilled and migrant workers—and which often declared the need for a fundamental change in society.

A similar process took place in the years of the Great Unrest (1910-14). Real wages fell from the turn of the century, while profits rose. But by itself this did not explain the stormy struggles such as the 1907 Belfast dock strike, the Cambrian Combine coal strike of 1910 and the rail and Liverpool dock strikes of 1911. As Michael Woodhouse puts it, “The change in consciousness of the working class that produced the ‘labour unrest’ of the pre-1914 period was a reaction not merely to the decline in real wages, but to deep going changes in the organisation of capitalism, and the capitalists’ growing reliance on the state power”.5 The open alliance of big, centralised conglomerates with the police and the courts posed class questions with great sharpness. A battle over wages or jobs could rapidly become a much more generalised struggle. Also crucial was political disillusion with the Labour Party. As early as 1908 an engineers’ union member wrote, “The most charitable thing that can be said about political action [ie the Labour Party] is that it is slow, so slow that it breaks men’s hearts.” All these factors raised the spirit of class unity and the willingness to fight.

The strikes of the early 1970s also showed a combination of economic and political factors. The long decline of British capitalism relative to its competitors was already reaching crisis point. The situation internationally was uncannily similar to today, with the US embroiled in a long, costly and unwinnable war (in Vietnam). And inflation was rising after a long period of relative stability. Edward Heath’s Tory government was elected with the most right wing manifesto for 30 years and set out to break workers’ organisation by a combination of rising unemployment, a centrally policed “wage norm”, and anti-union laws. This fiercely political assault led to a series of militant strikes and workplace occupations: the mass movement around the sit-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971; the mining, docks and builders strikes of 1972; the miners’ strike of 1974. More than three million days were “lost” in political protest strikes against the Industrial Relations Act, more than one million against the Industrial Relations Court and 1.5 million against the government’s incomes policy. Militant trade unionism smashed the anti-union laws, freed the five Pentonville dockers who had been jailed for defying them and eventually forced Heath out of office.

None of this would have happened without a politically crucial ingredient—the fact that some thousands of union activists were members or close supporters of the Communist Party or (a smaller number) the revolutionary left. Together these made up only a small minority of the union activists—perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 out of a total of 200,000 to 300,000. But their independence from the Labour Party meant they could push struggles beyond the limits laid down by the trade union leaders.

The three highpoints of struggle—the 1880s, the run-up to the First World War, and the 1970s—help us understand how economics and politics interact. They also show that revolutionaries need to fight to develop the present struggles much further. What then is the background to the situation today?

The level of class struggle

It is a commonplace to say that the late 1980s and early 1990s saw a dramatic fall in the number of officially recorded stoppages, with each year between registering the lowest number of stoppages since the Second World War. There had been an average of seven million officially recorded strike days per year in the 1970s and early 1980s—that is, 300 per 1,000 employees. By the latter half of the 1990s and early years of this century there were just half a million per annum—20 per 1,000 employees. The decline has been sharpest in the private sector (see table 1).

These facts are real and no serious study can ignore them. But there is also a danger of thinking that today will be the same as yesterday. Class relations are marked by sudden and unexpected turns. And there has been a gradual rise in struggle in recent years, with the number of strike days increasing from 157,000 in 2005 to 754,000 in 2006 and then to over one million in 2007. The last figure is well below the level of the 1970s but compares well with the annual average for the 1990s of only 219,000.

The rise in strikes from 2005 built on a (gradually) growing trend of industrial action in the public sector over the previous six years with one in seven of its workplaces experiencing industrial action in 2004 compared with one in 20 in 1998. The increase in strikes was partly in resistance to New Labour’s attacks, as it attempted to impose wage limits, often below the level of inflation, and to implement public sector “reforms”. But there was also an undoubted political element—the confidence gained by hundreds of thousands of trade unionists from the anti-capitalist mood after the Seattle revolt of November 1999 and from participation in the millions strong anti-war movement from 2001 onwards.

Table 1: Percentage of workplaces experiencing industrial action
Source: Dix, Forth and Sisson, 2008, p6.

1980 1984 1990 1998 2004
Private manufacturing
Strike action 19 9 4 0
Non-strike action 16 12 7 1 2
Either form of action 26 17 10 1 2
Private services
Strike action 3 5 2 1 1
Non-strike action 3 3 2 2
Either form of action 6 7 3 1 2
Public sector
Strike action 15 31 31 3 9
Non-strike action 19 24 8 2 7
Either form of action 26 38 34 5 14

Based on all establishments with 25 or more employees
(* indicates less than 0.5 percent but not zero)

The question of organisation

Many people (including some of those on the left) still regard this rise in strike days as based on sand because there has been such a withering of union membership and structures.

Chris Harman pointed out in this journal last year that, “despite the decline, the proportion of workers in a union remains higher than it was just before two of the great upsurges of class struggle in the 20th century: the Great Unrest and the explosion of militancy in 1919-20”.6 For all their weakness, trade unions are still a major force, with eight million members and 6.5 million of those in TUC-affiliated unions. That does not mean there is any room for complacency. Union membership has still fallen from 49 percent to 31 percent of the workforce. The union leaders’ failure to fight and the consequent lack of successful struggle does not encourage people to join unions, especially at a time of rising unemployment.

The fall in the number of trade unionists is not because workers are streaming out of the unions. The percentage of workers who were once union members but are now not has remained roughly constant at 20 to 25 percent from 1983 to today. And many of them are, in any case, people who have moved from a unionised to a non-unionised workplace, especially with the decline by two thirds in manufacturing employment, rather than people who have ripped up their membership cards in despair. What has changed is the number of workers who have never been in a union. This rose from 28 percent to 48 percent between 1983 and 2001—and the rise is greatest among workers under 25, who are nearly one third less likely never to have been in unions than older workers.

Figure 1: Workers’ relationship to trade unions
Source: Bryson and Gomez, 2003, p16
Figure 1

That is a problem and a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. It requires that the unions fight. Where this has happened it has greatly boosted union strength. One well documented example is the local government strike over pensions of 28 March 2006. The Unison union reported, “All regions benefited from the increased activity building up to and during the day of action. March saw the highest monthly recruitment on record.” There was “massively increased activity on the Unison website, with more than half a million visitors… The membership form was downloaded 22,232 times in March—more than four times the monthly average… Glasgow City branch secretary David O’Connor
was ‘totally delighted’ to be welcoming close to 1,000 new members to the branch”.7

Each struggle sees workers stream into unions, giving the lie to the idea that workers join unions simply in order to receive advice or legal support. Some do sign up because they know that they might be facing a disciplinary hearing, but the main reasons are the same as ever: the desire for collective strength and basic representation over pay and conditions and management bullying. And the greatest spur to recruitment is struggle.

What about the level of active members, or workplace reps and shop stewards? Studies show that the number of shop stewards and other lay union representatives in British workplaces expanded considerably in the 1960s and 1970s.8 One study arrived at an estimate of 175,000 stewards in the mid-1960s, with around two thirds of these in manufacturing plants and the remainder in service sector workplaces. Another arrived at a figure of at least 200,000 for the early 1970s and 300,000 for the end of that decade.

The total number of stewards grew further in the first half of the 1980s to reach 335,000 stewards by 1984. There were important variations, with a decline of some 30 percentage points in the number of stewards in manufacturing being offset by considerable gains in private services and the public sector…non-manual stewards were nearly as common as manual shop stewards by this point in time.9

This expansion in the shop steward network was so great that it outstripped the rise in union membership, the ratio of stewards to union members falling from around 1:50 in the late 1960s to around 1:40 at the end of the 1970s and 1:25 by 1984.10 The series of defeats suffered by the unions in set-piece battles—especially the miners’ strike of 1984-5 and the Wapping dispute of 1986-7—resulted in a sharp decline in organisation at work with a fall in “the overall rate of union recognition, from 66 to 53 percent” by 1990 and in the number of stewards “by almost half” to 178,000.11 The number of members per steward rose to 37 (although this was only a return to the level of the 1970s) and full-time officials became correspondingly more influential, taking control further away from the shop floor.

But the workplace union rep has not disappeared. One estimate is that there were 128,000 in workplaces with more than 25 employees in 2004;12 another suggests there were 160,000.13 Such figures are fairly similar to those of the mid-1960s. And some 47 percent of all employees in workplaces of more than five people have at least one union rep onsite—77 percent in the public sector, 37 percent in the private sector.

Union representatives tend to be male (56 percent), relatively old (78 percent are 40)14 and work full_time (92 percent). In addition, black people and ethnic minorities are under_represented. Just 4 percent are non-white.15 But there have been some interesting changes over time. For example, the proportion of female representatives has increased quite sharply. In 1998 just 35 percent of union representatives were female; by 2004 it was 44 percent. Union representatives have held their position for an average of eight years. About 10 percent do their union work full time, with the rest spending an average of 6.3 hours a week on it,16 a pretty extraordinary level of commitment from people who are generally unpaid for this work.

Some of the 160,000 union reps are highly bureaucratised. Some are tired and cynical. Some are more a block to struggle than an encouragement. But many are itching for our side to start fighting effectively. They are the sort of people who organised the strikes of recent years, who try to get their workmates to go to protests over Israel’s assault on Gaza, who put out leaflets against the British National Party and who feel enthused when they read about the Waterford Glass occupation.

We desperately need a new layer of activists. But we should not think the spine of the working class movement has been broken.

The union leaders, politics, and the rank and file

The existence of unions and of large numbers of shop stewards is not in itself enough to guarantee struggle. And alongside them there is a real force that will always play a contradictory or negative role—the trade union bureaucracy.17 In the last decade it, and its link with Labour, has been the greatest block to the emergence of struggle.

In response to the present crisis, the union leaders have sought every means other than struggle. Typical was the attitude of Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB union. He told the Financial Times, “It is difficult for union officials to stand up in front of members and recommend that they should lose pay. It is much easier just to say ‘No, no, no’ to employers. But it must be an adult dialogue”.18 The article went on to say that the GMB had already persuaded workers to accept short-time working and cuts in earnings at Hawick Knitwear, JCB and Cosalt Holiday Homes.

This did not save jobs in the long term. After agreeing to the short_time working at Cosalt Holiday Homes the GMB was given 90 days notice of 280 job losses. The bosses pocketed the money from reduced wages and slashed jobs anyway. It was even more gross at JCB. In October JCB workers were blackmailed into a deal which saw a reduction in their hours from 39 to 34 a week in order to reduce production—and with pay cut by around £50 a week. The company, which had already laid off 379 workers in Britain during 2008, said that unless workers accepted their offer, more jobs would go before the end of the year. Keith Hodgkinson, the GMB organiser, said, “I am delighted that we have been able to save 350 jobs. The vote shows the social solidarity of trade union members in action.” He spoke far too soon. No sooner had the workers accepted the pay cut than JCB announced that it was going to make job cuts anyway. True, it was not the threatened 350—it was 398. But the matter did not end there. In January 2009 JCB axed almost 700 more jobs. “We are very disappointed at this announcement. Our members have done everything possible, including sharing the misery, to try to avoid further job losses. We will be seeking talks with JCB to minimise the job cuts,” said Joe Morgan, regional officer of the GMB union.

These GMB officials were faithfully reflecting the view from the top that struggle was virtually impossible and therefore the only way forward was to plead for the bosses to redistribute the pain between employed and unemployed workers. Instead of demanding that the government take over firms that would not guarantee jobs, the union leaders begged ministers to bail out the employers with billions more cash.

The pressures on bureaucrats affect the left as well as the right—as we have seen with the rise (and in some cases fall) of the new breed of general secretaries. In 1998 a relatively unknown train driver, Mick Rix, won the general secretary election in the train drivers’ union Aslef. He was the first in a series of new left wing trade union leaders that became known as the “awkward squad”. These included Bob Crow (of the rail and maritime workers’ RMT), Mark Serwotka (civil service workers’ PCS), Billy Hayes (postal and telecom workers’ CWU), Andy Gilchrist (firefighters’ FBU), Derek Simpson (manufacturing, print and finance workers’ Amicus) and Tony Woodley (general workers’ TGWU). To record the names is to cast doubt on whether many ever deserved to be dubbed “awkward”.

In the previous big economic crisis of the mid-1970s the union leaders positively supported the Labour government’s attacks on the working class under the cover of the social contract. A central role in this was played by Jack Jones of the TGWU and Hugh Scanlon of the engineering union, both of whom had been elected to their positions as left wingers. Now they were publicly in favour of the package of pay curbs and helped persuade workers to accept falling real wages, mass unemployment and cuts in social services.

None of this means revolutionaries should refuse to engage with union leaders and work with them where possible. The battle between left and right union leaders does matter. If Mark Serwotka were not the leader of the PCS it is absolutely certain that there would not have been the same level of strikes from the union over the past five years. If the right led the union, the ballots for action would never have been held. If more vacillating elements led the union, they would not have mobilised enough people to win the ballot. There can be disagreements with Mark Serwotka over important matters. But only a fool would think he is irrelevant.

The same can be true even when differences between candidates for union positions are less clear cut. For instance, if the choice in the Unite union (formed by the merger of the TGWU and Amicus) was between the two joint general secretaries, Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson, it would be right to back Woodley, for all his faults and despite the fact that he acts as a shield for Labour. He is associated in the minds of workers with a much more militant response to the crisis, has been much more critical of Labour, and has backed key strikes.

There are circumstances in which revolutionaries can and should challenge for national union positions. Having positions on the executives of unions can make a difference when it comes to winning support for resistance. This was shown on a number of occasions last year—for instance in the arguments for the joint teachers’, lecturers’ and civil servants’ strike in late April, in the further education strike on 9 June, and in the resistance to the retreat from action over pay in autumn 2008 put up by Socialist Workers Party members in the teachers’ and civil servants’ unions, and the health section of Unite.

Revolutionaries have to learn to work with and against the bureaucracy. But the test in doing so is looking at its impact on organisation among rank and file workers. As Duncan Hallas wrote in 1977:

We are for unity in action with all those in the working class movement who are willing to fight, even when the agreement about objectives is only partial and temporary. This includes, of course, unity with whatever sections of the “official leaderships” can be induced to collaborate in particular actions… However, to cooperate with left wing union leaders—and indeed with right wing ones where possible—for particular ends is by no means the same as relying on them. Still less is it the same as believing that “progressive officials” can ever be a substitute for organised rank and file activity… We believe that active and effective rank and file movements are indispensable.19

The classic statement of what revolutionaries aim for was provided by the Glasgow Clyde Workers’ Committee during a strike wave in 1915. The committee declared, “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but will act independently immediately they misrepresent them. Being composed of delegates from every shop and untrammelled by obsolete rule or law, we claim to represent the true feelings of the workers. We can act immediately according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file.” Easy to say, not so easy to achieve.

Rank and file organisation is far weaker now than in the 1970s. Then networks of stewards had some capacity to organise activity independent of the officials, hold national conferences and coordinate solidarity. But the defeats of the 1980s and 1990s, the wave of closures in the most militant industries, the mass redundancies, the very low level of struggle, and the weakening of a socialist culture took a terrible toll on the militants in the factories and the offices. It is no good appealing to mythical rank and file networks that do not exist, but neither does the temporary weakening of the rank and file mean we should abandon the aim.

The alternative to rank and file organisation is some sort of “broad left”, a grouping that brings together rank and file workers, reps, executive members and officials around a general left programme. Broad lefts can be useful, and certainly every socialist should take part in them at the moment. But, with the partial exception of education, they have hardly expanded beyond electoral machines that help to get people into various positions while doing very little to build activity and resistance. They can easily end up dominated by bureaucrats (or prospective bureaucrats) hostile to rank and file initiative. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) broad left is a classic case. It has been incredibly successful electorally in the telecom section of the union but has proved utterly useless in raising the level of struggle and recently split—with half energetically supporting a deal that attacked British Telecom workers’ pensions.

The interaction of all these factors is shown by some of the major industrial struggles of recent years.

The postal workers

Postal workers were among the best organised workers in Britain, with a reputation for militant and unofficial action throughout the 1990s. Wave after wave of unofficial strikes centring on offices such as Milton Keynes, Oxford, much of London, Liverpool, Cardiff and Edinburgh had defended good working conditions and union organisation. Networks of militants could, when necessary, bring much of Britain’s post to a halt.

The importance of such networks was underlined in September 2003 after the union lost an official national pay ballot. The management declared that “the world had changed” and that henceforth they would be moving against the union and its militants. The union leaders were left reeling, but the rank and file weren’t having it. Within days Oxford postal workers had walked out unofficially—and won. Then London had an official strike speedily followed by an unofficial dispute that spread to large parts of Essex and Kent, with scores of other offices then stopping when they were asked to deal with the mail of offices already on strike. Management had relied on divisions in the union. Now they found they were uniting the workforce in a militant fightback. Instead of the union being crushed by the loss of the pay ballot, it emerged unscathed and in some ways strengthened.

Recalling this success is not just about wallowing in past glories. It is to remind ourselves of the power of the rank and file and the opportunities the union movement has missed to build on gains (however partial and specific) and to revive the movement. The postal workers’ victory is not ancient history: it was just six years ago. It came at the height of the anti_war movement, with the anger at Labour growing, with a renewal of confidence after a major local government strike in July 2002, and after left wingers had been elected to top positions in the RMT, Aslef, PCS, FBU, Natfhe, CWU, Amicus and other unions.

But the movement was not carried forward. Socialist Worker warned at the time, “The postal workers must build on the networks they have already achieved, strengthen their organisation and prepare for the next time”.20 Instead it was Royal Mail which made the moves, bombarding postal workers and their union with propaganda about the parlous state of the industry, the need for “modernisation”, the threat of privatisation and the potential for new technology to reduce the number of ordinary postal workers. Local managers cracked down hard on strikes, removing reps’ facility time and withholding overtime after unofficial strikes, and then even after official, entirely legal, strikes. The national union complained, but it did not organise sufficiently hard to reassert the CWU’s rights, and such sanctions became the norm. Changes on the national executive resulted in several of those who had been sympathetic to the unofficial movement moving into top positions inside the union machine. At one level this made the bureaucracy more verbally open to rank and file concerns. But it also changed the focus from the organisation of the rank and file to the manoeuvres at head office. The unofficial strikes virtually disappeared, and with them went some of the networks of resistance. The organisation that had won in 2003 was not sufficiently rooted to deal with the new challenges by consistently organising both with and against the bureaucracy, and politically it was narrow, unable to renew itself through immersion in the anti-war movement or to recognise the danger of the union snuggling ever closer to Labour.

This was the background to the national dispute of 2007. In early June some 130,000 workers brushed aside the propaganda from their bosses and voted overwhelmingly for action against pay cuts and 21 changes to working conditions—77 percent voted yes on a 67 percent turnout, with the majority of workers at every Royal Mail branch in the country voting to strike. A series of one-day and sectional strikes eventually forced the bosses and the government to offer talks, but once the strikes were called off, the employers, backed by Gordon Brown, confronted workers with an even more vicious package designed to break the union in order to impose a total transformation of working conditions. There was a further series of official strikes and important unofficial action in parts of London, Scotland and (especially) Liverpool. But the weakness of the rank and file networks meant they were unable to overcome the hesitations of the official union leaders. The union’s postal executive (after a major internal struggle) eventually recommended a new deal, pretending it was a victory or at least a “score draw”, despite giving away crucial concessions on pensions, “flexibility” and jobs as well as pay. Management have used the agreement to ram through major changes in working conditions and embarked on a slash and burn programme of closures and job losses.

This was not because support for the strikes was half-hearted. Far from crumbling, the strikes became more solid as they proceeded. Scabbing was never significant, and the union leaders’ greatest problem was holding back unofficial strikes rather than persuading members to go into battle. Over 5,000 workers joined the CWU and new reps emerged in offices, fresh layers of leadership that could have revived the union. Other trade unionists raised money, came to the picket lines and helped organise joint union meetings. So why didn’t this end in victory?

The course of the dispute and the question of rank and file organisation cannot be understood without looking at the wider issues involved. Politics mattered. The postal workers needed allies, and with other unions, particularly the PCS, also in conflict with the government that was a possibility. But in the early days of the strikes most CWU leaders were either indifferent or hostile to the idea of arranging their strikes to coincide with action by other unions, with Labour loyalists such as CWU general secretary Billy Hayes fearful that they would be portrayed as launching a “political” strike. The argument inside the union gradually shifted as delegations from other unions arrived at picket lines and rallies with other unions made strikers begin to feel they were indeed the vanguard of a broader battle. By mid-July a majority of the CWU’s postal executive were in favour of seeking serious talks with the PCS over a date for action. But at just that point the majority on the PCS executive drew back, feeling nothing could be done until after consultation with their members. This effectively ended the possibility of a joint strike. Political weakness produced defeat where victory had been possible.

The firefighters

The firefighters’ dispute of 2002-3 demonstrated the potential to kickstart resistance to Labour’s attacks on workers. But it also showed the lethal consequences of political weakness by the union leadership.

Firefighters’ dissatisfaction over pay had been growing for years, and the FBU’s “30k” pay campaign delivered one of the best ever strike votes in 2002 and brought the spirit of anti-capitalist protests to trade union demonstrations. The dispute was eventually to see 15 strikes.

As the campaign developed, firefighters’ support groups sprang up across Britain, with big meetings attracting key local trade unionists. During the first 48-hour strike 400 drivers and other grades brought large parts of London Underground to a halt as they refused to work without adequate fire cover. The RMT and Aslef rail unions both mailed their members directly saying the union leaderships would back anyone who refused to work normally on a firefighters’ strike day. The GMB, Amicus and Unison unions also told their members they were right to raise safety concerns.

The government was in disarray, and public support for the FBU was high during the second eight-day long strike, despite a government propaganda blitz. This was a political crisis for the government, just as it was preparing for war in Iraq and facing a rising movement that threatened to remove the then prime minister, Tony Blair.

But what should have been a strength was turned into a weakness by the FBU leaders. A key role in initiating the campaign had been played by the union’s general secretary, Andy Gilchrist, elected in 2000 and hailed as part of the “awkward squad”. But from the beginning he signalled the limits of the kind of campaign he was prepared to fight. He got the union conference to overturn a decision from the previous year to open up the union’s political fund to back socialist candidates even if they were not in the Labour Party, arguing that the union’s link with Labour would secure it influence with the government in the coming pay battle.

It became clear that the leadership had no strategy for winning the dispute beyond a token show of force which they hoped would enable them to cut a backroom deal with John Prescott and other supposedly “Old Labour” ministers. As they saw it, this strategy was being undermined by the very success of the strikes. Although the union leaders claimed to be against the war on Iraq, they used the existence of a minority inside the union who were unhappy about undermining “our boys” in Iraq to call off action again and again while they looked to talks and deals. A special conference rejected a first attempt at a compromise but there was no change in tactics, and FBU members eventually accepted a deal which offered a small pay rise, but opened the way to a wholesale attack on conditions.

The FBU leadership had killed the momentum of the dispute and thrown away the chance to combine the biggest political crisis for the government over the Iraq war with its biggest industrial challenge.21

Dick Duane, the acting brigade chair of Essex FBU, told Socialist Worker:

Firefighters feel sold out, not beaten. We had a nine to one vote for strike action and overwhelming public support. But when the government stepped in, in the form of John Prescott, everything changed. We made a good argument for some change within the system, but then we came up against a government the union leaders supported. Our union leaders used the war on Iraq to dent the confidence of the members. In the end, after so many suspensions, firefighters just felt there was no leadership capable of winning the dispute in the way they wanted.22

There were activists who recognised the need for rank and file action, and they had some rudimentary organisation—the Red Watch paper and the “30K” website, for example. But these were too weak to defeat the executive.

Three TGWU/Unite strikes

The examples I have given so far are from the public sector. But the private sector has also seen important battles which demonstrate a willingness to strike and the power workers still have.

In July 2003 500 British Airways (BA) check-in workers, most of them women, walked out on an unofficial 24-hour strike and shut down operations at Heathrow. A worker told Socialist Worker:

This was a rebellion of the rank and file. Hundreds of people walked off the job and stayed in their restrooms. When managers turned up to talk to them, they told them to fuck off. These are the people who spend all day in uniforms smiling at customers and hoping that they ‘have a nice day’. They’re the last people you would imagine to walk out unofficially and shout at the boss. The workers didn’t wait for the unions’ official backing. They just walked.23

The revolt happened when management introduced new regulations that would have wrecked the childcare arrangements that had been put together by many of the staff. Instead of waiting to go through all the official balloting procedures, the workers took advantage of the summer pressure period and hit BA immediately. That’s why they won. The union officials had very little bearing on the dispute, and it was over almost before they knew it was happening.

But this excellent example was not built on in the wider movement. The result was a defeat two years later in another important Heathrow dispute, involving mainly Asian women, at Gate Gourmet, a company that provided in-flight meals to BA. Management had herded the 667 workers into a room and used a megaphone to demand they accept new (and much worse) conditions. The workers refused and were dismissed. It was a gross assault, but typical of much that workers had endured in the 1990s. What followed was certainly not normal. Hundreds of Heathrow baggage handlers, check-in workers and bus drivers walked out on unofficial solidarity strike, severely disrupting BA’s operations and closing most of Heathrow—one of the most important airport hubs internationally. Had the strike been maintained, BA would have forced Gate Gourmet to retreat, and the workers would have won. But, under threats of crippling legal action and damages of tens of millions of pounds, the TGWU union leaders, who had initially encouraged the walkout, reined in the action. The Gate Gourmet workers fought on heroically for months and became the toast of almost every union gathering, including the TUC conference. But without solidarity they were weak and the majority were eventually pressured into accepting a bad deal.

The Gate Gourmet bosses looked to the harshest anti-union laws in the Western world to ban “secondary action” in solidarity with the striking workers. The leaders of the largest trade unions wrote to the government minister Alan Johnson demanding that at least some of these laws be repealed: “It cannot be acceptable in modern day Britain that a ruthless employer can turn on the most vulnerable workers in this way with impunity. We sincerely hope that these workers will receive the backing of this Labour government and that you will do all in your power to ensure that the deficiencies in employment law are addressed so that this darkest episode is not repeated.” His response? He was “not inclined”, he told the Financial Times, to “make it easier for BA baggage handlers to walk out unballoted in industrial action that has nothing to do with their employer”.

So defying the law in 2003 won at Heathrow. Half defying the law lost in 2005. Perhaps some of the lessons were learnt by the time of the strike by 650 Shell tanker drivers three years later. Striking workers picketed three oil depots in Scotland—at Grangemouth oil refinery, Aberdeen and Inverness—waving banners saying “Shell, Gallons of Greed” and “Shell Drivers over a Barrel”. From the first hours of the strike, tanker drivers from BP and other companies refused to cross picket lines. When Scottish Fuels, a spin-off from BP, tried to discipline drivers for this, they walked out on strike, forcing it to back down.

The government was shocked and horrified by the speed with which many areas of the country ran out of fuel. It instructed the police to break up picket lines, prepared emergency powers to ration petrol and put the army on standby to drive fuel tankers. But ministers and oil executives calculated that such action would provoke even wider escalation by the drivers. And the government would lose. The Shell tanker drivers received a new offer which was three times the government’s recommended level for settlements. This victory was achieved by the drivers’ own determination and, crucially, the support of other drivers who had not been balloted and were not legally part of the dispute.

Karen Reissmann

The campaign in 2007-9 over the sacking of health worker Karen Reissmann was both indicative of a mood inside the working class and also highlighted a real problem we face—the victimisation of union activists. Sometimes (as in Karen’s case) this is by the employer. Sometimes it is by the union or a combination of employer and union, as with Yunus Bakhsh, who has been fighting for over two years against both his sacking and his expulsion from Unison. Such attempted victimisations are to be expected at a time when the workers’ movement is slowly recovering but has not yet found real power. Employers and some union bureaucrats seek to remove the individuals who best represent the growing feeling for revolt.

Karen had led a big campaign, including two strikes, against cuts and privatisation in the first half of 2007. She was suspended in June 2007 and then sacked in November by the local health trust after she spoke out against cuts and privatisation in an interview given to a Manchester-based social enterprise magazine. Nearly 700 health workers took part in a series of strikes in her support in August and September, and workers at the trust launched an indefinite strike in November. In some ways the wider solidarity movement was even more impressive. One of the strikers described a solidarity tour: “When you talk to people face to face you get an accurate picture of how strong our support is around Britain. While in London we were constantly at solidarity meetings—from minutes after we got off the train on Monday, until minutes before we were due to go back on Wednesday. And the whole time we were getting more invitations. In the end we couldn’t fit everyone in. People were making comparisons between the issues that triggered our dispute and what happens in their own workplaces.” One of the great strengths of the campaign was that it brought together workers, service users and a community; it stressed that what was at stake was not an individual’s future, not even just a trade unionist’s right to organise, but also the defence of the NHS and decent services for the mentally ill.

Unison was formally in support of the campaign, but very few national officials ever gave the impression that they were 100 percent committed to it, cutting off legal support for Karen after she refused to accept a trust offer to settle in advance of an employment tribunal hearing.

Karen was eventually forced to abandon her struggle after the chair of the tribunal made it clear he did not accept she had the right to speak out against what management had been doing. But her campaign played a role in raising the level of resistance nationally. The cuts which were supposed to flow from Karen’s sacking were blocked because of the new layer of stewards recruited due to the fightback. And the chief executive who had sacked her departed—claiming unfair dismissal against the trust!

The public sector pay revolt

For more than three years, limiting public sector pay rises to around
2 percent, at a time when inflation has been far higher, has been a central plank in government economic policy. This has been combined with mass job cuts (especially in the civil service) and further privatisation. The resistance this provoked not only led to the gradual rise in the number of strike days, but also raised the possibility of a qualitative as well as quantitative rise in the level of struggle through the potential for united action by public sector unions. Mark Serwotka of the PCS union played an important role in pushing for this. The strength of feeling at the base of the unions was shown by the way almost every union leadership was verbally committed to some version or other of coordinated action by 2007, culminating in a motion going through the TUC.

The highpoint of the campaign was 24 April 2008, “Fightback Thursday”, when around 400,000 civil service workers, teachers in the NUT and college lecturers in UCU struck together against pay curbs. The day was notable for its excitement and vibrancy.24 The demonstration in London was full of young teachers, many of them women, who sang and chanted, and had the sense that they were standing up for themselves, the children they teach and public sector workers in general. Civil service workers, who had struck repeatedly but on their own in the previous two years, suddenly seemed to have powerful allies. The fact that the government was holding down workers’ wages while shovelling billions to the bankers (Northern Rock was nationalised two months earlier) focused the sense of class bitterness. The strike, just a week before important local elections, was also a political blow to the government.

But in the aftermath there was a continuous political fight between those who wanted more strikes and protests, and those, with little faith in the union membership, who saw friendly talks with the government as the most fruitful course. The majority on the NUT executive decided against an immediate ballot for further action. College lecturers in London did strike again on 9 June after a strenuous internal battle. But then a UCU conference voted very narrowly to recommend a new, slightly improved, offer.

However, the mood for action did not go away. Soaring inflation was cutting into workers’ pay packets, with the privatised gas and electricity companies imposing massive price increases. Politically the Labour government’s abolition of the lowest (10p) band of income tax was a symbol of how Brown was prepared to help the rich. There were also some small but very important strikes. Workers at the Grangemouth refinery won a battle over pensions after coming close to causing nationwide petrol shortages. Shell tanker drivers forced the employers to concede after defying the anti-union laws to picket out other drivers. Strikes by cleaners on the London Underground and distribution workers at Argos were successful. Against this background, Unison local government members in England, Wales and Northern Ireland voted narrowly for action (by 55 percent). The union leaders felt sufficient pressure to call action, and half a million local government workers struck in England and Wales on 16 and 17 July, and thousands in Scotland on 20 August and 24 September. And meanwhile the London bus workers were moving towards strikes across the capital.

The feeling was such that the TUC conference voted for coordinated action, a national demonstration and joint days of action—and would have voted for joint days of strike action had the Unite delegation not changed its vote at the last moment. Serwotka told delegates, “We have done a lot of talking about coordinating our industrial action. Now is the time to put those words into action.” There was now a chance to recreate the events of 24 April on a much higher plane, through joint action of 1.5 million workers in teaching, the civil service, local government and elsewhere. But there had already been the first moves to squash that chance. Unison and Unite leaders sent the England and Wales dispute to arbitration.25

Then the economic crisis came crashing through the door with the collapse of Lehman Brothers on 15 September. Predictions of mass job losses suddenly seemed real. This required a political response from the unions—for them to pose the pay battles as important in themselves but also as the first shots of a wider resistance by the working class against the catastrophic effects of the crisis. Instead there was widespread confusion, with some influential activists arguing that workers would not fight during a recession or that pay was now “the wrong issue”. Important union leaders encouraged these attitudes by saying Brown had ditched the New Labour agenda and would protect people from the crisis.

When the members of the NUT and PCS, nevertheless, voted narrowly for strike action in ballots, their union executives decided in November to abandon the pay fight, with only those members who were in the Socialist Workers Party resisting the retreat. One member of the NUT executive told the Times Educational Supplement that “people were ‘in awe’ of the current economic climate and did not believe it was the right time for strike action”.26 The pay revolt, in the sense of a united public sector campaign involving several unions across different sectors, was dead. Over 1.75 million public sector workers are now on multi-year deals which will be hard to reopen. This retreat did not “clear the decks” and make struggles over jobs or closures easier. It made them harder.

The history of the pay revolt underlines the fact that the question of whether or not to fight is not laid down in advance. Especially in a crisis, the question of political leadership becomes crucial. The union bureaucracies are very unlikely to provide it. Their social position, balancing between workers and bosses, leads them towards compromise and to hold back from confrontation. They can sometimes be pushed into struggle by pressure from below and by their own interests in maintaining some degree of workers’ organisation. But even then they can never be relied on.

The bureaucratic strangling of the public sector pay revolt does not mean that pay will cease to be an issue. Everyone, including most union officials, parrots the line that inflation will soon be zero (or less). But in February 2009 the officially sanctioned rate of inflation was 3 percent, still steadily eroding the living standards of those millions who have received “rises” of 2 or 2.5 percent. And the real rate of inflation was far higher, with food prices still up by 10 percent or more and energy prices by 40 to 50 percent. At least some workers in some sectors will fight over pay, and that will be an especially important sign that workers will not pay for the crisis. But undeniably the union leaders (aided and abetted by the rest of the left apart from the Socialist Workers Party) did close off this phase of the public sector pay battle.

Rank and file organisation

The recent rise in struggle has given a lift to the organisation of the rank and file. But because they have been quite limited and short lived, the strikes have not produced a lasting rank and file movement. For example, the strikes in local government over pensions (2006) and pay (2002 and 2008) were big and important struggles. But they were only one or two-day actions, and therefore when the bureaucracy moved to choke off these strikes there was protest and outrage, but not a sufficiently strong movement to reverse the decision or carry on the battle without the bureaucracy’s support.

The beginnings of rank and file strength are clearer in smaller struggles. An instructive example is on the London buses. There has been a gradual rise in militancy and organisation, starting in 2006 with strikes by 2,500 Metroline drivers, the first major bus strikes in the capital for seven years. The expansion of bus services and the consequent shortage of drivers helped make workers aware of their power. As Socialist Worker reported:

There was an impressive level of involvement by rank and file bus drivers in the strikes. As well as workplace meetings, some union reps organised meetings open to members from across the garages. At these meetings drivers organised their action and discussed problems that they were facing. This gave drivers a chance to raise arguments they were dealing with—such as how to respond to management’s claims that the strikes would lose the company bus routes. It also allowed drivers to discuss how to support weaker areas. This meant that the second day of strike action was stronger than the first… “The strikes raised people’s confidence,” said one driver. “They brought together people who have worked on the buses for years and a layer of newer recruits, including many migrant workers”.27

The main union involved, Unite, felt under pressure from a new generation of reps who were more attuned to the mood of the workforce. And union officials were also anxious about signs of a drift in some garages towards the RMT union, which was offering to organise a fightback. The new layer of reps and activists launched Busworker, a rank and file paper, and several thousand copies of each issue were distributed. But then one company, Metrobus, got a legal ruling that a strike ballot was invalid and its drivers did not join a one-day strike with 5,000 other bus workers in October 2008. Emboldened by this success, all the companies applied for legal injunctions to halt a further cross-London strike.

Until then the bureaucracy and rank and file had worked quite easily together, differing only over the speed of getting a cross-London strike. Suddenly the bureaucrats’ fear of the anti-union laws and the determination not to risk the union’s funds proved disastrous. There was talk of reballoting across the capital once “all the legal issues had been tied up”. But if such a state of affairs were ever possible it never seemed to arrive. Bus workers kept rejecting pay offers, and at one company, Sovereign, the rank and file was strong enough to get a strike called. But as the months dragged on it became clear that there was never going to be a renewed cross-London pay fight for 2008-9 and nearly all bus workers settled for increases of between 4 and 4.5 percent—hardly a defeat, but well short of the hopes of the summer of 2008.

Activists will have to work hard to stop the bitterness turning into apathy or disengagement from the union, but a network of stewards and activists now exists and has the potential to draw in more workers. It is important to recognise that this has not been some spontaneous development but depended crucially on the initiative of socialists, with the Socialist Workers Party playing an important role in assisting the process. As struggle develops there will be many more such opportunities to strengthen rank and file organisation. There will also be opportunities to link together different groups of rank and file workers. Can the tube workers and the bus workers come together to discuss how to coordinate strikes and campaigns? Can the postal workers meet with civil service workers to discuss the fight against privatisation? During the public sector pay revolt workers from different unions began to come together for public meetings, rallies and demonstrations. But real change requires organised rank and file groups in unions to meet to plan consciously coordinated strategies.

In the 1960s stewards’ organisation could be created in the important engineering and car industries through sectional disputes, which could win economic demands in a period of expanding capitalism. The model then spread to other industries and played a key role in driving the struggle forward when the bureaucracy wanted to retreat. We are not going to see the movement recreated through the methods of the past. Instead we need to develop the best of what exists and seek constantly to raise the level of struggle, politics and organisation.

It is important to recognise that neoliberalism can have unforeseen consequences. The attempts to localise bargaining in order to weaken and isolate workers can sometimes have the effect of reviving workplace networks. Let’s look at three examples.

Further education colleges were effectively set up as competing businesses following an act in 1992 which set in train the process of “incorporation”. They no longer had to implement agreements negotiated with the unions nationally over pay and conditions. So, for example, by the end of 2008 a third of all general further education colleges had still not implemented a pay deal from 2004, and the UCU union began strikes over the issue. Of course we should fight for the full implementation of such deals, and the return of national bargaining, but it is also true that the need for local strength has forced numbers of colleges to rely on their own structures and their own organisation. The result is that some colleges have much more powerful local structures than they would have had if everything could be “left to the officials”.

A similar process has taken place in Glasgow’s schools, where the introduction of school by school bargaining over key issues has led some schools’ union groups to develop their own local muscle. In 2008 15 schools voted against changes in the structure of the school week which would have meant that teachers were forced to do more work. Some weaker school groups have suffered harshly from the break-up of negotiations, but others have gained from being forced to engage closely with their members and concentrate on winning over every person in their school.

The imposition of “single status” deals in local government, which has affected the pay and job descriptions of some 800,000 workers, has forced some union branches to organise more effectively. Although negotiated nationally, the deal has been implemented in many different ways locally, and union reps have been involved in highly complex and extended battles over who gains or loses, how much money comes from the government as opposed to the workforce, how much is taken from council reserves and so on. The need for local organisation has been greatly increased by the total failure of the unions to provide a national fight over the issue, with unions claiming that legal factors make it impossible to discuss the matter openly, let alone coordinate the fightback. And at one Unison conference it became impermissible to mention the words “equal pay”! This has weakened the overall resistance. But it has also seen big battles at councils such as Coventry, Falkirk, Stafford, Greenwich and Birmingham. Some of these have greatly developed sectional strength.

So it may be that in some areas sectional strength is growing because of the way capitalism is organised today. But a central method of building the rank and file is through political trade unionism.

Political trade unionism

Political trade unionism has four key elements:

(1) The recognition that virtually every dispute at present raises the issue of the Labour Party.

Labour is in government and is imposing the attacks on pay and pensions and conditions. Labour went to war alongside George Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan. Labour refuses to repeal the anti-union laws and sides with employers in disputes. It is therefore not surprising that in almost all strikes the issue of hostility to giving money to Labour will emerge. Raising the issue of a political alternative to Labour is a crucial part of solidifying the politics of rank and file revolt. It is the necessary inoculation against the idea that we must not rock the boat because it weakens “our government”.

(2) Many strikes raise inescapable political issues.

The most obvious examples were the strikes at construction sites in February 2009. They raised issues of genuine concern such as insecurity, job losses, the defence of national conditions against undercutting and the toxic system of subcontracting. But that was not the half of it. Strikers raised the slogan “British jobs for British workers” on virtually all the picket lines. This led to a major argument inside the working class about whether this was the right way to oppose the effects of the crisis. No lasting rise in the struggle can be achieved through such slogans—the politics of unity and solidarity are critical to any recovery of organisation.

The London Underground cleaners’ strikes of 2008 were inseparable from the issue of immigration controls and migrant workers’ rights. On one level the strikes were a simple issue of pay and rights. But this was a strike of mainly black, mainly migrant workers. And bosses responded with a fierce assault on the strike activists, examining their national insurance records and immigration histories in an effort to punish those who raised their heads. Several workers were deported and some strike leaders were sacked. The basic trade union role of defending the members had to include a much wider political vision.

(3) Politics is a major source of radicalisation and union-building.

Union strength grows not just by militant struggle but by taking up political issues. This is important in pulling activists together, especially during years of low class struggle, as was shown by the positive impact of the very large numbers of trade unionists involved in the anti-war protests. Being part of an anti-war movement or a demonstration over Third World debt does not automatically mean you will fight at work, but you are much less likely to heed calls to sacrifice your living standards “to keep Labour in office” if you think Blair and Brown are mass murderers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

An example of the right approach comes from further education lecturer Sean Vernell: “We not only successfully organised large turnouts on the anti-war demonstrations and walkouts but also organised events in the college. What we have found is that rather than simply trying to organise meetings though the auspices of the union we have organised meetings/forums through the college’s Enrichment Programme and also different departments.”

The trade unionists who did a collection for Medical Aid for Palestinians during the Israeli attack on Gaza will be the ones best prepared to combat redundancies. The trade union branch which is affiliated to the Stop the War Coalition and Unite Against Fascism will most likely be the one that fights hard over victimisation and bullying. And this approach is not just something to occupy activists in slow times. It is making concrete Lenin’s stress on the necessity for active socialist and working class support for political struggles: “Working class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected”.28

(4) The politics and ideology of the work we do is important.

Trade unionists cannot be indifferent to the politics of the work they do. Organising around these issues is the crucial mediating link between agitating around questions such as pay and hours, and the overarching political questions such as war, racism and climate change. It is also a way to make unions more effective. One obvious sphere in which this is true is education. Narrow trade unionists who see their role as simply driving up pay and defending professional standards will be constantly outflanked by management and government who say that workers fighting over these questions don’t care about the children. Teachers have to engage at every level of the educational debate, and be firmly on the side of the children against the truncated and limited education they receive. Initiatives such as the “Rethinking Education” conferences have given parents and educators a chance to talk about campaigns against academies and trust schools as well as the issues of war, racism, community learning, testing and democracy in schools.

The same applies in Further and Higher Education which, according to one lecturer, have “for more than a decade been war zones” with staff supposed to perceive students as “customers” and courses “strictly subject to market criteria”. Socialist teachers who argue that the principles of education must be defended “strike a chord with the bulk of lecturers”, as has been shown with recent conferences held under the title “Education Is Not for Sale”. In social work, conferences around the theme of “Social Work: A Profession Worth Fighting For?” have raised the issue of the content of the job as “New Labour’s ‘welfare reforms’ have turned many areas of social work into a business” and “managing budgets and saving money have become more important than improving people’s lives—what one writer describes as ‘neoliberal social work’”.29

Health workers also have a clear need to link their trade unionism to a defence of the NHS and demands for better treatment for all. One of the great strengths of the campaign to defend victimised activist Karen Reissmann was that it engaged with the issue of mental health provision. During the London bus strikes many of the best activists discussed the need for a publicly owned system of public transport—not just because it might deliver better workers’ rights but because it would be more efficient for Londoners and reduce climate change.

There are many other examples, but the point is that trade unionists have to fight around pay and the content of their job, and the national and global political questions. Missing out any of these limits the fightback.

Four things to do now

(1) Agitate for resistance.

Socialists have to be organising and arguing for resistance against the effects of the crisis—particularly job losses, closures and unemployment. Without a revival in struggle the working class is going to be steam-rollered by the crisis. Making the struggle effective will require a consistent challenge to the union bureaucracies and their support for Labour. Socialists should be particularly aware of the possibilities created in areas of expansion even in a period of general recession. In the 1930s one such area, the car industry, was a centre of stormy struggles.

(2) Put socialist politics at the centre of a fightback.

Political trade unionism is not separate from the agitation for a fightback—it is integral to it. We cannot afford for the movement to be dragged behind toxic slogans such as “British jobs for British workers”. And the question of the relationship of the workers’ movement to Labour will become ever more pressing. We cannot allow the resistance to unemployment to be stilled by the union leaders’ closeness to Brown. The issues of war, racism and climate change need to be addressed consistently. All of that will mean united front work with others, not a retreat into propaganda. But it is also true that a fight against recession and capitalist chaos will be massively strengthened by the growth of a revolutionary socialist organisation which can put forward an alternative worldview to the collapsing system we see around us.

(3) Build networks of political solidarity.

Confidence is a precious commodity, and one aspect of confidence is knowing that other people will support you in times of need. Socialists need to create and strengthen networks of political solidarity. If there is a fightback, some networks of support can be brought into existence virtually overnight but they will be far stronger if they are built in advance.

The tradition of doing collections for other groups of workers in dispute is much weaker than it was 20 years ago. We need to reinstate this with regular collections for disputes and for political campaigns. Many workplaces could host delegations of strikers, but this almost never happens in the union movement today. We need to repeat the excellent work done in this respect round the Karen Reissmann campaign. The networks created by such methods can be the embryo of rank and file movements in the future.

(4) Build a culture of “No”!

Under capitalism, especially at a time of crisis, managers are constantly looking for ways to ratchet up exploitation. One NHS code of conduct I saw last year demanded that hospital workers should not simply perform their jobs safely and efficiently but also “quickly”. And such pressures do have an effect. Britain is the long-hours capital of Europe, with one in eight workers regularly doing more than 48 hours a week. Such hours are illegal in most of the EU but Labour has tenaciously defended the right of employers to be able to “offer” workers the chance to opt out of limits on hours—although two million of those who do more than 48 hours a week say they have never even been asked if they consent to it. Some 60 percent of union safety reps report that stress is a big issue for the members at their workplace.30 Over five million people at work in Britain regularly do unpaid overtime, giving their employers £27 billion of free work every year.31 One in three workers do not take their full holiday entitlement because they cannot face the backlog of work when they return or fear that they will be passed over for promotion or selected for the sack unless they show willing to “go the extra mile”. A survey of women in their 30s showed, “About 85 percent of those polled said they ‘frequently feel tired’, and 59 percent of these ‘feel tired all the time’”.32 Finding ways to resist compulsion from management is one way of rebuilding workplace strength.


Far too many opportunities for a fightback have been missed during the New Labour years. And this has weakened the workers’ movement. But at the same time the working class has had the infusion of strength from the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements. That means it will be a struggle to overcome the bureaucracies and get resistance, but there is also a good chance that if struggle does take place it will be politically powerful.

And when we speak of “workers fighting back” it does not mean that everyone has to realise the necessity for resistance all at the same time. The example of an occupation, especially if it wins, is far more potent than speeches and leaflets. The Republic Windows and Doors occupation in Chicago in the United States in December 2008 lasted only six days. But it won its demands and provides a example to encourage others. As I write, Waterford Glass in Ireland is occupied and has already inspired others to talk seriously of resistance. In an earlier period of crisis in Britain occupations at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (1971), Fisher Bendix (1972) and Lee Jeans (1981) also rebuffed the notion that “nothing can be done” when redundancies are announced.

It may well be that the groups involved will be unexpected ones. Nobody would have put money on the match girls in 1888 (or the poorly organised and casualised dockers for that matter). Trotsky wrote in 1930:

In discussing the radicalisation of the masses, it should never be forgotten that the proletariat achieves “unanimity” only in periods of revolutionary apex. In conditions of “everyday” life in capitalist society, the proletariat is far from homogeneous. Moreover, the heterogeneity of its layers manifests itself most precisely at the turning points in the road. The most exploited, the least skilled, or the most politically backward layers of the proletariat are frequently the first to enter the arena of struggle and, in the case of defeat, are often the first to leave it. It is exactly in the new period that the workers who did not suffer defeats in the preceding period are most likely to be attracted to the movement, if only because they have not yet taken part in the struggle.33

Today, when world capitalism is in deep general crisis, calls for militancy alone are not enough. As Tony Cliff wrote in 1979, “General social and political questions have to be faced. The battle of ideas becomes crucial. To build a bridge between industrial militancy, rank and file activity and socialism, we must relate the immediate struggles to the final struggle—the struggles inside capitalism to the struggle against capitalism”.34


1: The Guardian, 6 February 2009.

2: The videos are available on Socialist Worker’s website: and

3: Trotsky, 1924.

4: Trotsky, 1976, pp37-38.

5: Woodhouse and Pearce, 1975, p10.

6: Harman, 2008, p77.

7: “Recruitment-Record Success”, Unison website, 23 May 2006,

8: Charlwood and Forth 2008, p3.

9: Charlwood and Forth, 2008 pp6-7.

10: The stewards also had more time off for union duties, a process that was not without its problems. In the case of full-time union reps it created in many cases a layer removed from the rank and file.

11: Charlwood and Forth, 2008, p7.

12: Charlwood and Forth, 2008, p6.

13: Department for Trade and Industry figures, using the WERS, 2004.

14: The Donovan Report of 1968 found a similar age profile.

15: WERS, 2004.

16: WERS, 2004.

17: For a summary of the correct attitude to take towards the bureaucracy, see Kimber, 2002.

18: Financial Times, 15 December 2008.

19: Hallas, 1977.

20: Socialist Worker, 8 November 2003.

21: For analysis of the strike see “Why Didn’t The Firefighters Get Victory”, Socialist Worker, 21 June 2003,

22: “More Ideas For The Movement”, Socialist Worker, 19 July 2003,

23: “Spirit Of Defiance Shakes BA Bosses”, Socialist Worker, 26 July 2003,

24: Some of which shines through even in the official news reports. See

25: As I write the unions have announced the first formal arbitration hearings will take place on 10 February-nearly five months after the decision to stop the strikes!

26: “NUT Scraps Call For Strikes Over Pay”, Times Educational Supplement, 7 November 2008,

27: “Bus Drivers’ Strikes Shake Bosses”, Socialist Worker, 16 December 2006,

28: Lenin, 1961, p423.

29: “Conference Planned On Social Work: ‘Ethical Career’ Or Excuse For Social Control?”, Socialist Worker, 3 March 2007,

30: “Stress, Overwork and Office Hazards Top Workers’ Safety Concerns”, TUC website, 24 October 2008,

31: “More Than Five Million People Are Working Unpaid Overtime In The UK”, TUC website, 8 January 2009,

32: Daily Mail, 27 September 2007.

33: Trotsky, 1976, p32.

34: Cliff, 1979. I am grateful to the many trade unionists who took the time to talk to me in the process of preparing this article. I am also aware that it is far from a wholly comprehensive treatment of all the issues and welcome further comment and debate on it.


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