Revolutionaries in the unions: The reality of the strike

Issue: 147

Mark O'Brien

The debate around orientations for revolutionaries in the unions today is the result of an uncomfortable but inescapable fact: the level of trade union struggle has remained historically low for 20 years.1 This is true whether we are considering working days “lost” to industry, the numbers of workers involved in strike action or the overall number of official strikes, in both the public and private sectors. For Marxists, who look to the working class as the key agent of social and historical change, this simple fact is a serious problem of analysis and of political conviction.

In my own article, “The Problem of the One-day Strike”, I made an attempt to understand this situation by way of an emphasis on 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 In essence, the argument was that this type of action is favoured by national officials because, whilst demonstrating the power of the union to the employers’ side in negotiations on pay, pensions, national restructuring, etc, it allows national leaderships (“the bureaucracy”) to retain complete control of the action. This means that the action is ended well before it becomes any kind of real threat to the employers or the state. It also means that there is no possibility for local activists to wrest control of the action at branch or area level. Over time this process creates a culture of dependency on the national leaders who, despite vigorous challenges from the left at union conferences, are nonetheless able to set the terms, time frames and limits of industrial action and so also of bargaining strategies. The result, more often than not, in each national dispute is defeat and continuing frustration with the national union. Finally, with each successive disappointment come further opportunities for national leaders and their local officials to hem in the range of activities of local activists with injunctions and sanctions regarding their “proper roles”.

Since I put this argument other comrades have joined the debate with their own analytical perspectives and political responses. Here I will comment principally upon two of these contributions: “Why Are There So Few Strikes?” by Simon Joyce;3 and “Bureaucratic Mass Strikes and N30 2011: A Response to Mark O’Brien” by Dave Lyddon4 (which criticises my analysis in a number of respects). Of these I see the most difficulty with the conclusions reached by Simon and so will comment upon these in some detail after discussing Dave’s critique of my own position.

The bureaucratic mass strike

In his article Dave takes me to task (in comradely fashion) on three points. These are: the definition of the bureaucratic mass strike (BMS); the detail of the strike action opposing Ted Heath’s Industrial Relations Bill; and ­(crucially) the complexity of the relationship between official and unofficial action during periods of militancy and industrial strife. He also criticises other contributors to assessments of industrial struggle in recent issues of this journal for their over-emphasis on the role of union “lefts” in the lead up to national strikes.5 I am largely in sympathy with Dave’s criticisms here and have nothing to add to what he says.

On the specific matter of how we should understand the BMS, Dave argues that its proper meaning belongs to situations in which a trade union bureaucracy calls out its worker-members with little or no participation by those members in the decisions or industrial and political calculations involved. He reminds us that in Tony Cliff’s application of the concept he was concerned chiefly with the ways in which such actions could create revolutionary potential and the conditions for workers to move well beyond anything the trade union bureaucracy had considered. He also criticises Chris Harman’s application of the BMS concept to the one-day strike, a phenomenon for which Dave prefers the term “demonstration strike”.6 Finally, he considers this latter term as providing a more appropriate description of the public sector pension strikes in Britain on 30 November 2011 (N30).

My own use of the BMS concept in relation to N30 was motivated by a need to correct assessments of that day that over-emphasised the role of pressure from below and union lefts in its creation, and that ignored the role of the scale of the state’s offensive and the threat it posed to unions in the public sector. This is the “no J30, no N30” narrative that Dave Lyddon objects to and that I agree with him about.7 My only comment here then is that Dave’s prescription inclines towards a historical formalism that limits the usefulness of the BMS concept in the British context. He is insistent, for example, that in the BMS worker-members are brought out by their national leaders without a vote. He is very clear on this point with respect to N30, emphasising particularly that it was called eleven weeks in advance and after a period of postal balloting.8

Of course, as Dave is well aware British trade unions cannot take lawful industrial action without a postal ballot and no trade union leadership will contravene this limitation on their freedom to call out their members. If the absence of a formal ballot is indeed a definition of the BMS then the term is simply redundant in the current British context and should be abandoned entirely. However, this is to confuse secondary and primary characteristics; and “mechanism” with “outcome”. The term in my opinion retains its value, though with some flexibility in its application to situations in which bureaucratic agendas dominate completely despite unions bringing out their members en masse.

Coming to Dave’s comments on my account of the strikes that opposed the Tory Industrial Relations Bill in the early 1970s, I can only express appreciation for the detail that he adds to the picture we have of those events. To say (as I do) that “in February 1971 something approaching 2 million workers came out on strike—mostly unofficially—against the Industrial Relations Bill”,9 is perhaps turning shorthand into licence. In fact, as Dave is at pains to stress, these actions stretched from 8 December 1970 (when between 350,000 and 600,000 took action) to 1 January 1971 (when between 170,000 and 180,000 came out), and finally to the strikes on 1 and 18 March (when 1.25 million workers took part). This strike wave included a gigantic TUC-led demonstration of 21 February 1971 followed the next day by workplace meetings, demonstrations and stoppages.

However, Dave’s central critique of my argument is that it underplays the importance of official action in the industrial upturn of the early 1970s, and consequently the complexity of the relationship and interactions between officially sanctioned and unofficial action when it appears.

Before responding, it is worth noting the echoes of this argument with one put by Richard Hyman in this journal in 1980.10 Then the debate within the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was focused on the viability of rank and filist strategy by revolutionaries in the workplace. Hyman argued that the distinction between “rank and file” and “bureaucracy” was a gross simplification of the typical workplace usually characterised more by an incorporated layer of shop stewards. Rather than a simple opposition to “the bureaucracy” by revolutionaries Hyman argued, there needed to be a more sophisticated orientation that recognised the contradictions and complexities of this layer.

In sharp reply Duncan Hallas insisted on the need for revolutionaries to recognise the fundamental nature of the distinction between ordinary worker-members of trade unions and the union bureaucracy as a conservative social layer, irrespective of the differences between left and right and also of the formal left positions of many national leaders.11 It was not that Hallas did not recognise the complexities that Hyman highlighted, pointing as he did to various united front initiatives through which the SWP had steadfastly endeavoured to engage politically with Labour Party, Communist Party and non-aligned shop stewards in industry. Rather, it was the implications for revolutionary orientation to which Hyman’s ­analysis leaned, and the tendency towards accommodation with the trade union bureaucracy that it represented, to which Hallas objected.

Much has happened since the time of that debate: however, Hallas’s point still stands. As is so often the case, revolutionaries need to do different (and apparently contradictory) things at the same time. Within the trade unions they must work with left officials against the right, work with key leading stewards on some issues and oppose them on others, form alliances with officials on political matters having fought them bitterly over industrial sell-outs and so on. They must do all of that, however, whilst keeping a clear-sighted view of the intrinsic tendency of the trade union bureaucracy (left and right) to side in practice with the employer and often at the most crucial “last minute” of any particular struggle.

I cite this debate to make a point of reply to Dave. He upbraids me for not sufficiently acknowledging the official actions during the strife of the early 1970s. However, the crux of the debate today (as it was in 1980) is not one of formal analysis: rather it is one of orientation. The historical points that Dave makes for the purpose of a fuller account of the events of that period are well made and taken. Of course, unofficial action does not occur in a pure form. It always interacts with official structures and actions in some way: for instance as the result of official action being called off; as an outcome of high levels of action called by official leaderships; as spontaneous walk-outs that involve official stewards; etc. Examples of all of these types of unofficial action and more were seen in the early 1970s (especially), the 1980s, 1990s and even (as the exception) in quite recent years.

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. The complexity of the challenge represented by the very limited nature of the national official action that we have seen in the UK for many years now, and the ways in which it has sapped the ability of local activists to achieve some degree of control over these actions, was precisely the problem I was trying to understand. It is not at all that official actions are unimportant or must not be defended. Indeed here, even on the question of the one-day strike I would go further. The one-day strike does provide opportunities for agitation and the building of local networks and can keep alive a culture of activism within workplaces.

As an example, and again revisiting the debates of the early 1980s, on the 14 May 1980 TUC-led strike against government policy, it was public sector workers who turned out impressively and who made up the largest contingents on the demonstrations, contrasting starkly with a poor turn-out from workers in manufacturing. This was the result of a series of public sector one-day strikes and demonstrations between 1976 and 1979 that had sustained activists over that period.12 Also, where such strikes involve more than one union, sectionalist divides can begin to break down on picket lines and at open meetings, rallies and demonstrations. Indeed this was a significant aspect of the university pay strikes on 31 October and 3 December 2013 involving UCU, Unite and Unison. Furthermore, the interactions between different unions can introduce new local strike dynamics that play better to control by established workplace leaderships. Of course, we are here talking about the experience of workers striking alongside one another in officially coordinated one-day actions rather than solidarity action under rank and file control. Still, this experience is an important example of the type of step forward the one-day strike can make possible.

It is the limitations of the one-day strike, however, that were my principal concern and that are surely the most pressing issues we face. And here, once more, it is the complexity—or better, the contradictory character—of this type of action that is of interest. Of course, as Dave explains, Cliff’s interest in the BMS was the ways in which, despite having been called bureaucratically, it could bring with it a revolutionary potential as workers moved beyond their leaders in action.

Today we have to think more modestly of the rank and file potential that such actions create: the initiatives they make possible; the moments of local leadership they open up; the networking opportunities that occur within them and so on. It is this that makes Cliff’s focus on the lead-up to major confrontations useful, focusing as he did on the question of whether struggles that preceded them had enhanced or weakened the ability of local rank and file leaderships to achieve decisive control of the action. This also made a consideration of the phenomenon of the one-day public sector strike valuable for an understanding of what happened after N30.

By way of illustration of the role of the official element in strikes, even when they are largely unofficial, Dave gives a very useful account of the lead-up to the famous closing of the Saltley Coke depot that was the turning point of the 1972 miners’ strike. As he explains, the key developments involved: plant-based stewards moving towards action; a network of Communist Party and politically aligned stewards; strike traditions and sympathetic left-leaning officials who gave legitimacy to the strike call. We should also add the element of the local organisation and confidence that had been established by years of industrial action against pay restraint that was the centre of Cliff’s analysis.

Again the detail Dave brings to bear is useful. But again it begs a question: how does this apply today? In other words, of each of these elements which can we best act upon (while avoiding a mechanical transposing of any historical model)? And which should we seek to build? If the question is unrealistic, then we should seek other models to guide us. If it remains useful for us (and I think it does) then we should examine the question more closely. Here we come again to the question of orientation; and here then I will consider the contribution by Simon Joyce.

The question of the strike

Simon does not believe that references to the period of the early 1970s are useful any longer for all practical purposes. By way of critique of what he calls the “confidence thesis” (that workers lack the confidence needed to take action independently of the national leaders), Simon answers his core question (“Why are there so few strikes?”) by highlighting three factors that have become dominant in shaping the patterns of industrial relations in recent years. These are: restructuring of the UK economy and the consequent erosion of union memberships in previously key sectors; the extension and intensification of legal restrictions on the right and ability of trade unions to take action, and the complicating of the attendant processes; the experience of successive defeats and the resulting “demonstration effect” whereby unions observe one another’s failures and retreat from further confrontations.

It is hard to imagine that any trade union activist (left or right) would disagree that these are real factors in the difficulties facing trade unionists. However, it is the conclusions that Simon reaches on the basis of this analysis that are troubling. Simon goes on to argue that we have come to the end of an era characterised by the model of industrial relations that became established in the years following the First World War, and so of the types of strike associated with that period. The strike weapon having been removed from the hands of plant-based stewards, workplace activists must now adapt to a radically changed arena in which the strike remains ­stubbornly out of reach and subject to the sanction of an increasingly timid trade union bureaucracy. The alternative that Simon proposes for workplace militants (and so for revolutionaries) is that they adopt an essentially propagandist stance on the question of the strike while developing a strategy of campaigning on health and safety issues, employment tribunal cases, the use of workplace procedures to constrain bullying managers, etc.

Again many workplace activists will find this list all too familiar in describing their daily experience of sustaining branch positions and supporting members. Indeed, there will be many trade union SWP members following this debate who will be able to add considerably to it by including involvement in: negotiations on S188 procedures and S189 legal challenges in redundancy situations;13 consultations of many types; heavy-end capability and long-term absence casework and so on. This has been the legacy of the deeply compromised positions we have been forced into by historically low levels of working class action. In the terminology we owe to Trotsky, this has been a de facto substitutionism we have had little choice but to adopt.

Before questioning Simon’s analysis as well as his conclusions, it is worth pausing to assess the weight of what he is really saying. If indeed his prognosis for the strike is correct then we are really talking about the end of something, of effective working class action, for the foreseeable future. If we are going to accept these conclusions, then we (meaning Marxists in the trade unions) are accepting the decoupling of political from industrial perspectives in the workplace. We are then talking of strike action not as the form of self-activity of the working class to which we look for immediate defence in the face of employers’ and state assaults as well as of social transformation. But rather we should see strike action as something that may one day return but for which we no longer immediately agitate with any sense of conviction. It is a scenario, however, that we do not have to accept.

Simon’s three explanatory factors are essentially environmental in nature. In other words the arena in which trade unions operate has become more restrictive in terms of objective economic circumstances, less hospitable in terms of legal constraints and organisationally demoralising as each union learns to avoid confrontation following defeats across the trade union movement. However, in this regard Simon’s question is strangely incomplete insofar as the political question—so crucial in the British context—is left out of the picture. The question surely is this: “Why are there so few strikes after five years of austerity?” In other words why was the 2010-15 coalition government allowed to get away with the biggest assault on the working class and the most vulnerable in society in post-war history without the trade union movement raising any kind of fightback worth the name?

Answering this question means focusing on the link with the Labour Party and the ways in which it developed during the Blair-Brown years. Of course, this topic is the subject of dedicated articles and books. Here I will simply mention a glaring paradox that characterised that government and that is relevant here. The New Labour government did, of course, unshackle the moorings of the welfare state and the NHS with the introduction of the private finance initiative (PFI), foundation hospitals, academy schools and the raising of the “moral agenda” against the poor to new levels of intensity. This created an easy entrance for the austerity agenda after May 2010. The New Labour government was also a huge disappointment to trade union leaderships who, after May 1997, believed that the government, having signed up to the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, would usher in a new era of “social dialogue” and partnership on the German model. In fact, beyond the introduction of a minimum wage (set at the lowest possible level) little else was to follow. The anti trade union laws implemented by the previous Conservative government remained in place and Tony Blair made clear his determination that there would be no “special relationship” with the unions.

However, New Labour did introduce a partnership arrangement in the NHS in the form of the Agenda for Change for Unison in hospitals. The Union Learning Fund that was established in 1998 provided support for a whole new area of workplace-based educational work for the TUC. The TUC was also allowed a certain degree of access for insider lobbying for things such as the EU Social Chapter, the Fairness at Work Act (1999) and the Employment Relations Act (2000). These in turn (and the latter especially) led to workplace recognition agreements in new sectors such as airlines, finance, internet services and some types of call centre based businesses.

Longer term, it was also the case that, buoyed by an expansion of the financial sector, the New Labour government was able to increase spending in real terms on education, health and government services more generally.14 Budget allocations for health and education rose from 10.1 percent of national income in 1996-7 to 14.8 percent in 2010-11, representing an overall increase in public spending from 25.3 to 30.7 percent during the New Labour years. Within the education budget spending on further education and pre-school programmes increased significantly. Finally, spending on transport increased as a proportion of national income.

The crucial point here was that jobs in those sectors were largely protected, and from the perspective of the national trade union leaders, concerned above all else with their membership bases, this was what mattered most. So, while the climate remained distinctly “un-cosy”, certainly for the purpose of public consumption, there was a real difference in the experience of the unions under New Labour compared to what had gone before. This 13-year experience re-forged once more the reliance of the trade union bureaucracy on the Labour Party leadership. This is why a wave of the hand from the Labour leadership, conjuring up the prospect of another five years of the Tories, was enough to keep the unions in check, and national leaders determined to limit strikes to one-day actions at the most, where necessary turning on union “lefts” to prevent anything getting out of hand.

The importance of an assessment of the political factor in trying to understand the remarkable timidity of the British trade union movement in the face of such provocation is that it introduces an element of fragility into the new regime that Simon describes. Even before the May 2015 general election, the Labour Party did not hold out the prospect of a restoration of pre-2008 spending and so of job stabilisation in public services. More to the point now of course, the entire gamble of the trade union leaderships—and the means by which they persuaded their memberships to remain at heel—that
a Labour government would save their position, has come to nought. The
de facto adaptations of local reps and stewards today also is not the same as that of the structural incorporation of stewards that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s against the backdrop of the post-war expansions of industry. Moreover, the contradiction between the steadfast refusal of trade union leaders to act, and the scale of the attacks that the working class as a whole is facing, is like nothing we have seen before. This means that there is a pressure within unions that must in one way or another find an outlet.

Of course, unpredictability cannot alone be the basis of a perspective. But the fuller picture I have drawn here does mean that Simon’s argument that strike agitation is not realistic in an immediate sense is questionable. For one thing it is not simply the incidence of strikes that should be our focus, but also the character of worker actions that occur. The last few years, while being hugely disappointing, have after all seen some extraordinary developments. The rash of workplace occupations in 2009 were remarkable in their novelty and at the time appeared to augur something new for the shape of class struggle in the UK. Some 1,500 oil workers at the Lindsey refinery did walk out that year also in unofficial solidarity with striking electricians. The 2011 wildcat and unofficial strikes by electricians, that came after Unite had called off official action, did force Balfour Beatty and NG Bailey to drop the BESNA plan that threatened to worsen contracts and reduce pay by up to 35 percent.

In addition, the 12 months from December 2010 to December 2011 were dramatic with: the student occupation of the Millbank Conservative Party headquarters; the huge trade union demonstration in defence of public services on 26 March 2011 (“March for the Alternative”); the widespread urban rioting of August; and the pensions strike wave. Against this background it is worth saying that although we now know all too well how inflated the hopes raised by N30 were, at the time they were understandable. These things were unprecedented; as is so much about the period we are in. However, whether these events prove to be the dying gasps of a never to materialise working class fightback, or straws in the wind of a new way of being trade unionists, in part depends upon what we do; and here I will suggest one alternative to the adaptationist perspective that Simon offers us.

Maintaining agitation

If we see the processes that are currently preventing strikes from breaking out as being the result not just of the environmental factors that Simon quite correctly describes, but also of the political backdrop particular to the last 20 years of Labour control of the unions, then the potential for rapid shifts by workers (whether organised or unorganised) becomes more real than he suggests. The combination of the scale of the offensive launched under the coalition, the new offensives now underway and being prepared by the Tories and the inability of the Labour and trade union leaderships to hold down the anger and frustration felt by working class people indefinitely, means that something must give. In this type of period we might expect flashes and fallbacks, social disturbances and repressions, and fights that are messy and marked by varying degrees of success and different types of outcome, victimisations no doubt and campaigns for reinstatement. In such a period accidents and mistakes play their part. It is in that sense that we should “expect the unexpected”.

This does mean that the propagandist orientation regarding strikes Simon describes has its place—and a crucial place too. Each strike that does occur (and there is always a strike) is indeed an opportunity to argue about the importance of strikes historically, politically and ideologically in the sense of providing a model of how we can fight. This means taking every such opportunity to generalise from strikes and the solidarity activity that should accompany them. This propagandist strategy can then create an activist culture in which every opportunity is taken to propagate the strike in meetings, politically-focused union events, film showings, worker education and personal exchanges.

However, and this is where I differ from Simon and Dave, this will only be convincing if we agitate for the strike as something that can happen. Here I believe a “rank and filist” orientation is essential. This doesnot mean that we can suck a rank and file movement “out of our thumb”. But it does mean that we should recognise the potential that exists for winning this type of pro-strike perspective among wider layers of very frustrated activists and ordinary trade union members.

The building of networks is essential to establishing such an ­agitational-activist culture: but there are many types of network. Industrial networks can link union branches across cities and regions to deliver solidarity for strikers. Within these, union lefts can fight for political positions and influence. Campaign networks against attacks on welfare and local cuts as well as workplace-relevant campaigns over health and safety, organising rights and so on will overlap with these. Inside the unions it means opposing bureaucratisation and taking up issues such as branch sovereignty, the right of branches to declare and deliver action, opposing two and three year pay deals, etc, and as we do so propagandising tirelessly about the nature of the trade union bureaucracy.

But we also need to recognise the rank and file moments that occur within official actions that are sanctioned by national leaders. Such moments include: the point at which officials move to call off action and the sudden opportunities that can be created to wrest control of events; the pulling together of strikers at things like open-mic events on strike days; the calling of joint or open meetings in the lead-up to strikes and on strike days that bring together different groups of workers; and so on.

Such a focus upon building a strike culture within the workplace, and maintaining a “strategy of tension” with officials within unions, can represent a way of preparing for sudden shifts by treating each rank and file moment as a rehearsal for bigger events. More often than not we find that we are not able to break free of the grip of the union bureaucracy to take action that is independent of it. That said, there is an alternative to simply accommodating to this reality (or giving up!) and that is to fight for positions of relative independence in which, while maintaining an agitational orientation, we also adopt an educational purpose in highlighting with each episode the unreliable character of official leaderships—of the right and of the left.

However, it is the sense of preparation, and the winning of support for stances of relative independence, seeking to maximisethe potential for action in rank and file moments and of attempting to lead strikes when the possibility is presented to us, that makes this position different from one that turns the necessity of compromise into the virtue of adaptation. Just as we find it difficult to break free of the officials in disputes, so too they should find it impossible to break free of us. This type of perspective means that we remain objectively revolutionaries in the workplace and so distinctive in the positions that we take. It is also a perspective that requires as much revolutionary “science” as anything we do within official union processes—and probably more.

However, this all only works if we believe in the strike as real; as always something we can actually achieve.


1: Joyce, 2015.

2: O’Brien, 2014.

3: Joyce, 2015.

4: Lyddon, 2015.

5: Vernell, 2013.

6: Lyddon, 2015, p153.

7: J30 was a strike over pension changes by the PCS, NUT, ATL and UCU on 30 June 2011.

8: Lyddon, 2015, p162.

9: O’Brien, 2014, p158.

10: Hyman, 1980. This was part of a debate between Steve Jeffreys, Richard Hyman and Duncan Hallas that took place across three issues of International Socialism in 1980.

11: Hallas, 1980.

12: Beecham, 1981.

13: These refer to Sections 188 and 189 of the Trade Union Labour Relations (Consolidated) Act (1992) that provides the legislative requirements for employers seeking to make workers redundant.

14: Chote, Crawford, Emmerson and Tetlow, 2010.


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Chote, Robert, Rowena Crawford, Carl Emmerson, and Gemma Tetlow, 2010, Public Spending Under Labour: 2010 Election Briefing Note Number 5 (Institute of Fiscal Studies),

Hallas, Duncan, 1980, “Trade Unionists and Revolution—A Response to Richard Hyman”, International Socialism 8 (spring),

Hyman, Richard, 1980, “British Trade Unionism: Post-war Trends and Future Prospects”, International Socialism 8 (spring),

Joyce, Simon, 2015, “Why Are There So Few Strikes?”, International Socialism 145 (winter),

Lyddon, Dave, 2015, “Bureaucratic Mass Strikes: A Response to Mark O’Brien”, International Socialism 146 (spring),

O’Brien, Mark, 2014, “The Problem of the One-day Strike”, International Socialism 142 (spring),

Vernell, Sean, 2013, “The Working Class, Trade Unions and the Left: The Contours of Resistance”, International Socialism 140 (autumn),