Striking debates

Issue: 149

Paul McGarr

Significant discussion has taken place in recent issues of International Socialism, echoing wider debates in the movement, around the persistently low level of industrial struggle in Britain.1 This is part of a wider phenomenon internationally, but the debate in this journal, reflecting the arena of activity of most contributors, has naturally focused on Britain. Answering the question at the heart of these discussions is, as Alex Callinicos has noted: “the most important single task facing revolutionary Marxists today”.2

This article is an attempt to contribute to that discussion, and reflect on some arguments raised by previous contributors. The problem is clear. The level of industrial struggle in Britain is, and has remained for an unprecedented period, at a historically low level. Simon Joyce summed up the problem: “In every year since 1991 the number of strikes has been lower than the number of strikes in any year prior to 1991”.3

Why does this matter? Marxism sees the self-activity of the working class as key to social change. That does not mean a one-sided, exclusive focus on strikes and industrial struggle. Socialists must engage with every arena of resistance: street protests and demonstrations; community, student, pensioners and unemployed organisations; movements against racism and women’s ­oppression; the fight for LGBT liberation; movements for national liberation and against imperialism and many, many more. No movement of resistance or struggle by working class people or the oppressed should be alien to socialists.

Protests and movements outside the workplace can play a crucial role in winning battles. But in many social or political battles victory can depend on whether such movements tap the potential power of workers in the workplace. What workers do at work, the arena that defines us as working class and where our power is potentially at its greatest, is central to any serious Marxist analysis of social change. When workers strike and organise at work we begin to feel our power and sense our collective strength. Rosa Luxemburg’s well known saying retains its truth; “where the chains of ­capitalism are forged, there must the chains be broken”.4

What is more, when workers strike they are most open to having their ideas transformed. This happens in small ways in even the smallest strike—as workers more keenly become aware of their collective interest; or begin to challenge ideas that may have divided them on lines of gender, race or nationality. It is so much more true when workers strike on a significant scale. Ideas can be transformed on a mass scale, sometimes very rapidly, as struggle leads to a clash between that active reality and pre-existing consciousness and opens the potential for consciousness to shift sharply. There is no path to a socialist society that does not centrally involve workers ­organising and striking and, through that, transforming themselves and their ideas, and creating the self-organisation to challenge for power.

Explaining the historically unprecedented low level of strikes is therefore crucial, not simply to understanding why this has happened—but also to understanding how the situation may change.

The centrality of politics

There is a problem with the arguments put forward by some contributors to this debate. Many have identified important issues. Some, however, have tended to focus on individual workplaces, industries and unions, or, at best, relate that to structural changes in the composition of the working class, or changes in the legal frameworks within which industrial struggle takes place.

Such a discussion deals with important issues, and many points made are valid and part of any rounded analysis. But it ignores a fundamental issue. I quote Joyce because he expresses this most clearly: “This article,” he writes, “is not intended as an overall assessment of the present balance of class forces, nor of the current state of political and class consciousness within the working class: it is specifically an analysis of why there are so few strikes”.5 That is precisely the problem. You cannot explain why there are so few strikes without locating that discussion in the context of the very things, the balance of class forces and the state of political and class consciousness within the working class, that Joyce explicitly rejects engaging with.

Marxism is not the political analogue of Newtonian reductionist science. Understanding the molecular processes in the workplace, and the changing structural frameworks within which unions and activists operate, is a necessary part of any serious analysis. But it is not sufficient. You cannot reduce the dynamics of class struggle to the additive aggregate of the molecular processes in individual workplaces, nor to the relation between the union bureaucracy and the rank and file, or the interrelation of the trade union movement and the legal framework within which industrial relations takes place. The question of the prevailing ideas among large swathes of workers—the political and class consciousness, and confidence, of the class or significant sections of it—is crucial. Such class-wide trends, which are conditioned by wider political and social developments, cannot simply be set aside.

Of course we are not dealing with a one-way process. What happens in individual workplaces or unions taken as a whole shapes the balance of class forces and class confidence. But you cannot reject the other side: the way wider political dynamics in society, and class consciousness and confidence impacts on everything in the class struggle.

The 1972 and 1974 victories by miners and dockers over a Tory government had a transformative effect on society. In the smallest working class community and in every workplace millions of people—whether or not they were fully conscious of it at the time—sensed and believed that things once seen as impossible were now achievable. The impact of a decisive victory by our class is like a change in the season. Suddenly spring is in the air. It changes the thoughts and feelings in millions of workers and leads to new possibilities.

More recently, I remember clearly the abrupt transformation in France in the winter of 1995 when I was sent by Socialist Worker to report on events there. The early 1990s in France were utterly miserable. Workers’ confidence was pitifully low and union organisation weak even compared with post-Thatcher Britain. Strikes were rare and were usually defeated. Politics was dominated by demoralisation fueled by a decade of betrayals by the Socialist Party government, and the then seemingly inexorable rise of the Nazi National Front.

When a confident Tory government announced plans to attack welfare, a call by union leaders led to a decent demonstration—but there was no indication it would go beyond ritual protest. Then rail workers (encouraged by some union leaders) stayed out and, first in Rouen and then Paris, moved to pull other workers out. In Paris they dared what no one had even thought possible for years—to march around the postal depots ringing Paris and get those workers out.

Within days millions of workers were striking, and the atmosphere was transformed. Repeated giant demonstrations every few days, reaching into every town, created a momentum, drawing in new layers, forging a new mood of possibility. It was a mood where collective mass struggle was on the agenda but also one which drew in wider issues in society. Racism and other rotten ideas were challenged.

I vividly remember the impact on wider consciousness of striking workers in Paris opening metro stations at night to allow the homeless to sleep in some warmth, or of hundreds of workers from every sector (railworkers, teachers, postal workers, health workers, the unemployed and many more) cramming into rank and file strike organising meetings in one tiny area of the east of Paris. Such things no one had even thought possible a few weeks earlier. Now millions believed they were and acted on that belief. A slogan painted on the wall near where I was staying summed up the mood—“Encore de grèves! Plus de rêves!” (“Still more strikes! Yet more dreams!)

Though a much greater victory could have been achieved, the struggle nevertheless decisively pushed the government back and changed the mood among millions. For the next few years France was a different country, and for some years became a byword for workers’ confidence, militancy and struggle.6

The opposite is also true. Political developments and influences, and decisive defeats for our class can affect ideas and shape the possibilities, or lack of them, among millions of workers. In the mid to late 1970s the relationship between the trade union bureaucracy and the Labour government, and the politics dominating a key layer of shop stewards (linked to the then influential Communist Party), played a decisive role in shaping the struggle—the shift to what in this journal became known as the “downturn” following the ­industrial and political upturn of the early 1970s.7 The most obvious and important example, in relation to current debates in Britain, is the miners’ defeat in the year-long 1984-5 strike, followed by defeats for other key sections of workers in the print industry, along with seafarers and dockers.

These changed the mood within the working class, and for everybody else—from trade union leaders to workers in the smallest workplace and town. If the big battalions had been smashed what hope was there for others successfully to fight? Perhaps the left in Britain has been guilty, if anything, of underestimating the seriousness of these defeats and their long lasting impact—in many ways they still hang like a black cloud over the minds of everyone who wants to fight. Of course many workers today do not remember the defeats personally—they are too young. But the impact has deeply affected the whole class, and young workers are not immune from that class-wide impact.

Structural change

Some have argued that the key reason for the low level of strikes is rooted in changes in the structure of the working class over recent decades. In the pages of this journal this has been most clearly articulated by Neil Davidson—but his arguments reflect much wider currents. Jane Hardy and Joseph Choonara have dealt with many of Neil’s arguments.8 Here I wish to add a few observations.

There has been a significant change in the composition of the working class in Britain—with a shift from manufacturing towards the public sector and service industries over the last quarter of a century. A similar picture has been seen in some other European countries (Belgium, France, Italy and parts of Eastern Europe included). However, even with the relative decline in manufacturing, Britain is still the 11th largest manufacturing country in the world, with 100,000 workers in aerospace, 600,000 in the chemical industry, 850,000 in electronics and 2 million in construction.9 Britain will soon produce more cars than any year on record, topping the previous historical high of 1972.10 Automobile production is the biggest export earner for the British economy in terms of value. There are still some 143,000 workers in Britain directly employed in motor vehicle manufacture, with over 500,000 more employed in industries directly dependent on that production. Numbers of workers in the car industry have declined compared with a quarter of a century ago—but that is due to an enormous increase in productivity. Furthermore, it means that the potential power of the workers producing these cars is greater than ever.

Moreover, “service” industries, which have grown massively as a proportion of the working class in recent years, include enormous centres of potential class organisation. A Unison survey suggests there are around 1 million workers in around 5,000 call centres in the UK, with most employed in centres of between 300 and 700 workers.11 There is no doubting the potential to organise, fight and strike. The issue is how to actualise that potential.

Look at the UK food retail industry dominated by four giant chains (Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons) with almost all the rest in the hands of five other firms (The Co-op, Waitrose, Aldi, Lidl and Iceland). These employ huge numbers of workers in giant stores and in huge regional distribution centres usually with several hundred and sometimes over 1,000 workers on one site—and these concentrations give these workers enormous potential power. In some cases they are already formally organised (with the GMB representing 117,000 Asda workers and Usdaw more than 100,000 Tesco workers). The issue, again, is not one of the structure of the working class or its potential for collective struggle but why such organisation is not made effective.

One area that has grown in Britain (and internationally) is the public sector—teachers, health workers, council workers and so on. Most of these workers have always been an important part of the working class. What has changed is the degree of “proletarianisation” they have experienced as the autonomy they once possessed has been replaced by similar levels of managerial discipline endured by workers in other sectors. This has moved these workers further along the road from being part of the class “in itself” towards being part of a class “for itself”. This is indicated by the fact that these workers are often relatively well organised, with high levels of union organisation, and account for the bulk of strikes we have seen.

Some have argued there has been a decisive shift from traditional forms of work to a new paradigm where temporary, part-time and zero-hours jobs dominate. Some have sought to elevate such talk to a more erudite level with notions of a new class, the “precariat”. There has been a growth in the number of part-time and zero-hours contracts in Britain. But, first, the numbers are often exaggerated—the vast majority of workers have full-time and more secure jobs. Secondly, the issue is how these workers can be organised. Precariousness does not automatically mean workers cannot be organised, as the example of previous generations of precarious and initially unorganised workers, for example dockers in Britain in the late 19th century, demonstrates.

The real issue here is the same as we began with—the state of organisation, confidence and consciousness within the working class and why there is so little fightback and so few strikes. Capitalism constantly changes and with it the nature of jobs and work. As long as capitalism exists that will be true. But this has little explanatory power as to the patterns of industrial struggle. The key issue is whether workers are, or can be, organised and that brings us to the crucial issues of collective and union organisation.

Unions, the bureaucracy and rank and file

Union membership does not tell you everything. There have been major workers’ struggles when unions have been relatively weak. But union membership does give some feeling for the state of class organisation, certainly in an established capitalist democracy such as Britain.

Trade union membership has declined in Britain compared with its peak of around 13 million in 1979. About a quarter of workers are in a union, but that masks a difference between the public sector, with an average density of 55 percent, and the private sector at 14 percent. These percentages in turn mask pockets with high and low densities in both.12

There are still around 6.5 million trade union members in Britain. This is higher than almost any year before the Second World War (only briefly in 1919-20 did numbers move slightly ahead of today’s total). The number of trade unionists in Britain today is almost the same as that in 1919, perhaps the year Britain came closest to a revolutionary workers’ movement. Trade union membership today is higher than during the 1925 Red Friday victory of the unions over the government or the 1926 General Strike, and higher than during the Great Unrest of 1910-14, or during the first shop stewards movements of the First World War. Those historical examples should underline that, despite its size, the trade union movement in Britain is one that still has the potential for mass struggle, and struggle that can have a transformative effect on society.

Furthermore, government figures suggest there are also still around 150,000 workplace reps in Britain. A real decline from the 300,000 in 1979 yes, but a figure that nonetheless demonstrates a remarkable resilience in the face of low levels of struggle, and declining union membership in general.13

A key issue in these discussions is the relation between rank and file union members, their workplace reps and the union bureaucracy. This journal has long been associated with a distinctive analysis which sees the divide between the union bureaucracy and rank and file membership as primary. The social role of mediating between workers and bosses played by the bureaucracy means union leaders will vacillate—sometimes responding to pressure from below by leading struggles, at the very least to retain their membership and also to ensure bosses and governments take them seriously. But they will always seek to contain such struggles inside the limits set by negotiating within the framework of existing social relations—and shy away from decisive struggles. This applies to all union leaders, even the most left wing fighters are ultimately caught by their social position into shying away when the stakes are highest. All historical experience confirms this ­analysis—with the 1926 General Strike in Britain being perhaps the sharpest example.

None of this means we can ignore or bypass union officials and leaders. They have real influence over the workers they represent. At any time short of a revolutionary situation the experience of most workers is of accepting the limits set by capitalism while seeking to ameliorate the conditions of existence under capitalism. This creates “reformist” consciousness among the majority of workers, and underpins the hold of union leaders over many workers, as the social role of union leaders expresses that consciousness most clearly—as can reformist political organisation too. In the context of Britain the relationship between sections of the union bureaucracy and the Labour Party has played a particularly critical role.

The picture is far more complex than a simple dichotomy of bureaucracy and rank and file. There are many qualifications needed to this big picture, but anyone who loses sight of the fundamental divide will lose their bearings on the stormy seas of the class struggle. As Duncas Hallas argued, in 1980 “it is always possible to say of any generalisation—things are more complicated than that. Yes. Yes of course they are, but it is useful to look at the complications only if you have first grasped the big thing, the central issue”.14 That central issue is the need for an orientation on the rank and file “rooted in the recognition that the bureaucracy, as a social layer is, at bottom, conservative and that this is true notwithstanding the fact that, at times, sections of the bureaucracy can be formally more left than most of the working class”.15

Having grasped the big picture, further discussion is, of course, needed. The core of the union bureaucracy are full time officials—usually unelected—and the national full time leadership (usually the elected general secretary and national officers) of unions. There are also all sorts of mediating layers between that and the rank and file—ie workers actually doing the job. There are what are sometimes called “lay officials or officers” in most unions, neither fully part of the bureaucracy, nor rank and file workers. For example, my own union, the National Union of Teachers, has local officers, elected annually, still employed in their school but released on facility time under agreements. Some are on facility time five days a week, though many are on less and go into work some days. Such people make up the bulk of the national executive, and play a predominant role in the internal life of the union, setting the strategic direction of the union and participating in decisions to call, or not, national action.

They are not part of the trade union bureaucracy. They are much closer to the rank and file and subject to more immediate pressures from the rank and file than any full time official or national leader. But neither are they part of the rank and file. They do not, like school reps, go into work each day doing the same job on the same terms as those they represent. They are also not a homogenous bloc, but are cut across by real political divisions. Some are closely tied to, and share the political ideas of, the bureaucracy. They act as a transmission belt for the bureaucracy, into the rank and file, shaping what happens or does not happen. Others are very conservative, opposing those sections of the bureaucracy and national leadership who are more serious about building the union around a campaigning, fighting and organising agenda. This conservative grouping want a narrow, service provision model of trade unionism centred on quasi-legal services and casework, rejecting much engagement in wider political questions in society.

Similar patterns can be seen in other unions. In Unison the national bureaucracy called off the pay dispute in local government, cancelling planned strikes in October 2014. This provoked a revolt, not only by sections of rank and file workers but crucially by sections of this “middling layer”—including ­elements previously loyal to the national bureaucracy and Unison leader Dave Prentis. The North West region (around Manchester) of lay officers—a group previously loyal to Prentis—played a key role in this. The revolt forced only the second special conference in the union’s history and a 2-1 vote to reinstate action—though it was not strong enough to ensure the action was restored in reality.

None of this should be collapsed into seeing this layer within the unions as being the same as the rank and file. There are those within it (including members of the SWP) who are serious about a rank and file approach, but we are a long way from anything approaching a rank and file movement with any capacity to act independently of the bureaucracy. Those serious about a rank and file approach should use every opportunity to take initiatives which point in that direction. This can shape the future—but we should not pretend that future is already here.

The most famous British rank and file movement, the First World War Clyde Workers Committee, defined itself by the slogan:

We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we 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 feeling of the workers. We can act immediately according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file.16

By that measure—what Mark O’Brien has called rank and file “moments” certainly exist today in many struggles,17 but have nothing near the capacity to take serious and sustained independent action on a significant scale. The divisions and currents within unions, and within that mediating layer of lay officers, are largely political ones—with alignments not determined by differing social positions, but by political affiliations. All the various formations within unions today are what are usually labelled broad lefts (with a focus on winning union elections) rather than rank and file organisations.

With and against

Chris Harman spoke of the need to be “with and against the bureaucracy”. Even at times of great waves of rank and file struggle this is the case—as the Clyde Workers Committee slogan makes clear, and more recently as Dave Lyddon usefully reminded us in relation to the struggles during the upturn of the early 1970s.18 But for socialists the present situation—where rank and file workers have very little capacity or, “confidence” to act, and certainly to strike, independently of the bureaucracy—makes this understanding particularly critical.

There is always an interplay between official and unofficial action, there can be no crude counterposition of “pure” rank and file activity and fighting for official calls for action. The more rank and file activity the more the pressure for official calls, which help mobilise greater layers of rank and file workers.

Harman did not mean you move from supporting to opposing the bureaucracy in temporal succession, switching from cheerleading to denouncing union leaders. Rather, there is a constant and simultaneous process of working alongside and with the bureaucracy while at the same time having a tension and opposition to it. Getting this balance right is a difficult art, and one of the biggest challenges facing socialist activists in the unions today. But it is crucial in seeking to extend the influence of socialists over workers who look to the bureaucracy, especially its more left elements. It is all too easy to fall into either tailing left sections of the bureaucracy, or simply denouncing them.

In seeking to practise this art we need to understand that the key is not to take abstract left stances, but to do two things simultaneously. One is to articulate the voice of and seek to organise the minority who want to fight, and are clear about the limitations of the bureaucracy, including its left wing. The second is simultaneously to relate to those (greater numbers) of workers still influenced by the bureaucracy, and seek to work with, influence and win them—this necessarily involves relating to the bureaucracy and especially the left bureaucracy in a serious way.

There is no short cut, either in ideas of looking towards breakaway or “pop-up” unions—which leave most workers under the influence of the existing bureaucracy—nor in simply denouncing the bureaucracy and appealing over them directly to the workers they influence. A serious approach, grounded in the spirit of what Leon Trotsky outlined in his writings on the united front tactic, is the only route.

The fact that in the current period workers in general do not have the capacity to initiate action on a significant scale independent of the bureaucracy, yet generally respond magnificently to any official call, makes the question of leadership particularly important. Would it not have made a difference if union leaders had built on the strikes in November 2011 by rejecting the government’s “heads of agreement” on pensions and pressed on for more action? Of course it would!

If the left-led unions had together fought the retreat it would have made a real difference. Imagine if the PCS, NUT, FBU, UCU and others had called for more strikes—it would have created the possibility of a different outcome. In the event only the PCS’s Mark Serwotka moved swiftly to denounce the retreat while others hesitated—and allowed the right to set the agenda. That is why it is right socialists stand for election to official positions, seeking to win seats on national union executives and the like, because it can make a difference in securing official calls for action which can play a critical role in mobilising workers in a way that, given the prevailing class consciousness, would be otherwise unlikely to happen. Of course, any socialist in such a position always risks accommodating to the bureaucracy, which is why he or she must be absolutely accountable to networks and currents based in and oriented on the rank and file.

Social movement trade unionism

Many of the more left wing union leaders articulate ideas today about the model of trade unionism needed. The Unite leadership (headed by Len McCluskey) has pushed the idea of community membership and organising, opening up the union to the unemployed, pensioners, students and others. This is a serious initiative and has made possible some excellent work and played a crucial role in the fight against the bedroom tax for example.19 Unite has also played a key role in important political initiatives such as the People’s Assembly against Austerity, and has led some significant strikes.

In other unions, most notably the civil servants’ PCS and especially the teachers’ NUT, a slightly different emphasis has been pushed by their left leaderships, one often referred to as social movement trade unionism. This model has roots in trade union movements a decade or so ago in developing industrial countries such as Brazil, South Africa, South Korea and the Philippines. But in the British trade union movement today explicit comparisons are often drawn with recent models from the United States—in particular teachers in Wisconsin and Chicago. Wisconsin teachers’ union leader Bob Peterson clearly articulates a model of a “three legged stool”—organising in the workplace, pressuring politicians and reaching out to the wider community.20 Essentially the same model is echoed by the Chicago teachers union, whose victory in a 2012 battle has given authority to the approach.

For socialists, our vision of trade unionism has never been a narrow sectional one, but precisely one of taking up political questions and reaching out from workplaces to engage with wider sections of the “community” (I prefer the local working class). But some criticisms of the way the idea of social movement unionism is used in current debates in Britain are necessary. Building union organisation cannot be separated from struggle. At all times we are for organising and building the best union organisation possible. But such molecular work will not, by simple addition, lead to fundamental change in the level of union membership, rep density and the like.

Ralph Darlington rightly argues: “The strong historical association between high levels of nation-wide strike activity and periods of rapid union growth and powerful shop stewardships’ movements in Britain, notably between 1910-20, 1935-43 and 1968-74, underlines the manner in which unions have in the past been built through conflict and struggle”.21

There are very significant differences between the situations in the US cited as the inspiration for this model and Britain. In Wisconsin the work done in organising at the base and in reaching out to the wider “community” is fantastic. But that has been forced on the unions by a terrible defeat that removed all bargaining rights at state level. In the US in general, local action, or state or city wide action, is the highest level at which most action can be organised. That is not true in Britain where unions have (as amply demonstrated in recent years) the capacity to call effective national action. These differences are often glided over in discussions here. And in too many discussions in Britain it is almost forgotten that at the heart of the Chicago victory was a determined all-out strike!

The tendency of some left union leaders here to emphasise local action spills too easily into downplaying the question of national action and the responsibility of national leaderships in calling, or not calling, it.

Marxism is not a calculus of probability

Here I would take issue with another of Joyce’s formulations. He writes, “While it is important for Marxists to retain an appreciation of the possibilities inherent in any historical situation, the most important service we can provide for the labour movement is not to highlight what might happen but to develop an understanding of what is most likely to happen”.22

At all times we need a sober assessment of what is “most likely” to happen and to be careful not to exaggerate. Joyce is absolutely right that there is a danger in always seeing the next struggle as heralding the big breakthrough, and there have been those on the left who have fallen into this trap. But Joyce’s correct attempt to guard against that risks a slide towards being commentators rather than active subjects seeking to affect the course of events.

A recent example is the attempted victimisation of PCS union rep Candy Udwin at the National Gallery. The most likely result was that Candy would stay sacked. She wasn’t because action and leadership based around pushing for an all-out strike, reaching out for solidarity and applying political pressure—with strikes at the centre of this trinity—scored a victory. But it was a victory that was unexpected against the general background of 2015, which is what we want to change precisely through creating unexpected facts which begin to change that background.

We are above all fighters and revolutionaries seeking to change the course of events. I strongly agree with O’Brien’s argument that we must have what he calls the “actuality of the strike”, the potential it could happen, at the centre of our thinking. Without this, as O’Brien argues, the danger is that fighting for action becomes something you discount in advance or reduce to propaganda and replace with an excessively narrow focus elsewhere—on, for example, health and safety, or individual casework.23

The year 2011

The pages of this journal have seen debates around the strikes over pensions in Britain in 2011. Some observations on that struggle are relevant. First, it is important to recognise what led up to the public sector strike of 30 November 2011—the largest one-day strike in Britain since 1926. Until late 2010 there was a general sense across the working class of little resistance to the austerity measures being pushed by the government. The left argued for resistance, but it was an uphill struggle—given the prevailing ideas of large sections of workers, partly convinced by the argument that the money wasn’t there, that we needed to cut the deficit (in other words precisely by factors weighing on “the state of political and class consciousness within the working class”).

What began to change that was not workplace organisation but the sudden eruption of student protests in November 2010 at Millbank. That had a dramatic affect on the ideas of a layer of workers. Suddenly the idea that resistance was possible became easier to put. The next stage in the revolt was the 26 March trade union demonstration against austeritythe largest ever official trade union demonstration in British history, with over half a million marching—and the UCU higher education strike of March 2011. The strike (and Sean Vernell is right about this24) would not have happened without the determined effort of a layer of socialists within the union. When PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka argued, “imagine what a difference it would make if we didn’t only march together but took strike action together,” he captured the mood of a significant section of the class which now felt that resistance and strikes were possible in a way that they had not been even a few weeks earlier.

The wider political mood also mattered. The Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions of late 2010 and early 2011 fed into the feeling among at least a layer of key activists that there were new possibilities—as anyone who was active in the movement at the time will recall, there was much talk of “if they can topple Mubarak, we can fight Cameron” or “we should turn Trafalgar Square into Tahrir Square”. It is not true that millions of workers in Britain thought like that, but such sentiments, meshed with the student revolt and the union demonstration, certainly changed the mood among a significant layer of activists and reps who played a crucial role in the events of that year.

Without the student protest, the UCU action, and especially the March demonstration, I am not sure that the June strike of the NUT and PCS, UCU and ATL, would have happened. As anyone involved, as I was, in one of the key unions will know, it took an enormous amount of arguing, from rank and file activists, lay officers and sections of the left bureaucracy within some unions to make that strike happen. Lyddon on this point is right to argue that pressure from the government and its attack on pensions, coupled with the response to the previous Labour government’s similar attack in 2005, was part of the reason why almost the entire union bureaucracy backed the 30 November pensions strike.25 But I think he comes too close to arguing there was some inevitability about the union leaders calling action in November. I dispute that and insist that the impact of the June strike was a key, though not the only, factor in ensuring the November strike happened.

Lyddon, in my opinion, also comes perilously close to excusing the retreat led by some union leaders in the wake of November 2011, suggesting that, once the government put up its “heads of agreement” on pensions, union leaders were just doing what they usually do. What union leaders did—whether usual or otherwise—was a disastrous sell-out, which threw away the chance of a victory that could have transformed the situation in Britain and instead led the movement to an unnecessary and serious defeat.

Lyddon, along with O’Brien and Sean Vernell have been among those debating the characterisation of the 2011 strikes in this journal, and whether or not they should be labelled as bureaucratic mass strikes. Of far greater importance is that we heed the warning from Harman:

Most living struggles escape any watertight compartmentalisation. Trade union bureaucrats may initiate action from above, with the clear intention of keeping it under their own control and ending it on their own terms. But this does not mean they are always able to impose their own will on the mass of workers who respond to their call. Once workers move into action they begin to discover their own capacity to fight and to control things—and there is always at least the beginnings of a threat to the trade union bureaucracy in this. Indeed, this is one powerful reason why trade union leaders call off struggles just as the employers begin to fear the power displayed by the working class movement.26

Harman’s point, which O’Brien clearly acknowledges, is borne out by real examples. The Danish mass strike of Easter 1985 was entirely initiated and controlled initially by the union bureaucracy. Yet within days it had escaped such control and the country was paralysed with incredible examples of rank and file initiative in town after town going far beyond anything the union leaders had envisaged.27 Similarly, as referred to earlier, the mass strikes of France 1995 were initiated by union leaders—but unleashed a rank and file dynamic that for a while completely escaped such bureaucratic limits.

In any real struggle socialists could, using a calculus of probabilities approach, say it is unlikely the strike called by union leaders will go beyond the limits they set. This would be wrong. Without getting carried away, the duty of socialists is to work to maximise rank and file activity and initiatives which point beyond those limits. O’Brien gives excellent examples of attempts to do that in Liverpool in 2011, and this was not isolated. In East London local activists organised not just pickets but gatherings on the day of the strike bringing different groups of strikers together and knitting together local networks. Hundreds of people marched all the way through the City of London to join the main central London demonstration. Similar stories could be told across Britain. On this occasion such initiatives were not successful in creating a dynamic able to overcome the retreats sounded by the union leaders, but it was nonetheless the right thing to try.

The road since 2011

The retreat at the end of 2011 threw away the chance for further large-scale strikes which could have broken the government’s assault on public sector pensions. We should be wary of counterfactual history—the “what if?” approach—rather than seeking to understand and explain what did happen. But this much can, I think, be ventured: the developing strike movement around pensions held within it the potential to transform the balance of class forces and open up a new period of struggle. The retreat meant that this potentiality never had the chance to be realised, and our class suffered a defeat.

What of the pattern of struggle since? The overall picture of few strikes remains. Official figures are that there were 303,000 strike days involving 152 strikes in the 12 months to July 2015.28 But this not the total picture. The situation over the past four years has been complicated and ­contradictory.

Despite the retreat on pensions it is not true that this left the big unions in the public sector broken. There have been continued attacks since—on pay, privatisation, and jobs across the public sector. These have hit hard—and cost jobs, worsened services and made life harder for many workers. It also remains the case that workers on a national scale do not have the confidence to take action without a lead from above. But workers’ organisation in the areas at the heart of the 2011 strikes remains essentially intact. It has not been decisively weakened despite the retreats, and in some areas, such as schools, has grown with more members and significantly more reps.

In many cases activists in the big public sector unions in the course of 2013 and 2014 have again and again been able to press for a lead to be given and action called. Workers have repeatedly responded magnificently when such a lead has come and large-scale action has been called. In 2013, teachers—this time in both the major unions the NUT and
NASUWT—staged highly effective strikes
in joint action on pay, pensions and conditions which ­completely closed schools in a series of rolling regional walkouts. The action ensured employers backed off from a new assault on teachers’ conditions. More could have been won but, in a familiar pattern, the strikes were not built on. NASUWT leaders retreated, and NUT leaders hesitated then retreated too.

In 2014 another huge opportunity for a victory that could have shifted the balance of class forces was thrown away by union leaders. In July that year around 1.5 million council workers, school workers and civil servants struck over pay—giving another glimpse of the potential for a movement that could win a real victory and have a class-wide impact. Once more the strike was not built on and union leaders retreated.

The same frustrating pattern was evident in the autumn of 2014 when half a million health workers responded magnificently to pay strikes—with the Royal College of Midwives for the first time joining such action. The strikes struck a chord with millions and were popular, symbolising the defence of the NHS against the drive to privatise it—and should have been the signal for more action. Again that did not happen.

Time and time again we see the pattern of workers, activists and lay officers pressing for a fight in the face of assaults. That results in union leaders calling ballots and those delivering resounding votes for action, and when a day of strikes is called workers respond brilliantly. Yet union leaders then duck building for more action to try to win a decisive victory and sound the retreat. That leaves many activists and workers bitter and frustrated. At times they have been able to mount opposition to the retreats, but not enough to force union leaders to put the action back on, or to deliver action despite them. This is a deeply frustrating situation. But it is important to recognise the full picture and not miss the potential seen in the one-day public sector strikes.

There have been other tests of leadership too for those at the top of the unions—and too often they have missed the chance to mobilise a fight which could have won significant victories. One was the surrender by Unite leaders in 2013 faced with bosses’ blackmail at the Grangemouth refinery in Scotland—when a serious campaign and action could have won. More recently, in the autumn of 2015, we saw the dismal response by union leaders to the massacre of jobs in the steel industry—when a determined campaign of protest, demonstrations and action linked to a political fight for nationalisation could have transformed the situation.

There are other important nuances to the general background of a low level of actual strikes. Trade union density in the private sector is comparatively low. But where unions are present in the private sector they can often have a level of organisation that would be the envy of most public sector trade unionists. As Richard Morgan argues elsewhere in this issue, in some sectors of the economy, especially those where profits are good, workers with good organisation have been able to win some impressive ­victories—often without strikes, but rather via the threat of strikes. In fact, over the last couple of years there have been a number of important pay strikes in private industry—such as at Tyneside Safety Glass and EDF—that have won at least some gains. These strikes have helped ensure private sector pay has outstripped inflation.

Construction is another area where there have been encouraging signs and it has not all been quiet since the BESNA electricians’ victory back in 2010, which gave a glimpse of a new level of organisation among electricians. There has been a ripple of disputes on key sites, involving electricians but also others from crane drivers to scaffolders. The most recent examples are the “pay the rate” disputes concentrated on Merseyside and Teeside where a better level of workers’ organisation than has been seen in many years is, with some success, calling protests and actions—usually without waiting on official processes.

Among some small but visible and powerful sections of workers there has been an almost constant round of moves towards action, retreats, and then further action—the most obvious example being the series of disputes on the London underground—and the power shown when tube and rail workers have struck and paralysed the capital, as in the summer of 2015.

The frustration here too though is that, while strikes have won some gains, too often that power has not then been harnessed to press home the advantage and win decisive victories. A glaring example has been that of London bus workers who have had a live ballot for strikes at the same time as tube workers, who have been on strike, yet union leaders have repeatedly passed up the chance to call joint action which would quickly win victories for both groups.

While one-day strikes in the public sector account for the most visible strikes recently, as Lyddon shows, a significant proportion of strikes last longer than one day—in both public and private sectors.29 Here too the picture is complicated and contradictory. There have been defeats after long battles and lots of strike action—such as the Doncaster Care workers, and fights which have seen union reps victimised, and attacks driven through—such as at London Metropolitan University and Bromley council.

There have also been significant victories or partial victories where workers have gone for hard-hitting or all-out strikes and tapped wider networks of solidarity. We should avoid seeing these as harbingers of a new summer of struggle—but they indicate a new potential at least. This year we have seen the victories by the Glasgow homelessness caseworkers and the Dundee hospital porters, and partial victories at DSG defence contractors and at Lambeth College. We have also seen the successful defence of union rep Candy Udwin at London’s National Gallery through an all-out strike, and the successful defence, through unofficial walkouts by support staff and lecturers, of Unison rep Sandy Nichol at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The recent Bridgwater postal workers’ victory after unofficial walk-outs in defence of a sacked disabled colleague provides another example. These victories have not been on a scale to shift the wider mood in the class, but they contain lessons about how to operate at work and point to key elements in how any such shift may emerge from the battles we will face in the coming period.

The resilience, despite the low strike figures, of workers’ organisation, and the pattern of struggle of the past four years suggest that significant battles lie ahead. The issue is whether any of these battles develops into a fight with the scale and outcome to shift the wider mood among large swathes of workers. The latest assault on workers, the new anti-union laws pushed through parliament in the autumn of 2015 is, however draconian, also testament to the fear of those at the top of society that there is a real prospect of resistance as they continue their austerity drive.

Politics matters

To return to earlier discussions, of course Joyce is right that there have been important shifts in the legal and structural frameworks affecting both the number of strikes and the relation between trade union bureaucracies, reps, and rank and file workers. These were largely a consequence of the defeats suffered in the 1980s, and they make the job of those who want to see resistance harder.

The anti-union laws introduced over the last quarter-century have made it much more difficult to organise official strike action. Through their targeting of union funds in the case of a breach of the plethora of anti-union laws they have pushed union bureaucracies into a much greater degree of control over, and policing of, workers’ action, and shifted control over action away from workplace reps and into the hands of the bureaucracy. The new anti-union laws are designed to make strikes and resistance even more difficult. Many workers, just as they accept the legitimacy of the law in general, give some legitimacy to the anti-union laws today. It is also true, however, that a successful ballot in conformity with all the anti-union laws can then give workers’ action, in their eyes, a greater legitimacy too.

On all this Simon Joyce is essentially correct. The issue is whether such changes are decisive in explaining the low level of strikes. I would argue that they are not, and that more significant is the wider “state of political and class consciousness” and the “confidence” of reps and the workers they represent. There are examples of workers today seizing the initiative and going beyond what union leaders say, even of defying the law—and winning.

There are very few cases of the laws being used when workers have ignored them. The electricians’ dispute in 2011-12 saw a high level of unofficial action which repeatedly breached anti-union laws. Yet not a single worker was hauled in front of a court for such defiance. I can vouch from personal experience that when teachers at my school voted this year to walk out if a technician employed by the Capita corporation was sacked the laws meant nothing in the face of a resolute stand, and the company retreated within hours.

When workers move in a determined way the anti-union laws are not decisive, nor is the ability of the bureaucracy to control workers’ action. The real issue is that workers in general do not have the confidence to act independently of the bureaucracy or in defiance of the law. Examples show a potential, but none of those cited have been on a scale or of a significance to generalise, and affect the thoughts and actions of a large enough section of the class to make a material difference to the overall “balance of class forces”. For that to happen something needs to break the ice formed over the past 25 years in the minds of many workers and activists (ice that has frozen solid in the minds of many union officials, leaders and officers).

There is no single model for how such a shift can take place—only the certainty that at some point we will see a rise in the level of strikes. That is not just wishful thinking. All historical experience points in that direction. We may have had an unprecedentedly long period of a low level of strikes in Britain, but at some point that will change. How that will happen is not predetermined, and what socialists should do to hasten its advent at the present time needs thinking through. It can be that an accretion of smaller victories and struggles builds organisation which prepares the way—as was the case in the lead up to the upsurge in Britain in the 1970s.

But there are plenty of examples of other routes. In a small way the explosion of struggle in 2011 shows how a complex interaction of wider political movements, in Britain and internationally, involving some movement by the union bureaucracy under pressure from employers and government, and initiative and drive by the left, can come together to create significant struggle with the potential to transform the situation.

In the mid-1930s the situation in France was suddenly transformed with the mass strikes of June 1936—which rocked the country and won hugely significant victories for workers. These were not shaped by prior movements or battles in the workplace. Instead a successful political mobilisation against fascism gave new confidence to layers of workers and then the election of a left Popular Front government changed the mood and sparked an explosion of struggle which transformed the whole situation.

Today we face a new onslaught of austerity, against a background of a low level of resistance in the wake of union leaders’ pitiful response to the past five years of austerity and their throwing away the chance of real victories in 2011 and 2014. The landslide victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election signals a possibility of a new political landscape encouraging resistance. Socialists need to seize every opportunity to build union organisation and initiate workplace struggles. Though the general level of struggle remains low, it is not non-existent. Initiative, activity and leadership at the base are crucial.

Two other things are especially important today. One is seeking to build networks, linking up and generalising examples of resistance. That means solidarity is a key question. Taking the argument for solidarity with those who are fighting into as many workplaces as possible is not simply a moral one, it is a key political task, seeking to spread the idea that resistance and struggle are possible. Sending messages of support, taking collections, visiting protests and picket lines are a key part of this strategically important task. Seeking to link up networks in every locality around such solidarity is also key—shaping the contours of local networks that will be crucial in pushing forward any bigger upsurge in struggle.

A second focus has to be bringing wider political issues into the workplace, again not simply from some moral standpoint, but because they can play a key role in shaping ideas and organisation within and in between workplaces, and in mobilising workers who may not be confident to strike unless union leaders call action. To take the most important example. taking the need to organise against racism into unions and workplaces can—as well as being important in itself—pull some workers into greater activity than they would otherwise engage with. A workplace collection in support of refugees, or a few workers from a workplace becoming involved with Stand Up To Racism can help rebuild confidence and organisation in that workplace. Such “political trade unionism” has to be a central thread of any serious socialist approach in the unions today.

A key feature of the struggle today, especially for public sector workers such as in health and education, is how the attacks on the services these workers provide has made the political defence of those services a central issue for struggle. The drive to privatise and marketise services such as education and health means fighting for a different vision of what a health service should be or what education should be—rooted in the “professional” ethos many of these workers hold dear—has become critical in mobilising resistance. Acting to defend not just jobs but what workers believe their jobs should be about has become more important.

In conclusion, arguments about the structural changes in the working class, though important, are often overstated and are of little explanatory power in understanding the current situation. Discussion of the changed legal framework within which unions operate is likewise important—but not decisive. The crucial questions of politics, a recognition of the reality of, and determining significance of, the balance of class forces and the “state of political and class consciousness” among workers are of critical importance in understanding the situation we are in.

Given the analysis outlined here, it follows that key strategic priorities for socialists in the workplaces are: organising at the base; fighting for solidarity networks in every locality; and bringing wider political issues of all kinds into the workplace. This can organise and shape the ideas of a section of workers who can then play a key role in the struggles to come. This depends on socialists in the workplace not being passive commentators simply weighing up the most probable course of events, but seeking to shape events. As Luxemburg said in one of her final speeches in 1918: “Our motto is: In the beginning was the act.”


1: Davidson, 2013; Callinicos, 2014a; Callinicos, 2014b; Hardy and Choonara, 2013; Sherry, 2013; O’Brien, 2014; Darlington, 2014; Joyce, 2015; Lyddon, 2015a and b; Upchurch 2015.

2: Callinicos, 2014a, p123.

3: Joyce, 2015, p120.

4: Luxemburg, 1918.

5: Joyce, 2015, p120.

6: For a detailed analysis, see Harman, 1996.

7: See Cliff, 1979, for the original analysis.

8: Davidson, 2013, and Hardy and Choonara, 2013. The growth of the world working class is a main theme of Harman, 2002.

9: UK Manufacturing Statistics from

10: Sharman, 2015, which estimates that by 2017 Britain’s car production will be at an all time high, and may even reach that record during the course of 2015.

13: Darlington, 2010.

14: Hallas, 1980.

15: Hallas, 1980.

16: Cited in Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p64.

17: O’Brien, 2014.

18: Lyddon, 2015a.

19: For a detailed account of McCluskey and Unite, see Sherry 2013.

20: Pamphlet by Bob Peterson printed by left activists in the NUT and given out to delegates at 2015 NUT conference.

21: Darlington, 2010.

22: Joyce, 2015, p141.

23: O’Brien, 2015.

24: Vernell, 2013.

25: Lyddon, 2015a.

26: Harman, 1996.

27: Clark, 1985.

28: ONS, 2015.

29: Lyddon, 2015b.


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