Once more on strikes: a reply to critics

Issue: 153

Simon Joyce

When I wrote “Why Are There So Few Strikes?”1 I expected that it would generate some discussion. I was not prepared, though, for the huge number of words and length of time taken up by responses. In addition to numerous replies in this journal,2 and at various meetings, I was especially pleased to receive messages from workplace union activists making points and raising questions informed by their own experience. Many thanks to all who took the time to read what I had written, to consider their reply, and to write or get in touch. It has been a very wide-ranging debate, which is sure to continue.

Two years on we are no nearer to a revival of strikes in Britain. Strike figures remain at historically low levels, with occasional spikes when large public sector protest strikes take place. In years when there are no such strikes, the figures are very low indeed.3 The continuation of this trend underlines the importance of Alex Callinicos’s call for an explanation of the low level of strikes, as “the most important single task facing revolutionary Marxists today”.4 What follows is a reply to critics of my attempt to take up Alex’s challenge. It is not possible to comment on everything said and written in response to my argument. That would make very dull reading and, in any case, many of the points made are ones that I agree with. Instead, I will address what seem to me the most important issues at stake. To give some coherence to my reply, I will start with a summary of my argument, so that readers can see the discussion in context.

The argument is in two parts.5 The first part examines why strike levels fell so dramatically during the 1980s, from their 1970s high-point. Strikes were reduced as a result of three main influences. First, economic crisis and reorganisation had important effects, including the complete destruction of, or huge reduction of employment in sectors with previously high strike levels (coal mining, shipbuilding, the docks, the auto industry and other manufacturing); the reintroduction of long term mass unemployment (which undermined workers’ willingness to fight); significant increases in product market competition; and a reduction in inflation from its 1970s highs. Second, Tory governments introduced a series of legal restrictions on unions. Usually known as “anti-union laws”, these were in reality tough anti-strike laws. These legal changes were part of a wider shift of state policy against engagement with unions and against collective bargaining—policies matched by a decisive shift in employer policy from accommodation with unions to outright hostility and belligerence (at first in the private sector, but increasingly also in the public sector), which unleashed “class struggle from above” in many thousands of workplaces.6 And, third, the 1980s saw a series of crucial class battles, as powerful unions were taken on and defeated by newly aggressive employers, armed with new anti-union laws, and backed by massive mobilisations of state power. It was the combination of these three factors—changes in the economy, harsh new legal restrictions and devastating defeats—that led to the huge reductions in strike figures during the 1980s.

The second part of the analysis explains why the current low level of strikes has been stable for more than 20 years. The key issue, in my view, is that by the early 1990s the strike weapon had almost everywhere been taken out of the hands of shop stewards.7 For many decades prior to 1980, shop stewards could initiate strike action, stay within the law, and usually not be penalised for falling foul of the letter of union rulebooks. In important industries, stewards developed the habit of dealing with workplace issues by means of small and short strikes. These habits changed dramatically during the 1980s, as national union leaderships responded to crisis conditions by taking control of when and where strikes happened. Stewards who want to take strike action now have to go through union officials for the go-ahead (outside of a few small areas of employment, or highly exceptional circumstances). This new reality represents a very significant change from previous practices, and is reflected in the huge shift from strikes being predominantly unofficial to being almost always official. This historic change is the main reason why strike figures have stayed so low—because the national union officials who now control the strike weapon are generally much less willing to use it than are rank and file workers. Furthermore, this new situation has had important consequences for how workplace unions operate, what methods shop stewards adopt when dealing with management, and the balance of power between the rank and file and the union bureaucracy.

Against one-dimensional explanations

In “Why Are There So Few Strikes?” I emphasised economic and legal changes because these had been neglected for too long in discussions of strikes in this journal. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that the overall analysis depends on all three factors outlined above—economic changes, legal restrictions, and major defeats. Some critics have argued that I over-emphasised objective factors, such as structural/economic,8 or institutional,9 or “environmental”10 changes, and understated the importance of subjective factors, such as political consciousness or confidence. But this line of criticism misses the crucial importance of grasping the interaction of all three levels of analysis. On its own, any one of these ­factors—severe recession, tough new anti-union laws, or shattering defeats—would have presented unions with significant difficulties. But in the 1980s unions faced all three together; a perfect storm which resulted in not just quantitative but also qualitative changes in patterns of industrial conflict in Britain.

It is this combination of factors which really set the 1980s apart. This point can be illustrated by considering one of the counter-examples raised by Martin Upchurch in his thoughtful response to my argument.11 Martin says that I overstate the importance of institutional factors in the decline of strikes, and supports his argument using the example of the engineering industry in the 1930s and 1940s, where Communist Party militants led a wave of rank and file activism and rebuilt union organisation, despite management hostility and anti-union legislation.12 For Martin, the success of politically-led activism in this period shows that anti-union laws need not have a severe impact, so long as the subjective factors of politics and activism are right. However, Martin misses out two important factors. First, at the economic level, although the 1930s are famous for severe depression, the period discussed by Martin was one of strong economic growth in important new industries such as electrical engineering, automobiles and aircraft manufacture.13 Falling unemployment from 1933 onwards14 and wartime full employment significantly boosted workers’ bargaining power and confidence. Second, at the institutional level, while the 1927 Act was bitterly resented by the unions, in reality its restrictions were nowhere near as severe as those imposed on unions in the Margaret Thatcher-John Major years.15 During the operation of the 1927 Act not one strike was declared illegal.16 Furthermore, during the Second World War government regulations, especially the Essential Work Order, made it difficult for management to sack shop stewards and other workers.17 Not surprisingly, well-organised and determined union activists turned these conditions to their advantage. The contrast with the 1980s is clear. Whereas unions in the 1980s faced a frontal assault from employers and the state, severe recession and very harsh legal restriction, this devastating combination is simply nowhere to be found in the period discussed by Martin.18 In other words, the difference between the 1980s and the earlier period can only be properly grasped by developing a multi-dimensional analysis that gives full recognition to structural and institutional factors, alongside subjective ones—and it takes nothing away from the hugely impressive achievements of rank and file activists to do so.

Some contributors to the debate, however, continue to focus far too heavily on subjective factors—especially confidence—in trying to explain the low level of strikes. Some have taken my criticism of what I called “the confidence theory of strikes” to mean that I don’t think confidence, or other subjective factors, are important. In fact, this is not the case at all. Anyone who has witnessed confident and well organised workers taking collective action knows how important confidence is for establishing and maintaining strong unions. Moreover, as Martin details,19 during the 1960s and 1970s Tony Cliff and others were able to link shifts in the pattern of strikes to ebbs and flows of confidence among unionised workers. Problems arise, however, when this insight is turned into a one-dimensional theory to explain the level of strike action in a quite different period.

Of course, there are differences of emphasis. For instance, Martin explicitly recognises the importance of objective conditions for explaining the low level of strikes, and agrees that “massive structural changes in the economy [have] militated against labour struggle, [and] economic factors (low inflation and high unemployment) have blunted the edge of the propensity to strike”.20 Similarly, Donny Gluckstein makes clear that shifts in workers’ confidence cannot be divorced from objective factors such as “economic changes [and] changes in the law”.21 Others, however, appear much more willing to detach subjective aspects from any substantive analysis of objective conditions.

This approach is most clearly stated by Paul McGarr. Paul agrees that “important shifts in the legal and structural frameworks” have affected the number of strikes, and altered “the relation between trade union bureaucracies, reps, and rank and file workers”. Paul also agrees that anti-union laws have “made it much more difficult to organise official strike action”, and have “shifted control over action away from workplace reps and into the hands of the bureaucracy”. Indeed, Paul says that “on all this Simon Joyce is essentially correct”.22 However, having agreed with the main stages of my argument, Paul goes on to draw very different conclusions: “the issue is whether such changes are decisive in explaining the low level of strikes. I would argue that they are not… 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”.23 Setting aside the rather artificial question about whether this or that factor is “decisive”—because, in reality, a combination of factors is important—the problem with this approach is that in setting aside objective factors and prioritising subjective ones, not only are objective conditions neglected, but the understanding of subjective aspects—such as the development of workers’ confidence—is also seriously weakened.

For instance, after describing the process whereby capitalism perpetually reorganises production and thereby reshapes the working class, Paul concludes “but this has little explanatory power as to the patterns of industrial struggle”.24 This seems an extraordinary statement. Marxists have documented many times how the process of capital accumulation shapes developments in the class ­struggle.25 However, having separated workers’ subjective consciousness from political economy, Paul’s explanation for shifts in workers’ confidence is based entirely on subjective factors—in particular, on the demoralising effects of defeats in the 1980s which, Paul says, “still hang like a black cloud over the minds of everyone who wants to fight”.26 Now, as I argued previously, those shattering defeats were undoubtedly a contributory factor in undermining workers’ confidence and reducing the level of strikes in the 1980s. But, as Paul recognises, “many workers today do not remember the defeats”, simply because they are too young. I would also add that in some important sectors, such as the London bus workers who Paul mentions, many of today’s workers were not in this country at that time. It is very difficult to see how young and migrant workers could be significantly affected by the “black cloud”, after all these years, to the extent of this being the “decisive” factor holding back strikes. In Paul’s account of confidence, however, objective conditions are set aside as “not decisive”, and consequently no substantive explanation is forthcoming.

Fortunately, an alternative approach to understanding workers’ confidence is available. Older accounts from the International Socialist tradition developed an understanding of confidence that is quite different from the one offered by Paul and some other contributors to this debate. Here, confidence was seen as firmly rooted in the material reality and experience of workers’ lives. Thus, writing in 1966, Tony Cliff and Colin Barker argued that the prolonged period of full employment after the Second World War was a key factor underpinning the confidence of workplace union organisation.27 In 1969, Cliff put it even more clearly: “The full employment (or near full employment) of the war and post-war period gave the workers new confidence”.28 Here, in contrast to Paul’s account, political economy does have “explanatory power”.

A second key factor underpinning workers’ confidence was captured by Chris Harman: “In the struggle of the early 1970s there was a layer of stewards with reformist ideas who, nonetheless, had the confidence and the experience to take the initiative from the full-time bureaucrats because they themselves had led innumerable small, but successful, unofficial strikes”.29 Once again confidence is treated, here, as having a material base. That is, the confidence of workers to act independently of the union bureaucracy was rooted in their experience, in the daily habits and methods of organising found in many workplaces.

Prior to 1980, the vast majority of strikes were unofficial—at least 95 percent in the late 1960s.30 As a result, workers who were in the habit of striking independently of union officials could sometimes strike in opposition to union officials. Whether they did so or not often depended on politics; especially the politics of the shop stewards who usually led unofficial strikes. On such occasions subjective factors really were decisive. At crucial times, the dominance of reformist and Communist Party politics among important layers of shop stewards held back workers’ struggles, out of political loyalty to the Labour Party and to left trade union officials. Nevertheless, the potential for workers to act in opposition to conservative union officials was rooted in their previous experience of unofficial strike action, and the confidence that had been built up because of this.

So, for what we might call the classic statements of the theory, workers’ (subjective) confidence was rooted in their (objective) material experience. The combined effects of a generation of full employment, together with the established habit of taking strike action independently of the bureaucracy, gave workers in many workplaces a high level of confidence in their ability to take strike action and to be successful. Of course, the outcomes of particular strikes, and the direction of the class struggle more generally, were also shaped by political organisation and consciousness. But the approach outlined by Cliff, Harman and others, weaves together subjective and objective factors in a powerful multi-dimensional analysis.

Now, using this approach to understanding confidence, consider what has happened subsequently. The first factor underpinning workers’ confidence—full employment—disappeared many years ago as the long post-war boom gave way to sustained high levels of unemployment. The second factor—workers’ experience of striking independently of the union bureaucracy—largely ended when national union leaderships took control of the strike weapon during the 1980s. When Harman was writing in 1985, he recognised that “the layer of stewards with experience of successful unofficial action is much weaker and much less confident today. It is therefore much less willing to act independently of the trade union bureaucracy”.31 That is, by 1985, the combination of economic crisis, anti-union laws and mounting defeats was already taking its toll on this layer of stewards. Since then that layer of shop stewards has all but disappeared, with far-reaching consequences for the confidence of the working class more widely.

Of course, the same economic forces that shattered former centres of union strength also generated new industries and new groups of workers. As Harman argued back in 1985, “a new network of political militants can be built”.32 However, this rebuilding process must take place in a very different context from that which produced the layer of shop stewards who played such an important role in the 1970s. In some respects it is likely that a new layer of “political militants” would be significantly in advance of their predecessors. For instance, I would expect today’s shop stewards to be more consistent anti-racists, to have a stronger commitment to equalities issues generally, and to have a more critical attitude towards British imperialism. All of these political principles have become more firmly embedded in trade union politics since the 1970s, and today’s shop stewards are likely to reflect those developments. On other issues, the experience is different. The fact that the union bureaucracy has exercised almost complete control over the strike weapon for more than 20 years means that it is very difficult for contemporary shop stewards to build up the same experience as their forebears in taking independent strike action. Once more, understanding how rank and file union organisation can be rebuilt means grasping the interplay of a combination of objective and subjective influences. The issue of who controls the strike weapon is central, but has generated relatively little discussion in contributions to the debate on strikes. It is to this issue that I will turn next.

The dominance of the trade union bureaucracy

I was very surprised to read that some critics believe I downplayed the importance of the union bureaucracy in understanding the present low level of strikes.33 In fact, the whole analysis of “Why Are There So Few Strikes?” is based on the International Socialist view of the trade union bureaucracy. When I argue that by the early 1990s the strike weapon was “securely in the hands of the national union leadership”,34 this is only a problem on the assumption that when strikes are controlled by the union bureaucracy, it is likely that there will be far fewer than when rank and file workers are in control. Consequently, the nature of the union bureaucracy is central to my analysis.

Many readers (myself included) will have had the experience of trying to get union officers to sanction strike action when a dispute clearly calls for it. Paul McGarr eloquently describes the current “deeply frustrating situation”, in which union leaders “too often…have missed the chance to mobilise a fight which could have won significant victories”.35 For Ralph Darlington, “the trade union bureaucracy [is] a crucial factor” in explaining the low level of strikes, and “bears the main responsibility for failing effectively to mobilise workers”.36 On these points, Paul and Ralph will find no disagreement from me. However, restating the unwillingness of the trade union bureaucracy to pursue strong and consistent campaigns of strike action rather begs the question. After all, this is nothing new—International Socialism has long featured a critique of the conservatism of the trade union bureaucracy when it comes to strike action.37 The key question for explaining the current stable low level of strikes is why has the union bureaucracy got away with it for so long this time? In the past, union leaders often faced significant challenges from below. Things are very different now. Therefore, the dominance of the bureaucracy is not the explanation of the current situation; rather, it is what we need to explain.

Once more, the key to understanding this frustrating situation is who controls the strike weapon. So long as the strike weapon remains outside the control of shop stewards, rank and file union members are unlikely to gain experience of striking independently of union officials; much less, in opposition to union officials. It is this that explains the current dominance of the bureaucracy. That is, it is not the strength of the bureaucracy that explains the weakness of the rank and file. Rather, the reverse is true: it is the weakness of the rank and file, deprived of the strike weapon in their struggle with the employers, that explains the dominance of the bureaucracy. Control of the strike weapon by the bureaucracy is the key factor restricting the renewal of workers’ ability to act independently of union officials.

As I argued previously, the union bureaucracy’s control of the strike weapon is also key to understanding other important aspects of contemporary shop steward activity. In particular, lacking access to the strike weapon, stewards have developed alternative methods. Richard Morgan provides some great examples of this process.38 Richard gives a fascinating description of a new generation of shop stewards who use non-strike methods for dealing with management “not due to lack of combativity or lack of confidence, [but] because from their point of view it can deliver”.39 From my point of view, the development of these alternative, non-strike methods by rank and file activists and union reps is a hugely impressive and little understood example of contemporary working class self-activity.40

Richard also criticises the “appalling condescension of revolutionaries”41 towards trade union casework. I would add that it’s not just revolutionaries. There is a huge amount of academic commentary, much of it not at all left wing, which essentially categorises casework as not proper trade unionism.42 This view can be traced back to the 1980s denigration of trade unions and trade unionists by rightward-moving former revolutionaries, Eurocommunists and “New Realist” Labour Party ideologues, all keen to belittle the role of trade unions. It is striking, though, that in all the responses to “Why Are There So Few Strikes?” there is almost no mention of individual casework, and when it is mentioned, there is a tendency to treat it more or less as a necessary evil.43 This is a remarkable attitude, considering that shop stewards spend around 50 percent of their time doing this type of activity.44 Moreover, there is good evidence that shop stewards are able to exert significant leverage against managers using these methods, despite all the problems and limitations involved.45 Given that virtually all shop stewards spend a lot of time on individual representation, the downplaying of casework by many contributors to this debate is remarkable. In my view, this silence amounts effectively to abstention on the political aspects of this important component of contemporary workplace trade unionism.

The effects on workplace union organisation of more than 20 years without access to the strike weapon is also important for understanding why the low level of strikes is reproduced from one generation of stewards to the next. During discussions around “Why Are There So Few Strikes?”, an interesting point was raised by union reps from the PCS, Unite and NUT unions. In these unions, the bureaucracy has recently made real, if limited, moves to allow workplace reps greater freedom to pursue strike action. Yet, in none of these unions has there been a significant increase in the number of strikes. So the question the reps raised is, when the bureaucracy opened the door a little to strikes, why did so few workers push through it to take action? If the current impasse were simply a matter of workers who want to fight being held back by the bureaucracy, we would expect an increase in strikes in these unions, but this has not happened. Of course, these moves by some union bureaucracies remain limited, conditional, and in any case not spread across the unions as a whole. Even so, we would surely expect to see some increase in strikes.

Again, my answer would centre on control of the strike weapon. Unlike the generation described by Harman in 1985, few contemporary shop stewards develop experience of using strikes to deal with workplace issues. Likewise, most union members today have no experience of this type of action. It is therefore not so surprising that, even when union officials open the door a little to strike action initiated by workplace reps, very little results. Why would they think of it? How would they know what to do? Such habits and traditions take time to build up. It took severe recession and a frontal assault on the unions by the combined forces of employers and the state to break previous traditions of dealing with workplace issues by small-scale strike action (which sometimes spilled over into large-scale strikes). What will it take to change the habits of today’s workers, and return the strike weapon to the hands of shop stewards? This, in my view, is one of the important unanswered questions of the present period.

Theory as a guide to practice

For revolutionary Marxists, theory matters because it is a guide to action. It therefore matters a great deal whether our theory is making correct assessments or not. Several responses to “Why Are There So Few Strikes?” argue that I had underestimated the potential for sudden shifts in the class struggle, the unexpected explosions of working class rebellion that have marked the history of capitalism.46 Martin Upchurch describes how: “change can occur without prediction, subject to a build-up of forces which break through as stresses and strains accumulate…as sometimes unseen pressures accumulate beneath the surface”.47 In his talk at Marxism 2015, Martin likened this process to the movement of tectonic plates deep within the Earth’s crust. Using a similar logic, Mark O’Brien describes the stresses and strains on the working class after years of austerity, and draws the conclusion that “something must give…we should ‘expect the unexpected’”.48

Now, it is undoubtedly the case that the history of capitalism has seen many unexpected explosions of workers’ struggle. But there are a number of problems with the way this insight has been used in some contributions to the debate. In the first place, the accumulating “stresses and strains” which happily will contribute to a revival of struggle, appear to be distinctly structural in nature. Consequently, these contributions smuggle in a double standard: structural factors that encourage the return of workers’ struggle (like the ones they mention) are permissible, whereas any that make a return of workers’ struggle more difficult (like the ones I mention) are not. Furthermore, these accounts contain an important hidden assumption; namely, that the unseen (structural) stresses and strains are working in our favour, rather than against us. What is needed, though, is an application of Marxist analysis to the unseen stresses and strains, rather than simply hoping that these will save the day. After all, to follow Martin’s analogy, scientists now know quite a lot about tectonic plates. Scientists know how many there are, where they are, how fast they are moving, in what directions, and whereabouts future earthquakes are likely to occur. Indeed, in terms of the class struggle, we might say that the tectonic plates shifted significantly in the 1980s—and I have discussed some of the underlying stresses and strains involved in that transformation.

Unexpected outbreaks of class struggle certainly do happen, but it is important not to mystify or fetishise them. Such outbreaks are always amenable to Marxist analysis; as, for instance, when Harman showed that the unexpected events of May 1968 in fact had long historical roots.49 The difficulty with recent contributions to this journal is that “expect the unexpected”, or similar, has been repeated on far too many occasions.50 Here, a sudden upsurge is expected. What we really didn’t expect is what we actually got—a long period of very few strikes.

Previously, advocates of the confidence theory of strikes looked for signs that workers’ confidence was returning, which might indicate a coming revival of strikes. Sure enough, there have been many signs that the deep demoralisation of the 1980s’ downturn has receded significantly. Proponents of the confidence theory saw the changing mood within the working class as an indicator that strikes were about to revive, and on many occasions, for more than 20 years, predicted that this was about to happen. Of course, we now know that those predictions were wrong. Nevertheless, it is perfectly sensible for Marxists to use their theories to try and predict what is likely to happen.51 The tricky part comes when the predictions turn out to be wrong. When that happens, one alternative is to change the theory. Instead, a number of contributors to this debate have chosen simply to restate the theory—but without the predictions. Now, we are told, “we may have had an unprecedentedly long period of a low level of strikes in Britain, but at some point that will change”.52 Well, that is undoubtedly true. But to leave the matter there does seem to represent a retreat of theory, in the face of empirical difficulties, rather than an attempt to develop new thinking.

In an important sense, the origins of the International Socialist current lie in efforts to apply classical Marxist analysis to historical circumstances that were contrary to all expectations. In the 1930s, Trotsky and the Trotskyist movement expected that a second world war would end in crisis and revolution, as the first had. When this did not happen, revolutionary Marxists were faced with a choice between clinging to the old orthodoxies or developing new theory to understand new conditions.53 The International Socialist current emerged among those who took the latter course. The task now is to apply classical Marxism to our present unexpected situation, to understand how we got here, and where the most likely exit routes might be found. My argument is that the failure of previous predictions shows there is a fundamental problem with using “lack of confidence” as a catch-all explanation for the low level of strikes, and that other factors, including objective ones, need to be taken into account.54 Perhaps there is another explanation for why the confidence theory has got its predictions so badly wrong for more than 20 years; but none of my critics have told us what it might be.


According to proponents of the confidence theory of strikes, Alex Callinicos need not have worried. Far from being “the most important single task facing revolutionary Marxists today”, explaining the absence of a generalised upturn of workers’ struggle had already been done. Indeed, an explanation has been available for more than 20 years. Strikes declined because workers’ confidence fell in the 1980s due to a series of defeats for the unions. Strikes have stayed low ever since because workers’ confidence has remained low. Therefore, the number of strikes will go up in the future when workers’ confidence rises again. How, we might ask, will we know when workers’ confidence has risen again? Well, presumably, because the number of strikes will be higher.

The analysis I have tried to defend and expand upon here takes a different approach. Once, shifts in workers’ confidence were linked quite closely to changes in the level of industrial struggle and strikes. But that close linkage was the product of particular historical conditions and circumstances. During the 1980s those conditions changed radically and, as a result, confidence can no longer explain the level of strikes in the way it once did. Indeed, one of the remarkable features of the current period is that shifts in workers’ consciousness have no discernable impact on the level of strikes. There can be no doubt that the political mood of workers has shifted significantly since the 1980s. Decades of neoliberalism, imperialist wars, economic crisis and austerity, and explosions of rebellion against these conditions in many parts of the world, have had a marked effect on the consciousness of workers in Britain. All these deep-seated stresses and strains, and more, have fed into waves of anger and politicisation which have swept through the working class. Yet the level of strikes has not gone up. Perhaps some might say that, despite a notable recovery in political consciousness, “confidence” still remains low. But the level of strikes has not gone up at all. According to the analysis put forward in “Why Are There So Few Strikes?”, this is because when control of the strike weapon was removed from rank and file workers, a major obstacle was introduced which made it much more difficult for changes in the mood of workers to be translated into increased numbers of strikes. Furthermore, in the absence of easy access to strikes, trade union activists learned to use other ways of taking on managers—and often managed to make progress using those methods. In other words, the shifts in workers’ mood are real; but some of the channels through which workers’ opposition flows have changed since the 1980s. Understanding the dynamics of this new situation, as well as the opportunities and challenges it presents, remains a pressing task for revolutionary Marxists.

Simon Joyce teaches and researches on industrial relations and the sociology of work.


1 Joyce, 2015.

2 Contributions to the strikes debate in this journal include: Darlington, 2016; Gluckstein, 2015; Lyddon, 2015a; Lyddon, 2015b; McGarr, 2016; Morgan, 2016; O’Brien, 2014; O’Brien, 2015; Upchurch, 2015; Vernell, 2013.

3 For instance, in 2015—ONS, 2016.

4 Callinicos, 2014, p123.

5 For full details of the argument, see Joyce, 2015.

6 Miliband, 1985, p16.

7 Richard Morgan prefers the formulation, “the strike weapon was no longer the sole prerogative of the shop stewards”—Morgan, 2016, p131. While Richard is right that stewards are often still involved in the processes that lead to strikes, it seems to me that a really important shift happened when union officials got the final say over whether a strike happens or not.

8 Darlington, 2016, p55; McGarr, 2016, p102.

9 Upchurch, 2015, p189.

10 O’Brien, 2015, p158.

11 Upchurch, 2015.

12 Upchurch, 2015, pp197-198.

13 Croucher, 1982, p2; Wigham, 1973, p139.

14 Wigham, 1973, p139, pp145-146.

15 Williamson, 2016, p35, summarises the opinions of several leading industrial relations commentators: according to Alan Fox, the 1927 Act was “more irritant than bloodbath”; Henry Pelling called the Act “injudicious” but thought it “ended up by strengthening the unions”; and “Hugh Clegg goes so far as to maintain that the balance of legislative advantage lay with the unions, despite the Act, in the inter-war years”; see also Lyddon and Smith, 2006, pp162-163. Generally, see Lyddon and Smith, 2006; Wedderburn, 1986, p667; Wigham, 1973, pp130-131; Williamson, 2016.

16 Lyddon and Smith, 2006, p163.

17 Parker, 1957. See also Jones, 1986, p96.

18 Indeed, Martin (with Richard Croucher) has elsewhere described the period 1935-45 as “a period favourable to their [unions’] growth”—Croucher and Upchurch, 2012, p209.

19 Upchurch, 2015, p199-200.

20 Upchurch, 2015, p200.

21 Gluckstein, 2015, p204.

22 McGarr, 2016, p120.

23 McGarr, 2016, pp120-121.

24 McGarr, 2016, p107.

25 See, for instance, the excellent work of Beverly Silver showing how waves of labour unrest follow flows of investment—Silver, 2003.

26 McGarr, 2016, p105.

27 Cliff and Barker, 2002, p31 (originally published 1966).

28 Cliff, 2002, p142 (originally published 1969).

29 Harman, 1985, p123.

30 Joyce, 2015, p137.

31 Harman, 1985, p123.

32 Harman, 1985, p123.

33 Darlington, 2016, p55; Upchurch, 2015, p196.

34 Joyce, 2015, p137.

35 McGarr, 2016, p118.

36 Darlington, 2016, p55.

37 As I have argued before, the claim heard in some places, that the trade union bureaucracy has become significantly worse in recent years, is not convincing—Joyce, 2015, p138.

38 Morgan, 2016, p127-130, 139-141. To my immense relief, Richard also appreciated that my analysis is a “refreshingly more positive assessment of workplace organisation than is commonplace on the left”—Morgan, 2016, p125.

39 Morgan, 2016, p133.

40 I have documented and analysed aspects of this process in my recently completed PhD research, which is now available online. I think there is some interesting material in it, for anyone brave enough to tackle the heavily academic style in which these things have to be written—Joyce, 2016.

41 Morgan, 2016, p126.

42 For a summary of this academic literature, see Joyce, 2016, chapter 2.

43 For example, McGarr, 2016, p23; O’Brien, 2015, p157.

44 Charlwood and Angrave, 2014, p30.

45 For a summary of previous research, see Joyce, 2015, pp138-139; for more recent research, see Joyce, 2016, chapters 5, 6 and 7.

46 Some of these are listed by Gluckstein, 2015.

47 Upchurch, 2015, p191.

48 O’Brien, 2015, p161.

49 Harman, 1988, chapters 1 and 2.

50 Joyce, 2015, pp125-127.

51 As, for instance, did Chris Harman, when he wrote at the end of the 1984-85 miners’ strike: “A defeat—or rather a series of defeats—of very great significance has happened. The problem for socialists is to evaluate the scale of the defeat, what is likely to happen now and how we should respond”—Harman, 1985, p65, added emphasis.

52 McGarr, 2016, p121.

53 For a great overview of this process, see Callinicos, 1990.

54 Contrary to Martin Upchurch’s comment, however, I do not believe the problem is that the Socialist Workers Party has been “over-optimistic”. It’s not a question of optimism or pessimism; it’s just a matter of getting the analysis right. See Upchurch, 2015, p189.


Callinicos, Alex, 1990, Trotskyism (University of Minnesota Press).

Callinicos, Alex, 2014, “Thunder on the Left”, International Socialism 143 (summer), http://isj.org.uk/thunder-on-the-left/

Charlwood, Andy and David Angrave, 2014, “Worker Representation in Great Britain 2004-2011: an Analysis Based on the Workplace Employment Relations Study” (Acas Research Paper 03/14), www.acas.org.uk/media/pdf/e/m/0314-Worker-representation-in-Great_Britain-2004-2011.pdf

Cliff, Tony, 2002 [1969], “On Perspectives”, in Tony Cliff, In the Thick of Workers’ Struggle: Selected Writings, volume 2 (Bookmarks).

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