The working class, trade unions and the left: the contours of resistance

Issue: 140

Sean Vernell


Since the onset of the economic crisis that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, governments across the world have attempted to implement policies that try to stabilise capitalism. In Britain these attacks have focused on the welfare state, cutting the cost of the social wage, scrapping and cutting benefits, wage freezes, slashing pensions, privatising the NHS and raising student fees.

These attacks are not simply a response to the financial meltdown. “You never let a serious crisis go to waste,” said Barack Obama’s chief of staff, and that is precisely what employers and governments have attempted to do. These attacks are about unfinished business. The breakup of the post Second World War consensus started by the Wilson/Callaghan governments, and continued with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, ushered in a 30-year period of privatisation and “reform” of the welfare state. Successive Tory and Labour governments have not deviated from this political and economic path. An indication of the extent to which governments have vigorously attempted to reverse the social gains made throughout the post-war period can be illustrated by looking at education legislation. From 1945 to 1979 there were only three major education acts, whereas between 1979 and the present day there have been 36. Each of these rooted the market deeper into the education system and continued the break-up of the “state monopoly of education” as David Cameron once described it.1

Government and employers see this crisis as an opportunity to restore the profitability of British capitalism. As with every crisis, the economic strategies pursued by employers and their governments are reinforced by a plethora of ideological arguments as well as a strengthening of the state to ensure changes are implemented and terrorise those who wish to resist them. From the scapegoating of immigrants and those with disabilities to the continuous bombardment of crude propaganda about the benefits of privatisation these measures are all part of the ideological offensive. When some dare to resist, the crackdown has been swift and brutal. The police attacks on the student demonstrations of 2010 and the 300 arrests in the aftermath are an example of this, as are the 5,000 arrests and the 1,300 imprisonments that followed the riots that swept across working class districts in the summer of 2011.

In every new period of struggle as capitalism enters into a new phase of crisis debates arise between those who wish to resist about how best to do so. In Britain, as well as across Europe, the central question that has arisen is about agency, which social class or group has the power not only to stop the attacks but to reverse them and replace them with something better. The question that arises for the left is this: with such historically high levels of attacks on the working class why has there not been more resistance to them? Is it because capitalism has restructured and recomposed itself over 30 years resulting in a loss of power for the working class? Has the increase of workers on part-time, hourly paid or zero-hour contracts broken the power the working class once had?

This article attempts to provide an answer to the question outlined above by locating the working class in the workplace as the central agent of change. It will look at the impact of precarious employment and put forward a strategy to secure full-time secure contracts for all. We will analyse the significance of the pensions strikes and address the debates surrounding “the street versus the workplace”. We conclude by outlining a strategy for the left within the unions to be able to build networks that matches the wider political radicalisation within society.

The shape of the working class today

There is a prominent argument on the left today that the structure of the working class has changed over the last 30 years, producing a new section of workers sometimes described as the “precariat”. As a consequence of this, it is argued that traditional trade union organisation is no longer effective for these groups of workers. Some argue that such organisation plays the role of protecting full-time permanent workers at the expense of-and in opposition to-precarious workers.

The issue of zero-hour contracts has highlighted the dreadful conditions that millions of workers in Britain have to endure. These contracts leave the worker in a vulnerable position-not knowing from week to week if they will be able to pay their rent or put food on the table and leaving them as easy prey for the bullying manager. The most recent poll conducted by the Unite union shows that as many as 5.5 million workers could be on these types of contracts.2 For many on the left the growth in precarious working has led them to believe that these and other structural changes to the working class offer an explanation for the present low level of struggle and that this change has fundamentally altered the ability of the working class to play the role it once did. Jane Hardy and Joseph Choonara deal with these arguments in greater detail elsewhere in this journal. however, it is worth reinforcing a few points.

Zero-hour contracts are not just a matter for workers in call centres, McDonald’s and Sports Direct. They are also used in the public sector, in areas like health and education, and have been for some time. A recent survey by UCU found that:

Universities and colleges are twice as likely to use zero-hour contracts as other workplaces… Sixty-one percent of further education colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have teaching staff on zero-hour contracts and 53 percent of UK universities, that responded to the union’s Freedom of Information request, use them.3

It is important the left does not draw pessimistic conclusions about the ability of the organised working class to resist as a result of the way that capitalism recomposes the working class. History has shown on numerous occasions that the unorganised and precarious sections of the working class can very quickly become a part of the most organised and militant sections. The recent strikes in the US among fast food workers show the possibilities to resist in contemporary circumstances.

We also shouldn’t write off the role of those workers in full-time employment in resisting precarious employment contracts. Workers on zero-hour contracts are in a relatively weak position to take on their employers precisely because of their precarity. But most will be working alongside workers on full-time contracts. It is these workers, and the unity between the two, that hold the key to securing better conditions and an end to zero-hour contracts. Full-time workers, by the nature of their more secure contracts, are in a much stronger position to fight against zero-hour contracts. Workers who work alongside those who do the same work but earn £10,000 per year less than they do feel “unclean”. The sense of injustice and desire for integrity can mean full-time workers are very receptive to challenging employers over the use of zero-hour contracts.

The strike at Hovis by members of the bakers’ union (BFAWU) in Wigan highlights this potential. Two hundred full-time workers at Hovis have taken ten days of strike action against zero-hour contracts and the use of agency staff. The Premier Foods employer caved in to the union’s demands about zero-hour contracts but workers continued their strike action because the firm did not rule out the use of zero hours by third party agency firms. Their demand was to end the use of zero-hour contracts by any firm associated with the bakery and to end the use of agency staff by putting the ten agency workers employed at Hovis in Wigan onto full-time permanent contracts. They succeeded in getting an agreement that zero-hour contracts would only be used for agency staff for a short period of time, three weeks, after which they would be put onto full-time contracts.

This example of full-time workers fighting for better terms and conditions of workers on precarious contracts shows the potential. If leaders of unions in sectors of the economy where workers are on zero-hour contracts put forward a fighting strategy to rid that sector of such contracts it would be received with great enthusiasm by full-time workers as well as those on zero-hour contracts. In fact the issue could and should become a cause célèbre throughout the trade union movement.

However, some on the left do not recognise this potential and instead argue that public sector workers are a part of the problem and are a barrier to the progress of the movement. They locate these workers as a part of the elite within society. This view then leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of the significance of the action and struggle that these groups of workers take. Guy Standing describes public sector workers such as teachers, lecturers, civil servants and local government workers as the “salariat” who are:

Still in stable full-time employment, some hoping to move into the elite, the majority just enjoying the trappings of their kind, with their pensions, paid holidays and enterprise benefits, often subsidised by the state. The salariat is concentrated in large corporations, government agencies and public administration, including the civil service.4

This is quite an extraordinary claim. First, Standing misunderstands what motivates those who work in the public sector-it is certainly not greed and ambition to move into the “elite”-the super rich class. Second, he assumes that working for the public sector is one where workers enjoy greater pay, better conditions and secure employment. Clearly this is not the case. A large number of public sector workers are very poorly paid; often these workers are women, often working as cleaners, canteen staff and benefit agency workers. As we saw earlier from the evidence gathered by UCU, these workers are as likely as private sector workers to be on zero-hour contracts. In those areas where some public sector workers such as teachers have better salaries they surely should not be rebuked for this. The task of activists is to work out ways that these workers can be a part of pulling up all workers to their levels of pay and secure employment. But Standing has created a new aristocracy of labour theory, implying that the poor are exploited by public sector workers, not by capital.

Standing also seems to be unaware of the process of proletarianisation of significant sections of the workforce that has taken place over the past 40 years. Such a process has been well documented by Marxists.5 Teachers, lecturers and civil servants might once have enjoyed greater control over their work but that certainly isn’t the case today. This process also explains why these workers played such an important role in the Arab Spring uprisings. They were central in helping to get rid of not only President Hosni Mubarak but also the “workplace Mubaraks” by setting up committees in the colleges, schools and in the civil service to drive them out of the workplace immediately after the fall of Mubarak himself.

The level of bullying and stress-related illness among public sector workers has risen dramatically since the introduction of the market. In further education the “new managerialism” that has been imposed since the early 1990s and has spread to universities and schools has made working in these sectors unbearable for many. The target based culture has not only created levels of insecurity through the institutionalisation of hourly paid contracts, which are higher than in most other sectors. Only the catering industry has more casualised workers. Of equal, if not greater, concern for many is the straitjacket that has been imposed on what can be taught by the market-oriented regime in education. The autonomy that these workers once had to be creative has long gone.

Failure to grasp this makes it very difficult to understand why teachers, lecturers and civil servants have participated in more industrial action than most others. Of course, the attacks on pensions and pay have been a central motivator for those workers in taking action. However, underpinning this resistance is the way that the process of marketisation of these sectors has denied the ability of these workers to deliver a decent public service. With the introduction of the market these workers find that they can no longer meet the needs of the people they are meant to serve; teachers can’t teach, nurses can’t heal and social workers can no longer care. Their “professionalism” is what often held them back from taking part in industrial action in the past out of fear of hurting those they care for or teach. Today, however, it is precisely the introduction of market competition in the public sector which has made union density in these sectors some of the highest in Britain and made it one of the most combative. They do so now not out of narrow sectional interests to protect their pay and conditions (although of course this is perfectly justifiable) but because it is seen as the only way to protect the services these workers were trained to deliver and have a passion to defend. For those in work, be it for the private or public sectors, the picture is the same; continuous erosion of the standards of living conditions and the deepening of the experience of alienation within the work process itself.

When do workers fight back?

Neil Davidson, in his article “The Neoliberal Era in Britain” in the last issue of International Socialism, offers, among many other ideas, an explanation as to why the working class has not responded with higher levels of struggle to these attacks. He argues that it is partly due to the fact that workers have mortgages and debt. He states:

As the Scottish novelist Alan Bissett notes of his friends’ current situation: “They can’t go on strike for longer than a day, because, well, who’s going to pay the mortgage?” Any prolonged industrial action by workers threatened their ability to meet debt repayments and consequently raised the prospect of repossession, bankruptcy and homelessness, and this is, of course, a function of debt more generally.6

He also points to the role of debt in discouraging struggle: “The need for higher levels of necessary expenditure by the working class therefore encouraged-indeed, one might say, necessitated-a massive expansion in borrowing. At the same time debt also provided an alternative to struggle, in conditions where that was difficult or impossible”.7

Although it is true that fear of impoverishment can play a role in deterring the working class from taking action, it should not be seen as the key factor. Trade union leaders are keen on the “affordability” argument when it comes to dealing with calls from activists to escalate strike action. If strike action was simply determined by whether a worker could afford to strike or not then there would never be strikes. Those who could afford to do so would not need to and those who couldn’t wouldn’t, out of fear of losing everything. Of course, the “affordability” argument can find an echo among the rank and file. During the pensions dispute workers started to raise these concerns after their fourth or fifth day of strike action that had been drawn out over a period of one year. When they did so it was usually because they could not see how a series of one-day strikes was going to save their pensions and were frustrated that these days of action were not called in one extended period.

Easy access to loans can play a role in diverting workers away from struggle instead of resorting to the “do it yourself reformism” of large-scale strikes in the 1950s and 1960s to gain better pay. However, it is important to remember that in the year-long miners’ strike of 1984-5 the vast majority of miners had mortgages and other debts. It is the subjective factor of leadership rather than the objective one of debt that is decisive when it comes to understanding why workers aren’t involved in taking more action today.

Leon Trotsky provides us with a more general approach to understanding when workers take action. As Trotsky argues, “neither impoverishment nor prosperity as such can lead to revolution. But the alternation of prosperity and impoverishment, the crises, the uncertainty, the absence of stability-these are the motor factors of revolution”.8

A further common sense belief amongst sections of the left is the idea that workers are pacified by consumerism. This materialism turns them into apathetic beings bought off by the latest trinkets on offer. This view is not only patronising towards the working class but also reveals a very impressionistic and pessimistic view of workers’ consciousness. To be able to assess the possibility of resistance in Western affluent societies the issue of workers’ expectations within society is one of the central factors to understand and take into account. The level of expectations that workers have, which derive from the experience of living in a society that could once afford public healthcare, education and housing drives workers’ willingness to resist. Workers don’t simply measure their living conditions against those of workers living in developing nations and think that because they are not as poor as them they should accept their emmiseration. It is the desire to protect the social wage that capitalism could once provide to the mass of the population but now refuses to deliver that could ignite struggle. Governments of every hue may wish to put an end to the post Second World War consensus by further privatisation and cuts but this doesn’t banish memories of what used to exist from the minds of the people who have experienced it.

The desire and need to protect the social wage are further underpinned by the sense of injustice and rage produced by the enormous growth in the gap between the very rich and poor in Britain. As Davidson points out, “In Britain, even after ten years of Thatcherism, the average CEO of one of the FTSE top one hundred companies in 1988 earned “only” 17 times the wage of an average worker; by 2008 it had risen to 75.5 times”.9 This fact has not gone unnoticed by millions of workers. They find that the argument put by employers and governments that “we are all in this together” not only rings hollow but is an insult to their intelligence.

Resistance is not always expressed through the traditional paths of union organised strikes and demonstrations. The riots in August 2011 gave us a glimpse of what an explosive cocktail of rage and thwarted expectations can look like. It is the expectations that workers have about what the system should-and once could-deliver combined with rage growing out of the chronic inequality and injustice that the left needs to understand when attempting to work out strategies for the movement.

The street and the workplace: going beyond common sense

Too often the debate about the street versus the workplace is a sterile one with a false polarisation between the two. Socialists welcome all and any forms of protest against any aspect of injustice or poverty. The first protests in Britain against the Tory coalition’s austerity measures were started by the student demonstration in November 2010 against the raising of student fees and the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance. Less than a year later these street protests gave confidence to the trade union movement to take strike action in defence of public sector workers’ pensions. Over the past decade street protest has been the predominant form of action taken by people across the globe. Whether against imperialism or neoliberalism people have tended to resort to mass mobilisations on the streets as opposed to mass strikes. However, it is important to recognise that the mass strike is becoming a more popular form of protest. In Western Europe there were 19 such strikes from 1980 to 1989 but 39 in the 1990s and 40 in the period from 2000 to 2008.10

Strikes and street protests are sometimes simplistically counterposed. However, both are going to be vital in defeating the government’s offensive. Unite and Unison could have brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets in defence of the National Health Service. They eventually did after pressure from activists. However, if this had been called earlier the movement against austerity would be in a much better position to take on the government’s assault on the NHS and wider attacks on the welfare state. The same thing applies over benefit cuts. Campaigns over the bedroom tax and cuts in disability allowance have seen significant action led by a range of different groups and organisations which have built important demonstrations, direct action events and local meetings in opposition to these cuts. It is quite incredible that, aside from raising awareness, the TUC has done very little in opposition to these savage attacks. It has not called one single protest or lobby of parliament over these attacks on some of the most vulnerable in our society.

UK Uncut’s campaigns identifying tax-dodging multinational companies such as Vodafone and Starbucks have played an important part in exposing the corruption of big business and the false arguments made about austerity that there is not enough money for public services. The Occupy movement, although relatively small in number, also played an important role in expressing the feeling of rage people have about the injustice of the system with their slogan “We are the 99 percent”. Street protests of all kinds therefore must play a significant part in any real mass movement against austerity-not only because they can, given the right conditions, give confidence to workers to take strike action but also because they play a vital role in winning the battle of ideas within the working class against arguments justifying austerity.

The question for the left should not be the street or the workplace but how we can inspire people to campaign and get involved with all types of campaigns to end austerity and for a different world. At the same time we must ensure that all forms of protests build the confidence of working people at the point of production so that they can begin to recognise the power they have as producers. By taking strike action, workers’ collective power becomes visible to workers themselves. In these circumstances it is possible to envisage a different world where their labour power is not used as a commodity to produce socially unnecessary and destructive objects but instead to liberate the whole of humanity.

Strikes today

Until recently there was greater unanimity on the left, and especially the revolutionary left, on the centrality of strikes to workers’ resistance. However, this is something that is not necessarily a given among some radical theorists. Mark Fisher, in his influential pamphlet Capitalist Realism, argues: “Strikes can work, but the one-day strike in particular strikes me as counter-productive. They alienate the public and impoverish the strikers, but cause the management very limited inconvenience (which in any case is often more than mitigated by the saving on wages)”.11

There are a number of problems with this argument. Let’s put aside for a moment the comment that strikes “alienate the public”; we will look at this issue when assessing the public sector pensions strikes. Instead let’s look at the claim that Fisher makes that strikes are also counterproductive because they cause limited problems for management and save on the wage bill. This is a familiar argument put by public sector managers before every strike with the aim of discouraging workers from taking action by claiming that the strike is puerile and a waste of time. Although he starts by saying that “strikes can work”, Fisher’s argument lacks coherence. If it is the case that one-day strikes are simply a waste of time because they save on the wage bill, then the logic of this argument is that employers would want to see extended action because this would save much larger sums of money. This is clearly not the case. Fisher’s position fails to grasp the way in which strike action allows workplace organisation to grow, challenges management’s right to manage, and provides the basis to argue for an escalation of action if management or government refuse to listen to workers’ demands.

This mechanical and essentially pessimistic conclusion about public sector strikes stems from a view that these workers don’t have any real economic power in the way that more traditional industrial workers have. Neil Davidson also treads dangerously close to this view when he argues:

Resistance by lecturers, civil servants and council workers is obviously important, particularly in political and ideological terms, but with some exceptions-refuse workers, custom and excise officials-it cannot replicate the economic impact of miners, dockers and electricians. (It would be unwise to place too much hope on a strategy which assumes that the nation will be brought to a standstill by working parents having to stay at home during any future national action by the teachers’ unions.)12

Davidson’s argument completely underplays the impact of public sector strikes. He assumes that parents and their sons and daughters were passive on teachers’ strike days. He also significantly underplays the political power that these workers have and the potential to bring down governments. With such a weak and divided government we wouldn’t fancy their chances of coming out on top if nurses or teachers took strike action for a week, let alone longer. As for their economic impact, while it is obviously true that public sector workers can’t grind the wheels of industry to a halt, it is not true to say that they have no impact on employers’ profit margins. As Joseph Choonara points out:

They are indirectly indispensable for capitalists, both in the long term but also in the day to day functioning of the system. For instance, strikes by teachers leading to school closures, in particular, entail considerable disruption to the economy. The British government was certainly keen to claim that the 30 November 2011 one-day strike by 2.5 million public sector workers would cost the economy £500 million-£200 per worker per day!13

In addition one of the most important impacts of the public sector strikes is their ability to encourage other groups of workers to take action. It is to this that we now turn.

The public sector pensions strikes-their significance

The strike by 2.5 million public sector workers on 11 November 2011, despite not breaking through, showed the possibilities and shape of the struggle to come. It was the highpoint of organised labour’s response to the government’s austerity agenda so far. From the top of the mountain, as the adage goes, one can see further. The contours of the struggle come into view as well as the way the tributaries of resistance connect together.

Within the left there are several different strands of opinion in relation to the significance or otherwise of the pensions dispute. The different positions usually originate from preconceived perspectives about the nature of the struggle against austerity. Some took an essentially abstentionist position in relation to the strikes. This only changed on the day of the strikes themselves, when many of the same activists joined picket lines and demonstrations, in a belated recognition of the scale of the events. The abstentionist position taken by some was a result of not seeing the strikes as fitting into a vision of the way struggle against austerity would unfold. This position located the strikes as largely economistic and sectional rather than as an integral part of the struggle against austerity. On this analysis the pensions strikes were a diversion from the student and social movements brought about by spontaneous revolts of anger. For others, their abstentionism derived from a workerist approach which, as discussed earlier, sees public sector workers (civil servants, teachers and lecturers in particular) as no real threat to the government due to a lack of industrial power. Alternatively others built the strike but then collapsed into despair when the trade union leaders signed a deal. For these activists the strike failed, they argue, because it had been a bureaucratic mass strike, in which the left had held too many positions within the bureaucracy. What had been needed instead, they argue, were much sharper criticism of the trade union leaders and a strategy of “building from below”, which is sometimes counterposed to the left taking positions within the union bureaucracy.

In contrast to this we would argue that the pensions strikes reflected all the different aspects of the level and shape of resistance today: the breadth, anger and politicisation as well as a lack of confidence and organisation of workers to see the job through when their leaders lost their nerve. It showed not only the potential power of the organised working class but how economic concerns-like pensions and pay-can be linked to the wider political questions the resistance against austerity raises.

One of the mistaken views held on the left is that public sector strikes are unpopular with the public. The leaders of the trade unions (which can find an echo among some union activists) are usually among the first to argue for caution about strikes because of fear of losing the general public’s support. What the pensions strikes showed was that despite a serious attempt by the government to discredit the strikes by seeking to divide the working class through denouncing public sector workers as being in receipt of “gold plated pensions” and trying to drum up a “mum’s army” to keep the schools open, they significantly lost the battle for hearts and minds. Opinion polls show the degree of support the strikes had: “A poll by ComRes for the BBC reported 61 percent thinking the strikes were justified, with that number rising to 67 percent among women and 79 percent among 18 to 24 year olds”.14

The strikes drew in much wider support from other workers and mobilised a mood for action on issues much wider than the immediate issue of pensions. Strikers were joined on their picket lines by pensioners, students and local community activists as well as other trade unionists. The demonstrations that took place across the country had some of the largest mobilisations seen for many years, in some cases the largest ever. Parents did not simply stay at home-they joined the demonstrations. The strike became a beacon for everyone who hated what was happening to them and their communities. Bridges were also built between the private and public sectors. In London electricians engaged in the fight against the BESNA pay agreement joined Occupy St Paul’s to march to join striking civil service workers’ picket lines at London Bridge.

Sometimes the fantastic response received by striking public sector workers was in spite of the way that some unions tried to promote the strike. Union leaders, rather than attempting to use the action to draw in wider support by linking the pensions issues to the defence of public services, kept to a narrow economic script. They did so out of fear of sounding too political and falling foul of the trade union laws and some did so because they feared losing support from their membership if the strike was not a “trade dispute”. Thankfully the instincts of the class and the way that local activists built the strike ensured that the narrow sectionalist approach was not replicated. It had been a conscious aim by activists in some unions, in contrast to the approach of some union leaders, to ensure that the pensions strikes were not reduced to a narrow economism. Instead they attempted to raise the economic struggles of the working class to the level of the politicisation that existed more generally.

Rather than these strikes being a diversion from building a wider movement against austerity they deepened it and took it to a new level. The strikes weren’t simply a break from the past. They had all the positive hallmarks of the movements that had preceded them. Many of those who organised the strikes had been part of the anti-war movement. Some had been school students when the Iraq war broke out and others were in their 20s. The impact of the Occupy movement and its slogans expressed the bitterness and hatred workers felt towards the bankers and the rich. They helped to give the strike a wider political frame in which workers located their struggle in defence of pensions. It is in this sense that the public sector strikes were shaped and had organically imbued the spirit of those past protests.

Were the pensions strikes bureaucratic mass strikes?

On 19 December 2011 the trade union leaders met to try and choke off the strike. The leaderships, in particular of Unison and the GMB, fearful of not being able to get the genie of the working class back into the bottle again, agreed to suspend any further strikes and sign up to the “Heads of Agreement”. This was not the end of the story. It took another six months before the rest of the leaderships of the unions walked away from the dispute. Further strikes were called in London in March 2012 involving the NUT (after their leadership pulled back from national action) and UCU and in May (UCU, PCS and Unite workers in health and the Ministry of Defence). These strikes were all part of the attempt by activists to keep the dispute going. However, the final nail in the coffin of the pensions dispute came when the left leadership of the NUT ignored a conference decision to take strike action in June and decided to move on by signing an agreement with the NASUWT for a joint campaign over a range of issues. It is important to stress that the dispute didn’t just simply finish on 19 December. There was a wrestling match between the rank and file and the bureaucracy.

The battle in the NUT to get action put back on led to two years of heated debates at the union’s national conferences with big minorities voting against the leadership. It was these battles that paved the way for the present wave of strikes involving the NUT and NASUWT in defence of national pay, pensions and workload. It is also worth noting that the publicity for these strikes was framed around the defence of education in contrast to publicity for the pensions strikes. This once again shows the impact activists have had in shaping this latest round of struggle. The strikes called within this period and the motions passed overwhelmingly at the smaller unions’ conferences (NUT, PCS and UCU) calling for more action were concrete expressions of the rank and file trying to assert control over the direction of the dispute. The level of rank and file organisation was not great enough to be able to impose its will on the dispute. But it would be mistaken to argue because of this that the strikes were simply bureaucratic mass strikes.

The fact that there weren’t strong rank and file networks capable of offering a lead at a national level once the officials pulled back shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise. The strike movement in 2011 developed against the backdrop of a low level of strike action in Britain. The level of industrial action and growing confidence that brought together unofficial networks capable of acting independently of the officials in the 1960s and 1970s has been absent for a long time.

During 2011 the first signs of these kinds of networks within and between unions did start to emerge around mobilising for demonstrations and picket lines on J30 and N30 but the process was cut short as the action was called off. The question of how we recreate such networks is one of the biggest posed by the pensions campaign. But a rank and file organisation can’t simply be sucked out of the thumb. It can only develop on the back of struggle.

No rank and file organisations exist in Britain at the moment. However, to move from understanding this to then suggesting that the strikes were instigated by the central trade union leaderships and forced upon a passive rank and file is a mistake. According to the TUC around half a million people took part in pickets and protests on the day.15 At the core of this there were, we estimate, around 20,000 local reps and activists who organised pickets and demonstrations and spoke at local rallies. Some of these were controlled by the local full-time officials. In some areas local activists exerted more independent control over the demonstrations. In these cases this did not result in an escalation of action. Nevertheless it was not simply a passive strike controlled from above. Those who argue this have a very mechanical view of the nature of the strikes; unless workers are taking unofficial strike action then it must be its opposite-a bureaucratic mass strike. The relationship between unofficial strikes and official ones is important. As Tony Cliff points out in an article about the strikes in the early 1970s, both are necessary:

The movement, unofficial in origin, could not have developed on the scale it did without the support of sections of the trade union leadership. This support changed the atmosphere of the campaign and made possible the raising of slogans like “TUC must call a General Strike” and “Kick out the Tories”. The leftward shift of sections of the official movement-however limited it was-was the factor that made the slogans conceivable, and this shift reflected real pressure from significant numbers of militants within the movement.

These events have important political lessons. The ultra-left illusions that say that the official trade union movement is dead, that it cannot mobilise its membership and that the sole field of trade union activity for revolutionary socialists are unofficial rank and file committees, have been yet again exposed as dangerous nonsense. The danger now is that the opposite illusion may gain ground.16

Although we have not reached anywhere near the level of struggle of the 1970s the political point being made here is relevant to those who have taken as their central lesson from the pensions dispute that we simply need more unofficial action and less emphasis on the trade union bureaucracy.

What usually follows from those who put this argument is that part of the problem is that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)-and presumably the left in general-has too many members on national executive committees. Unfortunately the SWP has very few members on national executives. However, it is instructive to look at the role such members have played in a union where, unusually, the SWP and the left were in a majority on the executive at the time of the strikes-UCU. It will allow us to see why simply calling the pensions strikes bureaucratic ones is too abstract and reveals a deeper misunderstanding of the character of the struggle today. Although this next section looks in detail at how the strike developed within UCU the experience is shared by those operating in other unions too.

The case of UCU

The UCU union organises further, adult, prison and higher education lecturers. It is the twelfth largest union in the UK with 120,000 members, but considerably smaller than the mega unions such as Unite and Unison. So how did it come to play such an important part in the pensions strikes?

The starting point is the importance working class people place on education. The government cuts in EMA and the raising of university fees made clear their intent to turn the clock back to the days when only the sons and daughters of the rich could get a decent education. The pride and memory of the importance of “being the first in the family to go to university” was under attack. The defence of free education for all therefore became a central issue for the whole of the working class and not simply those students or lecturers who work in the sector.

Second is what has happened to universities and colleges over the past ten years. The marketisation of these institutions has created deep resentment and dissatisfaction among those who work in them. In further education this process has gone even further. The incorporation of the sector (the severing of the link from local government control) 20 years ago led to the breakup of national bargaining. This has meant that local college branches have had to bargain on a college by college basis over contracts, conditions of service and pay. National action is only possible through organising aggregated ballots where individual college ballots are coordinated together. This has meant that in this sector in particular (it also applies but to a lesser degree to the universities) union organisation has developed at a local level. Someone working in further or adult education for the last ten years or so will probably have been on strike at least ten times, in some cases more. These strikes were made up of local, regional and national strikes over redundancies, pay, contracts and victimisations. Most of the time the strikes have managed to push the employer back to a greater or lesser extent. Rarely has it been the case that the local employers have successfully walked all over the union. It is through this that networks have been built with a level of organisation that can’t act independently but has been successful in forcing trade union leaders to move into action.

This is a process we believe is taking place in many public sector and private sector workplaces. This does not mean that there will have to be ten or 20 years of sectional strength built up through site by site battles. But what it does mean is that the rebuilding of rank and file strength is taking place now. It is the combination of the impact of unrealised expectations and the rage produced by the injustice of the system that will create spontaneous outbursts of struggle. At the core of this spontaneity will lie conscious organisation.

But the answer to the question as to why UCU played a significant role in the pensions dispute also requires an understanding of the important role played by the left in the union. At the time of the pensions dispute the left had a majority on the national executive. These were rank and file activists elected to represent regions (there were also seats for national and equality positions). When elected they remained lay members. Most would not have facility time for their national duties and where they did it was usually only a couple of hours. On the whole they were known militants with a base within their branches and regions.

The first point to make is that without this numerical presence on the NEC there would not have been a ballot in the first place let alone coordinated strikes. The right (led by the Communist Party and in conjunction with the full-time machine) attempted to oppose and undermine every call for strike action. The most significant role the left played was in how it campaigned over the issue of pensions. It ensured that the pensions dispute was seen as a political campaign by framing it as part of the wider fight against austerity. The left had, since its formation, built up a network of activists through campaigning on a range of issues.17 It used the executive positions to take initiatives to help build campaigning networks. Education conferences and manifestos were launched putting an alternative to the market driven agendas of both the Labour and coalition governments. In addition to this wider campaigns and solidarity with strikes in the sector and beyond were central to the development of energised activist networks.

One of the most successful initiatives, both in terms of size and outcome, was in defence of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages). The campaign mobilised thousands of students and lecturers on a number of occasions. On the first strike day over pensions 500 ESOL students and their lecturers lobbied parliament and then joined the pensions strike demonstration. Although the networks that were built through such campaigns were not strong enough to take unofficial action they were significant enough to ensure that when the left had won a vote on the NEC to take national action it was implemented. The first strike over pensions was taken by UCU on 24 March 2011. John McDonnell, speaking at UCU conference, spoke of the importance of that strike and the role of UCU by describing how it “broke the logjam” and by so doing made it clear to others that national strike action over this issue was possible. The strike had its own significance for UCU too. It was the first ever nationally coordinated strike between universities and colleges. However, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the strike by the right (they voted against taking action) and the union bureaucracy. They opposed the strike call on the executive. Very little campaign material was produced and very little campaigning took place. It took the unofficial networks that had been built to implement the official call. This was how the pensions strike campaign began.

Simply describing the pensions strikes as bureaucratic mass strikes really does not get to grips with the interplay between the official networks and the unofficial ones and the active role of the rank and file in the strikes. It is true that these networks were not strong enough to wrest control of the dispute from the trade union bureaucracy but it does show that the rank and file was not passive. The pensions strikes momentarily, albeit for too brief a moment, not only gave us a glimpse of the potential of the future struggle but also allowed us to peer into what was actually taking place across the organised working class. Far from being passive, workers spoke at each other’s union branches, organised picket lines and made placards. They argued with others to join demonstrations, many for the first time. The strikes were a part of what Rosa Luxemburg called the “spiritual development” of the working class. Therefore to simply describe the strikes as bureaucratic not only dismisses this, but denies the subjective factor of leadership in ensuring that the strikes got off the ground and gives far too much credit to the trade union bureaucracy.

Looking for short cuts

The actual amount of days lost due to strike activity is low. In 2012 there were just 248,800 working days “lost” to strike action.18 The figure looks feeble compared to the 1.3 million days officially lost in 2011 during the pensions action. However, these figures don’t paint the whole picture about what is actually taking place within workplaces across Britain. These figures don’t reveal the day to day organised resistance that takes place in thousands of offices and factories. Neither do they tell us anything about the character of the strikes that do take place-whether they are defensive or offensive, how much control rank and file activists have over their direction, what attitude other workers have towards those who do take action, their political nature and crucially why there are not more workers taking strike action.

There is an understandable frustration among those activists engaged in leading struggle with the inertia of the trade union leaders. The trade union bureaucracy acts as a social layer within the movement that vacillates between the employers and the working class. Understanding this is essential to grasp their conservatism. They are neither workers nor employers and therefore seek to resolve conflicts within the boundaries of capitalism. They are divorced from the everyday experience of what workers face on the shop floor and are extremely pessimistic about the willingness of workers to fight. Consciousness within the working class is not even. A minority of workers are always willing to resist governments’ and employers’ attacks due to their political traditions and their experience of fighting these attacks. But trade union leaders relate to the more passive sections of the class. They view their leadership role as representing all members of the union and use the passivity of the majority of the working class to discipline those who want to resist, rather than attempting to provide leadership to those who do wish to fight and looking for ways to use their energy and creativity to enthuse those sections of the class who are more hesitant.

But we need to guard against a deep seated pessimism and a belief that it’s simply not possible to break through the hold of the official leadership of the unions. We’ve seen recent cases of workers moving from one union to another in health, local government and on the London buses to try to get around the hold of conservative officials. In the case of Sussex University activists set up a “pop-up union” to get round Unison’s inaction at the college over cuts. But the problem of the trade union bureaucracy can’t simply be wished away or dealt with just by a more militant approach from activists. Vacating the field of battle and leaving the rank and file without any leadership to take on the conservative sections of the trade union leadership will not help to raise the level of struggle. There is no substitute for building workplace organisation and using that base to influence the direction of the union or to take action independently of the union leadership. To counterpose the two is to abandon the fight for leadership at all levels within the unions at a time when workers are looking for a coherent alternative strategy to fight austerity.

Within most unions space has opened up for building networks of activists among workers who are looking for more dynamic and fighting unions which could, given the right conditions, develop into rank and file organisations. The closest we’ve come in recent years is the organisation that came together among electricians around the BESNA dispute.19 Most trade union activists’ experiences of left organisation inside the trade unions are broad left organisations. These groupings see their main focus as electing left officials. And in unions like the PCS, NUT, Unite, FBU and RMT the election of left officials has been important. It has opened up space for progressive politics and made it easier for activists to operate. However, although it is difficult to see how broad left organisations can be turned into rank and file organisations, they can be pushed in that direction through setting up and taking initiatives that raise the level of combativity of the rank and file.

The UCU Left grouping played a vital role in putting the union at the fore of the pensions fight in 2011-12. On several occasions the grouping helped to deliver agreed action despite the union’s leadership. However, the period following November 2011 led to some fraying around the edges of the broad lefts in the face of a growing frustration from activists. In the NUT the rows over national action led to the setting up of LANAC (Local Associations National Action Campaign), which at its high point involved activists from both of the union’s broad left groupings. In Unite the 80,000 votes for Jerry Hicks in the general secretary election reflected a frustration at the gap between what was being said by Len McCluskey and what was being delivered on the ground.

Unite the Resistance (UtR) is another example of the possibility of building new networks not just within unions but across them. Born out of the upswing of struggle in the run up to 30 November 2011,
UtR is an alliance that brings trade union leaders who are prepared to fight together with rank and file activists. At the time of writing it was due to hold a conference expected to attract hundreds of delegates from across the movement representing some of the most militant sections of the British working class to discuss how to build fighting unions and effective solidarity networks. The People’s Assembly is another important example of an attempt to bring together networks of activists, which the left should welcome and build. These examples show the potential networks of activists within the unions. The left needs to root these networks within every workplace. But alongside involvement in the trade union “lefts” and the structures of the union there has to be a strategy to increase the level of organisation, activity and confidence of workers in the workplace.

A strategy for the left in the workplace and the unions

There are a number of strategic conclusions that can be drawn from the above analysis of the state of the working class, workplace organisation and the trade unions. Firstly, for anyone on the left who is serious about shaping events active engagement within the movements is the first step. Of course, the more we are involved in the movement the more the left will be tested. As the movement takes a dip the pressure on activists to be pulled by the pessimism and/or accommodation to the right within the movement is a real one-as is the temptation to stand outside of the movement and make faces at it in fear of accommodating. Both are mistaken approaches, which stem from an impressionistic assessment of the state of the movement.

We are in a period of wars and revolutions. In Britain we are a part of this process; a different chapter but the same book. The movements will rise and then plateau out and explode again later with more intensity and anger. It is because of this that we have to recognise that “movementism” is not the main concern for revolutionaries. Of course, being involved in the movement will mean revolutionaries will make mistakes and be pulled in different directions. However, the overriding weakness for the left is passivity in fighting for leadership of the movements, at every level. To assess the possibilities for resistance we need to accurately assess the strength and weakness of their side and ours. Understanding the level of consciousness of workers will directly influence activists when choosing which strategy and tactics to adopt. An overestimation of the other side’s confidence and an underestimation of the motivation of our side to resist will put activists behind the mood of those who want to fight. This in turn will mean that rather than the activists taking initiatives which try and raise the level of struggle they end up being a barrier to resistance by not being able to seize the moment. We have already put forward the argument that the continued assault on the post Second World War settlement will provoke organised as well as spontaneous bursts of revolt, from below and above, as thwarted expectations combine with the rage of the working class. Therefore we also need to briefly assess how prepared and confident their side is.

A government for the taking

Much of the trade union bureaucracy is not only very pessimistic about their members’ willingness to fight but believes that the Tories are much more confident and stronger than they really are. The Labour Party might be only a few points ahead in the opinion polls but this is more to do with the weakness of the opposition provided by Miliband and Balls than the strength of the Tories. The Tory coalition government have made 38 U-turns in their three years in office.20 They go from one scandal to another. The Leveson inquiry revealed the depth of dishonesty at the top of society, and the continuing shock waves from the collapse of the banks can still be felt as months go by with further revelations about corporate greed. The Blair government, despite failing to win public support for the Iraq war, could count on the support of the vast majority of MPs from all parties to force through his illegal war aims. Cameron, though, could not do so when trying to get support for bombing Syria. This victory is the legacy of the Stop the War movement.

These splits and others, like the rows over Europe, continue to send the Tory party into a tailspin reflecting the wider divisions among those who hold real power. Some sections of the ruling class fear an attack on Syria leading to another costly war with no clear outcome or benefits. They worry that this could ignite much deeper fury within society. Cameron’s parliamentary defeat over Syria exposes those divisions in a very public way and for millions of people reveals their enemies’ weaknesses. It is these divisions at the top of society that can give confidence to those at the bottom to organise against further attacks.

Margaret Thatcher’s infamous Ridley Plan, which outlined a strategy to take on the key sections of the working class one by one and argued not to allow different sections to unite around a common cause, was successful.21 But Cameron is no Thatcher and has no such plan. The depth of the crisis has left no space for such a strategy. Cameron’s strategy is “shock and awe”-attacking different sections all at once creating a sense of unity across the whole of the working class.

It is from this understanding that the left must base their strategic considerations. On the one hand a working class which is not confident but is consumed with rage and strongly considers and expects that their families should have access to all the so called “privileges” a modern welfare state afforded to their parents and grandparents before them, and on the other, a coalition government racked by division and without a plan except attack.

Political trade unionism-mediating the crisis

For the left to be successful in building a network of activists rooted in the workplace capable of defeating the employers and government it must be able to connect with the politicisation of the working class. The left needs to avoid twin dangers. One is of abstract calls for socialism coupled with a good dose of bread and butter issues and regular denunciation of the trade union bureaucracy. The other is in raising political demands that are kept safely away from the economic concerns of the working class. Instead demands for a health service or education system based on democratic planning as opposed to the market and competition must be linked to the everyday economic grievances of workers. Public sector unions in particular have excellent policies on alternative plans to privatisation, the vast majority of which the left would not only agree with but would campaign for. However, due to the historic separation between politics and economics that has been embedded within the British working class movement these policies do not frame the economic struggles of the working class. Trade unions will lobby their MPs over these issues, but would never ballot over them (there are legal arguments as to why unions cannot do so-we will come back to these below) or attempt to frame their campaigns over pay, jobs and pensions around them.

The first step to building a network that is capable of defeating the employers and the government is one that recognises that the middle ground, because of experience and expectations, is a leftward moving one. The second step is for these networks to maintain the moral high ground on the key issue of public services and therefore isolate the government on these issues. To do this these networks must be shaped by an understanding as to how to mediate the wider political and economic crisis with the day to day concerns of the working class. Simple slogans like “Welfare not warfare” do this as do “Defend jobs defend education” or “Older firefighters will cost lives”. What lies behind such slogans is an understanding that if a network of activists are going to be able to motivate workers to defend their jobs, pensions or pay they must feel that by so doing they are also defending public services that meet the needs of society. It is by doing this that a network of activists can begin to connect with the level of expectations of the working class and raise their economic grievances to the level of the wider political radicalisation.

Posing an alternative

One concrete way of doing this is raising alternative demands. These need to put the case for a different agenda that counters the prevailing orthodoxies about the necessity of cuts (“we can’t afford X” type arguments) and provides a clear set of alternatives to them. There are several examples of this including the Unite the Resistance “Action Plan”, which sold 14,000 copies, and the People’s Charter. The PCS led the way in producing a number of excellent short pamphlets outlining the argument against austerity and putting the argument for an alternative investment led plan.22

It is important that these demands are seen as ways to help mobilise a movement as opposed to being separate from the industrial issues that unions are engaged with. There are a number of examples of attempts to do this. Within the NUT teacher activists have set up a campaign against Gove’s history curriculum. Primary school teachers have launched a new charter in defence of primary education and have campaigned for new pedagogic approaches to tackle Islamophobia in the classroom.23 Workers are much more likely to vote for strike action if they are convinced that the money is there to invest in decent jobs, schools, hospitals or homes. Putting an alternative should not be seen as a mere propaganda position designed to relate to a minority while the struggle is low. It should not be viewed as a luxury to be discarded when the “real” economic issues rise to the surface, but as an essential instrument which allows successful agitation to occur.

Coordinating strike action

One of the most significant developments to take place within the trade union movement over the last number of years is unions taking coordinated strike action. The first example of this was in 2008 when the NUT, PCS and UCU took one-day strike action together over pay. The 1981 trade union laws made it illegal for workers to take strike action without a ballot. It also became illegal to take strike action in solidarity with other groups of workers and all action had to be a “trade dispute” with the employer. This last point has meant that it is illegal to simply ballot union members over government cuts. The dispute has to be about the effect of these cuts-for example job losses or pay cuts.24 In the pensions coordinated strike action all unions had to ballot their members over their specific schemes and then agree a date to take strike action jointly.

There is no reason, other than the political will of the trade union leaders, why this type of coordinated action had not taken place before the 2008 pay strike. The fact that it occurred first within PCS, NUT and UCU is no coincidence. It was not because they all happened to face the same attack that they decided to coordinate their action. It was because they were the most left wing sections of the trade union movement. Right wing trade union leaders’ natural instincts are to oppose such coordinated action. They do so out of fear that this kind of action will start to move from a “trade dispute” into a more political one that seeks to bring down governments. Also their sectionalism means that they strongly believe that if their union comes out on strike with other unions their particular issues will be lost by the bigger, more powerful unions hogging the limelight.

Of course, for there to be the kind of strike movement that can be effective in reversing the government austerity agenda then illegal unofficial strike action, which breaks the trade union laws, will need to be taken. It will take networks rooted in the workplaces, as described above, to deliver this kind of unofficial action. But these networks can only be built within a much higher level of struggle. We arrive at a chicken and egg situation. The left needs to work out ways that it can break this impasse.

The kind of struggle that could precipitate such networks is not necessarily or only one based on strikes. Mass demonstrations and civil disobedience movements can also feed back into workplace organisation that can give confidence for these networks to grow. The left must be able to envision how these kinds of networks could be brought about very quickly given the right situation. There was a moment in the student protests of 2010 when the police were beating up students that mass unofficial walkouts came onto the agenda. There was great anger and revulsion at the way the police were attacking working class people’s sons and daughters expressing their democratic right to protest to protect their futures. The consequences of such brutal police behaviour, as we saw a year later when Mark Duggan was murdered, could have led to that revulsion and anger turning into walkouts in every school, university, college and many other workplaces, certainly in the capital but possibly elsewhere too.

However, the left cannot sit back and wait for the right objective circumstances for such unofficial action to take place. Where the left have influence in certain unions, they need to organise officially coordinated action. Where there is more than one workplace or union branch taking action, be they private or public, whatever the dispute is over, the left must attempt, where possible, to coordinate that action, inviting speakers from workplaces that are in dispute to each other’s workplaces and organising joint rallies and protests.

The general strike

Putting demands that express the will of the rank and file on trade union leaders is an important part of building coordinated action. There were some on the left who opposed the call for a general strike on the basis that it was an abstract one.25 Some thought it was wrong for the TUC in 2012 to pass a motion to “look into the practicalities of organising a general strike”. They argued that there was not the organisation on the ground to pull off a general strike and that such “left posturing” was a diversion from the immediate practical steps that needed to be taken to make a mass strike happen. Our first response to this is that it underestimates what workers’ response would be if (a big “if” of course) the TUC did call a one-day general strike. The vast majority of public and private sector trade union members would adhere to the call enthusiastically, and significant sections of non-union workplaces would come out too.

Secondly, the 30 November 2011 pensions strike was in reality a public sector general strike. Some of the left’s unwillingness to support such a call at the time reflected their lack of understanding of the processes that were taking place within sections of the trade union movement that made possible a mass strike within the public sector involving 29 unions with two and half million workers. But there are dangers in mechanically raising the call for a general strike when the initial moment of action has passed. The vast majority of unions have as policy for the TUC to call a general strike. General secretaries of all political persuasions can be heard agreeing with the need for a general strike. But they do so from a safe distance from any real action taking place-for the left simply to parrot this call can let posturing general secretaries off the hook. Although the call for a general strike shouldn’t be seen as a panacea to all the problems faced by the movement it would be unwise to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is a desire for unity within the working class that creates a groundswell of support for the call for a general strike. The left should not just simply call for one-it must put forward concrete demands on the trade union leaders about the next step in achieving one, for example naming the day for the next coordinated action within the unions that they say they are already committed to.

Putting demands on the trade union leaders is not about ritualistic denunciations so that the left can make themselves feel pure. These demands express the desire of the rank and file, can lead not only to sections calling action-thus opening up the path for a wider strike movement-but also give direction to those who are attempting to lead the movement. After the pensions dispute if the left in those unions involved had not put an argument and explanation as to why these leaders acted in the way they did and had not attempted to put demands on the leaderships about how to take the campaign forward, thousands of key activists would be far more demoralised. In fact where the left did attempt to provide an explanation and put demands on their leaderships they are now in a far better position to continue to resist and build upon their efforts than if they had listened to those who argued to simply “move on” and “build the rank and file”.

Building the unions

Building and rebuilding union strength must be a central plank in any strategy for the left. Doing so is not always helped by the too often pessimistic analysis by the trade union leaders and sections of the left about the state of union membership in Britain. Rosa Luxemburg’s point that, “it is the struggle that builds the unions, not the union that builds the struggle” is an important one. As other articles in this issue show, the unions involved in the November 2011 strikes recruited heavily.26 Historically this has always been the case. Of course this did not happen by osmosis. Socialists should be at the heart of every attempt to build the unions. Initiatives to spread trade union influence like Unite Community are to be welcomed. But building the union in the workplace, where we are, whether in the public or the private sector, is the task of every socialist. This can, of course, mean a young worker attempting to organise an unorganised call centre or factory. It can also mean Unite members being central to the union’s “100 Percent” campaign, using the opportunity that the union’s organising strategy provides. Where opportunities present themselves to drive trade union organisation forward into new (or previously organised) areas the left needs to be involved.

The recent victory on Crossrail with the reinstatement of blacklisted shop steward Frank Morris clearly opens up the possibility of unionising the project and re-unionising an industry previously blighted by the blacklist. The advances in construction over the last period have come about through the successful interplay of rank and file initiatives with the official machine. Just as in the great union drives of 1930s America, albeit on a much smaller scale, the victory at Crossrail has come from a combination of rank and file initiatives alongside a section of the trade union bureaucracy that is prepared to respond.

On a local level activists can make a big difference in creating fighting workplace and trade union organisation. But it’s necessary to have a serious national fightback to halt declining membership more generally. For many in the trade union movement over recent years merger, not struggle, has been seen as the best method to deal with declining membership. To build union membership into areas with low (or no) density we need a combination of activists who are prepared to give a lead and a union prepared to organise. Communist Party members in the 1930s went into the factories and the mines to recruit workers to unions. The left needs to go to the workplaces today. Activists in every town and city need to identify areas in their locality where they can build union organisation-from the inside and outside.

The final element to building effective union organisation is the question of solidarity. Solidarity has always been the cornerstone of any successful trade union movement. Solidarity is not charity. Competition lies at the heart of capitalism and it is this that allows employers and governments to play off one group of workers against another. Every act of solidarity, where one worker supports another, cuts against the grain of competition, which allows employers and governments to succeed in driving our living standards down. It is for this reason that activists need to make the raising of support for every dispute a routine activity of the daily practice.


The way the working class responds to the austerity agenda of whichever government is in office in the next five years is likely to define what trade union organisation and the left look like for the next 20 years. The left are potentially significant players in helping the working class shape its future. We cannot be passive observers. To be effective in providing a real leadership role within the movement we must be able to go beyond the impressionism and pessimism that seem to imbue too many sections of the left. The working class in Britain, spurred on by rage and dashed expectations, has shown time and time again that it is able, given leadership, to respond magnificently to calls for action.

Trade unions are only one part of this movement but they are the most important part simply by the fact their membership is based where workers have power-at the point of production. This does not mean to say that the left should ignore any struggle that has not been led or organised by the trade unions. Community campaigns in defence of the welfare state whether over benefit cuts or Accident and Emergency department closures will play a leading role in the fight against austerity. The success and dynamism of these campaigns must be brought back into the trade union movement to raise it up to their level.

There is a global movement against austerity as working people strive to defend their living conditions. It will have its peaks and its troughs. The question for the left is whether it comes out of every trough more able to influence the direction of the next rise in struggle. To do so will mean learning from the high points and generalising the best experiences to a wider layer within the movement with more firmly rooted and creative organisation that can take the struggle to its next stage victoriously. This article is a contribution in allowing us to do that.


1: Tomlinson, 2005, p8.



4: Standing, 2011, p7.

5: Braverman, 1974.

6: Davidson, 2013, p192.

7: Davidson, 2013, p184.

8: Trotsky, 1974, pp285-286. See Joseph Choonara’s very useful explanation of Marx’s and Trotsky’s theory of the relationship between economic booms and slumps and struggle-Choonara, 2013.

9: Davidson, 2013, p197.

10: Choonara, 2013.

11: Fisher, 2009, p79.

12: Davidson, 2013, p217.

13: Choonara, 2013, p62.

14: Kimber, 2012, p20.

15: At every level there are impressive figures associated with the N30 strike. A table from Socialist Worker gives a good impression of its impact. Go to

16: Cliff, 1971.

17: UCU Left was founded at a 200 strong conference at the beginning of the merger of the AUT and NATFHE to form UCU in 2006.


19: Basketter, 2011


21: For the actual leaked Ridley report go to

22: Go to


24: See Hendy and Ewing, 2011. The authors have also launched their new manifesto for collective bargaining. Activists should invite them to do meetings on these issues.


26: Sherry, 2013.


Basketter, Simon, 2011, “Shut down sites to beat building bosses’ attack”, Socialist Worker,

Braverman, Harry, 1974, Labour and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (Monthly Review Press).

Choonara, Joseph, 2013, “Class Struggle in Western Europe”, International Socialism 138 (spring 2013),

Choonara, Joseph, 2013 “The Class Struggles in Europe” International Socialism 138 (spring 2013),

Cliff, Tony, 1971, “The Bureaucracy Today”, International Socialism 148, first series (June 1971),

Davidson, Neil, 2013 “The Neoliberal Era in Britain: Historical Developments and Current Perspectives”, International Socialism 139 (summer 2013),

Ewing, K D, and John Hendy, 2011, Days of Action. The legality of protest strikes against government cuts (Russell Press).

Fisher, Mark, 2009, Capitalist Realism: Is There no Alternative? (Zero Books).

Kimber, Charlie, 2012, “The Rebirth of Our Power? After the 30 November Mass Strike”, International Socialism 133 (winter 2012),

Sherry, Julie, 2013, Can Len McCluskey reclaim Labour? International Socialism 140 (autumn 2013),

Standing, Guy, 2011, The Precariat: the New Dangerous Class (Bloomsbury Academic).

Tomlinson, Sally, 2005, Education in a post-welfare society (Open University Press).

Trotsky, Leon, 1974 [1921], “Flood-Tide: The Economic Conjuncture and the World Labour Movement”, in The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume two (New Park).