Towards a general strike?

Towards a general strike?

A follow on to my post Lobbying for the limited yet impossible, now that the Trades Union Congress has voted in favour of a motion on calling a general strike.

The British left is jubilant. The Socialist Party are calling this moment a "victory" and "a great step forward." The Socialist Workers Party believes that the movement "now can crack coalition." The left of the trade union movement, including its favoured union tops, are "roaring like lions." They also apparently have the government running scared, as David Cameron has called them a "threat to the economy" and made plans to bring in soldiers as strike breakers.

The reason for this, of course, is that the annual Trades Union Congress in Brighton has backed a general strike. Or, more specifically, backed a motion calling for "coordinated action where possible with far reaching campaigns including the consideration and practicalities of a general strike." Which sounds less radical, mainly because it is. The Trots' next step is to demand that the TUC "name the date," and an apparent legal case for an all-out general strike has appeared in The Guardian1. But the problems with general strike sloganeering go beyond the legalities.

First, there is the gaping chasm between the rhetoric of union tops striving to appear militant and concrete action on the ground. Though his politics veer far from mine, Dan Hodges in The Telegraph is remarkably salient on this point:

[A] union starting TUC congress week without a blood-curdling threat of industrial mayhem is like a golfer going into the first round of the open without a driver.

Yes, there will probably be the odd day of action over pensions and pay. But no headlong charge into the coalitions guns; much to David Cameron’s disappointment.

And it’s that reality which presents incoming TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, and the constituent parts of her trade union family, with their biggest headache. Not how to manoeuvre the revolutionary flags across the industrial battle-map, but how to keep the troops fed, watered and motivated when there are actually no major battles on the horizon.

Which brings us back to the basic point that "in the end, [unions] have to sell themselves twice, to two groups of people with opposing interests."

The other significant hurdle is the actual numbers that the unions can muster on the ground. I covered this to some degree in my post on the general strike lobby, pointing out that many workplaces have a low union density and many more have none at all.

As an example of why this is an issue, it is instructive to look at the area where I work. Bootle has a high density of public sector workplaces comparatively, which is why I and others were able to visit picket lines representing nearly every union involved in the pensions strike on November 30 last year within a mile radius. But virtually every other business in the area is without a union, meaning that a general strike might see the same people out who struck on N30, but no more.

This is significant because the number of people on strike on N30 represented a success because it was a public sector strike. If you call out the entire working class and 70% (as a rough estimate) don't come out, that same number suddenly becomes a failure.

And it's all well and good saying a general strike would have a galvanising effect "on workers not in unions, on unemployed people, young people and families." This statement ignores the depth of the organisational deficiency amongst workers in this country. Ahead of the N30 strikes William Hill bookmakers, where my fiancé used to work, sent around a memo saying that any member of staff taking part in a general strike would be sacked. No doubt other workplaces made similar noises. No doubt, also, that if the TUC did name the day such memos would become awfully familiar.

This demonstrates two points. One, that bosses do recognise the power of industrial action and will do their utmost to try and prevent it. Two, that far too many workers don't recognise that same power and will be scared off any thoughts of joining in by these pronouncements. We all have mortgages, rent, bills to pay, mouths to feed. But we don't all have the strength of organisation behind us that allows us to step forward and take action rather than just keep our heads down and hope things don't get worse.

This then brings us to the question of what a single 24 hour general strike will actually achieve. The Socialist Party admit, graciously, that it "won't sort all of that [forcing an alternative to the cuts] out in one go." However, they do reckon it "it could really dent the cuts programme, it could lead to the toppling of this weak government, and it could transform the ideas and the hopes of millions." But even this seems a pipe dream.

Remember that many European countries have a much stronger rank-and-file workers movement and tradition of militancy than Britain. Greece is perhaps one of the best examples of this, and has been in constant upheaval since the onset of the financial crisis. They are preparing for their twelfth general strike against austerity. During the same period, there have been several changes of government - including a "unity government" forced by the crisis and ongoing resistance. Yet the debt crisis continues and Greek workers still face a brutal austerity programme.

One of the key reasons that the Greeks have not been able to defeat austerity is the management of the struggle by the union bureaucracy. As became painfully evident in the Battle of Syntagma Square:

Protecting the parliamentarians from the people they pretend to represent were fifteen thousand riot cops. But remarkably, supporters of the misnamed Communist Party of Greece formed their own battalion, protecting the police and the parliament from those they called "provocateurs" and even, bizarrely, "anarcho-fascists". They might as well have accused demonstrators of being meat-eating vegetarians, for all the sense that accusation made. While it is to be expected that the state employed some provocateurs, there can be no underestimating the fury with which impoverished Greeks view the PASOK government.

And yet - from the perspective of the trade union bureaucrats who form the base of that party - it makes a lot of sense. Though their website talks of the PASOK government enforcing the will of the "plutocracy" by "fire and sword", their worst fear is a working class movement that they cannot control, which organises on a rank and file basis, and will not accept sell-out after sell-out.

The same is surely true in Britain where, despite their supposed role as a rank-and-file organisation, the National Shop Stewards Network continually panders to and praises "left" union tops. Not to mention that all talk of a general strike is focused on efforts to get those at the top of the TUC to make the call. Whilst the SP insist that the general strike vote "reflects the mood of rank and file trade union members," they and the union hierarchies they praise want to keep that mood harnessed by illusions in "left" leadership2. Workers controlling their own struggles is a dangerous concept for those who would be our leaders.

At present, it is also far from becoming a reality, which is why I fear that a general strike here could not match the displays we have seen in Spain, Portugal, France or Greece. There are hints of what such a movement could look like, from The Sparks and the IWW cleaners3 to the victories scored against workfare. But these are just hints, and we are still far from seeing a genuinely militant, rank-and-file workers movement erupt as it has elsewhere.

That is what we need to be pushing for and building now, instead of posturing about general strikes to union leaders who don't share our interests. Don't get me wrong - in the unlikely event that one is actually called, I'll be out and I'll work my arse off building for it and trying to mitigate the problems described above. But on its own that will be an uphill and, ultimately, losing battle.

To scramble at the last minute building a movement around a pre-set general strike date is to do everything arse backwards. Instead, what we need to see is people putting in the real work of organising - militants forming workplace committees in un-organised workplaces, rank-and-file networks building the links needed to push beyond the limits of established unions, direct action by claimants and tenants through solidarity networks and so on. There is no single, infallible blueprint for all of this, but there are plenty of examples of the movement we need for people to learn from and follow.

Before the year is out, there will likely be another coordinated strike by public sector unions. Time will tell whether we see a general strike against austerity. I remain skeptical of that, and even more so of the results if it does happen.

Although the motion for a general strike insisted "that the trade union movement must continue leading from the front," the truth is that it has never done any such thing. The most radical acts and the greatest successes of the struggle against austerity so far have occurred without and beyond the trade union structures, and the nature of unions means that will always be the case. Instead of pinning all our hopes on grand set pieces orchestrated from above, we need to be putting in the hard graft of building the real movement from below.

  • 1. On which point, it's worth asking whether, if the aim is to call a legal general strike - and urging the TUC to call an illegal one really is pissing in the wind - the same legal requirements will be needed as with every other strike in the UK. A secret ballot of all members, formal notice to all affected employers (or to the state), and so on? Will the ballot be open to court challenges? There are just so many potential hurdles the government could put in the way of this if it was ever seriously muted - legal or not.
  • 2. Socialist Party members may dispute this, but it is evident that they mean something very different to anarchists when they talk of rank-and-file organisation.
  • 3. The cleaners, in fact, demonstrate how much of a threat non-hierarchical workers' organisation is, given that they have been maneuvered into splitting from the IWW to reform the IWGB, which seeks to be far more cosy with the trade union establishment.

Posted By

Sep 14 2012 07:34


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Sep 14 2012 08:00

Really interesting Phil.

One thing though-

Remember that many European countries have a much stronger rank-and-file workers movement and tradition of militancy than Britain.

Ok recently there has not been much of a tradition. But during the miners strikes etc. Britain was called the 'sick man of europe' due to the tendency of it's workers to down tools!

George Ziad
Sep 15 2012 07:52

Again, I find myself agreeing with the thrust of an article about the unions on libcom, despite (or because of?) my Trotskyism. Explain that comrades.

Chilli Sauce
Sep 14 2012 21:24

Great article Phil. Thanks comrade.

Sep 15 2012 11:13

Yeah, good article, although on this point:

If you call out the entire working class and 70% (as a rough estimate) don't come out, that same number suddenly becomes a failure.

TBH getting 30% of all workers (assuming you mean employed workers, which would mean 9,000,000 in UK) out would be amazing.

And I would bet that most "general" strikes in history only had a similar proportion or even less actually out, apart from in revolutionary situations.

But this is pretty much a moot point at the moment anyway…

Sep 15 2012 14:32

This is a good article and I agree with it, I've also written my views on the left and the general strike for here

Sep 16 2012 15:17

j-b's linked piece above does have some cross-over points of agreement with Phil's blog text here, but j-b is still on the ''If they (the TU's) won't do it we must'' line expressing in this and other references illusions in the supposed identity of interests between our class and the institutions of the so-called 'labour movement' which at it's most generous can be seen as stuck living in a past romanticised view of the world.

Readers of this blog text should also have a look at Phil's related text 'lobbying for the limited...' and other critiques of the unions available on this site to get a feel for the differences of approach between the two.

Sep 16 2012 23:21

Excellent piece Phil, thank you for posting this.

pasolini's goat
Sep 17 2012 07:00

As an SWP member i'd say theres not much to disagree with in this article. In fact we've been very realistic on the TU bureaucracy in keeping with our theoretical tradition on this matter

pasolini's goat
Sep 17 2012 07:15

With some reservations I'll also say that I don't think theres anything wrong with raising the slogan as long as youre realistic about it when you talk to people. A huge indefinate general strike solves the problem of austerity (let's say) but we're not going to get that obviously but if you start from that proposition people can understand their potential power, now I strongly believe that people learn through struggle (including those of the who are already on the far left) and struggle is an inspiration to others. It seems to be essential there are big strikes this autumn as the cuts next year in jobs and benefits is going to be massive and we need to show that fighting back is possible and that strike action primary way. Otherwise a pull toward both mass apathy and the far right could be on the cards

kent anarchists
Sep 17 2012 12:02

Nice article phil. Well said! red n black star

Rob Ray
Sep 17 2012 12:20

"It seems to be essential there are big strikes this autumn... we need to show that fighting back is possible and that strike action primary way."

The event of a strike is not in and of itself a primary method of fighting back - it becomes so only if it creates a genuine economic threat and forces a sea-change in policy. The strikes the TUC are "allowed" (and indeed able) to call are protest strikes, which don't threaten because the government is notified months in advance what the worst case scenario is and can factor that into its costs accordingly.

This is why we've seen hundreds of thousands of people go out for a day half a dozen times over the last few years without making a blind bit of difference. And the problem with this for the idea of "inspiring people to action" is that losing a day's wage for no apparent forward movement is actually demotivating. We've all seen the falling turnouts, we've all heard the complaints, this shit is counterproductive - but the left has no idea what the alternatives might be, so what we're left with is Albert Einstein's definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

pasolini's goat
Sep 17 2012 13:02

I have some sympathy with that but I'm not sure by what means a rank and file movement capable of bypassing the TU bureaucracy can arise except by first going through the process of striking and rebuilding those traditions. They cannot be built in meetings or articles outside of the already existing left only by persuing action drawing in people who want to fight and resisting the bureaucracies inevitable calls to reign it in.

Also 'The event of a strike is not in and of itself a primary method of fighting back - it becomes so only if it creates a genuine economic threat and forces a sea-change in policy' - I disagree. These would be (despite the specifics policies or grievance the strikes would be called on) political strikes. The 'economic threat' would be minor - it would be about creating political crisis in which they have no choice but to somewhat abandon their policy, crack the coalition, make the rulers unable to rule. This leads to all sorts of avenues and would electorally in the short term maybe favour Labour but the question of defeating austerity is primarily a political one, turning the tide against policy of austerity, making the rich pay and hoping we can rebuild a left that can push on to a greater millitancy in order to be able to pose questions about the very structure of society.

Rob Ray
Sep 17 2012 14:09

"I'm not sure by what means a rank and file movement capable of bypassing the TU bureaucracy can arise except by first going through the process of striking and rebuilding those traditions."

Tbh this is a bit cart before the horse.

I think it's important to understand that a majority of people under the age of about 35 don't actually get the concept of striking as a weapon, because all they've ever personally seen in most cases is the strike used as a statement of vague dissent. And over 35s represent just 64% of union members, in a situation of about 24% union density nationally funnelled into a relatively small selection of industries - meaning only a tiny percentage of people are actually getting taught the heavy stuff about how to make a strike work.

What this means in the everyday is that non-politicos don't get why you shouldn't cross a picket line when a strike is called, because the point of not crossing is largely lost if all it's there for is as a form of 3d complaint. They don't see the point of trade unions because they've grown up with a complete lack of living trade unionism around them.

An "official" one-day walkout, regardless of its political (actually specifically a-political, says so on the box guv cos we're not allowed to do that sort of thing) nature doesn't weaken this impression that strikes are optional forms of civil protest at all, on the contrary I'd argue that in weakly-organised workplaces it simply reinforces it because people aren't feeling the effects of genuine solidarity, they're simply staying in bed for a day. And in well-organised ones it becomes a demoralising farce after about the second or third big day out with no result.

it would be about creating political crisis in which they have no choice but to somewhat abandon their policy, crack the coalition, make the rulers unable to rule

Why would a bunch of non-Tory voters going on a rally or stopping work create a political crisis?

Chilli Sauce
Sep 17 2012 14:27
I'm not sure by what means a rank and file movement capable of bypassing the TU bureaucracy can arise except by first going through the process of striking and rebuilding those traditions.

Of course the class needs to go through the process of striking to gain confidence, but as RR has already alluded to, the symbolic, highly controlled, one day TU strikes don't do that.

Often they have the exact opposite effect: people who've seen little benefit to having a union presence in the workplace* (and, indeed, often seeing the union side with management when issues do come up) are asked to lose a day's pay for no tangible benefit. The unions do nothing to effectively prepare for a strike and actually hamper effective solidarity in many cases (this is in part because of anti-strike legislation, but fundamentally based on the mediative role they play within capitalism).

So, instead, what I'd argue for (and I'm speaking as member of the Solidarity Federation here) is a strategy based on engaging our workmates--independently of the union--on smaller, tangible, and winnnable issues, always confronting the boss collectively and not relying on representatives or individual casework. It's from from these victories that we begin to build the confidence to 'go through the process of striking' as a militant rank-and-file movement.

Incidentally, SF has just been writing an article for the Occupied Times on "How do we build a movement" that addresses a lot of these very questions. I'll post it up on this thread once it's published.

*And this doesn't even begin to address the majority of British workers--especially those under 35--who aren't union members and haven't ever even been in a unionised workplace.

Chilli Sauce
Sep 17 2012 14:27

Shit, cross-posted with Rob Ray.

Great minds, eh?

Also, sorry mine post turned out to be way longer than I expected.