Protesters on the TUC march raging against the Tories and the cost of living crisis in London in June (Picture: Sean Vernell)

The trade union movement is on the cusp of the most significant industrial action for a generation to prevent the cost of living crisis from wrecking working people’s lives. Postal workers, rail workers, train drivers, post-16 education workers, sections of refuse workers, teachers and others have either smashed through government trade union thresholds, or are campaigning to do so.

Rarely seen in Britain for decades, the wildcat strike—inspired partly by the example of other actions—has been used by Amazon and construction workers to act now rather than endure the lengthy process of a legal ballot.

That over 400,000 people have already signed up to the new Enough is Enough campaign is a reflection of the millions who want to be a part of a serious fightback.

The media’s strategy of inviting trade union leaders to their studios to try to ridicule and ostracise them, portraying them as “outdated union barons”, has backfired brilliantly. Interviewers have been torn to shreds by the likes of the RMT’s Mick Lynch. His insistence that it’s the pursuit of profit and not the rise of wages that causes inflation chimes with the lived experience of working people.

Leon Trotsky—a leader of the Russian revolution of 1917—made the point that at certain times in history ideas that were once the property of a minority of political activists suddenly become the preserve of millions.

There is a lot of painful and poor analysis of why Lynch and others appear to be connecting with millions of people. His personal style, manner and wry humour are offered as explanations of why his arguments have connected with so many. While his character no doubt helps, it is not the key to understanding why Lynch is now a positive name.

The experience of working people in 21st century Britain is one of falling living standards, after a pandemic during which so many sacrificed so much to keep society functioning. And some paid the ultimate price with their lives. All of this follows more than a decade of austerity created by bankers’ greed.

At the same time the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. The obscene wealth hoarded by a tiny minority is not hidden from view. They arrogantly flaunt their cash, created by working people. They say that it is us, not them, who will need to pay for the cost-of-living crisis.

Combining this with a government that is clearly incompetent, corrupt and wracked with division has resulted in working people refusing to stand by as their living standards get pushed further down. Workers now sense they can turn the tide in favour of their class interests.

The usual path of channelling these concerns through a change in government has been blocked. Sir Keir Starmer’s attacks on the MPs who joined a picket line isn’t simply out of fear that it will play badly in the polls—opinion polls indicate that the vast majority of the public actually support the strikes.

Starmer, as leader of the opposition, has another agenda in distancing himself from the strikes. He has to prove to the employers that he can be trusted with the keys to Number 10.

Some bosses believe that their preferred party of government, the Tories, are not in any fit state to carry through a programme of cuts and attacks on trade unions that they believe are necessary. For some, Starmer’s Labour Party looks more of a realistic proposition to protect profits and push through measures to further weaken trade union power.

The strike is the most important weapon workers have in pursuing their aims. This is not to say other forms of protests are not important. They are. We need to see more demonstrations and protests alongside the strikes to raise solidarity from those who are not on strike.

However, the withdrawal of labour allows workers to hit the employers where it hurts most. Strikes stop production, significantly weakening bosses’ ability to maintain profits and compete with other bosses. Strikes also show that it is workers who make society run. The strike brings the running of society to a standstill and is therefore the most powerful weapon workers have.

What the RMT strikes have done is to suggest to millions of workers that they have this power too. It might seem an obvious point, but for decades we have been told by political commentators—reinforced by “serious” academic writings—that workers no longer have this power due to the compositional change of the working class and the precarious nature of their employment.

A Karl Marx memorial lecture in 1978 given by Eric Hobsbawm, which later became a book, entitled ‘The forward march of labour halted?’ was influential in creating a common sense around these ideas and directed new activists away from seeing the centrality of the strike in pursuing not only immediate gains for the working class, but also the means by which a greater transformation of society could be forged.

These arguments were always superficial. A compositional change in the working class has never meant that strikes no longer had the same impact—as the Amazon workers’ strikes have demonstrated.

The revolutionary Marxist tradition has many examples of writings that locate the strike as the central form of protest that allows workers to achieve their aims. The Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote the most important explanation of why strikes are so crucial in her pamphlet The Mass Strike.

She explains how the mass strike is a key component of a modern revolution, and that there must not be two struggles—one for economic reform and a separate political one carried out by parliamentarians.

 

The struggle for economic power is inextricably linked to the struggle for political power, and the mass strike fuses the two together. Luxemburg outlines how the struggle for economic gains “fertilises” the ground for political gains and vice-versa.

In the context in which we are fighting today, one of a cost of living crisis, an ecological crisis and imperialist wars, this understanding of the potential role of the mass strike is relevant and should be one which every activist is alert to.

Luxemburg also writes of the “spiritual growth” the working class experiences during the mass strike. By this she means the intellectual growth as workers taking action increasingly become aware of the way society works, of the potential power their action has and of the sacrifice they are prepared to make to achieve their goals. She points out that this happens at breakneck speed—workers transform themselves seemingly overnight.

This is why it’s important that the argument of coordinating strikes across the sectors is raised in every workplace and union branch. The potential to win our economic and political demands becomes far greater if we all strike together.

None of this happens without leadership. The Amazon strikes and oil refinery workers’ action happened because someone was prepared to put an argument to strike.

Strikes don’t happen spontaneously where one day all workers simultaneously and independently of each other decide not to attend work and join a picket line instead. It takes leadership which can come from a number of places in the trade unions and workplace. Leadership can sometimes come from the full-time elected officials and general secretaries at the top of the unions.

It’s clear that the more left-wing union leaders are pushing hard for action, as well as doing an excellent job at taking on the arguments the employers and government are putting to try to undermine the current strikes. This leadership is important and will make a big difference to the momentum of the action.

The nature of the role full-time officials play will influence how the struggles are fought to achieve the maximum gains.

Trade union officials are neither workers nor bosses. They are often described as a bureaucracy. They exist not to end the exploitation of workers, but to negotiate the terms of exploitation.

 

For us today the question is whether such deals take the struggle, the confidence and organisation of the working class forward or not?

The extent to which a compromise is a victory for the working class is measured by the material gains made, the increase in organisation and the confidence of workers to fight for more.

It is important to recognise that the role of the full-time official leadership within a union—regardless of the beliefs of individual trade union leaders—can lead to struggles being cut short of what could have been achieved.

The experiences of these leaders are shaped by the fact they are closeted away with the employers during lengthy negotiations, not the day-to-day deprivation that workers experience. It is this that can shape full-time officials’ decisions. Strikes which put them at the negotiating table in the first place can become a distraction, a barrier to getting a deal “over the line”.

It is when a strike puts the bosses’ or government’s backs against the wall that trade union leaders are at their most vulnerable. Therefore, this is also when they are most likely to sell the workers short.

A famous example of this is when industrial action brought Britain to the nearest it has been to revolution. This was in 1919 when a “triple alliance” of rail, transport and mineworkers’ unions brought the Lloyd George government to its knees.

At a meeting between Loyd George and left wing union leaders, according to a report from one of the leaders, the prime minister spelled out what the balance of power was.

“Gentlemen, you have fashioned the triple alliance… A formidable instrument. I am bound to tell you [that you] have us at your mercy. The army is disaffected… We have just emerged from the great war and people are eager for the reward for their sacrifices, and we are in no position to satisfy them.

“If you carry out your threat to strike, you will defeat us. But if you do so, have you weighed the consequences?”

George went on to explain that the consequences would mean the collapse of the capitalist state and that the unions would have to take on the functioning of the state. He asked the union leaders if they were ready to do so. Robert Smiley, secretary of the miners’ federation, stated, “From that moment on we were beaten and we knew we were.”

This account reminds us that a successful struggle, both immediate and with the potential to build a wider challenge to the system, needs independent rank and file leadership.

To ensure the struggle ends where workers feel their sacrifice was worth it and that they are left with more confidence and organisation for the next round of action, rank and file leaders are needed. When they do emerge, a network of these leaders will be needed in every union to help coordinate action and to resist when their official leaders backslide from the key demands workers have fought for.

The Tories and the employers have launched a so-called culture war as part of their offensive to divide the working class. The new rank and file leaders must take up the fight against all forms of discrimination to counter this war and ensure unity is maintained.

It’s clear from the videos and pictures from recent picket lines and protests that the new generation of rank and file leaders are black, are women, are disabled and are trans. This is a reflection of the potential spiritual growth that Luxemburg wrote about.

These new leaders will need a new political home if they are to sustain their ability to lead. They will need to be a part of a political organisation that recognises how the struggle for economic power and political power are inseparable. You can’t successfully fight for one without the other.

A party is needed that provides a home to all those leaders who locate strikes as the key to transforming society and can share and debate their experiences on how best to take the struggle forward.

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