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The practicality of a general strike

Len McCluskey appeared to throw down the gauntlet at the Hyde Park rally following last Saturday’s march in London. He is reported in the Morning Star to have said: “When the horrific welfare cuts bite in April the situation will be even worse, but we should take heart from this demonstration because we represent millions and millions of people of ordinary people who want an alternative – let’s go for growth.He added:

We won’t get what we want simply by asking.

That’s why last month a motion was passed at the TUC conference calling on the TUC to consult on a general strike.

Let’s start that consultation here tomorrow. Are you prepared to make strike action to save our communities?”

he asked to loud cheering. “Are you prepared for a general strike?” McCluskey then led the crowd in an impromptu show of hands – and the “motion” was carried unanimously.

Well, that’s carried. Sisters and brothers have the courage so that we can rise like lions and fight, fight, fight for a better world.”

The sentiment was repeated by Bob Crow of the RMT, Mark Serwotka of PCS and Matt Wrack of the FBU (with some chutzpah given the failure of his union to ballot for November 30th last year, and the general drift towards passivity of the FBU under his leadership).

This call comes in the wake of the vote at TUC Congress in September on a motion proposed by the POA and seconded by the RMT, committing the TUC affiliated unions to “taking co-ordinated action where possible with far-reaching campaigns including the consideration and practicalities of a general strike”.

Previously the TUC General Council had been evenly split on whether to support such a move, and unions such as NASUWT and ATL spoke against the motion at Congress.

Let us be clear that the motion does not call for a general strike, it calls for its consideration and investigation into the practicalities. As Len McCluskey himself remarked at the CLASS fringe meeting at Labour Party conference, whether the practicality of a general strike could satisfy the various General Secretaries of the TUC affiliated unions, is another question entirely!

Before we consider the politics of any possible general strike, let us consider those practicalities.

In 1926, every TUC affiliated union voted to delegate authority to the TUC general council whether to call a strike or not. Nowadays that would neither be legal, nor practical. Each union would need to make its own sovereign decision whether or not to participate. We know immediately that several unions would decline, and therefore the most that the TUC could call would be to coordinate a national day of action, as a coalition of the willing. This is similar to the general strike which took place on 14th May 1980, which was an unmitigated catastrophe.

The practical difficulties grow and grow as we consider them.

According to the Guardian, John Hendy QC, argues that a general strike against government policies – as has happened in Spain and Greece – can take place under the European Convention of Human Rights, which is enshrined by the UK Human Rights Act. And Steve Turner, Unite’s director of executive policy, said: “This will be a political strike. There will not be any ballots and it is our view that political strikes are not unlawful.”

This is certainly a bold interpretation of the law, and one which employers, and the government, would seek to challenge in the courts. For the unions to prevail would require overwhelming political and industrial support from the members for the strike call.

UNITE’s argument is the child of necessity, as the normal balloting process would be utterly impractical. As Mick Whelan, Aslef’s general secretary says: “The practicalities of a general strike are very difficult to deliver”. Indeed, to conduct legal ballots across their whole memberships, in a context where many employers would be looking for opportunities for a legal challenge, would require possibly months of work in getting the records up to date. Furthermore, each union would have to identify a specific issue that could support legal industrial action across each separate employer. But calling a political strike without a ballot would be a huge risk.

To assess whether we could anticipate widespread support for such a strike, it is worth considering the expereince of the disastrous action in May 1980. Density of trade union membership was then over 50%, compared to less than 25% today, and there was much stronger workplace organization, and trade union consciousness. Nevertheless, in most workplace, outside of the mines and docks and a few factory strongholds, only the most committed trade union activists came out in most workplaces, isolated from the majority of the members. May 1980 was a demonstration of trade union weakness not strength, and the failure of the day was taken by the Thatcher government as an indication that the unions were a paper tiger. The reasons for the low turn-out were twofold, firstly sectionalism, and secondly a sense that the strike call had emerged from on high, proclaimed by the union leaderships, divorced from real grassroots democracy.

As Eric Hobsbawm observed way back in 1978, discussing the malaise in the labour movement

In the middle 1960s, there were signs of a real recovery of impetus and dynamism: the resumed growth of trade unions, not to mention the great labour struggles, the sharp rise in the Labour vote in 1966, the radicalisation of students, intellectuals and others in the late 1960s.

… At the same time the trade union movement became more militant. And yet this was, with the exception of the great struggles of 1970-4, an almost entirely economist militancy; and a movement is not necessarily less economist and narrow minded because it is militant, or even led by the left. The periods of maximum strike activity since 1960—1970-2 and 1974—have been the ones when the percentage of pure wage strikes have been much the highest—over 90 per cent in 1971-2.

And, as I have tried to suggest earlier, straightforward economist trade union consciousness may at times actually set workers against each other rather than establish wider patterns of solidarity.

The pattern of trade unionism in the 1970s was sectional militancy, often to defend differentials and stratification within the working class. In so far as there was generalization and solidarity, this was limited to the defence of the broad principle of trade unionism upon which sectionalism depended; paradoxically therefore generalized solidarity was an expression of a confluence of sectional interests. Even in 1980, when the left was far stronger than today, ideologically, politically and organizationally, the call for a general strike against government policy was disconnected from the largely sectional interests of most trade union members, who were interested primarily in their own job, their own family, and their own community.

This was compounded by the perception that the national day of action had been called without union members participating in the decision making, and being treated as a stage army. Even trade union members who would follow their own shop stewards unconditionally in a struggle against their own employer were reluctant to participate in a general strike against government policy, because the left had not established a hegemonic oppositional project.

Today, it is simply impossible to resist the cuts by trade union militancy alone, or by political alliances between public sector unions and end-user groups, unless there is a widespread counter-hegemonic belief that the economic and social policies of the Con-Dem government lack legitimacy, and that there is a viable alternative to them.

Angela Davis, a political thinker too much overlooked by the British left, explained this very well in a speech in 2006

We must refuse to attribute any kind of permanency to that which is, simply because it is.”

Or as her mother put it:

This is not the way things are supposed to be, and they don’t have to stay this way

It is the second part of her mother’s belief that was most important. If there is a mass popular movement that represents an alternative, then each minor or localised campaign becomes pregnant with the possibility of generalising, and gaining wider support beyond those immediately affected. In the absence of such a widespread belief in an alternative, then each localised campaign bears with it the danger of competing with others for limited resources.

People will not enter any industrial struggle unless they can envision what a victory would look like. The precondition for generalized industrial action to force a change of government economic policy is a widespread belief that an alternative policy is both feasible and available, which in the British context means the credible alternative of a Labour government advocating a different economic policy. Without this then industrial action will be limited by industrial reality to defensive and sectional actions.

As Labour Party conference showed, while the right wing in the party are on the back foot, they are far from beaten; and the left continues to exhibit organizational weakness. To win the ideological and political battle for a bold alternative within broader civil society requires that struggle to be waged within the Labour Party; and the structures of power and influence means that requires both a footprint within the PLP and shadow cabinet, but also the active participation of trade union leaders. Building a political alliance against austerity is a more urgent task for the unions than industrial action for which the preconditions have not yet been established.

There are real dangers of over-emphasising the prospect of a general strike. I am far from convinced that any of those trade union leaders calling for such action could actually deliver it. Any such industrial action called without a ballot would be highly problematic and prone to failure; and there is a real danger of any industrial action call demonstrating weakness not strength. What is more, many unions, including some who took action on November 30th 2011, would likely decline to participate, endangering the unity of the movement.

The threat to unity is potentially a serious problem, as to force a division over the tactic of generalized industrial action would build a weaker coalition for the left than if we sought to force a division over proposed radical economic policies for an incoming Labour government. Instead of building a broad coalition advocating an alternative economic policy, we could fall into the trap of isolating the left and surrendering the battle for the centre ground.

This article first appeared at Socialist Unity where there is also an interesting series of comments.


  1. David Pavett says:

    I agree with Andy Newman and not because of any legal pitfalls that might or might not stand in the way of a general strike but much more because for such serious action there has to be a general belief that there is an alternative. As Andy says

    “People will not enter any industrial struggle unless they can envision what a victory would look like. The precondition for generalized industrial action to force a change of government economic policy is a widespread belief that an alternative policy is both feasible and available”

    Without that one would have to believe that a general strike can be based on “we don’t like what is going on” or on the belief that the arguments about an alternative have been won or are on the way to being won for the great majority. Neither shows much contact with reality and it is irresponsible of leaders like Crow and McCluskey to argue as if it were otherwise.

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