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General Strike: let’s not sleepwalk into a self-inflicted defeat

I was interested to see today’s front page of the Morning Star, with the report by Tony Patey about McCluskey’s call fora campaign of “civil disobedience” in protest against government austerity measures, reportedly saying workers and unions have a duty to stand and fight. According to the Star, in a television interview, McCluskey pledged to “fight all the way to the next election” and said that:

no form of protest, including the prospect of a general strike, should be ruled out. He told Sky News’s Murnaghan programme that working people were being left “battered” by the Con-Dem government’s savage kamikaze cuts and austerity agendas.

According to the Morning Star, McCluskey referred to a General Strike, but the actual words they quote from him are more circumspect:

The reality is that this government’s policies are taking us on a path to poverty and we want to make certain that we give people confidence throughout our nations to be able to stand up and resist. That’s the only thing you can do – it’s called democracy.

The oldest form of democracy is protest, civil disobedience, any form of resistance that makes this government take a step back and know there are millions and millions of ordinary working people in our nations who are not prepared to stand idly by and watch them destroy everything that we hold dear to us in our society.

….When governments are acting in a way that is against ordinary working people we have a right, in fact we have a duty, to stand up and protest. Those protests will take all kinds of different forms – marches on streets, civil disobedience, industrial action. All of those should be used and none of them should be ruled out.

Ordinary working people, who feel battered at the moment, attacked from all sides by this government, should have the bravery and the courage to stand together. This is no time for us, and certainly no time for trade union leaders, to be cowering in the corner.

We’ve got to be proud of our values of fairness, of equality, of decency and justice. We have got to say very clearly to this government that we are going to fight you all the way to the next election.”

The General Council of the TUC voted in September to consider the practicalities of a general strike, but my understanding is that they have shied away from the necessary task of asking unions in detail what level of support they believe actually exists for a strike, and what is each union’s level of prepareredness and willingness to conduct a strike. Instead unions have been just asked for their general opinion.

Let us be clear that an ill prepared or poorly supported general strike could be an enormous self-inflicted defeat for the Labour movement. Already hawkish Tory MPs, like Jacob Rees Mogg, have argued for the unions to be broken, and strikers sacked.

I have written before of the very real dangers of an ill-considered general strike, and of my very serious doubts about its practicality. Nothing has substantially changed since I addressed this last October:

The call [for a General strike] 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 TUC 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. Even were Hendy correct, we can be assured that employers would seek injunctions and orders for the sequestration of union assets, and that the English and Scottish courts, whose judges are deeply embedded into the establishment, will side with the employers. If Hendy turns out to be vindicted in a European Court judgement some years in the future, that would be of no consolation.

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 experience 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.

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.

What is more, even the process of having a serious discussion about our preparedness for a general strike is premature, and itself risks showing weakness and division. The Daily Mail reported that UNITE’s national executive in December argued that they must continue ‘fighting to ensure that a general strike is not dropped from the agenda’, and that there is ‘consensus that a general strike should be one of the tools in our armoury against cuts and austerity’. The Mail’s article was based upon the Unite Now website:

There was an extensive debate about motion 5 at the TUC Congress about considering the practicalities of the General Strike. UNITE has had to fight to ensure this wasn’t dropped from the agenda and to avoid a defeatist consultation document being circulated to unions.

The work of John Hendy and Keith Ewing on the legalities of a General Strike was welcomed, but it was recognised that this did not overcome the problem of the law being used against workers or their unions.

Historically, effective action by working people has often had to be in defiance of laws intended to prevent them organising and winning.

Some unions oppose the idea of a General Strike outright, while others support it but do very little to bring it about. Some want to wait for a general election in the hope that Labour will undo the destruction of our services, the welfare state and the economy.

At the EC there was consensus that a General Strike should be one of the tools in our armory against cuts and austerity, but that serious campaigning was required to ensure that members supported this and it was effective. We concluded that other action, such as coordinated action in the public sector over pay, should be in addition to rather than in place of a move towards a General Strike.

It is quite clear from this report, even from a union broadly in favour of a general strike, that the political consensus and industrial capablity is simply not there in the movement at the moment. There is a danger that some unions, for their own political reasons, will talk up the general strike option, despite its current impracticality, and that this might gain momentum in union committees even though the real preparedness for such a strike is absent. That in itself becomes an axis around which the debate revolves, as a substitute to practical things that we could actually achieve over the coming months.

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.

6 Comments

  1. David Ellis says:

    Often the call for a general strike is a cover for programmatic nakedness. There have been many, many, many general strikes in Greece which could have been strength-building exercises leading up to a real general strike and a struggle for power but which have gone nowhere and allowed the fascists to step into the political vacuum taking advantage of the pointless disruption.

    McCluskey has no intention of organising a general strike he doesn’t even organise his own members to fight for what they have and create the necessary ground swell of militancy that could be generalised. The general strike slogan for him is a way of covering his own lack of action and his own lack of perspective and programme. There was no general strike to greet or prevent the privatisation of NHS services not even a 24 hour one. This government needs urgently to be brought down but if there is to be a general strike to do it then the working class will need to be won away from the bureaucrats behind an alternative radical programme that they really want to fight for.

    The revolutionary left must win trade union members behind its own radical programme of immediate and transitional demands then we can call our own general strike with serious intent because the likes of McCluskey and Co will never call one unless they have absolutely no choice and only then to sabotage it.

  2. Dave says:

    David Ellis: “The revolutionary left must… etc.”

    Yawn.

  3. Rob the cripple says:

    A general strike, I would suspect you would need to have the NHS, teachers on board but they cannot strike the police they cannot strike, the retailers they do not want to strike.

    Car plants not a hope in hell, industry nope, building well most are on the dole so I doubt they be to excited. But the problem is if you brought down this government what would replace it and for the love of me I cannot see Balls or either Miliband being good enough bold enough or socialist enough to be any better then the Tories are now.

  4. David Ellis says:

    Dave: ?

    anyway this writer’s opposition to a general strike isn’t that the timing is wrong he is opposed to it in principle unless it is thoroughly legal under bourgeois law and therefore impossible. He also has absolutely no alternative economic programme to offer than that being espoused by the New Labour vacuum which is a sort of hypocritical warmed-over Keynesianism based on the lie that Labour could or would borrow to create jobs.

  5. Dave says:

    @ David

    What the writer conveyed doesn’t, to my mind, match your interpretation.

    Where I live, far away from the undergraduate bed-sit wonderland of the “revolutionary left”, abduction by extra-terrestrials seems much more likely than a general strike.

  6. Rob the cripple says:

    The world has changed striking now would put people into debt lose jobs and what would we get Newer labour into power.

    First words out of mouth we need to carry on with Tory spending plans.

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