Friday, October 05, 2012

Considering the Practicalities of a General Strike

The TUC sold out the 1926 general strike. Will they organise another one?
At their September conference, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) approved a motion originally proposed by the Socialist Party-dominated Prison Officers Association. Though such an organisation could never be a hive of radical activity, papers screamed that "vital services could be wiped out".

In full, the motion read:
"Congress accepts that the trade union movement must continue leading from the front against the uncaring government with a coalition of resistance taking coordinated action where possible with far reaching campaigns including the consideration and practicalities of a general strike."
We are now two and a half years into the tenure of the most reactionary UK government that has existed since World War Two. It has implemented austerity measures which have already savaged the living standards of millions, and they are only about a quarter of the way through the slashing cuts they have planned so far.

In the public sector, three hundred thousand jobs have been destroyed, and a three year wage freeze has reduced the real value of salaries by around 13%. The government's plans for a further two year pay rise cap could easily leave public sector employees one fifth worse off than they were in 2009. On top of this, the recent government pensions raid will see them pay more and work longer to receive less on retirement. Meanwhile, the bankers who triggered the 2008 meltdown are doing better than ever.

If you are a public sector worker, you know how enraged and/or despairing you are. If you're not, and you're reading this, you can surely imagine. Now look at that 'incendiary' motion again. Isn't it a ridiculously timid piece of crap?

Lest we forget, Greek workers have staged umpteen one- and two- day general strikes since the economic crisis erupted there, and their counterparts in Spain and Portugal have taken similar action too. Not one euro of austerity has been prevented. But the motion doesn't even commit the UK union bosses to organising such a stoppage. Instead, a vague "coalition of resistance" might take "coordinated action", but only "where possible" (whatever that means). The "practicalities" of a general strike are under "consideration", but that certainly doesn't mean it will happen. In fact - such are the restrictive nature of the Thatcher anti-union laws - it possibly means it won't. Above all, union tops must ensure their actions remain legal.

Successive general strikes have failed to make any gains in Greece
I've also been considering the practicalities of a general strike, and I've concluded that for such a strike to win, it would have to break the law. This surely makes sense, because the laws were framed by the ruling class in such a way as to make winning strikes much more difficult. All these ballot regulations, strike warnings and time limits, they are all there to help corporations, financial aristocrats and their governments win.

It must also be open-ended. Again, this is straightforward in my mind. Imagine a battle, where before you launched an attack on the enemy's castle you sent them a message. And imagine the message said, 'Ok, we're going to attack you for five minutes, and then if we haven't let us in by then, we'll just go home. After all, it's your castle. Don't want to break the rules.' Those defending the fortress would know they only had to ride out a short period of time, and then the battle would be won. So yeah, if you want to storm heaven, you have to keep fighting til you've won.

But most of all, a general strike must be controlled by the people with most invested in it - i.e. rank and file workers. They are the ones who will lose pay by striking. They are the ones who will have to stand on picket lines. They are the ones - if say the 1926 general strike is anything to go by - who might face police and even army. The bureaucrats have no stake in behaviour which might actually challenge the status quo. On the contrary, their seriously comfortable lifestyles would be threatened by the type of general strike I have described, because their money depends on maintaining their role as 'negotiators'. A less polite term would be 'industrial cops'.

That's why - for all their talk of working class struggle - the material interests of the bureaucracy very closely align with those of the capitalist class. Perhaps the most blatant embodiment of these contradictions is outgoing TUC general secretary Brendan Barber. While making occasional and relatively mild criticisms of the government for its anti-worker measures, he has sat on the Bank of England board since 2003. He is fully integrated into the ruling class apparatus. So when he talks - as he did at the TUC conference - of an "Olympic-style crusade" to build up the UK "industrial strength", he does so knowing full well this would necessarily mean an enormous attack on wages in an era of global competition. But so long as these poorly paid jobs were unionised, Barber and his parasitic layer would be happy.

Just like with the phony war over pensions, whatever emerges out of these talks between union tops will not seriously challenge the government's agenda. At most, just at the moment where it looks like it will do just that, the rug will be pulled out from under the feet of rank and filers. The solution I propose might seem utopian, but with options running out, it's getting more realistic by the day.
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