|Has the workers' movement has "not recovered" from 1926 general strike?|
Back in November last year, a resolution originating from the Prison Officers' Association was passed at the Trades Union Congress conference by a considerable majority. The motion called upon the TUC to consider the practicalities of a general strike. This gave the trade unions a massive mandate to take coordinated action against the government's austerity program. Why then has that not yet happened? Additionally, why is it unlikely to happen, at least via an official route?
The motion itself read:
"Congress welcomes the Future that Works demonstration on 20 October 2012 and recognises this as being an effective platform and foundation to resist the damaging austerity measures that are damaging the very fabric of our society in Great Britain.Since this motion passed there has been very little to suggest that consideration of any kind is taking place nor anything to suggest that official fightback of any kind is on the agenda. Therefore I was pretty surprised to see the topic of Unite response to this motion on July's Young Members Committee meeting agenda - nine months after the original motion was passed.
"Further, Congress recognises that after the demonstration there needs to be a strong voice from all TUC affiliated unions to protect public and private sector workers, the unemployed, our children, the elderly and all those in our society who are vulnerable.
"Congress accepts that the trade union movement must continue leading from the front against this 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."
Before I can continue with this I need to make two points:
1> Whilst I aim to keep the content of this post purely factual, it is nonetheless from a semi-personal perspective, purely because I was at the meeting in person.
2> I want to note the reasons I am making this public. I accept this will upset people, some of whom I do believe are genuine in their intentions. However I feel I have a duty to inform those who are putting their hopes and faith in the official union structures to fight on their behalf, and whilst I accept this will burn bridges this post is not made out of spite, but from a hope to build something concrete.
The suggested response given for us to agree or amend, written by the Executive Committee of Unite can be read here.
At first glance it actually looks pretty good. They intend to make the potential general strike happen for explicitly political reasons, and at least say that people should not simply be told to await the return of a Labour government. But there are problems too.
I raised my concerns at the meeting, when we as the Young Members Committee were asked to approve the Unite response. I had many concerns, but the main points I initially raised were 'why has this taken so long?'
The answer was that with Brendan Barber still around when the motion had been carried, little was done to keep the issue on the agenda, and then that Unite had been discussing and waiting for responses from other unions. That while PCS are taking lots of action themselves, there was little consensus for combined action. I was told that this then leaves Unite as "lone wolves".
I also questioned why there was seemingly no need to set a date yet. Given that we are now nine months on, and that it was clear that one general strike on its own is unlikely to change anything in terms of stopping the cuts. I pointed out that Greece has had eighteen plus general strikes with no sign of austerity being abandoned. I said that given the long term plan outlined in our response this is very unlikely to give any hope to those bearing the brunt of the cuts and so the very least we can do if we are even discussing this is to call a date and see who is with us.
The response (from the chair) being that it would be suicidal to set a date now. That we have not yet recovered as a movement from the last general strike (the one in 1926 where the TUC sold us out?),
that with there not being consensus amongst officers that Unite would potentially split in two, and that to suggest we name a date is "absolutely nuts".
They then voted to pass the response, with an additional suggestion that Unite at all times put pressure on the TUC to act on this - a seemingly meaningless statement.
The problem with this response is that when taking into account the proposed actions, these suggestions seem little more than an attempt to harness public opinion and anger. Both the anger of union membership - which is largely to the left of the leadership itself - and also the of "the communities" whose anger Unite has claimed to understand needs to play a role in any serious fightback regardless of employment status, hence the community branch initiative. Harnessing this anger is not a bad thing, provided that it is then channeled into something constructive, not into false hope, and defused by delaying tactics.
In essence, when you cut through the rhetoric, Unite's response is saying that a general strike is something to potentially work towards, but that we should not yet set a date. It even states that:
"It is not about setting a date for such a strike now, nor about pitting the demand for a general strike against other initiatives. It is however about recognising that the steps taken to prepare for such mass action in and of themselves; and that undertaking them increases the range of options our movement has in resisting the government's rush to disaster, whether or not such strike action is ever eventually called"I don't think this is about building confidence amongst the rank and file as point 14 suggests by "bringing opinion amongst our members to the point of supporting such action", over "a build-up period of several months". Members are not lacking confidence because of any uncertainty in what needs to be done. They are wary of wasting precious time and energy on dead ends which end in shitty compromises - exactly the kind of scenario these 'steps toward' are likely to lead to. Perhaps I am cynical, but it has taken nine months to get to a discussion at a tokenistic committee (this is despite hard work of committed activists but an explanation would distract from the point here). At this pace we are not likely to see any serious action until way after a general election anyway, regardless of the claim that we should not wait until then.
Point 8 I am also somewhat wary of - the idea that the general community will not understand the need for mass action. 'Middle England' may not. But the communities which Unite are currently paying lip service to (because community members do not have anywhere near the same benefits as employed members, and far less funds to campaign with) are way ahead of this in terms of being aware of what needs to be done on the ground in order to get change, however they do not fit into traditional union actions as clearly the unemployed cannot 'strike'. That doesn't mean that a general strike would lack support from the unemployed, nor that there couldn't be unemployed solidarity actions that are in a sense less restrained by law.
The legal concerns are obviously serious. On the individual level rather than institutional. Unite acknowledge that their membership is low in particular sectors, and that it may not have the power to protect workers against punitive action from employers. This is a material fact of the times though. I am certain that activists would do everything in their power - in and outside of union structures - to organise solidarity actions to support such employees, but it will come down to a choice for individuals to make.
Some won't, but some no doubt will be willing to take a stand now, because frankly union membership is not likely to improve unless unions are seen to be willing to fight. When the working classes first began to organise and act in their interests, individuals were picked off and suffered consequences, but this is also how advances were made. I'm not talking individual self sacrifice, but a collective stand with the knowledge that this poses individual risk. We are at such a low point in terms of industrial strength that actually such a stand is needed again.
This brings me to the law in the institutional sense. Britain is bound by the most severely restrictive anti-trade union laws in Europe. Laws which the last Labour government did nothing to reverse, and laws which serve to stifle any attempt at serious action which could threaten the current government, previous, future or if we are honest about who such governments represent - i.e. the capitalist class.
Part 10 of Unite's suggested response acknowledges the views of John Hendy QC, and Professor Keith Ewing that a general strike may well be legal under European human rights legislation - thus superceding British law, and suggest that we should publicise these opinions. However, noting to test this would likely take years of work suggests that they are not willing to try.
Again, it is worth remembering that every law in history that has been changed in favour of the working class has been changed by breaking the previous, unjust law.
Anti-union laws are there for a reason - a political one - to restrain the official structures of the working class. This in itself is not the fault of officials. However, by acting in fear of these laws, officials show that they will never challenge them.
The rest of the response goes on into some bizarre fantasy, going into great detail about what Unite would do should they go ahead with this action, despite having already heavily suggested that they are unlikely to. Detail such as an voluntary additional political levy which would serve as a sort of strike fund, replacing at least in part the wages of workers disciplined for the action that they are not going to be encouraged to take. Even if this were not fantasy, this is wrong when a substantial political levy is paid to a party who have shown time and time again that they are unwilling to even reverse the laws constraining such action, never mind do anything else in workers' interest.
The bizarre long winded plan of a "roadmap" is completely patronising; yet another attempt to divert energy into yet another useless symbolic action ending with a "carnival against the cuts".
People are dying. Lots. A "carnival" will not change that. Getting rid of this government and any other which seeks to serve the same interests will. A general strike organised from the bottom up, built on co-operation between workers rather than negotiation between committees of officials could make this happen. But only if we refuse to be diverted by dead ends.