Tuesday, 5 February 2013
24 hour general strike in Britain not going away
The TUC have tried to dust the fact they voted to consider the practicalities of a general strike at last year’s TUC conference in Brighton. But the socialist party and the NSSN will not let this be hidden away and workers will increasingly be looking for action. If workers do not find a route to channelling their anger down constructive routes via the labour movement we cannot rule out the possibility of further wildcat actions like the Sparks last year and similar events to South Africa where workers take action outside of their official union ranks. In the short term, the most pressing issue is the campaign for a 24-hour general strike. There is a glaring need for decisive action against austerity and the attempts to undermine union strength by slashing trade unionists’ facility time. The trade union movement needs to put the defense of union rights at the heart of the struggle against austerity, making clear to workers – in propaganda and, more importantly, deed – the essential role of the unions in defending their pay and living conditions. If the government manages to force through the attacks on facility time it will weaken the trade union movement in the short term. In the longer term, however, it could rebound on the government as new, younger, more militant fighters develop in workplaces across the country. In 2012 we already saw more militant methods being adopted by sections of workers, particularly in the private sector. The mass picket lines of the London bus workers were combined with blockades against those bus companies that had obtained a court injunction against the strike action. Crown saw three unofficial 24-hour walkouts and electricians won major concessions via unofficial demonstrations and blockades which, in turn, put pressure on UNITE to act officially. A new generation will tend to adopt these kinds of methods as they see that they cannot let themselves be hemmed in by the law if they are to stand up to the employers. Of course, even a 24-hour general strike against austerity would not be guaranteed to force the government to retreat, never mind to precipitate a general election, unless it was linked to a serious strategy for further action. Nonetheless, unlike Southern Europe, Britain has not had even a warning general strike for over 80 years, and it would have a gigantic effect on boosting the confidence of the working class and its sense of its own power, while it would terrify the capitalists. Millions of unorganised workers would be attracted to the trade unions. The right-wing leaders of the TUC will do all they can to prevent a 24-hour general strike taking place – it frightens them as much as it does the capitalist class! In 1972, the last time the TUC was forced to set the date for a 24-hour general strike, it was the strikes developing from below which forced them into reluctant action. Today the anger and bitterness of workers is as great, if not greater. The working class, however, lacks confidence in its capacity to win. It is not aware of its own power. At the same time, the trade union structures remain relatively empty. While there is widespread support for the idea of a general strike – over 80% in one Guardian survey – At this stage it does not occur to the majority of trade union members to attend their branch meeting to demand such action. Instead the current trade union leaders are seen by many workers as, like relatives, perhaps infuriating but unchangeable. But this outlook is not permanent. In 2011 we saw the working class enter the field of battle for the first time in years, with mass demonstrations, strikes and picket lines. On the basis of experience workers will fight to force their union leaders to act or, if they can’t, to push them aside. The potential for genuine trade union broad lefts, involving fresh layers of workers, is likely to grow in the next period. The right-wing leadership of the TUC holds up the anti-trade union laws as a means to avoid action. Socialists are not in favour of taking unnecessary risks with union funds. But workers are facing the biggest attack on their living standards since the 1930s. To fail to lead a serious struggle in defense of workers’ rights would be far more damaging to the trade union movement than anything the law courts could deliver. And it is possible to go a long way towards a general strike even within the straitjacket of the anti-union laws. If the TUC was to name the day for a 24-hour general strike against austerity, and to use all of its power to mobilise workers, it would get a huge response. All unions with live ballots could plan to strike on the named day. Other groups of workers inspired by the call would want to ballot over the real issues in their workplace, which would also allow them to take part in the general strike. Without doubt other workers not currently in unions would flock to take part. Whether the government or employers could use the law – either against those who had not balloted or to invalidate ballots – would depend on the balance of forces. Faced with the threat of a popular general strike, with a clear threat to immediately strike again if any workers or trade unions were victimised, the anti-union laws would be worthless. The limits to how far the employers can use the anti-trade union laws are shown by the situation in UNITE. Since Len McCluskey became general secretary not a single group of workers has received a ‘letter of repudiation’ from the union for unlawful action. Yet the government and employers have not dared to threaten UNITE with sequestration. Nor has the POA been threatened for its action in defiance of the law last May. Many European countries have seen general strikes, despite also having varying degrees of repressive anti-trade union laws and restrictions. These have been swept away by the struggle. So do not let the TUC get away with silence on the matter keep up the pressure on your unions, in branches and in trades councils. A 24 hour general strike would be a great first step to generalising the attacks and giving workers confidence that they can fight and win.