Workers have nothing to rely on other than our own strength. Petitions and charters, appeals to statesmen and grand plans for what we think a “workers’ government” would do in Gordon Brown’s place are not much use to anyone being put out of a job. They are little better for these workers than the TUC’s pamphlets on how to access the JobCentre, and will do no more to solve the greatest problem in the British labour movement today, which is not as much a lack of numbers-with some seven million trade unionists-as the lack of confidence which has afflicted unions and most social movements since the crushing of the miners’ strike a quarter of a century ago.
What really shows the way forward are the struggles coming from below, some of which are reported on in this issue of The Commune. We should not collapse into euphoria that capitalism is collapsing-most class fights at the moment are about resisting attacks rather than taking a punch at the employers-but there is certainly room for optimism, because the idea of taking collective action and fighting back is being popularised and confidence is being restored.
The most significant example is perhaps the Ford-Visteon factory occupations in Belfast and London (pages 4-5) which echo the long-lost assertive tactics used by the British labour movement at its peak in the early 1970s. The Ford-Visteon workers are not only challenging their bosses’ right to cast aside their agreements, but also show that it is possible to fight back. Unlike the TUC bigwigs (the supposed ‘leadership’ of our movement!) these workers do not accept that the recession is some unstoppable force of nature which legitimises a torrent of management attacks and gives free rein for bosses to get rid of their workforce as they please.
By taking over the building where the workplace is situated, occupations pose a real challenge to the capitalists’ right to manage and their sacred property rights, and we can only be delighted by the increasingly widespread use of this tactic. Workers at Prisme in Dundee also occupied-but occupations are not just for factories! Fighting the slashing of public services, on Friday 3rd April parents at two primary schools in Glasgow facing closure barricaded themselves in the gym and assembly halls, saying they would stay overnight and vowing to stay until the council caved in. Two weeks later, as The Commune went to press, St. Gregory’s and Wyndford Primary Schools were still occupied.
Abroad too we can see evidence of the use of assertive tactics, such as the FCI Microconnections factory in the western suburbs of Paris, where half of a workforce of 400 have been in occupation for seven weeks in an effort to stop their jobs being farmed out to Singapore. At a Sony plant in the south-west of France the chief executive was held prisoner in an office by dozens of workers who had been made redundant.
The spectre of Tory and New Labour anti-union laws has long weighed heavily on the minds of those who wanted to take action, and has been even more loudly trumpeted by ‘left’ union leaders like PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka who needed an excuse to resist strike calls. As we went to press the RMT leadership was backing away from strike action on the London Underground-action which had a huge mandate from the membership-after a court injunction from the employers told them to stop it.
Yet in February the oil refinery wildcat strikes which broke out at Lindsey and spread across Britain just swept these anti-union laws aside with impunity. Thousands of workers went on strike without ballots, had picket lines far larger than the permitted six people, and furthermore strike sympathisers such as the 600 Polish workers at Langage Power Station mounted illegal solidarity action. The workers did not need permission from the state or the UNITE leaders – they decided they wanted to stand up for their jobs and then just went ahead and did it.
Aside from its symbolic significance, that strike wave was also a success at a material level, defending the principles of the national agreement in the industry and saving the jobs of a hundred workers threatened with redundancy.
No, the wildcats were not the first steps of revolution: but they did point to the movement as a whole that there is a way forward; that defeat is not inevitable; and that we can stand up for ourselves at a time when our rulers say that we have to suffer because “we’re all in it together”. With more solidarity, and with a concerted effort by others in the labour movement to spread the wildcat movement, the strikers could have dealt an even greater blow and put us on an even better footing to organise: in that sense there was an opportunity missed. But at least we can say that there are emerging signs of confidence in the labour movement.
We can look to the massive strike days in France and Greece, where millions of workers defy the ruling class, and sit in awe at ‘revolutionary’ types abroad, apparently always taking to the streets. No doubt, such struggles are inspiring and we have much to learn from them. But there is no God-given or cultural reason why the same and better is not possible even in Britain-before the 1984-85 miners’ strike the labour movement here was the strongest in Europe, and a renaissance is quite possible.
In order to recompose a real, living labour movement, as strong and stronger than what existed in the 1970s, labour movement activists must both learn lessons from the great struggles of that period-including promoting the use of tactics like occupations and flying pickets-but also draw confidence from the self-organisation happening in the here and now and try and generalise its democratic and confident means of organising. These typify not only the movement we want today but also the character of the communist society that such a movement might eventually achieve.
Certainly there are big struggles ahead. The ruling class is in ideological retreat, Brown’s government is spiralling into collapse, and after Lindsey, the anti-union laws look powerless. There have been several cases of self-organised resistance to the jobs cull, and there is potential to pull the strands together into an emboldened class movement. We must not miss this chance to make concrete victories.