still the same old story: two swallows don’t make a summer

Gregor Gall replies to Chris Kane’s piece in issue 5 of The Commune

It’s not uncommon on the left for commentators to herald that a clutch of instances form an observable trend. Desperation, frustration, desire and hope can be dangerous things.

Writing on the Guardian’s website CommentisFree on 26 May 2009, Seumas Milne penned a piece called ‘Return of the strike’ ). Putting two and two together, it’s not hard to argue that he got five despite his caveat on France. The tone of his piece was that ‘something significant is going on’. His evidence (concerning strikes) was the two engineering construction workers’ strike (in Janunary/February and May 2009) and the Visteon occupations (at Belfast and Enfield).

And from the Commune website, Chris Kane in a piece called ‘Revive flying pickets and spread the actions’  of 24 May 2009, and using exactly the same examples argued:

“We have seen the revival of unofficial strikes during the Lindsey oil refinery dispute… We have also seen a whole string of workplace occupations, the most recent being at the Ford Visteon plants in Belfast and London.”

Again, despite appropriate caveats, the piece continues in this tone, whereby Chris put two and two together and got much more: probably seven or eight.

Whether intended or not, this puts both Seumas and Chris in the same stable as the eternal callers of the upturn in industrial struggle, the SWP. Now a broken clock is always right twice a day but that does not make it right for the right reasons.

What I want to suggest is a far more nuanced reading highlights that the two instances of manifest resistance (engineering construction workers and Visteon) are not readily generalisable to other groups of workers, no matter that we sorely wish this was otherwise. In other words, great care needs to be taken in concluding that the Visteon case represent one from which we can easily and quickly generalise out to other situations as many like the Morning Star (2 May 2009), Socialist Worker (9 May 2009) and The Socialist (5 May 2009) have done.

Let’s take the Visteon case first. In addition to the act of resistance itself at Visteon, what seems to have been crucial in explaining the relatively successful outcome here were a number of specific, if not idiosyncratic, contextual and contingent factors. First, many (but not all) workers had contracts of employment which stated they were entitled to Ford terms and conditions despite being employed by Visteon. Second, the act of redundancy was immediate, total and brutal with no 90 day notice period and consultation. Third, Ford was sensitive to pressure, and especially the prospect of a walkout at its Bridgend and Dagenham plants which would have heavily affected production of the Fiesta in Germany (whose sales are rising due to a government exchange scheme) because of its use of highly complex and integrated production processes (based on the ‘just in time’ production technique) between its different plants. Fourth, and unlike Chrysler or GM, Ford had the resources to pay the sacked Visteon workers.

But as the Visteon workers at Enfield and Basildon stated, they would not have sought to occupy their plants (which only Enfield succeeded in doing) if their colleagues in Belfast had not already done so. What was meant by this was that it was only in the context of seeing their co-workers do something which they had not contemplated themselves that the act of occupation became realistic and realisable.

The overall point here is that not all workers will face situations where there is such a stark legal and moral argument for delivering on obligations which can be enforced through industrial and political pressure. Instead, many workers will face companies (whether actually separate or only legally separate) which do not have resources in holding or mother companies to fall back on, and where there has been a catastrophic fall in demand for their goods/services so that there is little or no immediate prospect of suppliers or rivals taking over the company as it is currently constituted. Consequently, when a company goes bust, it is normally a case of bankruptcy or receivership where workers will be one of many creditors looking to recover monies and workers are not necessarily first in line for these.

And to emphasise the point all the more, it is still not clear why the Belfast Visteon workers were able to engage in an occupation off their own backs while their co-workers were not. We need to get an understanding of the social psychological dynamics of that particular set of Visteon workers to understand why there were able to do so, especially as more widely there are so few acts of occupation.

Now, turning to the example of the engineering construction workers, there are again quite specific factors at play here again. Without going through chapter and verse again, these pertain to the nature of the grievance – a highly inflammatory one, the idiosyncratic labour markets in the sector (in terms of peripatetic skilled workers, working away from home, living together in digs and so which foster senses of collectivity and solidarity), the continuation of traditions of unofficial, inter-site union organization (in addition to high union density), continuing tradition of wildcatting, the anti-cyclical nature of investment and so on and so forth. Here, we have a case of where forceful opposition existed when the continuation of the construction work was not in doubt by comparison to that of the three Visteon plants.

Taking this situational approach, we can get some inkling that it is not just that the RMT is militant which leads to militant acts. It is also about power to disrupt a service, and where that disruption is critically highly visible and has an immediate impact, the service is not substitutable in any major way, the numbers of the travelling public affected are significant and so on. Something similar can be said at this level of analysis about postal strikes and the CWU.

This analysis is not a question of being pessimistic as some ultra-lefts will no doubt think it is. It is a materialist analysis in which it bears heavily on the mind that, with an extremely low level of class consciousness and collective confidence amongst workers, we should not expect the demonstration effect of one group of workers’ actions to pass easily and appropriately on to other groups. When this does happen, conditions will be much different. Upturns in struggle clearly do come from somewhere but the left (practitioner, academic, commentator), to my mind, still does not have a very good understanding of why this is the case: it cannot go much beyond trite formulations. Consequently, there is urgent need to understand why some groups can and so struggle when most others do not.

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire

3 thoughts on “still the same old story: two swallows don’t make a summer

  1. This is a very good article, even if I do think it’s a bit unfair on Chris’ original piece – which didn’t so much predict a massive upswing in the class struggle, as encourage one and suggest the sorts of activity which would be involved in making it happen. Which is fair enough, the paper exists as propaganda; I don’t think the article made irresponsible claims about the likelihood of this happening, or downplayed its difficulties.

    Nonetheless, a useful reminder from Gregor. For most call centre workers for example, in terms of their real or perceived chances of getting well organised, let alone striking, let alone occupying or going wildcat, there is not much different from a year ago – except that it is harder to get another job if you’re sacked.

    Where we’ve seen an upsurge it’s been almost exclusively contained within traditional blue-collar, generally ‘Fordist’ industries (as Gregor says, with JIT production, many production bottlenecks), and a long history of strong, organised trade unionism: factors which are far from applicable to most workers in the country. What do we have to say to them, then?

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  2. The commune has challenged a lot of the dogma that takes the place of theory amongst left groups. An impressive record for what is after all a new tendency in the workers movement. If it is to make further progress it must challenge the crude do it yourself ‘rank and file’ fetishism that is a hall mark of these left sects. This normally consists of two interrelated propositions that are seen by sectarians and ultra leftists as applying to all trade union situations, regardless or despite of any concrete analysis. The first of these is that there is a rise in class struggle. This was a prognosis that was seen as valid throughout the late nineteen eighties and nineties and continues into this decade, a period that saw the number of strikes decrease dramatically.
    The second related proposition is that all that holds back these struggle is ‘a crisis in working class leadership’ manifested in the practice of the trade union leaders. This is seen as some as the sole reason for the failure of struggles during this period. As such this form of analysis ignores
    • The changes in world economy that has seen a drastic decline in Industrial or ‘Fordist’ forms of production. Where industrial production is moved to countries where exploitable labour power can be purchased at a cheaper rate.
    • The growth of sectors of the economy where no trade union tradition exists.
    • The anti trade union laws that make any form of spontaneous industrial action unlawful.
    • The dramatic decline in trade union membership that has been exacerbated by the current structural crisis of capitalism.
    • The deliberate engineering by employers of fragmented and segmented workforces that are designed to encourage division.
    • Intensified and intensifying employer and managerial hostility to all forms of workplace trade unionism
    • Continued privatisation
    • The domination of neo liberal ideology that has been incorporated into working class parties in what one commentator described as neo liberal social democracy.
    • The huge rise in underemployment and unemployment currently taking place.
    Instead of forms of analysis that factor in these objective changes in world political economy the left carries on repeating formulas that its ageing membership learned in the nineteen sixties and seventies a period of working class upsurge.
    We need to go beyond this if we are to rebuild trade unions and new forms of working class organisations.

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  3. Gregor’s response to my article is a welcome contribution to the debate on how we respond to the recession on the industrial front. I feel however Gregor misses an old point Marx made when developing his own philosophy of revolution – that the ‘philosophers have interpreted the world, in various ways. The point however is to change it’. In that sense my article was not only an assessment of the current situation but an argument of what should be done to change it.
    First a point on method, Gregor cites the need for a materialist analysis but he seems to use the old categories developed by the late Tony Cliff of the SWP, that of the “upturn” or “downturn”, whilst also accusing me of being of the same stable of the SWP in misreading we are now in an upturn. In my opinion these categories are unhelpful, and have little in common with Marx’s dialectic of negativity, the notion that forward movement emerges from the negation of obstacles. It is not the embrace of what is, but its negation, that spurs development; not the acceptance of the given, but its critique, that is the path to emancipation. With the categories of downturn and upturn – development is walled off, a situation does not contain the potential to be transformed into its opposite. During the “downturn” in the 1980’s, as conceived by Cliff, there was only the overarching defeat and we should cut our cloth accordingly – of course the notion of the upturn is accompanied by a corresponding gushing disorientation. These categories have more in common with manic depression than Marxism.
    In fact even during an employer’s offensive there is the potential of its dialectical negation – working class victory. Thus during the last “downturn” its theorists demeaning the possibility of victory found themselves at odds with reality during the Great Miners Strike, which contained the potential to turn the tide in our favour against Thatcher. Gregor’s has some similarity to the downturn mentality in his critique, putting a great deal of emphasis on the limitations of the workers struggles and the features carried over from the period before the current capitalist crisis.
    This new phase which we have now entered has contradictions, particularly arising from the legacy of the previous decades. We have the problem of the current weight of a conservative labour bureaucracy, and that those workers actions which have sprung up, both the spontaneous and organised, remain largely sectional and fragmented struggles. It has also been argued before in The Commune that workers display a contradiction in a recession that whilst some will be prepared to resist others are reluctant due to fear of job loss etc.
    Whilst accepting these problems communists need to recognise we are in a new phase of class struggle, to see the struggle as a whole – one which has two sides. That means not only seeing our own difficulties but weighing it up against the immense difficulties of the ruling class. The period which saw a partial recovery of capital from the structural crisis which began in the mid-1970s has hit the rocks, the ruling class is vulnerable in its efforts to restructure in response to the crisis. In this new phase there also arises the dialectical opposite in the form of new expressions of resistance. I contend that the two sets of construction workers strikes and the workplace occupations are important sign of such new forms of resistance.
    With the exception of the earlier wildcats in the Royal Mail there has been nothing similar for decades, in terms of factory occupations there has been nothing similar since the Caterpillar occupation in 1986. These disputes are of course specific to their workplaces and industry but that is the same with any industrial action in its beginning, the construction strikes should not be underestimated in terms of breaking the mould – this is an industry in which assertive trade unionism has been curtailed for years by the employers, union collusion and corruption. It is because these occupations and wild cats do break the mould that they stand out large, it is not the job of communists to put them down. Whilst having a sober analysis, it is our job point out their wider significance, how they can become less sectional, how self-organisation can be developed and what potential there exists for generalisation.
    In my article and others in The Commune we have never projected such ideas without recognition of the obstacles to be overcome such as the need to re-build and re-organise workplace organisations, the regeneration of the confidence to act independently of the law and the bureaucrats. However I disagree with Gregor that the current situation precludes the possibility of action spreading from one group of workers to another, historical experience shows the left again and again being taken by surprise by the workers action from below pushing ahead of its own low expectations.

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