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