are we ready for a winter of discontent?

by Sheila Cohen, NUJ Book Branch

Rulers are often more afraid of the political implications of worker activity than workers are aware of them. To take an extreme example, when the police went on strike in 1919 Lloyd George famously intoned, “The country was nearer to Bolshevism that day than any time since”. How many of the high-helmeted bobbies packing Whitehall would have seen it like that?

poststrike

So, coming down to earth a bit, when the Financial Times once again evokes that tired old phrase “Winter of Discontent”, perhaps we should take it seriously.

In fact, the headline was “Union discontent set to rise this winter” (26th October, p.2), but the implication is obvious; strike incidence has risen enough to attract notice despite the FT’s realistic conclusion that “…even if the postal strikes continue, the national annual tally of [strike days] is likely to remain far below the levels of the 1980s and earlier.”

As we now know, the postal strikes are not, for the time being at least, “continuing” — to the fury of many postal workers. But the FT also includes in its list BA cabin crew, FirstGroup train drivers, Swissport baggage handlers and London underground staff. While the Leeds refuse and street cleaning workers, now in the tenth week of their all-out, cross-union strike, are also included, the FT notes that most groups now in dispute “are in the communications and transport sector.” This, and indeed the Leeds action, undermines the  “manufacturing versus service” argument which focusses on the decline of the allegedly more powerful manufacturing sector — though manufacturing and other manual workers certainly played their part in the three major outbreaks of industrial unrest earlier this year (Visteon, Vestas and engineering construction).

So are we at the dawn of an upsurge? It seems unlikely. But if we look back almost one hundred years ago to the day, i.e. the turn of the year 1909-10, things were hotting up in Britain after a long period of weakness and membership loss in the trade union movement very similar to our own long-lasting malaise. As one history recounts, “Trade union membership grew only very slowly in the 1890s and 1900s, and [there was] a marked reduction in worker successes during strikes…From the 1890s there was a clear trend amongst the…unions to accept institutionalised collective bargaining with employers…and to oppose militant direct action…”

Sound familiar? But look at what comes next: “As the economy improved after the deep 1908-9 depression workers increasingly took unofficial action…” . And then, of course, along came the explosion of militancy which has been labelled the “Great Unrest” of 1910-1914. While no one is saying that the current recession is anything like over, the issues which prompted workers into action in the pre-Great Unrest period were very similar to those confronting workers today — acute labour intensification, wage freezes or reductions, and in general an employer agenda of almost sadistic aggression.

Thus, in a syndrome sometimes despised by the intellectual left, workers were forced into struggle by the actions of employers, rather than forming any kind of conscious “political” agenda of resistance. The now-postponed postal strike is an example of this. Faced with an employer agenda of low and static pay, literally heavier workloads, unilateral breakage of agreements and massive bullying and intimidation, postal workers in some areas pre-empted the national strike with a series of guerrilla actions born out of anger and despair at the actions of management. As one rep put it, “There’s a war going on…We’re in a war with Royal Mail.”

But it isn’t, of course, just the postal workers. At the time of writing this, new examples of workplace-based conflict seem to be coming in droves. The nine-week strike by bin workers in Leeds over “single status” has just been mirrored by their workmates in Brighton with all-out action sparked by the prospect of pay cuts of up to £8,000 per worker under the loony logic of, um, equal pay. Their branch secretary commented, “I’ve never seen such a solid group of workers.” Fujitsu workers — high-tech professionals who aren’t supposed to do things like taking strike action — will be walking out this week (12th, 13th and 16th November) after an overwhelming vote for industrial action over the company’s announcement of a pay freeze, 1,200 redundancies and the closure of a final salary pension scheme to new staff. A comrade from the NUJ emails us about “a strike you may not have heard about” — workers at a huge Superdrug warehouse close to the now defunct Frickley Colliery in West Yorkshire came out on indefinite strike on 4th November  against the company’s imposition of drastic changes to pay and working conditions including the abolition of shift payments,  changes to shift patterns without notice, lowered pension entitlement and reduced sick pay. Also from the NUJ comes news of a wave of disputes in the Sheffield area signalled by a cartoon in the local paper headed — you’ve guessed it — “Looks like we’re in for an early Winter of Discontent this year!” The cartoon figures are surrounded by snowballs bearing the words “Strike”.

The Evening Standard of 2nd November reported the British Airways dispute in terms of “a revolt of middle England” in which workers at a mass meeting spoke of their “anger and frustration” at management’s imposition of new contracts on top of thousands of job cuts and a pay freeze. The paper quotes a worker as saying “We are not militant trade unionists looking for a confrontation…” On the news the same night, airline workers complained that the company “just would not listen” — “They’ll impose this on you, and you accept it, and they’ll just do the same and the same…” “This is a fundamental fight.” A week later, a strike by East London bus workers over a pay freeze was also on the news — covered not sympathetically (surprise), but the workers were given a 30-second spot in which they said, as so many have before them: “It’s come to a point where we’ve got to make a stand — enough is enough.” And — stop press — teachers in an East London school have just gone on strike against the proposal to turn it into a “Trust”, while First Capital Connect train drivers who were refusing to carry out Sunday overtime on reduced rates have now extended their action to weekdays.

“The company was the union’s best organiser”

What to make of it all? The main point about this spate of disputes is that, although nothing new in itself, it speaks yet again to the unfailing power of capital to mobilise workers and of workers to demonstrate  over and over again the “old-fashioned” virtues of solidarity, self-activity, direct democracy and just sheer class resistance. In other words, it represents — yet again — a reiteration of the truths that we as socialists hold self-evident: that yes, there are such things as class, class struggle and working-class potential to challenge and, in some cases, seriously worry our apparently omnipotent rulers.

Enough said? No, not quite. If “we” — i.e., the left in some form — continue with business as usual, viz each group selling its papers and waving its own particular banners on the picket line, things won’t change. As a postal worker rep said to me recently when asked for his views on political action: “In 2007 we had all the little groups round here selling their papers. Two years later we’ve got the same little groups selling their papers.” He was not impressed.

Is there another way? Yes, as shown in historical examples good, bad and frustrating. The Great Unrest, as readers will know, was followed by the splendid might of the First World War Shop Stewards’ Movement, which displayed some of the most magnificent examples of solidarity and sheer cross-working-class power yet seen under capitalism. Why didn’t it lead to a British revolution, despite the ruling class shaking in its boots at the threat? Lack of unity was one reason, an over-developed trust in trade union leaderships another. Fast-forward to the last major upsurge in Britain, 1968-74. There were two relatively “non-sectarian” attempts to consolidate and unite working-class struggle: the Liaison Committee for the Defence of the Trade Unions (LCDTU), run by the Communist Party, and the International Socialists’ Rank-and-File Movement. Both collapsed, or at least faded away – the LCDTU because the CP decided that chasing after the coat-tails of left-wing MPs and trade union leaders was more important than mobilising the rank and file, and the IS initiative because its leadership wanted to turn the “group” into a Party.

These crude assessments will probably be challenged, though believe me there’s evidence for them. But what about now? This is only a “mini-upsurge”, but the same truths remain. We desperately need, in this country, a non-sectarian network which can link activists together without an agenda of joining this or that — simply one of building on the existing strength of workers in the workplace, the existing level of anger and revolt amongst strikers and activists, rather than waving manifestos and preaching Party programmes. The working class has enormous potential to build towards socialism on the basis of its own experience. That potential has very rarely been acknowledged or welcomed by the left. The Leninists among us can take comfort in the thought that Lenin himself was one of the strongest advocates of simply learning from what workers can tell us.

Where to go with all this? Well, we should count ourselves lucky — there is an organisation potentially of that nature existing in Britain today. It’s called the National Shop Stewards’ Network. The NSSN could begin this task now — the task of building a cross-movement network of activists. After all, there’s the material to build on. The most recent research shows that the number of shop stewards, though much reduced, can still be estimated at around 200,000. Even if only one per cent of these existing activists were brought together to build a network based on the simple principles of cross-sectoral organisation and workplace trade union democracy, it would be more than a start — the potential would be enormous. This time, let’s be ready for the next upsurge with a leadership rooted and built within the trade union movement rather than brought in from outside, embodied in a working-class network based on explicit principles of independence from management propaganda and direct trade union democracy which would be more than equal to combat the diversions and confusions undermining the potential of previous groundswells of working-class struggle.

« For more information on the NSSN, see their website at www.shopstewards.net.

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