what it would take to beat austerity

After seeing our leaflet for March 26th, Red Pepper got in touch and asked us to put together an article which put the argument in slightly extended form.  Here it is.  Strikes and other action must be controlled by workers themselves, argues Tom Denning.

A week on, the feedback from the TUC demonstration seems broadly positive.  To seasoned marchers, it might have seemed like just another trudge along Embankment – but for many it was their first demonstration, and the sheer weight of numbers carried some exhilaration with it.

And yet, we remember: eight years ago, on those same streets, there were twice the numbers, or more.  And what difference did it make?  Labour ignored us, the war went ahead.  And, if they can, the present government will ignore us in their turn.  We know, if we are honest, that orderly demonstrations in central London will not stop the cuts.  Such demonstrations pose no threat to the profit or power of the ruling class: and this, we know, is what makes the difference.

Our task now is to sharpen exhilaration with analysis, and ask: what will it really take to stop the cuts?

The old ways don’t work

Public sector strike action has already begun, as 3,000 NUT teachers and Unison support staff struck in Tower Hamlets on Wednesday.  National strike action in health, local government, education, and the civil service is likely before the autumn.  But in the last three decades, our movement has got used to fighting in a certain way.  Strikes typically last one day, and are tightly managed from above.  National executives call action off when they please, often on the flimsiest of pretexts; and there is little membership participation or control.

Two examples are the Unison disputes over pensions in 2007 and pay in 2008.  We could see something similar in the most recent two Royal Mail disputes.  In each case, the union settled for relatively minor concessions on the basis of very limited action and, more importantly, little genuine participation from strikers.   This is not entirely because union leaders hold their members back.  To an extent, their cowardice reflects the fact that the movement is weak at its base.  But that, in turn, reflects the fact that the movement has no prospect of rebuilding itself on the basis of the limits set by these, the official, methods.

The whole point of the anti-trade union laws, of course, is that whilst they are formally ‘democratic’, they do not correspond to the real dynamics of working class direct action and solidarity; which is – which always has been when effective – an unruly thing, bubbling up from below, crossing the boundaries of official ‘trade disputes’.

The old ways were not sufficient even for the old attacks.  And what we’re facing here is something more.

Defeating cuts in France, 1995

In 1995, the French working class faced a similar austerity package, including welfare and pension cuts.  Whilst there had been some important strikes in the preceding decades, the movement in general was unconfident.  Unions called a one-day strike in certain areas. What happened next took everyone by surprise.

Rather than just letting trade union officials run the strike, workers – first of all on the railways, then in other sectors – began to organise their strikes through mass assemblies.  These assemblies, which dissolved the divisions between unions at each workplace, reserved the right to determine the direction of strikes and the terms on which they would be ended.  They decided not to go back to work until their demands were met; immediately taking the movement into their own hands, making it more than just another prop for negotiators. Not only did they strike, they occupied; and they made sure it wasn’t only a public sector dispute, as strikes spread into the private sector, often without union authorisation.  Three and a half weeks later, almost all their demands had won.

This sort of thing isn’t impossible for us here.  The 2009 Tower Hamlets College strike lasted four weeks, and was organised by an open strike committee and regular assemblies open to all workers to discuss major decisions.  It was preceded by unofficial action: lecturers walking out in support of a janitor (in a different union) who was threatened with disciplinary action.  Earlier in the same year, thousands of energy construction workers defied laws on industrial action with impunity.

Like the 1995 movement in France, neither were perfect: but they shows we can go beyond the futile old routines.

Remaking our world

Public sector workers are typically not engaged in the direct production of profit: we reproduce the society that allows the profit making sections to function, educating future workers (and looking after the younger ones), curing the ill, and doing our best to remedy the social chaos which capitalism routinely creates in the lives of the less well off.  We keep the tax rolling in, and the benefits rolling out.

Our own immediate power lies in disrupting this reproduction.  And we have to be prepared to use it.  To take just one example, consider what happens when teachers and school support staff go on strike as they did on Wednesday, in Tower Hamlets and Camden.  Schools closed.  Thousands of parents were unable to go to work, as they looked after their children.  The strike was just one day.  But what if that was extended?  What if nursery workers and college lecturers joined in, and the strike spread across London?  The economic impact would be huge, as parents of young children became unable to go to work.  During the 2008 NUT strike, the Local Government Association estimated that a million pupils stayed at home.

Many assume that such actions will fail because they ‘lose public support’.  But in France, support for severely disruptive strike action routinely runs at between 60 per cent and 80 per cent.  When other workers are feeling the squeeze as well, as they are now, they are more likely to be supportive: particularly if strikers appear confident and determined, and persuading the government to back down appears to be the best strategy to end the strike.

Aside from seeking to spread strikes to the private sector, what else we can do?  One idea, is that of economic blockades, used to some effect in France during the pensions struggle last year, by the successful student struggle in 2006, and by the piqueteros in Argentina in the late 1990s.  When workers cannot exert power by striking, they can do so by physically blocking the arteries of the economy: motorways, runways, docks, shopping centres, and so on.

The union leaders aren’t going to call a general strike, and there’s no sense calling on them to do so in order to ‘expose’ them.  Any extended strike which crosses union boundaries will be organised from below, by workers taking control of the movement and turning it to their purposes. It’s in our hands.

Tom Denning has previously debated anti-cuts strategy with Richard Seymour at New Left Project.

10 thoughts on “what it would take to beat austerity

  1. Ann arky adds some important points about the limitations of trade unionism,the ability of capitalists to claw back gains from economic militancy and ending capitalism as the way to preserve workers gains.

    Ann Arky gives the example of the Clyde workers committee, which was part of the shop stewards movement in the first world war, as a rank and file movement. But the leaders did neglect the issue of the capitalist state.
    Willie Gallacher a future leader of the CPGB and chair of the committee undemocratically prevented John Maclean and his supporters from raising opposition to the imperialist war in the agitation. JT mURPHY another future leader of the CPGB kept his anti war views out of the organised stewards movement in sheffield. This was part of a failure to adopt a clear class policy rather than just a narrow anti dilution emphasis. And the solidarity of the movement was broken by supporters of the ILP and their reformist politics.The “reds” from clyside who became labour MP’S were pink rather than red.

    There is no rank and file movement today. But any grass roots movement in the trade unions would have to link up with a wider struggle outside union structures. Rank and filism is still within the limitations of trade unionism which attempts to preserve and improve the value of Labour power or negotiate the best terms of exploitation.


  2. The CWC was at its most powerful during and after the first world war. The real split in the “left” came with the formation of the CPGB in 1920s. Prior to that it would be difficult to separate communist, anarchist and socialist. Most of these were of an anti-parliamentarian slant. The CWC was broken during the first world war by the arrest and deportation of several of its most prominent members. It did play a part in the 40 hour strike in 1919. See: http://www.radicalglasgow.me.uk/strugglepedia/index.php?title=The_Rent_Strike_to_Bloody_Friday.
    However after that the CPGB’s parliamentarian stance and the anti-parliamentarian stance of others on the “left”, lead to the inevitable split in any unity of the “left”. I personally feel that the “left” of this country never fully recovered from that split and we are paying for it today. The CPGB parliamentary stance has completely failed and succeeded only in leading a lot of dedicated activists up a blind alley


  3. Yes the CPGB Parliamentary game,transforming the Labour party or a ginger group on Labour was certainly a blind ally. The young pretenders who have appropriated the CPGB label have recently returned to the dead end of attempting to tranform the Labour Party.

    But I do not think the CPGB Split the shop stewards left. It followed a reformist stream that became the mainstream. While repression played a part,the CWC was undermined from within not only by leaders such a Gallacher who left maclean and his supporters to fight the revolutiony struggle alone during the war, but by ILP supporters such as David kirkwood the steward at Parkhead forge who broke solidarity on a number of occations liaising with Weatley and the government behind the backs of the workers. JT murphy like Gallagher was acting as a militant trade unionist at times when they should have been putting forward revolutionary policies.

    See : Maclean, john, 1978, In the Rapids of Revolution, London Alison Busby.
    Milton,Nan , 1973 John Maclean,london,pluto press.
    Darlington, Ralph 1998,the political Trajectory of JT MURPHY, Liverpool, Liverpool university press.

    for some useful information on the background to the formation of the CPGB and the British Labour movement Kendall, walter,The revolutionary movement in Britain 1900-21. I will leave it there and might return with more detail. But the influence of parlimentarianism,repression and economic depression 1920/1 broke the back of the rank and file shop stewards movement.


  4. I suppose the left always has had, and still has, those who think the system can be transformed via compassionate capitalism to a society where exploitation doesn’t hurt anybody. The important thing is to learn from our history and realise that the beast cannot be changed by reforms, our interests are incompatibile. In saying that I see nothing wrong in fighting for bigger crums from their table while remembering that the real aim is to overturn that table, the cake is ours, we made it all.


  5. Yes the socialist groups seem to have a perspective of a left labour government introducing a progressive tax system that redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor and nationalising some key sectors of the economy. As you wrote earlier this has been the dominant perspective or political mold since the early 1920’s. Although political and historical and economic changes have been dramatic its suprising how unchanged these politics are.


  6. An interesting article. On our recent UCU picket line, one of our pickets who is French said ‘In France we don’t tell them when we’re striking and then we occupy the fucking building’. It would be useful to look at some of the differences between the workers’ movements in France and the UK. My understanding is that there is and always has been lower TU membership in France but also much stronger traditions of direct action and mass organisation. Is there a correlation between the two? Obviously, we can’t just transpose the experiences from one context into another but there might be some useful stuff to reflect on here. Certainly, in the anti-cuts movement, the trad. left continue to almost fetishise the TUs, even tho’ positive noises are made about more direct action campaigns like UK Uncut. One effect of this is a lot of dishonest reporting about the strength of feeling at the grassroots level. For example, the official story of the recent UCU strike was that it was a tremendous success. In fact, only 20% supported the strike vote. In my college, and others in my region, a significant number of UCU members worked (20% maybe), and others required a lot of persuading. There has been no serious follow up – not even an e-mail from the leadership. I wonder if part of the problem is that because the trad. left is focused on winning the leadership and arguing the strategy, we neglect looking at what’s going on on the ground. The approach recommended in this article certainly suggests that we need this kind of attention to the actual feelings, relationships, grievances, debates etc etc of ordinary workers. I’d certainly like some help in thinking about how my modest attempts at encouraging a more confident ‘militancy’ could be more effective. Tower Hamlets was inspiring but in order to learn how its lessons can be used in my own very different FE college, I want to know more about the specifics of that struggle. I have in mind the kind of activist analysis / reporting say of the old Solidarity group.

    I guess the other key issue is that whilst we’re out demanding No Cuts in Public Services there’s very little discussion about the kinds of public services we want to defend. Are we really just asking for a radical Keynesian tax n’ growth strategy to revive an economy based on over-consumption? Do we really want more sinecured posts in community development projects that seem to have spent huge amounts of cash with little tangible effect? Do unemployed people really want more JC+ staff hounding them to get off benefits and into a low paid job? Does anyone remember the debates over the ‘3 strikes’ campaign adopted a few years ago by claimants’ activists? The contradictions and tensions are still there. Maybe given the weight of these attacks any talk of rethinking what we mean by the public sector and public services is seen as right-wing Blue Socialist diversion. Not so sure. I wonder whether it would be timely to revisit ‘In and Against the State’, written during an earlier round of attacks on the public sector which looked at the issue of public sector workers could co-operate with service users in a radical defence of public provision. This is not least because unless we rely either on the ability of the TU leaderships to mobilise escalating action or on some kind of semi-spontaneous explosion, then we need to start putting forward our own ‘political vision’ than can demonstrate why defending the ‘[re]public’ is important. Just a thought. Keep up the good work!


  7. Hi Rob, thanks for your thoughtful contribution.

    In terms of more details on the dynamics at Tower Hamlets, if you scroll to the comments below the leaflet on which this text was based – http://thecommune.co.uk/2011/03/25/this-is-only-the-beginning-but-of-what-leaflet-for-26-march/ – you’ll see links to the reporting we carried on Tower Hamlets at the time.

    I think we probably could go into more detail on such disputes – a number of us are very keen on the detailed industrial reporting of Solidarity – and would like to return to the people we’ve interviewed before in order to get a retrospective analysis, now the dust has settled (and more dust has risen). If you’ve got any particular questions you’d like us to ask, let us know and we’ll put them to the comrades concerned when we get a chance.

    You’ve raised alot of the issues we’ve been thinking about in the group, particularly the need to go beyond the Keynesian/defend what we have paradigm, and (related to that) In and Against the State.

    In fact, we consider the latter so important, that it was us who scanned in the book and put it online to encourage debate on these questions, see here: http://libcom.org/library/against-state-1979 – the postscript actually isn’t up yet, but hopefully will be later in the year. We also held a meeting at the anarchist bookfair last year with that title.

    It’s also a theme which a comrade from Bristol revisited in a recent article: http://thecommune.co.uk/2011/03/18/bristol-anti-cuts-in-and-for-the-state/ – one difficulty, of course, is looking for the forms of communist practice which correspond to those politics in the present moment, with an unconfident workers’ movement.

    The France question is a very big one. One thing to be aware of is that although the French unions only have 8% density, they have collective bargaining rights for 98% of workers, and most of that 8% are activists comparable or more active than a shop steward in Britain. In general, workforces with higher union participation are more militant as I understand it (e.g. the rail, the oil refineries); but this isn’t an absolute rule. And despite this, there definitely is a culture of direct action and autonomy far in excess of what we have here, and it is a hopeful reminder that union density and procedures isn’t the be all and end all. If anything, it should show us that it’s activism that counts, not passive paper membership, and building activist organisations in industry on our own terms is what we should aim at (that’s my personal thought at the moment, any how). But there are also some links on France below the the post I linked to above, so they might be interesting for you.

    In part, the failure to address these in the above article is due to the need to keep it down to the length required by Red Pepper. But solidarity with agitation in your workplace, and stay in touch!


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