Editorial of The Commune
Day after day we hear of yet further job cuts. The rate of job losses is now so great that the Labour Research Department apologised it could only report the “bigger announcements”. Unemployment is predicted to rise to twomillion by spring and three million by 2010: official reports from the OECD to the Office of National Statistics have confirmed that the UK is facing the worst recession since the 1980s.
Against the backdrop of the storm in the global economy pundits are focusing on the mass unemployment of the Thatcher years, but there is another aspect of that period of importance today. This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, and it could not have come at more pertinent time. So far there have been two responses to the anniversary. On the one hand there have been a series of TV dramatisations of the rise and fall of Thatcher, and the message is clear – she was a necessary evil to “modernise” the country. On the other hand the great and the good of the official labour movement are marking the anniversary as if they, the bureaucrats, are heirs of that struggle.
With the passage of time the union bureaucrats and New Labour politicians who would not touch such militant struggle in the present feel safe to mark the anniversary of the miners’ strike. They do so to smother the real message of the miners’ battle for jobs and to relegate it to the strongbox of history. But the miners are not historical mythology – they posed an alternative to Thatcher and mass unemployment. Rather than passively accepting the recession, the Great Miners’ Strike shows us that we can fight to resist the recession.
Just as in 1984 we are once again facing an employers’ offensive, meagre pay offers, job cuts and mass unemployment. The stark warnings made by the miners in 1984 echo down the years with redoubled force. On the eve of the Trades Union Congress, Peter Heathfield, General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, in an address to the movement wrote:
“It is now time for the unions attending this historic TUC to rediscover themselves and join with us. Britain is at the crossroads. The events of the next few weeks will determine the course of our country until the turn of the next century. The choice is stark. We either bend the knee to further mass unemployment or we fulfil our responsibilities to the people who have elected us, saying loudly and firmly, enough is enough. Millions are feeling the despair of long-term unemployment. Millions of others ask who will defend them against this deliberate onslaught. If not the trade unions, then who?”
Heathfield reminded the unions they had policies to “fight against unemployment” and to “resist anti-union laws”. First and foremost, he said, “observe the most principled of all trade union laws—that picket lines are not to be crossed.” If they failed, he warned “what would this generation be left with? The dole queue? Emigration? The military – or fodder for fascist groups which breed on discontent? Fail and we set our country on an oppressive downward spiral for the next generation.“ (The Miner, August 31st 1984).
The miners stood against the state’s onslaught, and they could have—and should have—won. Instead they were betrayed by the Labour Party, the TUC and the union leaders, all of whom failed to abide by their official policies to provide the solidarity action which could have secured victory. The rail, steel and transport unions and others pledged full support at the start of the strike – all failed to deliver on their pledge. The legacy of the miners’ defeat hangs over us to this day. Here we are again, another recession is descending on us with increasing severity and the questions posed by the NUM in 1984 are precisely the questions many among the working class may well ask themselves today.
Workers are asking—who will defend them against this deliberate onslaught? The Labour Party? Many workers are long disgusted with the party financed and loyally supported by their unions for over a century. At the last general election nine million people, many with gritted teeth, voted for the Labour Party in the belief that, for want of any better option, it was a lesser evil.
The Labour Party
New Labour falls over itself to re-assure the capitalists that they have their interests at heart and are doing all in their power to restore the viability of British capitalism. The unelected Business Secretary Lord Mandelson assures the rest of us that after the current difficulties there will emerge “a renaissance in UK manufacturing and the expansion of the UK’s knowledge-based industries”. This promise of jam tomorrow is no more comforting than Brown’s job creation schemes, a drop in the ocean of the jobs cull underway. Such talk of how things will look after the recession is even more ridiculous when we consider the fact that things could get worse: much worse. Having poured £37 billion into the banks in October 2008, it required another rescue package of up to £300 billion to shore up the financial system just three months later. Having de facto nationalised the banks to preserve them, New Labour now sets out to privatise the Royal Mail. If some MPs pose as “old Labour” over this it is motivated more often than not by self-preservation—hoping to hang on to their seats at the next election—rather than the needs of working class people in the recession.
If anything reveals whose interests New Labour serves it is the Welfare Reform Bill, also backed by the Tories, Liberals and Confederation of British Industry. With fifteen different measures covering benefits, services for the disabled to child maintenance, it is modelled on the American ‘workfare’ system which has reduced the poor there to destitution. At a time of growing unemployment it represents a savage cut in benefits and a further means of coercing people into even lower paid, insecure jobs, or poverty.
The TUC and the captive unions
But what of our trade unions: will they defend us from the onslaught? The employers and the government fully realise the scale of their predicament and are prepared to take drastic measures. The official labour movement, however, as opposed to responding in kind, is showing itself too closely tied to this government and this system to put up effective resistance. The TUC, which is meant to represent the working class, has responded with an ‘emergency ten point plan to tackle unemployment’ but in the entire document there is not one word on stopping the job cuts. After years of preaching social partnership with employers, for the career bureaucrats at the TUC it is neither possible nor desirable to stand in the way of the employers’ efforts. Instead they call for “further interventions in the banking and financial systems” to get credit flowing, and a series of palliatives: extending ‘Train to Gain’, utilising union reps’ skills not to fight but to serve as career advisors, increase redundancy pay and create more job clubs. The TUC has a lot to say about training but very little about trade unionism.
John Hannet, leader of the shop workers’ union USDAW says – “The recession is worrying news but it may not be as bad as some people fear”. On a salary of £104,663 Hannet has indeed little to fear, but sadly he is symptomatic of the inadequate union response to the crisis. Many have abandoned any pretence of being instruments of defence of working class conditions and jobs. We have witnessed the GMB sign up to pay cuts to stop redundancies, only to fail. We have seen the despicable agreement by UNITE to the dismissal of agency workers en masse at Cowley: this has done nothing to stave off the jobs cull in the car industry.
Breaking with the past
The recession is underlining limitations of the official labour movement. To measure up to the scale of the problems we face, the movement urgently requires a new direction. But so far the entire debate on the crisis of our movement has been confined within the parameters of recreating some form of electoral alternative, delusions of reclaiming the Labour Party, or a protest movement around a People’s Charter. In fact we desperately need a re-composition of the entire movement. We do not need another Labour Party or even the existing TUC. The movement needs to be transformed and restructured by the rank and file. We need to start the discussion on creating a new organising centre – combining any unions and those rank and files who are truly willing to stand up for workers’ interests. To reforge our movement into one that combines political and industrial wings and rejects the restrictive and divisive politics of Labourism. It would be ludicrous to imagine this can be done overnight by simply proclaiming it – but if we are to achieve this we need to start building these values into our current activities or we will remain captive to the current inadequate set up.
Fighting for jobs
Under capitalism, a job is the most basic need of every worker: we need jobs because in this system selling the only thing we own—our capacity to work for a wage—is the only way to survive. Capitalism cannot function without making job cuts, since to restore profit rates the employers aim to make fewer people work harder for less. Communists say that the fight to save jobs exposes a fundamental conflict of interests between the present system of capital and the interests of the working class. Employers invariably argue we are “all in it together”: ‘rationalisation’ is a necessity, a temporary measure on the road to a recovery. In fact redundancies offer a bleak future for all workers, employed and unemployed.
We need to respond to the recession by recognition that we have no common interests with the employers and that the crisis flows directly from the logic of their system. The working class needs every job it has got just to maintain its present standard of living. For some years now, struggles against redundancies have rarely been successful in saving jobs. This is partly because of the union leaders’ reluctance to lead a real fight to save all jobs. Instead, ‘left’ union leaders have reduced their horizons to opposing only compulsory redundancies. Fighting for limited objectives and accepting the same logic as capital has allowed them to claim job losses as victories: for example in the Civil Service we have seen devastating cuts, while the Trotskyist leadership of PCS claim no ‘compulsory redundancies’ as a substantial success. Nevertheless, management have achieved their cuts by ‘voluntary’ means such as ‘natural wastage’ and making working life intolerable. It is vital to adopt a principle of no job losses, voluntary or compulsory, otherwise those left behind are left with more work on their plates for the same money. If our goal is to maintain workers’ livelihoods then we can be objective about the success or failure of industrial action and form a realistic assessment of its efficacy.
Rebuild workplace organisation
The official labour movement squandered the period or partial recovery in the economy to rebuild the movement:
trade union membership density is only 28% of all employees, overwhelmingly in the public sector. The TUC pumped money into UnionLearn as opposed to organising. To resist this recession we have to rely on our own initiative. Workplace organisation needs to be rebuilt. Part of that involves restoring control over our own organisations: we should to break off all partnership arrangements and negotiate on our terms as independent workers’ representatives. If the officials will not fight then we learn to combine and gain the confidence to act independently of the official structures. This is no longer about the romantic slogans of small left groups: the Lindsey Oil Refinery strikers have proven that we can combine, in a more democratic way, break the anti-union laws and secure victory. That strike wave gave us a snapshot of what is now a real possibility. It brought to the fore new possibilities of workers’ self-organisation and militant actions, even though it had many contradictions, not least of all the necessity to develop solidarity across Europe against a capital which is well organised on an EU level.
Our starting point must be what is realistic and necessary for the working class. Every worker needs a decent job, a living wage and the right to organise. We need a movement that can put forward coherent viable strategies for action, one that is based on the self-organisation and self-management of the members themselves.
Communism from below
Unemployment is a man made evil, not a natural disaster. It is a result of the capitalist system, and as such fighting job cuts means developing a fight against the system itself. The only way we can make a safe, secure, and better life is to uproot capital. Millions of people now recognise that capitalism is the cause of the crisis, but they do not have any confidence that there is a viable alternative society. Many who have experienced the defeats and failed initiatives of the past feel demoralised and disoriented. Instead many are looking to the possibility of subjecting capital to varying degrees of greater control by means of the state such as nationalisation. This is even though nationalising capital has been used extensively to preserve capitalism. Such ideas of state-socialism have led to historic failures, whether of Labour governments or the totalitarian regimes in the USSR and elsewhere.
Drawing on the lessons of the past we believe workers’ self-management is central to our vision of a 21st century communism. Self-management is the opposite of state-socialism with its bureaucratic power. By organising and uniting in our workplaces, we are developing the means and power to gain greater workers’ control, by which to eventually secure workers’ self-management. Our own organisations of self-management can be the means to transform the economy. This idea of communism is not a utopia which falls from the sky but something that grows out of our living, real struggles today. Blunting the impact of the recession is important, but we need to recognise that there is no alternative to fighting the system.
This month a new People’s Charter will be launched which avoids this glaring reality. So it is worth recalling the original 19th century Chartists, the first revolutionary workers’ movement in this country, who had no such fears. Criticising ‘Inadequate Remedies for Social Evils’, Chartist leader Julian Harney wrote:
“It is not the any amelioration of the condition of the most miserable that will satisfy us, it is justice to all we demand. It is not the mere improvement of social life of our class that we seek, but the abolition of all classes and the destruction of those wicked distinctions which have divided the human race into princes and paupers, landlords and labourers, masters and slaves. It is not any patching and cobbling of the system we aspire to accomplish; but the annihilation of that system, and the substitution in its stead of an order of things in which all shall labour and all enjoy and the happiness of each guarantee the welfare of the entire community.”