“our time is coming again”

Sheila Cohen reviews New Trade Union Activism: Class Consciousness or Social Identity? Sian Moore, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.


Yet another pricey, “academic” book – but one with an interesting message. In New Trade Union Activism Sian Moore, who teaches trade unionists at London Metropolitan University’s Working Lives Research Institute, examines the increasing – and, to some of us, questionable – phenomenon of new forms of worker representation. By contrast to the staunch shop steward of the past, who simply took on whatever problems the daily toll of workplace exploitation threw up, the last ten years or so have seen the growth of specific “reps” for apparently every conceivable contingency – learning reps, equality reps, environmental reps, etc., etc. Continue reading ““our time is coming again””

what it says on the tin? memories of the NSSN

In January the National Shop Stewards’ Network fell apart when the Socialist Party declared the foundation of yet another national anti-cuts campaign. Sheila Cohen reflects on the deeper roots of NSSN’s failure

What follows will have to be taken as a personal account, given the fierce antagonisms and uncertain alliances involved in the split which took place at the National Shop Stewards’ Network (NSSN) conference on 22nd January. Since that time, the comments of the NSSN majority have focused largely on the “democracy” of the debate, which saw a large vote for the proposal that the NSSN launch an “anti-cuts campaign, bringing trade unions and communities together to save all jobs and services”.

There is no point commenting here on the methods available for securing such large majorities. That would be to detract from the central issue which saw up to 100 people leave the conference – and the NSSN. Our spirited discussion at a nearby pub was not based on any lack of formal “democracy”, but on the fundamental irrelevance of the debate, if such it can be called, on the future of working-class politics in Britain. Continue reading “what it says on the tin? memories of the NSSN”

starting all over from scratch? a plea for “radical reform” of our own movement

An essay by Sheila Cohen. It is offered as a response to the question set by the Daniel Singer Foundation: “Given the devastating effects of the present crisis on working people, what proposals for radical reform can be raised which are both practical to the vast majority while moving us towards the goal of socialism?”

when workers mobilise for 'reforms', these are often just the tip of the iceberg

The current global crisis of capitalism makes the task set by the Daniel Singer Millenium Prize Foundation look relatively straightforward. Immediate proposals for radical reform would clearly include the demand that Western governments everywhere take over the banks and use the resulting trillions to fund health care, re-establish humane and affordable housing, rebuild education at every level, provide humane child- and elder-care, not to mention ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and rescuing the devastation to humanity represented in Haiti, Somalia, and other disasters of the “developing” world. Such proposals would certainly be radical, relevant to the vast majority of the human race and, if granted, enough of a blow to global capital to knock it off its pedestal more conclusively than Saddam Hussein. Continue reading “starting all over from scratch? a plea for “radical reform” of our own movement”

where does resistance come from?

Sheila Cohen reviews Workplace Conflict: Mobilization and Solidarity in Argentina by Maurizio Atzeni (Palgrave Macmillan 2010).

This is a book which should be read by anyone interested in and committed to rank and file activism. There are two obstacles – the price, which as with so many “academic” texts is absurdly high [1] and the English, which can be hard to get your head around. This is no fault of the Italian author, but the publisher clearly has not forked out for the necessary editing – which, at £60 a throw, is a bit of a cheek.

The content and theoretical approach of Workplace Conflict make it more than rewarding, despite these obstacles. In fact it is something of a landmark in the analysis of working-class consciousness, carrying as it does theoretical and strategic perspectives which depart from the static and non-dialectical approaches found in more conventional analyses. This is a book which can suggest ways forward for the rank and file working-class movement. Continue reading “where does resistance come from?”

a syndicalism for the 21st century?

Sheila Cohen looks at the Great Unrest and the meaning for syndicalism today

It seems unlikely that the centenary of the 1910-14 Great Unrest will gain much attention in the media – if, indeed, it gets a mention at all. But, for supporters of workers’ revolutionary self-activity, this is an anniversary to remember. Continue reading “a syndicalism for the 21st century?”

‘some past rank and file movements’… and the future?

by Sheila Cohen

Bryan Pearce’s 1959 article ‘Some Past Rank and File Movements'[1] is an intriguing piece, not only because of its date during a period of relative quiescence in the labour movement but also because it puts its finger on almost every issue that currently confronts today’s perhaps even more quiescent – or at least less powerful – working class.

Paradoxically, the piece begins with two de rigeur quotes from Leon Trotsky which in turn muddy two of the central points Pearce’s account later indicates. This is largely because of the conflation which Trotsky, like so many other writers, makes between trade unionism in its aspect as organiser of class resistance and as bureaucratic institution through – again like almost every other writer in the field – referring to both aspects under the same rubric. Thus: “The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordinating and disciplining of workers… or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat…” Continue reading “‘some past rank and file movements’… and the future?”

‘to act in union…’

… on the changing composition of the working class and the implications for class struggle, by Sheila Cohen

The statistics will come later, but in advance of the talk I have been asked to give at The Commune’s summer school, I would like to look at the broader political sweep of how changes in class structure and composition interact – or don’t – with issues of consciousness and resistance.

Mostly the story is one of almost complete unpredictability – a “trend” which should be seen as being to the advantage of those who seek socialist transformation. While the left is often preoccupied with attempting to map out the precise nature of the “epoch” and its relation to possible action on the part of the working class, history teaches us – or should – that such predictions are often worthless. Here, I would like to examine a selection of them. Continue reading “‘to act in union…’”

workers’ councils: the red mole of revolution

The latest issue of The Commune featured a supplement with an extended piece on workers’ councils by Sheila Cohen. Click image below to see PDF or read full text below.

The red mole may weave unexpected patterns and assume strange disguises; it is digging, digging fast, and moving in roughly the right direction…’

Daniel Singer, The Road to Gdansk. Continue reading “workers’ councils: the red mole of revolution”

what ‘went wrong’ with the winter of discontent?

Often portrayed as responsible for bringing down a Labour government and ‘letting in’ Thatcher’s Tories, the 1978-79 ‘Winter of Discontent’ remains a high point in the history of the class struggle in Britain.

by Sheila Cohen

The Winter of Discontent (WoD) has not had a good press – either from the right or, less predictably, from the left. The most recent diatribe against this historic wave of struggle comes in a relatively recent publication whose author claims that “The Winter of Discontent marked the democratisation of greed…It was like the spirit of the Blitz in reverse”. A former Labour minister’s comment on the WoD that “it was as though every separate group in the country had no feeling and no sense of community, but was simply out to get for itself what it could” is used to illustrate “the callous spirit which characterise[d] the disputes”. Continue reading “what ‘went wrong’ with the winter of discontent?”

recession and the rank-and-file

Sheila Cohen explores the relation of capitalist crisis to upturns in working-class struggle

Clearly, it’s difficult in the midst of the current “double dip” recession to predict whether further key struggles will follow the Vestas and Visteon occupations, or indeed the less obviously recession-related struggles of engineering construction workers, Leeds refuse collectors and postal workers – not to mention current disputes affecting airline employees, tube workers and bus drivers. The list could go on, and indeed has spurred recent thoughts of a “mini-upsurge” – but are these struggles symptomatic of recession or simply of the general (and grim) rigours of an unrelenting neo-liberal capitalism?

It has never been straightforward, historically, to work out whether recessions spark resistance or dampen it. The arguments are obvious on both sides of the coin – capitalist crisis, with its persistent tendency to dump the effects on the working class, can spur struggle through anger and desperation (the nothing-to-lose syndrome) or suppress it through the terrible fear of job loss, a disaster for working-class families. To use a wise old footballing adage, “It could go either way” – but which way will it go? Continue reading “recession and the rank-and-file”

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. Continue reading “are we ready for a winter of discontent?”