WeeklyWorker

30.06.2022
Pickets, strikes, politics

Summer of discontent

Workers in other unions have been inspired by the RMT. James Harvey argues for coordination, unity and political organisation that goes beyond Labourism

The first three days of the Rail, Maritime, and Transport union’s strike to defend jobs, pay and conditions show that the fight has got off to a great start. Not only have RMT members been solid, but the depth of backing from other unions and the wider working class has been evident on the picket lines and during the rallies called in support of the strikes.

Even reports in the Tory-supporting media provide evidence of their effectiveness, while first-hand accounts from Weekly Worker supporters on the picket lines around the country tell of cancelled trains, deserted stations and evident solidarity. The response of the RMT’s membership and the degree of sympathy shown in opinion polls seems to have wrong-footed both the employers and the government in these initial phases of the campaign: RMT general secretary Mick Lynch’s effective media appearances, in which he clearly puts forward the railworkers’ case are in marked contrast to the tired clichés of government ministers and the ignorant waffle of the hapless Tory MPs sent out daily to attack the union and its leadership.

However, while round one has gone to the RMT, there is still a long way to go and it is clear that the employers, and behind them the Tory government, are not simply going to roll over in the face of three days of strikes or retreat in the face of the widespread public sympathy for workers fighting to defend living standards and jobs. One obvious reason is the long list of workers queuing up behind the RMT and preparing to take action this summer to begin a long overdue fightback over wages, conditions and job security. On the railways the drivers in Aslef and other rail staff in TSSA are balloting for strikes, while other groups - ranging from barristers and doctors through to postal workers, baggage handlers and teachers - could be gearing up for strikes in the next few months.1 So, with a predicted rate of inflation of 11% by the autumn, it now seems likely that major battles to regain lost ground and claw back real cuts in wages are on the cards.2

Consequently, Tory politicians, media commentators and indeed some on the left have seen the developing strike wave as something of a return to the industrial battles of the 1970s and 80s. However, despite welcoming this revival of working class militancy, we also need a sober appreciation of the real balance of forces and the shifts that have occurred since that period. Both in terms of membership and organisation the trade unions are much weaker, and the relative power of employers much greater. Wider social and economic changes, such as deindustrialisation and the growth of the service sector, have also played an important part in shaping our contemporary terrain. The trade union bureaucracy, which actively promotes class collaboration and acts to contain working class militancy, remains deeply entrenched.

None of this means that we cannot make any gains or that industrial struggle is futile. On the contrary. But, in any case, communists support all workers in struggle and see the fight to advance pay and conditions as an important way to build solidarity and raise the consciousness of the class.

Boost

The RMT strikes have boosted the morale and confidence of many working class militants and raised expectations of what can be achieved. There is a palpable sense on the picket lines and at the rallies that the tide might be turning in favour of the organised working class.

As the pressure on the trade union bureaucracy grows and demands for action increase, the left in the unions needs to seize the opportunity and harness that militancy. From the railways to the health service, despite the different issues and demands in the various disputes, the basic issue remains the same for all workers: who is going to pay for the capitalist crisis - the workers or the bosses? So, the various disputes and strikes need to be coordinated to ensure maximum pressure can be exerted on the employers and the government. This needs to be more than just meetings of union leaders at the TUC, but should include joint committees to bring together the various campaigns and plan joint action at all levels of the movement. This is already happening in some areas, but needs now to be extended throughout the country in preparation for the battles that lay ahead.

These struggles will provide an opportunity to both re-establish union strength and democratise our movement. The stultifying bureaucratic structures and class-collaborationist union leaderships need to be swept away: we need real democracy and fighting leaders accountable to the membership. We must rebuild the power and initiative of the shop stewards movement in all workplaces, hand in hand with active recruitment campaigns and organising the millions, especially young people, facing low pay and job insecurity.

Alongside these organisational initiatives, we need to reforge a democratic, militant culture of mass action, sympathy, secondary strikes and the mass picketing needed to increase working class solidarity and power. A key demand should also be ‘One industry, one union.’ The situation on the railways shows how having different unions covering different grades in one industry can result in narrow sectionalism, allowing employers to play one group off against another. In the context of a chaotically structured railway system with a variety of operating companies, a labyrinthine rail infrastructure, and behind the scenes government control, having different unions pursuing different disputes and balloting at different times - all this is simply a recipe for disunity and weakness. Uniting the RMT, Aslef and TSSA, and bringing all railworkers together in one union would help no end.

Organising effective unions and taking action to defend workers’ interests will inevitably mean defying anti-trade union laws and bringing workers into conflict with the state. Even where the government is not directly involved, it will use the media and all the forces at its disposal to blunt the effectiveness of the unions. Recent strikes, such as in the universities, show how the anti-trade union laws are used to tie up strike ballots and proposed action in legal red tape. In response to RMT’s strike Tory ministers have floated further legislation to undermine the ability of workers to fight, such as ending restrictions on the employment of agency workers to break strikes.3 Not just on the legal front, but more generally, as the Tory government attempts to hold the line on behalf of the employers against the unions, these industrial conflicts will take on a broader and clearly more political character, pitting the organised working class against capitalism.

Control

Every strike challenges the right to manage and the control of the capitalist class over production. This can take a heightened form in prolonged disputes or in areas vital to society, such as health and social care or food production, when workers extend their struggle by not simply striking, but exerting control over production and services. Thus, striking health workers should wrest control from bureaucratic managers and determine which services are provided and which patients should be dealt with during disputes: likewise striking food production workers should effectively take over production to ensure a level of supply to feed the population, not boost the profits of the employers. Developing and maintaining these forms of workers’ control during strikes is both a good demonstration of the latent power of the working class.

By themselves, however, strikes and other industrial struggles are not enough. The widely held, syndicalist view of many on the left that these strikes will spontaneously go beyond mere trade union militancy and produce a socialist consciousness is the basis of the ‘transitional’ politics of many Trotskyist groups. So, it has become the common sense of the revolutionary left and leads many to expect that the coming round of strikes and disputes will result in an upsurge of the left and increase their own strength and membership.4

However, while it is clear that many union militants and wider sympathisers beyond the unions will move to the left as a result of their involvement in strikes and solidarity protests, historical experience points to the limitations of this strategy for Marxists. There is no automatic, predetermined path to raising a developed socialist consciousness through purely industrial struggle, let alone calling for “authoritative forces” such as Sharon Graham and Jeremy Corbyn coming to the rescue of the predictably failing Tusc project still being heroically promoted by the Socialist Party in England and Wales and, for the strangest reasons, by the RMT. Attempts to establish “a new vehicle for working-class representation” by establishing a Labour Party mark II will either quickly peter out in failure or end with the same rotten pro-capitalist politics of the Labour Party mark I founded in 1900.5

The key questions for Marxists in this period still remain those of party and programme: that is, the form of politics that can go beyond and generalise economic struggles and point the way to building the real, hegemonic, revolutionary politics of working class self-emancipation and the overthrow of capitalism.


  1. inews.co.uk/news/summer-of-discontent-strikes-teachers-doctors-postal-workers-uk-inflation-rate-1700417.↩︎

  2. www.ft.com/content/965e000e-9c88-4d7e-9c84-00d7f51db942.↩︎

  3. www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ministers-will-change-law-to-let-agency-staff-do-jobs-of-strikers-p0c9r5t6k.↩︎

  4. www.socialist.net/rmt-strikes-rail-workers-struggle-breathes-confidence-into-the-movement.htm.↩︎

  5. ‘General election plans’ June 20 2022: www.tusc.org.uk/17678/20-06-2022/steering-committee-begins-discussion-on-general-election-plans.↩︎