Upping the fightback

Mike Macnair supports the call for activists to take the financial resourcing of sustained strikes seriously

Ian Allinson has an important piece dated October 12 on the website of ‘Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st century’ (RS21), which should be widely read and acted on.1 Comrade Allinson declares that “it matters to all of us that the current wave of strikes is successful”, and goes on to argue for a series of measures to make it more likely that they will be - primarily in the form of solidarity fundraising at the base.

Comrade Allinson’s basic point is that “many worry that token action is a pointless waste of money, and they can’t afford sustained action either. A credible plan to win has to include financial support for sustained action.” He goes on to say that reliance on union central strike funds alone is problematic where most members are in dispute, and risks control by the central union bureaucracies. What follows in his article is a series of practical steps: strike funds controlled by strikers, not union regional accounts; collections on picket lines and elsewhere; “delegations” to seek support from groups of workers not in dispute. He recognises difficulties in fundraising caused by reduced use of cash and by home-working; his conclusion is that, “as the movement rebuilds lost traditions of solidarity, we need to share our experiences of adapting it to modern life”.

All of this is useful practical advice, which poses a fundamentally correct orientation: winning strikes requires not just going out, but organising activity at the base in pursuit both of wider solidarity and of making the strike effective. But it is worth thinking a little further about the wider background and the larger implications of the problem.


The first point is why there is currently a wave of strikes. The answer is the ‘cost-of-living crisis’. There has been for decades now a gradual increase in inequality, and erosion of the share of wages to the benefit of the shares of rents and of financial gains (mainly in the form of speculative capital gains rather than of interest) - and of keeping profits afloat. But the strike wave is not a belated response to this long-term trend. Rather, the ruling class and its state have been ‘boiling the frog slowly’, with the gradual increase in inequality and squeeze on working class living standards in Britain, as in the US, mitigated by intensified exploitation of producers abroad and hence cheap ‘globalised’ imports, plus state welfare provision (ultimately paid for out of global financial operations) subsidising low wages and high rents. The frog has been boiling slowly enough not to jump out of the saucepan.

In 2022, however, the temperature has increased sharply enough that the frog is now trying to clamber out of the hot water. The background to the sharp increase in temperature is in the first place the endeavours to ‘return to normal’ after the emergency measures taken to keep the economy afloat in the Covid pandemic (but without making the inevitable losses fall on savers and creditors); and secondarily, but fundamentally, the decision of the Biden administration to force either war or surrender on the Russians, leading to the war in Ukraine, ‘sanctions’ and global supply shortages which have radically driven up prices. In Britain, there is the further complication of Brexit causing extensive labour shortages and, hence, supply bottlenecks.

The practical consequence of this is in the first place comrade Allinson’s conclusion: the unions are not, in autumn 2022, in a place where token action plus negotiation will produce an ‘acceptable’ result - one that mitigates the ongoing pressure of the employers on wages, work conditions and other terms of employment. The real wage cuts on offer from employers are big, and hence serious fights are on the agenda and tough methods of struggle are needed.

But there is a second consequence, which is more problematic for comrade Allinson’s specific agenda about fundraising. This is that pretty much everyone is in the same boat. Comrade Allinson’s ideas are about those who are on strike going out to raise money from those who are not. But everyone is affected by the cost-of-living crisis, and hence most sections of the movement are in dispute. The sort of solidarity which is possible in this situation is more the unlawful kind - secondary action, coordinated action against multiple employers, political action against government and its policies.

It can be added that the major immediate driver of the present crisis is the USA’s proxy war in Ukraine and the associated sanctions measures. Those former leftists who effectively advocate support for the USA (and its vassal states, like the UK) through the victory of its puppet, Ukraine, have to accept a share of political responsibility for the ‘cost-of-living crisis’ and certainly disable themselves from advocating a real end to this crisis, which would require an end to the sanctions regime, and so on. So that the economic struggle is presently immediately entangled with the highest of high geopolitics - as it was when the Bolsheviks in 1917 advocated ‘Land, peace and bread’ …


Comrade Allinson is entirely correct to say that carrying on this struggle requires that “the movement rebuilds lost traditions of solidarity”. But the question is why the traditions of solidarity are ‘lost’ and, as such, in need of rebuilding?

The answer lies, at least in part, in the ‘boiling the frog slowly’ period. Under the Wilson and Callaghan governments of 1975-79, the trade unions accepted a tamed position in which industrial tribunals and unfair dismissal law, extended health and safety law, and the extension of benefits, were combined with the check-off system of deduction of union dues from wages, transferring money and power into the hands of the full-time union officials. This tamed version of trade unionism proved unable to resist the aggressive deployment of the courts against strikes and union organisation in the Thatcher period and subsequently.

But that aggressive deployment of the courts had started earlier, and had been resisted in the period of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions. Indeed, both the first shop stewards’ movement, which emerged in 1915-17, and the second, which emerged in the late 1930s and grew sharply during the war, were directed to organising illegal industrial action. What changed was largely - immediately - the loss of political support for unlawful trade union action: critically in the form of the rise of Eurocommunism, which gutted the ‘official’ Communist Party’s willingness to reject the political authority of the ‘rule of law’ and hence of anti-union legislation. Since the ‘official’ CPGB animated the trade union and Labour broad lefts, with this development the ability to resist the ideology of ‘law-governed industrial relations’ was also radically weakened. And ‘law-governed industrial relations’ inherently meant the radical weakening of trade unions.

Effective industrial action is inherently unlawful, but merely ‘legalised’ if it is “in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute” and within the ‘protections’ of the various acts of parliament which partially legalise it - which the judiciary tell us are to be construed restrictively (in favour of the employer).2 The 1974 ‘deal’ was supposed to be that the full-time officials, getting increased control of the unions and of union funds, would hold down unofficial action, but get managed concessions instead. The Thatcher administration showed that collecting the union funds through check-off deduction from wages (or more recently through direct debit) and putting the funds into the hands of the officials makes the funds more practically accessible to the employers’ lawyers: so that the officials had largely sawn off the branch on which they themselves sat, if they wanted to do anything other than manage the gradual weakening of the unions.

Meanwhile, the shop stewards’ movement was a strong form of organisation under conditions of (relatively) full employment. It was so because stoppages were easy to organise and instantly cost the employer money. Hence the growth of shop-stewardism under war conditions and its maintenance in the preserved full-employment period in the 1950s to early 1970s. In the later 70s, however, capital turned to the revival of mass unemployment to discipline the workforce. Under these conditions, shop-stewardism on its own was not enough. The ability of the miners to sustain a long struggle in 1984-85 - eventually ending in a defeat whose consequences are still with us - rested precisely on solidarity not organised at workplace level and from workplace to workplace, but based in the mining communities and extended further by political solidarity.

Even the miners’ Great Strike did not yet represent a full return to the methods of the “lost traditions of solidarity” as they existed before the long boom of the 1950s-70s. The long boom created illusions in:

The illusions are still with us - indeed, a good many of those who promoted them in the 1970s-80s are still actively doing so.


Rebuilding “lost traditions of solidarity”, then, involves a lot more than just comrade Allinson’s useful suggestions for practical activities for strikers. It requires rebuilding traditions across the movement as a whole. That means rebuilding in the trade unions, and elsewhere in the labour movement, traditions of self-government in the localities, not dependence on the full-time professional staff of the union; and of permanent local fundraising and local funds available for local deployment, not local funds raised only for strikes and assets (union offices, and so on) under central control.

It means also rebuilding traditions of routine suspicion of the institutions of political corruption - the class of professional politicians and the advertising-funded media, as well as the commercial lobbying operations. And rebuilding similar suspicion of the judiciary and the ‘rule of law’ ideology. This culture of suspicion can be seen across labour-movement and leftwing writers in Britain and the USA before World War I and into the 1920s and 30s. It persisted in the ‘official’ CPGB and the Labour left down to the development of Eurocommunism.

The culture of suspicion implies as its converse that the labour movement needs its own media, which can counter - or at least call into question - the lies of the advertising-funded media and of judges pretending that they are ‘non-political’.

But these are not and cannot be tasks that can be performed by scattered activists in the trade union movement and elsewhere - or even by a cloud of grouplets like the existing far left. The need for party organisation is more and more posed by the present dynamics of the class struggle. Comrade Allinson’s arguments, then, are entirely justified; but the circumstances which make them justified also make them radically insufficient.


  1. ‘Money matters for strikes’: www.rs21.org.uk/2022/10/12/money-matters-for-strikes.↩︎

  2. Cf M Macnair, ‘Free association versus juridification’ Critique Vol 39 (2011), pp53‑82.↩︎