Taking the next step

The government has no clear strategy. However, to fight back we need more than trade union militancy, argues Kevin Bean

With the introduction of draft legislation to limit strikes and ensure “minimum service levels” in “vital public services”, such as health, rail, education and other such sectors, the Tories appear to be upping the ante. If the less confrontational tone of some cabinet members and the talks between ministers and trade union leaders seemed to mark a shift in position, the proposed new laws bring us back to direct confrontation.

For Rishi Sunak it is perhaps a chance to make his mark on history by taking on the old enemy within: strikers, trade union leaders and working class collectivism. After the political turmoil and internal divisions of the ‘year of the three prime ministers’, refocusing attention on the Conservative’s traditional bête noire can certainly further at least two aims. Buoy up the much diminished Tory core vote, and wrong foot Sir Keir by associating him with ‘trade union barons’ who ‘irresponsibly’ defend their members’ pay and conditions. One right-wing commentator, Ben Marlow, even urges the government to “break the unions forever.”1 In other words, finish the job that Thatcher started. It would be extremely foolish to dismiss such an attempt (though the “forever” is clearly hyperbole).

It is not just the Tories who appear to be going back to the 1970s and 1980s, however. For many of the leaders of the confessional sects, the current round of strikes is manna from heaven. The left press is packed full of photos and reports from the picket lines and accounts of new groups of workers about to enter the fray. Along with perfectly correct calls for more effective and coordinated strike action, Socialist Worker, The Socialist and Socialist Appeal, for example, excitedly paint the present upsurge as a prelude to revolution. (Does this explain why the Morning Star’s CPB is organising “self-defence and fighting classes” for its members and close supporters?2 Probably not. There is, after all, a ban in its ranks on even talking about the popular militia demand.)

More prosaically, the sect leaders see a golden opportunity to recruit. Internal bulletins instruct branch organisers to arrange “flagship” meetings on “strikes, solidarity and socialism”.3 But in case old hands might be tempted to use these events to recount the 1970s glory days of strikes, and innocently ask why that whole upsurge ended in Thatcher’s 1979 general election victory and the defeat of the miners’ Great Strike, contributions from the floor are typically limited to three or four minutes. So no serious debate, no serious thinking is to be allowed to interfere with the real objective, which is, of course, to recruit, recruit, recruit.

Naturally, we communists see the current wave of strikes as an important part of the process of rebuilding the combativity and cohesion of the working class. We certainly welcome the fact that a new generation and new layers are entering into struggle. However, its not the job of revolutionaries to simply act as cheerleaders, rallying the troops and urging the working class to follow trade union leaders in order to strengthen their hand in negotiations.

Not that we are against negotiations - that would be stupid. But at the end of the day trade union leaders, even the most militant, constitute a privileged petty bourgeois stratum. As such they will put their own narrow interests, certainly the interests of their members, above the interests of the working class as a whole. Therefore there is the distinct danger of sectional deals: the government settling with one trade union while overall succeeding in slashing living standards, increasing hours and intensifying the pace of work.


We need to recognise that the present wave of strikes and ballots are defensive. Workers face the biggest drop in real wages for a century. Trade union finances are already stretched to the limit. New anti-union laws threaten to take us back to the 1901 Taff Vale judgement and allow employers to sue unions for losses and to sack striking workers. So we are not on the cusp of challenging for the conquest of state power.

For that we would need a mass, hegemonic, Communist Party, international coordination, millions of voters, a big and potentially majority bloc in the lower house of parliament, red local authorities, workers’ defence squads and deep fissures opening up in the ranks of the ruling class and its state machine, crucially in the army.

It is likely that last year over a million working days were “lost” through strikes.4 Although these are the highest figures since 1989, they are far below those in the 1970s and 1980s. With a much smaller working population in 1979, the ‘winter of discontent’ saw over 29 million days “lost”, whilst in 1984-85, the year of the miners’ Great Strike, over 27 million working days were accounted for by strike action.5

Moreover, in terms of membership and concentration, the trade unions in 2023 are much weaker than in the 1970s and 1980s - deindustrialisation and the growth of the unorganised service sector, amongst other underlying factors, have seen to that. But, of course, the crucial factor is defeat, pivotally 1984-85, and the imposition of crippling anti-union laws. Trade union membership stood at 6.6 million in 2022, halved from 13.2 million in 1980.6

Well organised and cohesive groups of workers, such as on the railways, can still use their strength to defend conditions and wages, but in other work areas, such as service and hospitality, levels of membership and militant organisation are low or non-existent.

Shop stewards

And it is not only the Tories. The Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan worked hand in glove with the trade union bureaucracy to destroy the power of shop stewards. The collection of union dues went from being part of the daily routine of shop stewards to being automatically deducted from wages by the employer. The relationship between the trade union and the members became utterly impersonal. The same went for industrial tribunals. Instead of workers being instantly called out on strike by their shop steward in the event of a sacking, an attempt to speed-up the pace of work, or a refusal to concede demands for longer tea breaks, disputes were handed to full time officials and lawyers. A recipe for rank and file passivity.

It is vital that the left draws on such historical experience and understanding if we are going to build support for effective, militant trade union action. We should act as the memory of the class and point to both the lessons of the past and the potential for the future.

There is a wealth of traditional demands we can draw upon. Revive the shop stewards movement, build joint committees across unions, defy anti-union laws by organising solidarity action, overcome sectionalism by fighting for industrial unionism - eg, a single rail union, a single health union - putting the trade union bureaucracy under rank-and-file control, reducing the salaries of full-time officials to that of the average skilled member, etc.

However, we also have a much more important political role in taking trade union struggles beyond bargaining about the price of labour-power or the working conditions under which the capitalist class will continue to exploit us. Within even the smallest strike or defensive industrial struggle, there is an implicit contest between the political economy of the working class and the political economy of capital. The left needs to make the true nature of that battle explicit, both in how it organises the strike campaign and in the ways that it explains to the working class what is really at stake.

Strikes and other forms of collective action by workers are a challenge to the capitalists’ right to manage and own the means of production: when trade unionists defy anti-union laws, they are simultaneously denying the legitimacy of the capitalist state and its legal system.

Strikes are not just a demonstration of the power of the working class: how they are conducted can reveal that potential in practice. For example, during disputes in the health and other social services, workers often provide emergency cover and deal with urgent cases. This needs to be made explicit. Eg, ambulances and their crew should carry the message: ‘working with Unison permission’. Extend workers’ control to other aspects of service provision or production. If socialists want the working class to control society, then let us begin to show how it can be done in practice!

As in the 1926 General Strike, when the local councils of action authorised the transport and supply of foodstuffs for the wider population, so during the current disputes workers should decide what constitutes an emergency and provide adequate cover and provision. What better riposte to Tory propaganda about heartless workers endangering lives? Let us actively show who really keeps society going and who really cares about the health and wellbeing of the population.

  1. www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2023/01/07/sunak-must-seize-opportunity-break-unions-forever.↩︎

  2. London District January 11 2023.↩︎

  3. Party Notes January 9 2023.↩︎

  4. news.sky.com/story/more-than-a-million-work-days-lost-to-strike-action-in-2022-12775946.↩︎

  5. www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/workplacedisputesandworkingconditions; www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/timeseries/mgrz/lms.↩︎

  6. www.statista.com/statistics/287241/uk-trade-union-membership.↩︎