Rank and file resistance
For high politics
Recent months have seen a number of industrial disputes, which, in the context of a whole period when strikes have been at an all-time low, might signal a revival in working class combativity.
After the February 5 action by tubeworkers against Blair's public-private partnership, London Underground Ltd accepted union proposals to establish a commission to monitor safety standards. On job security, it also agreed to set up a working group, which would "recommend how the issue can be taken forward".
Last week also saw members of the Transport and General Workers Union, which represents the majority of the workforce at the threatened Vauxhall plant in Luton, vote to take industrial action. There was a one-day unofficial 'duvet' protest.
This follows on from a number of other disputes: the Dudley hospital dispute, the Unison strike in Scotland and countless guerrilla actions by Royal Mail employees and, of course, council workers in Hackney have struck to defend jobs and services. Even labour aristocrats seem to be revolting. Air traffic controllers in the IPMS union have voted to ballot members on possible industrial action. The Blair government is attempting to partially privatise National Air Traffic Services along similar lines to London Underground by selling off 46% in the form of shareholdings to private companies.
Needless to say, the Socialist Workers Party has responded to these events in its usual fashion, citing them as proof positive that the much heralded "upturn" has arrived. Socialist Worker devoted a whole page to a message from the editor, Chris Harman, that details the reasons for a shift in the balance of the paper towards "devoting more pages than before to reports of meetings, protests, strike ballots and strikes" (February 10). In the opinion of comrade Harman the clutch of disputes occurring over the same period marks a "change in the outside world". Let us hope he is right.
Like a change in the weather, however, it seems that any increase in workers' willingness to fight is beyond the influence of conscious political intervention. The role of socialists is merely to greet the "upturn" and, when it arrives, to cheer on workers' own spontaneous actions. Any attempt at drawing the disputes together through politicising them is sadly missing.
The Socialist Alliance, of which the SWP is the largest component, recently organised a national day of action to protest at the state of the railways and back railworkers. It has also issued a leaflet in support of the tubeworkers, calling for action to roll back Blair's PPP.
The leaflet called for a system of public transport "run and controlled by those who work on and use it" - i.e., nationalisation under workers' and passengers' control. This formulation, which poses a clear alternative to PPP and any compromise deal offered, has also been taken up in editorials. Similarly, the Alliance for Workers' Liberty in the latest edition of its publication Tubeworker has also called for a "big national protest to demand the railways be brought back into public ownership, democratically controlled by workers and passengers" (my emphasis).
It has to be said, though, that the SWP in particular was at first more than a little reluctant to include the demand for workers' control in its own propaganda or that of the SA. True to form, in relation to the railway, for example, it was content to echo the calls of union bureaucrats and old Labourites alike for renationalisation, full stop. As workers themselves were not going further, best to 'lead' from behind.
The demand for workers' control has general application and would be equally appropriate if raised in connection to the struggles noted by comrade Harman. For Luton it is an answer as much as it is for those fighting PPP in air traffic control.
Nevertheless, it says a lot about the potentiality of the Socialist Alliance that the SWP leadership, conscious of the need to appear radical in the eyes of its own membership, can be influenced, even in this small way - i.e., nodding in the direction of principle by referring to workers' control.
Certainly we need slogans that can take individual disputes out of their isolation, but most of all we need the unifying power of high politics. We need calls that go to the very heart of the state and challenge the basis of bourgeois rule.
For example, the degree of public support that was shown for the striking tubeworkers has been well documented. This support could also be harnessed potentially in other ways - against the anti-trade union laws, for example.
Defying the state's anti-working class legislation has a clear logic. It carries the possibility that workers will no longer restrict themselves to spontaneous struggles to improve their lot as wage slaves, but can envisage transforming themselves into a ruling class. If the idea is grasped that our rulers have no right to decide how we organise collectively in our trade unions, then why should that not apply to every sphere?
In order to take this a stage further, communists, in contrast to the economistic left, attempt to provide answers for all political questions. Our class must have answers for Scotland, Wales and Ireland, for women, for immigrants, for children. We need to make such issues as the constitution our own. In that way we take our challenge to the capitalist state's right to rule over us onto a qualitatively higher plane.
For that we need a single, working class organisation. It should be the Socialist Alliance that comes up with the goods, developing workers' struggles through the crucial injection of politics.
A positive aspect of the agitation in Tubeworker and some SWP propaganda has been precisely the link made with the SA (The Socialist issued its usual call to "join the Socialist Party", not mentioning the alliance once).
Comrades from the Socialist Alliance were prominent in backing the tubeworkers' action - to the extent that Graham Cee, an RMT activist, commented that, "Many, many supporters of the Socialist Alliances helped us on the picket lines" (UK Left Network internet discussion list, February 7). Comrade Cee stood against the London Socialist Alliance as part of the Campaign Against Tube Privatisation slate in last year's GLA elections.
This SA support clearly provides a base to build upon, as do the links that the local alliance has established with Vauxhall shop stewards in Luton. These struggles present an opportunity to sink roots in the class as the Socialist Alliance, not just as its component parts. Such actions will by definition play a part in the upcoming SA election campaign, further enhancing the alliance as a credible force.
The fact that RMT tubeworkers were willing to defy the anti-trade union laws is most encouraging. However, since up to now it has been the exception that proves the rule, this defiance serves to remind us of the nature of the present period of reaction of a special type.
This is admitted by implication in this month's issue of Socialist Review, where an editorial concerning the recent "upturn", presumably written by Lindsay German, states: "There is a growing feeling that workers will have to fight regardless of the wishes of their bosses or the shackles of the trade union laws" (my emphasis, February 1).
Whatever the subjective intentions the comrade has, the language clearly recognises that the class is still on the defensive following the major defeats that it has suffered. However, sections are at last beginning to stir and, given the right intervention, the situation can be transformed.
We must not waste the opportunity to channel these seemingly isolated struggles in a conscious political direction through our Socialist Alliance.
In isolation, these are struggles of a class with its back to the wall. If linked together, they can mark the beginning of a political fightback.