Strikes are not the be-all and end-all
What are stikes alone and where is the politics we need? Laurie Smith takes a look at the recent stikes and the response of the Left.
Thursday May 10 saw around 400,000 public sector workers take strike action against the government’s austerity programme. The immediate trigger for many being the attacks on pensions, which would see public sector workers working longer before being able to claim their pension, contributing more over their working life - and receiving less when they are finally eligible. The strikes have been (correctly) interpreted, however, as being against austerity in general rather than purely sectional demands.
But, while the strike got good support from members of the main civil service union, PCS, and some smaller unions (it was patchier among Unite healthworkers and the UCU lecturers), negative comparisons with the much larger action on November 10 last year, when about two million workers from 29 trade unions were out, are inevitable. There was not the same reactionary media firestorm - even Jeremy Clarkson managed to keep his mouth shut - and in many places the fact that a major strike was happening could have escaped notice. What really grabbed the media’s attention was the unofficial walkout by members of the Prison Officer’s Association - until the government threatened the union with an injunction - and the demonstration in London of 20,000 off-duty police officers against cuts. While never losing sight of the role that the ‘screws’ and the police play in capitalist society, communists can only welcome this. The rhetoric of ‘We’re all in this together’ is impossible to uphold when even the state’s key servants are protesting.
It is unlikely that anger over the cuts has gone away; if anything it has increased, as the breadth and depth of the coalition’s austerity programme has become clear for all to see. So what lies behind the scaling down of the protests? Simply put, while there is a great deal of anger, the majority of trade unionists are not confident in their ability to win this fight, while the bureaucrats use this as an excuse for not giving a lead. And the left bears a large share of responsibility, for failing to put forward any sort of strategy beyond more strikes, let alone a viable political alternative. The Socialist Workers Party’s ‘live blog’ of the day’s action ended on a predictably hyperbolic note: “Today’s magnificent strike showed the level of anger against the Tories’ attacks in workplaces across Britain ... [and] showed what can be achieved. Workers have the power to beat the Tories, and more strikes should now be called to finish them off.” This simplistic analysis begs far more questions than it answers. Not least, what would replace the coalition, should the government be toppled, which the SWP seems to think is only a matter of a few more strikes, even though this one was much smaller than the last?
In the issue of Socialist Worker sold on the day, its editor, Judith Orr, writes that “Votes in the unions have shown that there is a mood among workers to keep fighting ... We need a sustained programme of strikes to force the Tories to back down. That means more workers striking and for more than one day.” Once again there is no strategic meat here. The SWP’s previous ‘All out, stay out’ slogan has long since been quietly withdrawn by an embarrassed central committee, and now what we have is a strike “for more than one day”. But will the union bureaucracy really facilitate the sort of project that is needed, given its often quite cosy positions as mediator between capital and labour?
The strike issue of Solidarity, paper of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, at least has the virtue of being more concrete, but is similarly lacking in perspective. The editorial calls on the PCS to start a recruitment drive, fund selective action by union branches, and develop “a meaningful plan to hurt the employer through the use of national, selective and other action on a rapid tempo”.  But where are the politics? PSC general secretary, Mark Serwotka, who is unusually principled as far as trade union leaders go, seems to be embracing the selective tactics advocated by his former AWL comrades. Serwotka has little confidence that strikes of “more than one day” will bring about a government change of direction. In an interview with The Guardian his cautious perspective is that “Periodically we will have these national set-piece days ... but in between there will be ongoing days of action by individual employee groups, related to the government’s austerity measures.” As the interviewer points out, “His main challenge is getting other unions to join in.”
For Marxists the question of whether workers will resist attacks on their working conditions and living standards is like asking if night will follow day: the very nature of capitalism, and of the working class’s role within it, makes this inevitable. The class struggle goes on all the time. The most important thing we can do in that regard is to bring our politics to the table. It is clear from the left’s reportage of the May 10 action that it needs a double dose of realism; firstly recognising the parlous state of our own divided forces, and the debilitating effect that sectarianism has even on the ability of the working class to fight back through a united anti-cuts campaign (let alone the effect on the unity of Marxists). Secondly, our programme and strategy for the anti-austerity movement must, to actually be realistic, set its sights much higher: for workers’ organisation and action on at least a European scale, which would prevent the bourgeoisie destroying isolated national movements. That is a perspective with which we may be able to win.
2. Socialist Worker May 12.
3. Solidarity May 9.
4. The Guardian May 10.