Strikes and industrial militancy after the Trade Union Act

There are arguably two urgent questions facing the Marxist left in the trade union movement: how to provide leadership in assisting the movement to organise in the real labour market of today and how to raise the tempo of struggle within the workplaces where we are organised. This blog only discusses the second of these questions.

The Trade Union Act and national collective bargaining

The passage of the Trade Union Act into law crystallises a critical tactical and strategic question for the labour movement. What is the role of strike action in future life of the trade union movement and does the strike still have a role in the struggle to build a socialist alternative?

The Trade Union Act, as we know, was simply the latest in a succession of Conservative measures to cripple and strangle the power of organised labour. It was explicitly aimed at hamstringing the public sector unions which form the heartland of the movement with the bulk of its membership and the bastion where collective bargaining is still at least formally observed. The Act throws new barriers in the way of public sector unions looking to mount large scale set-piece national strikes.

Crippling the ability of public sector unions to deliver national strikes will of course further the fragmentation of national collective bargaining structures. But the argument also runs the other way. The fact that strike ballots for large-scale national actions have been delivering turnouts below 50% is arguably symptomatic of the deeper breakdown of national collective bargaining structures.

Under the weight of long-term labour market restructuring in the private sector – assisted by the state – and neoliberal public sector reform, driven at national levels by the state and the EU, national collective bargaining structures were disintegrating in any case. NHS Hospital Trusts manage their own finances and engage in procurement of scores of subcontractors to deliver services. The BBC is now simply a commissioning agent for hundreds of small companies comprised of its former employees. Academy Schools set their pay and conditions at the level of the School or the chain. Universities and colleges increasingly do the same.

Why is this important? It matters because national collective bargaining structures and processes and the strikes used to support them are becoming more remote from meaningful outcomes for members. And following John Kelly’s mobilisation theory, if the secret of mobilising workers in struggle is to work on a deeply felt injustice which can be easily attributed to an enemy, around an issue that can be simply collectivised and where it is possible to win something, then it becomes clearer why turnouts in national strike ballots might have been low even before the Act passed into law.

Put simply, workers struggles and union structures and practices have to follow the restructuring of work and decision-making. Of course, this is not actually a simple issue of power travelling down to the local ‘firm’, as in reality, control of public services is being handed to large monopolistic companies who own or control many smaller ones. But the point remains, national strikes are going to be increasingly hard to deliver because they are increasingly detached from the reality of the organisation of either the public or the private sectors.

Strikes and industrial leverage in the workplace

So what happens now? Do we consign the strike weapon to the cabinet of labour movement curiosities? Obviously not. At a very simple instrumental level, to do so would be to denude the movement of a vital and necessary weapon. But we do need a shift in thinking and a new generation of trade union leaders at all levels who understand how to use strikes strategically. It is clear that it will still be possible to win strike ballots and use strike action, but only where it is related to some action designed to win something tangible for members. That does not rule out national or large scale strike ballots. Far from it. the decentralisation of bargaining has been uneven and some bargaining structures are still linked to meaningful processes. These must be defended. Yet we must learn to fight coordinated local battles around workplaces too. It’s clear that the strike weapon can still be effectively used locally without falling foul of the legislation. In their recent IER pamphlet, Ralph Darlington and John Dobson note ‘a clear tendency for workplace, area or single employer ballots to obtain ‘higher’ turnouts and be more likely to clear the 50% threshold’. Turnout in NUT’s national ballots, for example, is around 31%. At school level it was around 64%. Similarly, FBU area ballots outstripped national ones. The current dispute in Southern Rail passed the required thresholds.

Most of these struggles are defensive ones over jobs, working hours, terms and conditions, pensions or imposed pay cuts. With the cost of living set to rise to 3% next year and possibly more beyond, we may well see a revival of more serious wages struggles in both the public and private sectors.

Strikes that are integrated into clear strategies for winning focused gains for workers will always be an option. But they must form part of a wider tactical armoury that uses and combines all the accumulated wisdom of the movement as the concrete situation demands: strategic supply chain organising, leverage campaigning, community and social movement mobilisation and the ‘borrowing of power’ from other agents in supply chains, together with various forms of unofficial or illegal industrial action.

Workplace militancy and the class struggle today

Crucially, for Marxists and those on the genuine left, workplace struggles, including strikes, form a vital part of the wider development of class struggle. As our briefing note explains, the temporary withdrawal of labour throws into question the everyday exercise of control in the workplace and exposes the fundamentally exploitative nature of the working relationship in capitalist societies. This class character of strikes is always present, even if workers aren’t always aware of it. As the current Southern Rail dispute demonstrates, during strikes, the class nature of society and the state can come clearly into view and the question of political power quickly arises.

The state is, quite evidently, an overbearing presence in modern British industrial relations: hampering organisation, proscribing industrial action, blacklisting workers, conducting ideological warfare on unions and so on. Equally, for all the guff about globalisation, the state is a hugely significant agent in the modern capitalist economy. Just taking the rail industry as a contemporary example, it is the state that privatised Southern Rail. The state constructed the conditions that enabled the restructure of the industry around service transnationals like the Go-Ahead Group and its owners. And as the TUC’s excellent recent report demonstrated, it is the state that constructs and guarantees profits politically for these companies. This is why the seemingly small workplace struggles in the dispute at Southern Rail have assumed a sharply political form, throwing up questions about the control of the entire industry.

A rising general level of workplace militancy would raise the possibility of large numbers of workers engaged in struggles that might enable the development of a wider class consciousness. This would feed into – and in turn develop – the political forces arguing for an alternative economic and political strategy today, turning the struggle against a particular government or an ideology into a more profound challenge to the capitalist class as a whole.

Is it possible for workplace struggles to play this role in supporting the development of class struggle and class consciousness today? If so, what might this process look like? It’s unlikely to look like the sort of general strike calls repeated so often in certain sections of the left. The call for a General Strike Now might feel good on demonstrations and serves as a useful slogan with which to characterise everyone else as a sell-out, but it is a slogan and nothing more.  However, it is possible to imagine an industrial strategy in which large numbers of workers were mobilised around a large number of smaller workplace based struggles, deploying strikes where appropriates, both legal and illegal.

Our own history shows us that the emergence of political class consciousness at the beginning of the twentieth century and during the strike wave of 1968-74 was built on years of action in many forms taken by shop stewards at the level of the enterprise or shop floor. But for this, we need a new generation of workplace reps and activists who are engaged in political education, applying this to their workplaces and their industries to recognise and exploit spontaneous struggles, to identify the points where unions can exercise leverage, developing collective struggles as part of this and applying the appropriate tactics to each situation. We also need to build an infrastructure to support these reps and to help socialise their experience, to make it part of the common consciousness of the movement. Social media can clearly play a helpful role in this, bringing spatially dispersed struggles quickly into contact with one another. And we need more, not less coordination. Coordination that is less fixated with Grand Days Out and more with ensuring that collective struggles are effectively developed, won, and then widely shared and built on. Then we might be able to ensure that class struggles at the point of production play their role in developing a wider class challenge that questions not just neoliberalism, but capitalism.

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