Monday, 17 May 2010

Fighting back against the High Court is the best way to rebuild a culture of solidarity and direct action

The High Court has granted British Airways an injunction to prevent a planned 20-day strike by Unite members. Although many expected it, this is another nail in the coffin of the right to strike and the ability of the working class to defend themselves.

The grounds for the injunction were flimsy at best. According to BBC News, "the decision was based on a technicality and whether Unite followed rules in contacting its members with strike result details." That's right. The ballot itself wasn't the issue, but the way it was announced was. It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry at the transparency of this charade.

As Django notes for LibCom;
What these rulings demonstrate is that the right to strike doesn't really exist in the UK anymore, because they impose an onus on unions and consequences which don't exist for other kinds of organisations. It is unimaginable, for instance, that a council could be prevented from collecting its council tax payments due to inaccuracies in its database of residents, or that the results of the general election could be annulled due to irregular voter registration (which certainly does happen – evidence of electoral fraud arises at every general election, including this one.) In this way, smaller organisations with smaller resources like trade unions are obligated to meet higher standards of record-keeping than exist elsewhere.
The idea that we live in anything approaching a "fair" society is a myth. Those who organise to resist injustice and fight for just such fairness are attacked and crushed by those for whom it is just a vote-winning buzzword. We should be in no doubt that such attacks will only intensify.

There is, however, a way to resist them - if we have the will. As Django continues;
All of this paints a bleak picture – the inability to legally strike, unions losing any vestige of being organs for struggle and taking on the cowed, corporatist role they have in China, or held in the ex-Soviet countries.

But unions are permitted to exist within capitalism for a reason; they function as a pressure valve, allowing anger and militancy to be channelled down restricted, legalistic paths. Unions are able to represent workers to the employer, and negotiate the cost and terms of their labour. The only other alternative form conflict can take is workers organising their own action through mass meetings, without official union mandates.

We saw a glimpse of what this looks like during the wave of oil industry walkouts last year. Though there is no definitive split between the 'workers' and the 'union' in cases like this, with shop stewards often taking leading organisational roles, the strikes worked without a legal mandate and ignored every piece of anti-strike legislation since the 20s. There was no ballot, and secondary action took place on a huge scale. Whatever reservations we may have about the initial motives behind the strikes (which are best addressed here), they showed that it is possible to take successful, large scale illegal industrial action without repercussions. There have been a number of wildcat strikes at the Royal Mail in recent years too.

It is entirely possible that should there be enough of an appetite for action amongst workers in the coming years, we may see more action of this kind. After all, in countries where striking is illegal, such as China, it happens frequently on an illegal basis. On the other hand it is entirely possible that we could see a demoralised and cowed working class incapable of breaking with the unions and the official restrictions on strike action which now prevent it from taking place. Either outcome is possible, but only one stands any chance of fending off the massive attacks on our living conditions which are in the pipeline. 
If we want to see this kind of militancy return, though, we need to rekindle the culture of working class solidarity and collective self-defence. The weakness of labour organisations (and not just in terms of mainstream trade unions) and the constant bombardment of propaganda has made people believe the capitalist lie. The dogma that hard work will see you justly rewarded and that "the markets" are self-regulating (rather than just a short-hand for parasitic employers getting rich off the labour of others) actually holds weight.

This needs to be challenged. Not with academic drivel that nobody but student Marxists will read, but by tying the problems we can all see for ourselves to tangible struggles in the real world.

The first target of any such action has to be the High Court. We cannot simply wait for the next issue to come along and try to get things right then. We must fight back now. The High Court has shown itself, in three separate injunctions cases, to be unequivocally on the side of the bosses. It is an instrument of the class war being waged against us, the most powerful weapon in use at this point, and it needs to be taken out.

Not only this time, but every time that there is an injunction against workers' actions, the High Court must be picketed. Ideally, there should be a blockade, but at the very least there should be some presence from working class activists. Likewise, we need to find ways to demonstrate our solidarity with the workers in the British Airways cabin crew. The ‘I support the BA cabin crew strikes!’ Facebook group is here, and the 'An injury to one is an injury to all! Defend the right to strike!’ group is here.

If demonstrations at airports are not practical, handing out leaflets there is. Talking to the union stewards and the members is. Raising awareness and public support is vital in keeping up morale and encouraging people to continue the fight. Whatever happens, we need to remember that the struggle of BA workers, as of any other workers, is our struggle. An injury to one is an injury to all!