Friday, 25 February 2011

How to derail the government's anti-strike "war games"

Government ministers are bracing themselves for coordinated strike action by public sector unions over the summer. They have apparently been engaged in "war games," including plans to respond to action with an army of scabs. So it's time to start talking about how workers defend against this.

A number of people, myself included, have dismissed the TUC's resolution on "coordinated strike action" as bluff and bluster. It is clear, not least from how they are organising March 26th, that they want to defuse rather than lead working class anger against the government. But this doesn't mean that there won't be strikes, and unions such as PCS are confident that action will come over attacks on pensions later in the year.

And whatever we think about the bureaucrats at the top of the pyramids, it is the rank-and-file of the organised working class who will be on any picket lines that emerge. They deserve our solidarity and every last drop of support we can offer, because whilst "left unity" is a con for use by would-be vanguards, class unity is what has brought us every last concession won from the state and capital.

The government undoubtedly knows this, and it is why they have been doing their homework. The Independent quotes a government source as saying that they "are looking across the country at things like which prisons have a high number of militant staff and which schools have a high proportion of NUT [National Union of Teachers] staff. The idea is if they go on strike we will be prepared." Although they retain the "nuclear option" of further anti-strike legislation, they also have teams "looking at examples of the ongoing strikes on the London underground network and British Airways to provide a model of how private-sector contractors could be brought in at short notice to limit the effectiveness of any mass strike action."

In other words, they want to divide the working class along public and private sector lines, and draft in an army of scabs from the latter.

Fully aware that they are waging a class war, the government have been "looking at who we are likely to enrage" with the cuts "and when we are likely to be doing it," and from that "working out where we are most vulnerable." But, the question becomes, how do we fight back when they move to implement their strike busting strategy?

There are a number of things that can be done, and indeed need to be done, here. Not only to respond to the "war games," but also because we are in a period of particularly acute class warfare. Here, I will touch upon the most important.

Firstly, and most vitally, we need to see mass pickets. Legal guidelines (PDF), and common practice in the last twenty years, has seen lines outside the workplace reduced to six official pickets. Thus, the line is merely a small visible demonstration of the larger action of workers withdrawing their labour. But, especially if the government is going to draft an army of scabs to cross those picket lines, then the effects of the action have to be physically defended at that line.

One of the most recent examples of this was in the firefighters' dispute in London. There, all those on strike were on the line, and there were blockades to prevent scab fire engines from entering. Though this saw hit-and-run attacks on pickets, it was largely successful.

Such action also provides a focal point for solidarity from those outside the affected workforce, which is another vital point. Liverpool Solidarity Federation have recently made a habit of supporting PCS picket lines, and myself and another SolFed comrade also showed up at a BBC picket line during their pensions dispute. But this should be happening far more often, and on a far larger scale. Socialist Worker reported on a gathering of 200 people supporting the fire dispute, and there is no reason whatsoever that public demonstrations couldn't be assembled alongside mass pickets.

At the same time, as I argued during that same fire dispute, the firms which provide the government's army of scabs need to be outed and targetted.

This includes making the case for solidarity to the workers being asked to cross the picket lines, and making the argument for stable, secure employment over scab jobs - as was done at Job Centres during the postal workers' dispute in 2009. But it also includes more militant tactics such as sabotage and the occupation or blockading of such scab firms. As I said preciously, "If six people can put a munitions factory out of action, surely we can do the same to a scab depot?"

Ultimately, alongside these tactics, the best way to side-step the government's contingency plans is to break the law. A legal strike ballot and notice period allows the employer (and the state) time to prepare, but a wildcat strike does not. However, even with trade unions staying well within the confines of the law, militancy as described above can strike a powerful blow for the working class.