Thursday, 21 April 2011

Coordinated strike action and militancy from below

It is now a near certainty that we will see coordinated public sector strike action within the next couple of months.

UCU have already balloted. PCS is putting a motion to its conference in May. The NUT will be seeking permission to ballot this weekend. Even the moderate ATL already has a mandate to ask members for strike action. Unite has hinted its support. The only question now is how events unfold once the ball gets rolling.

The significance of such action shouldn’t be understated. Up to 800,000 people could be out on strike if the action goes ahead, more than official estimates of the TUC’s March for the Alternative. That this action is economic, rather than a simple A to B march, also means that the action will have an exponentially greater effect upon the government, without us having to listen to speeches by the likes of Ed Miliband.

But we ought to be honest about the limitations of this action. There is a tendency on the left to overplay the value of one-day strike action, and this instance is no different.

John McInally, national vice president of PCS, writes for the Socialist that whilst “PCS supports demonstrations, peaceful direct action, building the anti-cuts movements in our communities and all other forms of campaigning,” ultimately “the key to defeating the coalition is widespread, coordinated industrial action.” This statement is not entirely true, and in effect marginalises the effort of those beyond highly organised workplaces.

Less than a third of workplaces are covered by collective bargaining agreements and less than a quarter of workers are in a trade union. The unemployed, a demographic which is growing in the wake of the ruling class’s austerity agenda, cannot take traditional strike action. Yet it would be wrong to say that these groups have no economic power, or that they must play a secondary role in class struggle. To marginalise these groups, on such a spurious basis, is to guarantee failure.

To fight the cuts effectively we need to recognise the value of other forms of direct action beyond traditional walk-outs. Economic blockades can have the same effect as a strike. Occupations are a useful weapon against closures. Not to mention the numerous forms of disruptive action that workers can take without having to sacrifice a day’s pay – from go-slows to sabotage.

It is thus important not to see action in the public sector as some kind of substitute for broader class action. There needs to be a more explicit effort to connect the struggles of various groups, for example claimants who face being chucked off benefits and Jobcentre workers facing an increasingly repressive targets culture. Greater coordination of action is also a must. Not just between different groups of strikers but also between different forms of direct action.

In building for these coordinated strikes, militant workers should be emphasising this point. They are not occurring in isolation, but within a broader climate of class struggle. With the PCS and NUT ballots both for discontinuous action, allowing them to call further strikes without having to re-ballot, the link between struggles can be made more explicit in the future.

In building for the action we ought also to be arguing not just for a “yes” vote but also for mass attendance of picket lines and strike rallies. But we should not simply be mobilising the rank-and-file simply to be led. We should be arguing for workers to organise on a horizontal basis, and for a willingness to go beyond the limitations of the trade union bureaucracy. Whilst the left will be concentrating its efforts on attempting to build militancy in the leadership, how the struggle turns out will really depend on what we can build at the grassroots.

This means not just mass militancy, but locally-controlled strike funds and strong solidarity across workplaces and communities. But it also means a recognition of the fundamental nature of bureaucracy and top-down organisation.

A bureaucracy by nature has interests apart from those it is supposed to represent. In the case of trade unions, this means being of value as a mediator between labour and capital. Indeed, the value of this role has long been recognised by the bosses, who have on numerous occasions used union leaders as a way to police the workforce. Changing the faces behind the union may change the degree to which this happens, but it will still happen. The problem is not in the specific figures at the top, but in the structure.

Thus, anarcho-syndicalists recognise that reform of trade unions is akin to alchemy. Instead, we would argue for workers to take control of our own struggles. It is now more important than ever that this principle is put into practice.