Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Let the debates rage on

PCS are holding their annual delegate conference this week, at which it is expected that delegates will endorse the National Executive Committee's emergency motion to ballot for strike action. For the chattering classes of the left, this is the final piece in the puzzle before the set-piece of 30th June - coordinated public sector strike action against government cuts.

The presumption is that this ballot and the resultant action holds the key to defeating the government's agenda. As just one example of this attitude, take PCS Vice President John McInally writing in the Socialist that the emergency motion put to a vote this week "sets out a strategy capable of defeating the cuts." To put it mildly, this is not true and represents yet another instance of the left promoting illusions. The motion instructs the NEC to "proceed with a national ballot in defence of jobs, pensions and pay" and "to work with other trade unions to co-ordinate the action for maximum impact." This is all well and good, but is hardly going to have the ruling class quaking in their boots.

True, the ballot will be for "discontinuous strike action," meaning that there is a mandate for further action beyond June 30th. But we should bear in mind that Greece has just seen its second general strike this year alone, the ninth since the country's IMF bailout brought with it harsh austerity measures. Each time, the government has simply battened down the hatches and released the riot police for the day, before continuing on its merry way. But as he urges "30 June must be the start of an unfolding campaign that will see other unions joining the battle as their members demand industrial action to defend their own jobs and conditions," McInally betrays the same limited thinking that reduces class war to a series of set-pieces, stage-managed from above.

I should make it clear that I'm not writing this to try and make McInally - or Serwotka, or anybody else at the top of the unions - see sense. To them, such thinking is sense - it fits with the interests they hold by virtue of being part of the bureaucracy. I've said before that I'm not interested in alchemy, and that remains true.

Whilst the union tops blow out hot air a far more vital debate is being had at a grassroots level. It is one that threatens to be obscured by the same "fighting" rhetoric we've heard a thousand times before, but it is far more exciting and relevant. It is also no longer on the fringes, thanks to a unique combination of events whereby a rank-and-file student movement catalysed the explosive revival of class struggle whilst the official leadership was consigned to irrelevancy. But we cannot be complacent, as trade union bureaucrats have always been far more adept at demobilising from above than their student counterparts.

The fact that we are still talking about the "next step" following March 26th, two months after the event, and we cannot guarantee June 30th will even come to pass is a case in point.

It is untrue to say that nothing has happened in the interim. The Black Triangle Campaign and Disabled People Against Cuts have initiated a number of national days of action against benefit cuts, as well as a week of action against poverty pimps Atos Origin. An entire community rallied to fight off police repression in Stokes Croft. There has also, more broadly, been a marked escalation in the class struggle. But none of this was official, and so for the bureaucrats "June 30" follows seamlessly from "March 26".

As such, a number of questions go un-asked within the mainstream labour movement. Why has there thus far been just one official trade union demonstration against the cuts? Why is a one-day strike (or perhaps a series of them), no matter how large, the limit of our ambitions? Why has there been little to no attempt to link up the various current struggles? The answer to all of these questions lies partly in vested interests, and the innate nature of union bureaucracy. But the left, promoting illusions and selling reformism as revolution must also bear its fair share of responsibility.

You won't win the class struggle this way, but you'll sell enough papers and serve enough vested interests to keep the right people happy. Hence the massively uphill struggle the libertarian left faces if it is to rebuild a genuinely militant rank-and-file.

This brings me back to the debate I mentioned earlier. The Commune group is hosting open assemblies in London to build for June 30th, and Steve Ryan's and Tom Denning's contributions to the discussion are well worth reading. Being biased like that, I'd also place my own take on events alongside them. More broadly, is hosting the unfinished IWW discussion paper of "direct unionism" as well as Juan Conatz's response, both of which are of particular significance when talking about horizontal organising today.

What is important is that these few pieces are just a hint of the vibrant debate which is growing in the workers' movement today. That debate must continue to shape resistance as austerity begins to bite, not be drowned out by the lumbering of a dinosaur shackled with its own limitations.