Sunday, 19 June 2011

Strike traps and fights that need to be had

The strikes on June 30th (and the potential for a "wave" following from that) have become the subject of much sabre rattling. First, we had Vince Cable's veiled threats of much harsher strike laws. Then Dave Prentis, General Secretary of Unison - which isn't even taking strike action yet, absurdly declared "we are going to win." Now Ed Balls has weighed in, the voice of Labour Party "moderation."

I call Prentis's intervention absurd because it carries no weight. It is possible to win, and I will come to that, but not on his terms. He offers nothing other than empty rhetoric. He says "it won't be the miners' strike," without any suggestion that he knows what this means.

The miners failed because, exactly like the 1926 General Strike which he also cites, they were left to fight alone and slowly worn down in a war of attrition. This won't happen again quite simply because we won't see such open-ended and potentially drawn-out strikes again. The union's weapon of choice is now the one-day strike, entirely within the framework of a law weighted against them. So no, it won't be the miner's strike - but it won't be radically different either. The rank-and-file will still be pushed forward for a battle the leaders aren't even trying to win. The TUC is still a beacon of inactivity, leaving those unions which do go out standing alone. The government is spoiling for a fight, and looking to bring the last stronghold of organised labour crashing to the ground.

From this, it simply does not follow that "we can win." In fact, if we are going entirely by the actions union bureaucrats pursue, we emphatically won't. This is where Ed Balls steps in.

Making a similar point to the above, he writes that "trade union leaders must avoid George Osborne’s trap." The Chancellor "wants them to think that going on strike is the only option," and is leading them down the road to defeat. However, his analysis goes no further and quickly turns into a party political broadcast when he declares that the only option is "to adopt Labour’s balanced deficit plan that puts jobs first." Slower cuts. Fairer cuts. Nicer cuts.

The shortfall in Balls' argument is that though the June 30th strike is nominally about pensions, for those fighting it is about so much more. It isn't just public sector pensions, jobs, and pay that are under attack - it is the entire working class. Disabled people will be the hardest hit (PDF), being driven face first into poverty, whilst welfare, public services, and the living conditions of all of us face significant decline. We are at a pivotal moment where, if we do not find a way to fight back and to beat these attacks, we risk every gain that the working class has won being worn away at an even faster pace than before. If we can't preserve what we've got, we certainly can't push the boundaries towards something much better.

But if the situation is as described above, what chance to we stand? The answer depends on the extent to which the rank-and-file working class are able to take control of our own struggles. Across the past year, we have seen numerous examples of official leadership being utterly sidelined and even chased away by militants. Now, there is a movement to generalise the strike, and to go beyond the limits of the trade unions.

I've already given a few examples of this in previous posts - such as UK Uncut's "big society breakfast," their other planned actions such as that in central London, and the student walkouts. But the details of what takes place are up for those involved to decide. What matters is that there is action, and that what union leaders are orchestrating as a simple one-day public sector strike becomes so much more. If we want to avoid the "strike trap," the answer isn't to back down and let our "leaders" negotiate a worthless compromise and diffuse most of the anger whilst the attacks go ahead. It is to retain that anger, to galvanise the masses of the working class, and to be more innovative in our fight back.

We have already made a lot of headway in this. Whilst the official movement marks 10th November, 9th December, 29th January, 26th March, and soon 30th June, for the rest of us there has been so much more in between. This struggle has already been at turns bitter, hard, and vibrant, and we have barely begun. The point now is to maintain that momentum and to escalate the fight. No matter the designs of the government or the bureaucrats who want us to follow at their heels.