Monday, 22 August 2011

Taking back control of our own struggles

There is very little news, at present, of any kind of follow up to June 30. The National Shop Stewards Network is lobbying the TUC on the issue, and PCS has issued materials to build for such action, but otherwise there is silence. This should be indicative of the hurdles workers have to overcome in our own movement in order to fight back effectively.

You can be sure that the other side is on the ball. Plymouth Council's decision to de-recognise Unison follows on the heels of Shropshire announcing that it will sack and re-hire all workers at the end of September to force a change of contract. Not to mention the long-running struggle of workers at Southampton Council, where drastic wage cuts provoked a backlash from the workforce. However, this stands out as relatively unique and no doubt the bosses feel safe to attack.

All of this is going on whilst the public sector unions continue to um and ah over whether to take another national one-day strike. A comrade at PCS is of the opinion, based on what they have seen nationally, that plans are being made behind closed doors and - as with June 30 - how events will unfold will have been decided before it reaches the membership. This was apparent last time in that I chanced to read about 30 June in a leaflet from the Socialist Workers' Party long before PCS were even telling reps, but warning them to keep the date from members "in case they decide to take the day as leave." Which just about says it all about the communications and the level of trust for members from some quarters within the union.

We need to change this situation. In the first instance, the strategy being pursued by PCS and others is at best inadequate, and easily scuppered by the reticence of Unison as regards throwing their hat into the ring. Of equal importance, workers need to be in control of their own struggles at the ground, not waiting for instructions produced behind closed doors at union HQ.

There is no single, simple solution to this. As I've alluded to on a number of occasions, building up rank-and-file organisation is a painstaking process and we have a long way to go in order to challenge the monopoly of traditional trade unionism over labour organisation. But that doesn't mean we can't take significant steps as these struggles present themselves. In the instance of strikes, in particular, there is a lot of potential for seizing control from the full-timers and bureaucrats.

One key idea, recently presented as a motion to Liverpool Against The Cuts by Women Against The Cuts, is the establishment of local strike committees. Simply, this would mean assembling people on the basis of workplace and/or geographical area in order to decide how the dispute will play out. A lot of this is practical and logistical, such as picket lines, strike propaganda, local demonstrations, etc. But it can also be an opportunity to start rebuilding the culture of mass meetings and direct democracy that once defined class struggle.

For example, having the discussions openly about how the dispute and the struggle ought to progress emphasises to the workforce that they have a direct stake in what comes next. Even if we aren't in a position for such votes to pass federally and be implemented as the democratic will of the workers, we can still encourage people to have their say, impress demands upon the unions involved in the struggles, and even (depending on numbers and militancy) implement such measures themselves despise what comes from the centre. This last is highly unlikely at present, of course, but that doesn't mean it will always be so, and we should be actively building to that point.

There is no guarantee of success in such a venture, but we must try. What we are seeing now from the unions is beyond inadequate, and only an empowered rank-and-file can challenge that. Only a mass confident in its ability to act for its own interests can shove officialdom out of the driving seat. Because if lobbying the TUC and imploring leaders to lead more in a style we would like is the limit of our ambitions, all we will find is defeat.