Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A chance to start writing ourselves back into the story

The following is reposted from the Cautiously Pessimistic blog. The struggle it discusses truly is one of the most important and vital to the British labour movement today.

I’ve already plugged the rank-and-file electricians’ network quite a few times on this blog. Today I’m going to do it again, because I believe that the current struggle taking place against attacks on wages and conditions across the construction sector could be the most important thing happening in the UK at the moment. To start at the beginning: most of us don’t have a lot of say in the big decisions that get made about our lives. And, if we try and change that by getting involved in protest, we find the same pattern existing across most of the left: the TUC bosses choose a date every few months for a protest or a one-day strike, and the rest of us are expected to just go along with it, to march out obediently when they tell us to and then go home and do nothing for the next few months without making a fuss. There are some groups and projects where decisions are made at the grassroots, but pretty much all of these are tiny, and this lack of numbers makes it impossible for them to have any real impact most of the time.

This situation is what makes the electricians’ rank and file network so important: they offer a way out beyond the two unsatisfactory options of getting involved with either ineffective, top-down mass protest or a tiny, isolated subculture of activists. It’s a rank and file group that’s out of the control of the union bureaucracy, but still capable of pulling out impressive numbers at short notice, mobilising people in London, Newcastle, Manchester, Glasgow, Grangemouth, Cleethorpes, Liverpool and Edinburgh. They haven’t really challenged the authority of the union itself and are urging people to join Unite, but that hasn’t stopped union leaders from describing them as “cancerous”.

What’s possible and impossible at any given moment is determined by what people think is possible or impossible, which in turn is a reflection of what’s happened in the past. At the moment, someone looking for an excuse to stay in bed rather than putting their time and energy into fighting back against the attacks this system makes on all of us can point to a lot of examples to justify their apathy: from the Miners’ Strike through to the anti-Iraq War movement and right up to recent cases like the campaign to save EMA or stop the attacks on the NHS, there’s no shortage of defeats to teach us how weak and powerless we are.

Positive examples to show how we can win are a lot rarer: we have to go back as far as the Poll Tax, or else look at much smaller-scale victories like the recent Office Angels campaign, the IWW cleaners’ disputes in London, or the Seattle Solidarity Network’s impressive success in the US. We need some stories with happy endings, and the rank and file electricians looks like our best bet at the moment: they certainly have the determination and spirit needed to win, so it’s just a question of the numbers they can pull out. They’ve already won a partial victory with the surrender of MJN Coulson, but that still leaves seven other employers to beat.

This is bigger than just the wages and conditions of one group of workers: the fundamental question here is whether or not it’s possible for a group of ordinary people to assert some kind of control over what’s going on in their lives. A victory for the electricians would be a victory for all of us who share that goal. Respect is due to those folk, like the Commune and North East Anarchists, who’ve been out supporting the protests, I’d strongly advise anyone else with anything happening in their area to think about making it a priority.