Thursday, 6 October 2011

Near to revolution?

This Saturday, Liverpool John Moores University plays host to Near To Revolution? The 1911 Liverpool General Transport Strike Centenary Conference. It is an event that I should really have plugged more, given that I'll be there with Liverpool Solidarity Federation as part of a workshop on "organising the unorganised."

Whereas other events on 1911 have thus far been a couple of hours at most, this is an all day affair and absolutely crammed with events;
This history is your history...

Mass Strike, syndicalist firebrands, running battles with police and troops, middle class citizens militias, a gunboat sent up the Mersey and two strikers shot dead...

This was Liverpool in 1911. On the brink of revolution? A mythical or pivotal moment in the rise of a radical city? What 'lessons' are to be drawn from 1911 as we face the current crisis in 2011?

The 1911 Liverpool General Transport Strike was the most significant episode in the stormy period of the 1910-14 Great Unrest when Edwardian Britain was shaken by mass strikes and open working class revolt. This revolt prepared the ground for mass trade unionism among workers. The history of 1911 is still relevant today as working people and their families face the greatest assault on living standards and public services since the 1930s.

The conference will provide meetings of popular history with discussion and debate on different aspects of 1911 including:

- Opening plenary by Eric Taplin, author of 'Near to Revolution: The Liverpool General Transport Strike of 1911'

- Liverpool's Bloody Tuesday: 1911 and the State Response, Sam Davies (Professor of History, LJMU)

- 1911 and its legacy: Foundational Myth or Authentic Tradition? Mark O'Brien (Centre for Lifelong Learning, University of Liverpool, UCU)

- Syndicalism and Trade Union Officialdom, Ralph Darlington (author 'Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism')

- Militant Women: 1890-1920, Karen Hunt (Prof. Modern British History, Keele University)

- The Changing Working Class: 1911 and today, Julian Alford (socialist activist)

- The 1913 Dublin Lockout and Jim Larkin, Francis Devine (SIPTU college, Dublin)

- Tom Mann and Syndicalism in Britain, Richard Hyman (LSE, leading authority on industrial relations)

- The Labour Identity and the Strange Death of Liberal England, John Callaghan (Professor of Politics and Contemporary History at the University of Salford)

- Workshop on 'Organising the Unorganised', Liverpool Solidarity Federation and others.

- Closing panel discussion, 1911 and the Labour Movement Today: Lessons for the Present Crisis? Bob Crow (general secretary RMT), John McDonnell MP, Charlie Kimber (national secretary Socialist Workers Party), Tony Mulhearn (Socialist Party, one of the 'Liverpool 47' councillors)
Now, certain things on the itinerary are dubious. For a start, I'd argue that the main lesson for the present crisis is that the main "lesson for the present crisis" that we can draw from 1911 is that it is the rank-and-file that wins militant struggles and top-tables like Bob Crow et al will only seek to stifle that. However, I didn't organise the event and given the radical content elsewhere I'm not about to gripe about those who did using big name speakers to draw funding and crowds.

For me, the most important fact is that Liverpool Solfed do get to talk about our perspective on workplace organising. This is important because it offers a stark contrast to the mainstream trade unions.

Unite the Union's organising model is a welcome break from the service model of trade unionism in a lot of ways, but it is still limited in that control remains in the hands of full-time officials and the main objective is building up the membership of the union. Also, even with an emphasis on "activism," it is still hampered by a legalistic approach to the workplace.

By contrast, Solfed emphasise a militant unionism built around what workers can practically do rather than what is strictly legal. Our organiser training focuses heavily on direct action and on the need to escalate them as the number of workplace militants grows, and it argues for the building of directly democratic workplace committee structures which operate regardless of union membership. Though we are of course eager for those who agree with our aims and principles to become members, we will also readily work alongside and organise with those who don't.

As I argued in my last post, this is all part of the important process of regaining control of our own struggles. If the 1911 Liverpool General Transport Strike was about anything, it was about the victories a militant rank-and-file can achieve without and beyond union officialdom. If we want to achieve victories in the present struggle, we need to be following that example.

The workshop on organising the unorganised will take place at 4pm. The full programme for the conference is here.