Solidarity’s approach to the recent construction strikes was very poor. While they were a national news issue and a major focus for everyone interested in how the British working class respond to the crisis, we wobbled and ended up downplaying the massive threat of nationalism to our class.
We did not heed Trotsky’s advice in the Transitional Programme:
“To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be.”
The key reason these strikes spread was because they touched a nationalist nerve that is plain to see in any workplace. No active Marxist should be shocked that injustice focused on nationalism can mobilise workers in a way that other issues have failed to do. Marxists do not idealise workers. We think the working class is an international class that has the capacity to tear down capitalism and create a classless society. But we don’t think workers are generally socialist, or more anti-nationalist, or generally better people than non-workers. In fact the idea that we are a slave class, whose ideas are dominated by the ruling ideas of our age, like nationalism, is central to our understanding of the state of our movement.
During the recent disputes we bent over backwards to justify, explain away or ignore the depths of the nationalism involved. Our editorial said: ”It is an eruption of class struggle that may be the harbinger of many such struggles. Other workers will, indeed, learn from this example to act and to defy the anti-union laws.”
To what extent the dispute focused on breaking the anti-union laws and fighting the bosses’ crisis is crucial here. It seems to me that the key issue that made this dispute happen was nationalism. That’s why this contracting-out and this new contract were fought when others have not been.
It is also why this dispute spread, while others have not. Those who want to downplay the nationalist demands have said the media or the bosses have played up the “British jobs for British workers” stuff. Perhaps, but it was central, for the very good reason, that it was the key idea that made the strike spread.
Our article went on to say:
“But some will also be mis-educated into picking up the worker-dividing demand: 'British jobs for British workers'.” It seemed clear to me that it was this slogan was the reason the strike spread.
The article went on to sort-of accept this not very convenient truth;
“If the British 'Labour' prime minister raises the slogan 'British Jobs for British Workers', as he has done, it is not surprising that workers pick up on it”.
So it’s not the nationalism of the brave workers that’s to blame? Still the article is silent on the crap soft-pedalling of nationalism by most levels of both unions involved in the dispute.
After the Lindsey deal our leaflet hailed a “substantial industrial victory” in probably the AWL’s most glowing assessment of any dispute in recent history. Was it that good? Did it deal with subcontracting? Or any other major issue? No, but it got some more British jobs. The claim that no Italians lost work is impossible for us to check and a claim made by the company did not expose the nationalism of the dispute from the picket lines through the reps right up to the union leaders. After the event in the face of a blatant Daily Star stunt we had to attack Simpson, but only then.
It should not be hard for us to understand Janus-faced union leaders. From the very start of the dispute it was obvious how the union leaders and even rank-and-file leaders would play the strike. It is patronising in the extreme to think that trade unionists can’t work out a line of spin that can seem to play it by the book while having an obvious content that will be understood by others.
Of course none but the stupidest union spokesperson called for sacking foreign workers (I did hear one GMB official call for exactly that on Radio 4) and of course union leaders, who spend their lives asking lawyers what they can do, are not going to demand something they know to be illegal. The call for British workers not to be discriminated against has obvious subtext that you can only ignore if you want to delude yourself.
In championing the Lindsey deal the Socialist Party quoted the BBC as “understanding no Italian workers would be sacked” without explaining that Italian firms are not legally allowed to “sack” permanent staff (getting round the law by giving people endless unpaid holidays). So no Italian firm would be stupid enough to say it was going to sack permanent staff. Of course there was no mention of the crippling levels of youth unemployment in Southern Italy.
The union leaders knew what they were doing, however. The Unite chief negotiator, Bernard McAuley, said: "We've made sure that no Italians have been made redundant, we've got jobs for 102 British people and we've also made sure that Fabio Capello stays as England manager. We want integration now, not segregation." He was championing his belief that the deal would mean 102 new jobs for British workers only.
And what happened about organising the Italian workers?
The ramifications of “British jobs for British workers” hegemonising the battle for jobs are massive, especially in the current British workforce. It will derail every fight in every workplace; it will make the vital workers’ unity across Europe even less likely than it was. It is a massive problem for basic trade unionism let alone socialism.
Anti-Europe little-Englandism is a very powerful in the UK and this strike has strengthened it. I think nationalism is perhaps the biggest ideological enemy of our class. I can hear readers saying “we know all that!” — so why downplay it, half excuse it, or even joke that the construction workers were only taking the piss out of Brown’s slogan of “British jobs for British workers”? Why not condemn and protest at union leaders who help to support or even whip up this poison?
The left has a nasty history of downplaying or ignoring the real politics that blight our class. Instead of facing up to the problem too often we try to ignore or explain away backward ideas. It’s what the Stalinist CP did, and I have witnessed SP paper sellers laughing at racist jokes “to stay in with the lads” on a picket line. Taking the SP’s word on this dispute given their tradition of “turning a blind eye” and workerism was a mistake.
We do of course denounce the Daily Star, Gordon Brown, and once he has made himself a blatant nationalist even Derek Simpson, but at the time we baulked at criticising the role of the unions, the reps, and the backward ideas of the workforce.
In this period of low class struggle some in the AWL may fetishise “workers” as angels with dirty faces. In the context of declining unions some of us may become the first line of defence of the unions, leaders included. The slogan of some could be “my union right or wrong.”
Yes, contracting out is an outrage, and has long been so. Yes, the recession has increased the need to defend jobs, but this dispute was focused on the idea and not just the slogan of “British jobs for British workers” - that is also why it spread. Even Derek Simpson understands that much. I hope I am wrong, but it seems clear to me that the lesson most workers will take from the dispute and its result will not be the one the AWL and left groups would like it to be, but will instead be the poisoned logic of nationalism.