Make the labour movement fit to fight

Submitted by Matthew on 19 September, 2012 - 10:19

The 20 October TUC demonstration is a chance to send a spectacular message to the government — a message of opposition, of disaffection, of discontent.

Socialists should fight to make the demonstration a platform to amplify and build solidarity for ongoing industrial disputes, and articulate a positive political message — a radical, working-class socialist alternative to the government’s austerity project.

Since the huge demonstration on 26 March 2011, union leaders sold out the public sector pensions dispute, leaving workers facing the prospect of working longer, paying more, and getting less. The Labour Party leaders have missed open goal after open goal; most recently, Ed Balls got the frosty reception he deserved at TUC Congress when he said that Labour would continue the public sector pay freeze.

20 October is an opportunity to send a different message. To make sure it has an impact, and is not just a one-off exercise in letting off steam, we should avoid seeing the demonstration solely — or even primarily — as a “launchpad”, the magical key that will unlock future action.

Last year, the left fell into “next-big-thing”-ism in a big way. From December 2010 onwards, a string of one-day events were declare to be the big occasion that would set the struggle alight. The lack of strategy, either from the labour movement leadership or the far left, meant that each “big thing” was just a disconnected, one-off protest.

Seeing October 20 as a “launchpad” also elides the fact that significant struggles are already underway. For NUT and NASUWT members, whose action-short-of-a-strike launches on 26 September and will be well underway by the time of the demonstration, October 20 will be a chance for teachers from different schools and different areas to link up and march together. Unison members in Higher Education, who are in dispute over pay, can profile and galvanise their struggle. The struggle against Remploy factory closures is ongoing. There could be strikes on the way at Birmingham airport. And workers from other local disputes — such as the Tube cleaners, Tyne & Wear Metro cleaners, London Midland and East Coast cleaners, and the cleaners in London organised by the IWW/IWGB — can also have visible contingents. Workers from ongoing strikes and disputes should be given the platform on 20 October. If, as is unfortunately but undeniably likely, the TUC restricts its platform to bureaucratic leaders, the left should organise alternative platforms where striking workers can tell their stories and discuss them with others.

Mobilisation for the demo has already begun to reinvigorate anti-cuts committees. Any revivals in local activity — in anti-cuts committees, Trades Councils, or other bodies — must be seized on and maintained.

Revived anti-cuts groups should not spend the next month exclusively discussing who will be doing O20 leafleting and where. If activists are coming together again, they should again discuss and organise around local struggles. Mobilising people in local areas to mobilise for a demonstration in London in a month’s time (and after that — what?) is not empowering, consciousness-raising, or sustainable.

Perhaps the most fundamental job for socialists (in the run-up to the demonstration, on the demonstration itself, and beyond) is to fight at every level of the labour movement for the movement as a whole to articulate a positive political alternative to the programme of the government (and the Labour Party leaders).

The TUC has produced a (poorly-distributed) pamphlet that attempts to articulate a positive political case, under the demonstration’s meaningless headline demand: “for a future that works”. It relies on quotes from prominent liberal-bourgeois economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. The pamphlet cites America under President Obama (where unemployment currently stands at 8.3%, and is increasing, along with inequality) as the model society! “The USA shows the way”, says the pamphlet, and ends with a lengthy quote from Obama. The TUC’s political strategy is not good enough. Class independence should be the basic principle here; our movement needs a programme for an entirely different way of organising society.

This is not to say, however, that we should reduce ourselves to “socialism-is-the-answer” propagandists.

We should fight for the labour movement to develop and fight for a workers’ plan — a comprehensive set of demands and policies for reorganising society in the here and now, political measures that overturn the existing subordination of social need to the needs of profit (see box).

No Tory, Lib Dem, or likely Labour government would enact any of the workers’ plan’s component policies. What kind of government would? A workers’ government, that rests for its political legitimacy not on the capitalist state and the existing parliament but fundamentally on working-class organisations in workplaces and communities. A government of, by, and for our class which governs in the same partisan spirit as the current government governs for the rich.

We are not going to win our unions to this perspective in the month before 20 October. We are not going to replace the labour movement’s existing political representatives with revolutionary socialists in that time.

But socialists can agitate and educate. We can help fellow workers begin to challenge the power of trade union and Labour Party officialdom by building rank-and-file networks within particular industries or unions, such as the new Local Associations Network in the NUT. We can reform labour movement structures where we have influence so they run as models of best practice, grassroots-led and responsive to the needs of members. Where we are in a position to catalyse or influence the direction of industrial disputes, we can run them on the basis of democratic control and militant tactics.

We can begin to build up independent rank-and-file confidence, organisation, and strength to challenge the hegemony of the bureaucracy that was at the root of the pensions defeat.

We need our own strategy

“Now is the time for action”, boomed Dave Prentis at the end of his TUC speech, just before scuttling off to reporters to reassure them that he actually meant: “Spring 2013 is the time for action”.

This time last year, at his own union’s conference, Prentis proclaimed: “[The strike against the pensions reforms] will be the biggest since the general strike [of 1926]… We are going to win.” He added: “A one day strike won’t change the mind of anyone in government”. So why, after a one-day strike on 30 November, did he orchestrate a massive demobilisation?

The failure of the pensions dispute is largely due to Unison’s miserable understanding of trade union mobilisation. According to Unison, the strike did not constitute the self-defence of several million workers against a massive attack on our pensions, but rather a protest manoeuvre to strengthen the unions’ hand in negotiations.

When David Cameron said that N30 was a “damp squib”, Prentis made a public rebuke. But in private, the Unison leadership complained that only a fraction of the membership had responded to “their” strike call. Contrast this to the experience of many rank-and-file activists, who saw the small beginnings of a union revival. Whilst some union members crossed picket lines, a lot of new members joined the pickets and there was potential for organising a new generation of trade unionists. From their ivory towers, the Unison leadership only saw statistics and members failing to march to their orders. On the ground we saw hollowed-out branches coming back to life.

After five months of silence, the union issued a survey to find out what the workers were thinking. Surveys are a notoriously inaccurate way of judging the mood of workers in struggle. Demanding that workers commit to “sustained industrial action” before organising any further action at all changes the mood, and for the worse.

If the Unison leadership want to make Prentis’s words a reality, then they need to re-evaluate their understanding of workers’ organisation. Any trade unionist who has ever organised a strike understands the hundreds of personalities involved and thousands of conversations and arguments.

This is what Trotsky described as the “molecular processes” of workers’ mobilisation. The dynamics are complex, and a lot rests on a general confidence in the chance of success. These dynamics cannot be controlled by a central committee, but strong leadership (democratically proposing thought-through strategies, not just barking orders at the membership) can inspire confidence, maintain momentum, and get people talking.

Prentis’s proclamation that the 20 October demonstration will be a “launchpad” for strikes in spring 2013 is ridiculous. The national leadership announces these cautious timetables to frustrate the left, who will now press to make it happen faster. This whole terrain of debate is a distraction. Rank-and-file militants who are tired of the leadership’s cowardice and flatfootedness need to concentrate on industrial strategy. How can we prepare the union for national action? What tactics can healthworkers use to win an industrial dispute? What constitutes effective industrial action for local government employees? How can we cause maximum disruption to our employers whilst maintaining the support of our service users? What is the role of selective action?

If the leadership attempted to initiate this conversation then we could draw on the creative and imaginative powers of 1.1 million public sector workers to develop an industrial strategy that would terrify the government.

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