What is the “social strike”?

Submitted by Matthew on 8 March, 2017 - 11:02 Author: Daniel Randall

Recent strikes by “gig economy” workers (e.g. Deliveroo) are profoundly significant. They explode the myth, peddled by some on both left and right, that so-called precarious workers can’t organise, and that the proliferation of those types of work is in the process of rendering labour organising historically redundant.

Some on the radical left confer a particular significance on these sort of strikes and have coupled them with the notion of “the social strike”. This idea, for instance by the group Plan C, has been put forward as a way to overcome the current weakness of organised labour as a social force. I struggle to understand exactly what the “social strike” is. Part of my difficulty stems from the fact that Plan C and their co-thinkers deploy the term in a variety of not-always-consistent ways. Sometimes it seems to be used to describe a “strike” that does not actually involve a withdrawal of labour by salaried workers, but a more amorphous social stoppage or disruption, perhaps by unpaid caregivers or paperless migrants.

This is the model described by the Roberta Ferrari from the Transnational Social Strike project, in which Plan C is involved, in an interview she gave to Solidarity in October 2015: “What we want is to go beyond these forms of organisation [unions], to really attack precarity in its several faces, connecting different figures of labour inside and outside the workplaces, in the sphere of reproduction, both formal and informal.”

Alternatively it is used to describe a more “traditional” strike that seeks to “socialise” itself by taking action beyond the boundaries of the economic relationship between boss and worker — for example, “revenue strikes” by transport workers in which they open ticket turnstiles at train stations, allowing the public free transport (something that was experimented with on the Tube, largely at the urging of Workers’ Liberty comrades, in 2014; it had mixed results at the time, but I feel it should be experimented with again).

As Al Mikey puts it in an interview with Callum Cant on the topic, published on the Plan C website, the social strike is a “generalising process of antagonisms that goes beyond the initial conflict between labour and capital in production and into society.” Or, as in the case of the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes*, it appears one can just slap the label “social strike” on anything that isn’t an “official” strike by an established union, involving a ballot mandate, formal notification to the employer, and so on, and say it’s not only a “social strike” but a “new kind of strike action”.

The concept might have some value. But that value will be hard to unlock and apply if the term continues to be employed to mean essentially whatever one likes. When Callum says of the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes that “we’re witnessing the birth of new kinds of strike action”, he is just wrong. The “kinds of strike action” the Deliveroo and UberEats drivers have taken — basic, stop-the-job wildcats — could hardly be less “new”. They are the oldest and most rudimentary strike forms of all, and, as Callum rightly notes, often the most effective.

A fetishisation of novelty can sometimes blind us to the fact that what’s required is not “new kinds of strike action”, or new forms of organisation, but rather a rediscovery and relearning of old lessons, ideas, and strategies, now forgotten or lost. We need, if you like, to get back to “the old new”; I’d emphasise in particular the period of “New Unionism” in the 1880s as providing models for how workers in so-called “new” industries, working with “new” kinds of employment arrangements (in fact, neither are truly “new”) might organise.

There’s something of a tendency amongst some on the left to both misidentify and overstate what’s “new” in all of this. Reading some of the analysis on the “gig economy”or the “precariat” you’d be forgiven for thinking that, very shortly, no-one in Britain will have a salaried job anymore, and no large workplaces will exist, but rather we’ll all be, to use Nathan Barley’s prophetic phrase, “self-facilitating media nodes”.

To some that might even be a good thing, something to welcome; others argue it will render us incapable of organising against our auto-exploitation at a workplace level and in a collective way, because we don’t have a workplace and aren’t part of a collective. But Callum is right to say that the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes should put paid to the idea that “gig economy” workers can’t organise. And, beyond this, there are still plenty of mass workplaces around, and they are still essential to capitalist economic functioning.

A university, a hospital, or a supermarket distribution centre has more in common with an old-style industrial combine or factory complex than it does with the “gig economy”. The notorious warehouses of Sports Direct and Amazon are more like 19th century mills than anything “new”.

In industries and sections of the economy that have the most strategic importance to capital, such as telecommunications, transport and energy, workers retain a high degree of what one might call “old-fashioned” industrial leverage. Certainly, precarious forms of work exist in these industries too (outsourcing and hyper-exploitative, bogus self-employment is rife on the railways, particularly amongst cleaners and track workers), but the extent to which these phenomena are entirely new is arguable: the dock workers in the 1880s, integral to “New Unionism”, had acutely precarious forms of employment, but also immense leverage and power. The issue in these industries and in other hugely strategic sectors like education and logistics, is not that an objective process of “recomposition” (another term beloved of Plan C) has taken place which has rendered workers powerless. The missing elements are subjective: levels of organisation, and fundamentally, consciousness.

In the aforementioned interview, Al discusses how he and his comrades related to the 2011 public sector strikes. “Only people already in unions could go on strike”, he says. This is straightforwardly untrue: anyone in a workplace where a strike is taking place can participate in that strike, whether they’re a member of the union organising it or not. It’s not clear what the critique here actually is; perhaps it is that the mass public sector unions had failed to also organise strikes in the workplaces and industries where Al and his comrades worked.

Al describes the work the proto-Plan C group, then an “ad hoc collective”, did around the 2011 strike: “Following that we had multiple assemblies leading up to both strike days, and then on the days themselves we organised two blockades, one in north London, one in south London. The idea was that we would basically march from picket to picket. In the end it involved 200-300 people in each blockade, with sound systems and stuff. There was already this idea of opening up strike participation, trying to find our way towards a general strike.”

This is all admirable, useful, and necessary. But the implied relationship between proto-Plan C and the strike itself is one of intervention from the outside. There’s no sense that any of the comrades involved might have been strikers, or union reps, themselves (even though some of them probably were), intervening directly in their unions to attempt to build rank-and-file organisation and an alternative direction for the strike. Indeed, at one point, Al even asks of the strike “who is allowed in, who’s allowed to utilise the strike weapon?”, as if the strikers were somehow acting in an exclusionary way by striking.

There’s a potentially very problematic logic to some of this; if we’re aiming to make a given strike the property of the whole class, so to speak, and to generalise participation, we have to be careful we don’t act in such a way as to undermine the impact of the strike. These potential problems become more acute in other Plan C comrades’ writing.

In his article “On Social Strikes and Directional Demands”, Plan C’s Keir Milburn writes, of a 1995 transport workers’ strike in Paris, “the disruption of transport revealed a key point of leverage but also because the strike seemed to have made Paris more sociable in some ways. In order to deal with the strike people had to cooperate more, perhaps by car pooling or walking together and therefore getting a different perspective on the city. It was this increased sociability that provoked the title ‘social’ strike but this dimension seems to have been lost a bit in recent discussions.”

This treads an extremely fine line. It’s worryingly close to the “how Londoners beat the Tube strike”-type rhetoric one regularly encounters in the Evening Standard or on LBC during our strikes, which happily sneers that our strike wasn’t that disruptive after all, as people took the bus, or rode a scooter, or... car pooled, even, to get to work. It also has echoes of the Green Party’s community clean-ups during Brighton bin workers’ strikes. If “socialising a strike” means “finding ways for people not involved in it to minimise its impact”, count me out.

Back to 2011, and Al critiques the mechanistic calls from the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party for the TUC to “call a general strike”, but, despite identifying “the problem of power and counterpower”, the strategy he describes appears like a more-left-wing version of the same thing — an attempt to find a shortcut to “generalise the strike” without the existence of the subjective element necessary to do that: a consciously and independently-organised rank-and-file, acting as a counterweight to the power of the bureaucracy. That element cannot be conjured into being from outside, but must be developed within workplaces and within the existing unions. Al says: “Traditionally power came from mass collective action at the point of production, but we couldn’t replicate that, because we ourselves weren’t involved in it.”

It’s not quite clear who the “we” in this sentence is, but it seems rather solipsistic. It’s hard to read this as saying anything other than “me and my comrades didn’t work in workplaces that were involved in the strike”. Fine; when workers from a workplace in which we have no comrades go on strike, Workers’ Liberty necessarily relates to the strike “from the outside”, seeking to support it and help amplify it, and, if we can, to engage the workers in discussions about the strategy and direction of the strike. But we are still relating to it from within the broad labour movement, and we don’t extrapolate from our external position that “mass collective action at the point of production” might in some way be old hat because we happened not to be directly involved in it at that moment.

The way Al seems to conceive of “the social strike” implies a permanently external, rather than integral, relationship between a strike and those trying to “socialise” it. But the agency most fundamentally capable of “socialising” a strike is surely the group of striking workers themselves. What is lacking from any of this is any perspective for transforming the existing labour movement.

I’m well aware that for many in Plan C, this is not the starting point, and perhaps not a concern at all; I’ve met comrades in Plan C who reject the idea that the existing unions can be transformed; or that the workplace is structurally privileged as a site of struggle; or that the exploitative relationship between boss and worker is the fundamentally defining relation within capitalism.

But a mass labour movement in the UK still exists. It comprises seven million members, and represents the accumulated experience, for better and worse, of 200 years of struggle. It is the organically-generated expression of class conflict, given organisational form. It is profoundly, abjectly inadequate, but it has to be gone through, not around; it is not possible, even if it were desirable, to build a new, better, labour movement from scratch.

Even independent and minority-union projects like the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain and the United Voices of the World, are in some sense defined by their relationship to the mass labour movement. And in the current moment, when an immense political upheaval is taking place inside Labour, the political party founded by and structurally linked to the trade union movement, one might imagine that one way to explore the “socialisation” of strikes, to generalise the antagonisms expressed in them, might be to join that party, which provides an existing network of social organisation (certainly still moribund in some places, but in other revitalised and invigorated by the Corbyn surge).

But any orientation towards the Labour Party seems absent from Plan C’s perspective. Undoubtedly, in a high pitch of struggle the labour movement itself will be “recomposed”. But to achieve that requires the development of a consciously transformative project within the existing movement — an insurgent rank-and-file which aims to radically democratise unions, make them more combative and militant, and expand them into currently unorganised sections of the economy.

Plan C’s key historical reference point often seems to be the Italian workers’ movement of the 1960s and 70s. I would urge the comrades to look at experiences such as the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation in the 1970s, and the work of Farrell Dobbs, Carl Skoglund, the Dunne brothers, and others in Local 574 of the Teamsters’ union in Minneapolis (whose story is told in the book Teamster Rebellion) for other examples of how a coherently organised group of revolutionary workers within a particular industry and union can act as a lever to affect substantial transformation, catalyse struggles, and win victories.

Plan C comrades might even recognise an early conception of the “social strike”, of the strike as “an accelerant”, which poses “the question of power and counterpower” in society at large, in Leon Trotsky’s The Transitional Programme (1938).

Responding to the factory occupation of auto workers in Flint, Michigan, in 1936, Trotsky wrote: “Sit-down strikes [occupations] go beyond the limits of ‘normal’ capitalist procedure. Independently of the demands of the strikers, the temporary seizure of factories deals a blow to the idol, capitalist property. Every sit-down strike poses in a practical manner the question of who is the boss in the factory: the capitalist or the workers?”

If that is what Plan C mean by the “social strike” — taking a strike “beyond the limits of ‘normal’ capitalist procedure” — then that is an aim we wholeheartedly share. To amplify what those of us in the Trotskyist tradition might call the “transitional” logic of every strike should certainly be the aspiration of revolutionaries. But without an orientation to the existing labour movement, the mechanism through which the vast majority of strikes will still take place and the mass social expression of class conflict in organisational form, and a perspective for transforming it, bureaucratic control of our movement will persist, and the growth of class power will be stunted.

* Author note: Callum has since made it clear he does not regard the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes as “social strikes”, and believes that my article misrepresents him. My apparent confusion arose from the fact that his Novara piece’s comment about “new kinds of strike action” was hyperlinked to the interview about social strikes; I therefore assumed that this is partially what he meant when he referred to their “novelty”. But this was merely a jumping off point for a wider discussion of the “social strike” concept.

• More discussion here