Chapter 3: What to fight for - our demands

Submitted by AWL on 5 May, 2009 - 2:21

A programme for the British working class

As suggested by the references made so far, this is an action programme for the British working class; its demands refer mainly, though not entirely, to the class struggle in Britain. As a socialist tendency based mainly in Britain, we have no desire to pretend that we can declare a detailed programme of struggle for the working class in other countries. At the same time, the class struggle is not fundamentally national but international. While specific demands will vary from country to country, we think that the approach we take here is applicable universally, and hope to collaborate with socialists and working-class activists internationally in elaborating and fighting for it.

Sack the bank bosses — for a single, publicly-owned, democratically controlled banking, pensions and mortgage service

We have seen the banks which are the source of this crisis part-nationalised not in order to defend the interests of working-class people, but to help the bosses weather the current storm. A case in point is Northern Rock, which since nationalisation has paid its new chief executive Ron Sandler £90,000 a month, substantially more than his predecessor; stepped up sackings; and repossessed homes at a faster rate than it did in the private sector. So is the £600,000 pension paid to Fred Goodwin by the now mostly nationalised Royal Bank of Scotland!
In Britain, the government and the Bank of England have put out, in cash, credit and guarantees, more than £1,100 billion in support for the banks: £18,000 for every child, woman and man in the UK. The working class will have to pick up a large part of the cost through cuts in public spending, higher taxes and so on. The reason why politicians who previously extolled the virtues of unhindered “free markets” have intervened in the banks to such an unprecedented degree is the huge scale of the economic crisis. The labour movement must utilise this crisis to demand that all the banks and financial institutions are taken into full, permanent state ownership.
We need a single, unified banking, pensions and mortgage service organised to protect the jobs, savings, pensions and homes of working-class people, and whose resources can be used for a rational programme of investment to meet social needs. We demand the sacking of the bank bosses and the amalgamation of the various financial institutions under the control of their workers and representatives of savers, pensioners, mortgage-holders and so on.
Jobs for all — fight job losses, cut work hours, expand public services

The same government that has spent billions bailing out the banks will take no serious action to stop the avalanche of job losses now taking place. Unemployment rose to 1.82 million in the three months to September 2008; by March 2009 it had passed 2 million. The bosses’ Confederation of British Industry predicts that it will reach 2.9 million by the end of 2010 — a jobless rate of 9 percent and nearly as high as the figure reached under the Tories in 1982 and 1992. The British Chambers of Commerce, meanwhile, predict 3.1 million unemployed by the end of 2009. Every day brings fresh announcements of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of lay offs in industries from cars and electronics to textiles and retail.
In a society based on exploitation, millions of workers will be denied even the right to be exploited! Clearly the labour movement should not accept this. We must demand jobs for all — real, decent jobs, not further drives to force the unemployed into low-paid, slave labour schemes as New Labour is attempting.
We can start by aggressively fighting every job loss, whether in the private or public sector — which means forcing our unions out of their current complacency and into struggle. We can fight for strikes and mass community mobilisations to oppose sackings. We can adopt tactics like occupying workplaces set for closure — used to great effect by workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, Waterford Crystal in Ireland, Prisme Packaging in Dundee and Visteon car parts in Belfast and Enfield. We should demand that firms making mass lay-offs are nationalised without compensation, their bosses sacked and the companies put under the control of their workers.
Meanwhile, we need to put an end to the crazy situation where some of us are forced to work harder and longer, while others are denied a job altogether. The unions should demand a maximum 35-hour week for all workers to create jobs for all those who need them. We should demand shorter working hours but with no loss of pay: profits, not pay, should be cut to reduce the working week and create new jobs.
The alternative is to follow the shameful route the GMB has taken — tell workers to accept wage cuts to ‘save jobs’ (only existing jobs!) The bosses will rightly interpret this message as a sign of weakness and cut jobs anyway. In winter 2008 the union persuaded its members at Hawick Knitwear, JCB and Cosalt Holiday Homes to accept short-time working and corresponding pay cuts (i.e. with the same hourly rate) — only to be given 90 days’ notice of 280 job losses at Cosalt.
We must oppose Brown’s plans for spending cuts and demand the government taxes the rich and big business to fund a programme of rebuilding public services, at the same time creating millions of secure, well-paid, socially useful jobs. One example: why should we accept tens of thousands of people being homeless or in temporary accommodation, and the dwindling number of council houses falling apart at the seams — at the same time that thousands upon thousands of building workers are thrown on the dole?
To make such campaigns truly effective, the unions need to find ways of organising the unemployed alongside their members, to demand jobs as well as decent benefits, and creating solidarity and a sense of mutual responsibility between these two sections of the working class. Otherwise growing numbers of the unemployed could begin to turn to the far right.

Inflation-proof wages, pensions and benefits; attack inequality

Real inflation is higher for workers and the poor than the official inflation figures suggest, because prices for basic items such as food, heating, rent and transport have risen faster than the average and because such costs make up a higher percentage of spending lower down the income scale.
The unions should calculate their own, realistic figure for inflation as it affects the working class, oppose “wage restraint” and organise industrial and political action to insist, as a minimum, that wages are made inflation-proof, rising automatically as prices rise, in every contract and in law. (This demand has been partially won before — for example, in Italy, Israel and, in the 1940s, under Trotskyist influence, in the US car industry.) Otherwise the working class will continue to see its standard of living whittled away. The capitulation of the public sector unions to below-inflation pay awards in 2008 demonstrates the nature of the current union leaderships; isolated victories in beating the pay freeze, such as that of the Shell tanker drivers (14 percent over two years) and workers on the London Overground rail line (an average of 22 percent in one year!), show what is possible with determined action.
Oil, wheat, rice and other basic prices fell on world markets in the latter part of 2008. Some cut in retail price inflation is inevitable. Governments are terrified that inflation will tip over into deflation — falling prices — as it did in the 1930s, or in the 1990s in Japan. Strong deflation will almost certainly mean the crisis slides into a long and deep depression. Governments and central banks are pumping fresh credit and cash into economies as never before to try to head off that prospect. But if they succeed in averting deflation, they will probably be setting up the conditions for rapid inflation again at the next turn. Even if prices fall in 2009, we should not think that protecting wages against inflation has ceased to be an issue. We must oppose any moves to cut wages and benefits if average prices levels do drop.
The state pension, benefits and the minimum wage should rise in line with prices or earnings, whichever is higher. Benefits should be enough to live on; the minimum wage set at at least two-thirds median male earnings, currently around £8.80 an hour, with no exceptions. We demand the right to retire at 60 for all workers — the unions’ acceptance that millions of new public sector workers will have to work to 65 to receive a full pension was a disgrace. We must fight to defend final salary pension schemes, and insist all workers get decent pension provision. Again, such demands are necessary to bind the whole working class, employed, unemployed and retired, secure and precarious, together in solidarity against the bosses.
At the same time we must demand an attack on the inequality of the tax system. Shift the burden off the working class by phasing out VAT and most indirect taxes; slash income tax for workers, starting with the least well off; tax the rich!

Decent homes for all

Capitalism has turned the most basic human need, somewhere to live, into a gamble in the market. Even with falling house prices, more and more workers will struggle to keep up with mortgage payments, if they own a house at all. As repossessions spiral, we insist: no evictions! Every home-owner facing repossession should have the option of converting their property into rented social housing so they can stay in it.
We urgently need a massive programme of council-house building, under the control of tenants’ organisations and housing workers, and the confiscation and conversion of empty/unused properties (90% of which are currently in private ownership) to guarantee quality housing at cheap rents for all.

Stop and reverse privatisation — top quality public services for all — tax the rich!

For almost three decades, our public services have been eaten away by the cancer of privatisation — a process that has accelerated under New Labour, which in December 2008 proposed the partial sell-off of Royal Mail. Privatisation, contracting out, Private Finance Initiatives and so on have not only gutted services, but divided and weakened the organisation of workers in the public sector.
In its 2009 budget, the Brown government announced £6 billion worth of public spending cuts by 2010-11 and a further £9 billion by 2013-14, on top of the £30 billion in “efficiency savings” already under way. Brownite journalist Polly Toynbee righty described these cuts as “harsher” than those made by Thatcher. The government also announced a big expansion of privatisation.
In privatising our services, and particularly our health service, the bosses have faced mass public hostility, by no means limited to the working class; and yet the labour movement has failed to take advantage of it to mobilise a serious fightback. The tragedy of NHS Logistics, whose workers were organising for a fight against transfer to private courier company DHL, but prevented from taking industrial action by the leadership of their union, Unison, was a vivid illustration of this contradiction. So was the token demonstration the Unison leaders organised in defence of the NHS, which raised no anti-privatisation or anti-government slogans and attracted only 5,000 people!
We must fight for the reversal of all forms of privatisation, contracting out etc, and taxation of the rich and business to revive, rebuild and expand the NHS, education, etc, as 100% public services, this time under the control of their workers and service-users, not businessmen and bureaucrats. Sack the fat cat public sector bosses who are currently attacking our wages and pensions! Scrapping nuclear weapons, cutting back of military spending and so on will also free up much needed resources.
We demand decent facilities for young people, with a big expansion of youth centres, sports clubs, etc. We want an education system geared towards equality of provision for every child, every young person and everyone who wants to learn. That means, as a minimum, a single, comprehensive school system with no forms of financial, academic or religious selection; it means the abolition of all fees and forms of payment and a living, non-means-tested grant for every student over 16. We want education reorganised on the basis of democratic control by students, teachers and education workers over what is taught and how institutions are run, to produce thinking human beings and not docile victims of exploitation. We need a campaigning alliance between the education unions and the student movement to work out a programme of demands for education.
Our starting point in the struggle against privatisation is support for action by the workers in that industry or service. Unlike the NHS Logistics workers, hamstrung by their union leadership, RMT engineers on London Underground succeeded in bringing their employer, Metronet, back into public ownership — after a powerful strike that shut down the whole of London. Only industrial action by postal workers is likely to stop the sell-off of Royal Mail. Such struggles imply a serious fight against the anti-trade union laws which prevent solidarity action and strike action for political goals.
After the 2009 budget, the unions vowed to fight Brown’s plans for spending cuts. So far, however, their record on opposing cuts has not been good. We need a different strategy, one which puts industrial action at the centre of the fight to defend and extend public services.

Open the bosses’ books! Fight for workers’ control!

When the bosses claim that they have no choice but to make lay offs, cut wages, etc, we should respond by demanding to see their company accounts, computer records, etc. — which at present are for the most part shrouded in secrecy, certainly from the eyes of the working class. We should be able to find out where the money is, decide what is and is not “affordable”, determine who is responsible for the crisis and work out our own solutions in our own interests.
If some bosses offer to reveal their accounts on the basis that they really are going bust, their workers should demand their firm be nationalised and, as necessary, converted to produce something more useful. At the same time, we insist: we want to expose the financial dealings of the capitalist class as a whole, not just the accounts of individual bankrupts.
By fighting to open the books, workers can help rebuild their trade union strength and push forward the development of grassroots workplace organisations such as general assemblies and shop stewards’ committees. In this process, they can begin to establish elements of workers’ control at the different levels of the economy, from the running of the smallest workplace to the operations of the biggest multinational corporation. Through determined struggle this control can be extended and deepened, preparing the way for direct workers’ self-management when a firm or industry is removed from private ownership.
Only a general upsurge of working-class struggle and the establishment of working-class political power will allow the complete expropriation of the capitalists’ property. A workers’ government could take over even the giant industrial and service corporations, placing them under workers’ management and using their vast resources for a programme of social reconstruction.
As the demands outlined so far should make clear, however, there is nothing to stop us demanding the expropriation of particular services, firms or industries as the need arises in the course of struggle. Different industries and companies exist on different levels of development, occupy different places in the life of society and pass through different stages of class struggle. Whether it is because of their role in a particular public service (e.g., private healthcare companies), their vital place in social life (transport, communications, utilities), the fact that they are making lay-offs or a mass struggle by their workers, it is perfectly legitimate to demand the nationalisation of particular companies before the overthrow of capitalist rule becomes possible.
Genuine expropriation must be different from “Old Labour”-style nationalisation, in which a company is removed from private ownership in the interests of capitalist development, with the old management or state-capitalist replacements for them remaining firmly in control. We oppose compensation for the bosses; fight for workers’ control and the reorientation production towards social needs; and link the question of ownership to broader workers’ struggles and the fight for working-class political power. All that implies a determined puncturing of illusions in Brown’s economic intervention to help the bosses as in any way ‘left-wing’, and opposition to soft-pedalling of these distinctions by, e.g., the Labour left.

Fight for democracy!

More than any other social force, the workers’ movement needs democratic rights and institutions — both to fight effectively under capitalism and to reshape society when it comes to power.
A decade of New Labour in office has meant a steady erosion of democracy in British society. From the destruction of the living channels for working-class representation in the Labour Party to control of Parliament by a semi-presidential executive, we have seen deepening bureaucratisation. At the same time, the Blairites have used the threat of Islamist terrorism, and the crime and social break down generated by a dog-eat-dog capitalist society, to unleash a torrent of authoritarian laws strengthening the power of the state over the individual, over oppressed groups and over the working class. “Anti-terror” laws, attacks on the right to protest, attacks on the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers, ASBOs, ID cards, the spread of surveillance technology, erosion of the right to trial by jury and the huge growth in the prison population are all part of this picture.
Reforms like Scottish and Welsh devolution are limited in their significance; others, like the introduction of cabinets in local government and directly elected mayors, are actually anti-democratic. And all this is overshadowed by a political system in which, with the hijacking of the Labour Party, the working class is effectively disenfranchised.
Under capitalism, democracy is necessarily stunted and one-dimensional, and not just because it is excluded from the workplace and the economy. Behind the formal — real, but limited and severely eroded — political democracy of Parliament lies a bureaucratic-military state machine with a thousand ties, formal and informal, to the capitalist class. We demand the abolition of the political police (Special Branch) and the secret police (MI5 and MI6); elected committees with control over the police; and trade union and democratic rights in the police and armed forces — as part of our fight to break up the bureaucratic hierarchy that underpins capitalist rule.
Our aim is a workers’ democracy, in which management and representatives are accountable, recallable and stripped of privileges, and in which democracy is extended outwards and downwards throughout society and the economy. Our first task as working-class activists is to regenerate and extend democracy in our own movement, not only democratising the existing structures of our unions, but developing organisations such as workplace assemblies, shop stewards’ committees and so on as the basis of a mass workers’ democracy.
As things stand, however, Parliament is central to political life in Britain, and most workers still have some faith in parliamentary democracy, however battered. We demand that they take their own ideas seriously. If we are going to use the parliamentary system, by standing independent working-class candidates for instance, then we cannot accept the miserable state we find it in.
We demand the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, and the reorganisation of Britain as a federal republic whose central parliament is a single, proportionally elected assembly, with annual general elections and voting rights from 16. The government should be elected and recallable by this assembly. No representative or official should be paid more than a worker’s wage. We want the abolition of state secrecy and real ‘freedom of information’. We want extension of trial by jury and democratic control over the appointment of judges. By weakening the capitalist state’s bureaucracy and secrecy, an expansion of democracy can facilitate the struggle for workers’ power.
We need a militant fight for the abolition of the whole raft of anti-democratic laws passed over the last thirty years — and, most of all, the replacement of the anti-trade union laws with a positive charter of workers’ rights (to unionise, strike, picket, take solidarity action, etc). That in turn will help us regenerate mass involvement and democracy in the labour movement; it is the central question of democratic rights for the working class in Britain today.

For a sustainable economy — nationalise energy and transport, develop “workers’ plans”

The labour movement needs its own programme to fight the threat of climate change, rather than tailing the “Green New Deal” politics of the Green Party and the liberal NGOs.
We can begin by mobilising the labour movement to oppose New Labour’s expansion of airports, coal-fired power stations and other ecologically damaging measures. We need a fight in Unite and the GMB to challenge their conservative policies on these issues. We want jobs, but ‘green’ jobs, not planet-destroying ones!
The gas and electricity companies have been making huge profits at the expense of “fuel poor” working-class people, particularly pensioners, and the environment. They should be nationalised and run as public services, with an immediate and drastic reduction in bills. Public transport should be taken into public ownership and massively expanded, with local journeys made free and all fares reduced. Under the control of workers, service-users and the representatives of local communities, public ownership of energy, transport and land would allow major investment in public transport, energy efficiency and renewable energy. These measures, together with a programme for converting polluting industries, can form the basis of a working-class-led “just transition” to a sustainable, low-carbon, rationally planned economy.
We need local, national and international alliances between the labour movement, the climate change movement and local communities to develop “workers’ plans” to fight ecological degradation and climate change.

Fight racism — organise all workers regardless of immigration status

A fight against racism in all its forms is one of the most urgent tasks facing working-class activists.
Sharp opposition to anti-Muslim racism, to police harassment of young black and Asian people, to resurgent anti-semitism, is highly necessary, as is opposition to New Labour’s vile legislative witch-hunt against asylum-seekers, its detention centres, its deportations. But this is not enough. The unions must seek to organise all workers, regardless of immigration status, as part of the fight for open borders. Anything else means allowing the bosses to laugh in our faces as they divide us. Given the growing importance of migrant labour in the British economy, this is a “to be or not to be” question for our movement. It is true, as racists claim, that migrants are used to push down the wages and conditions of British-born workers. The only solution which is not suicidal from a working-class viewpoint is to unite all workers across differences of origin, skin colour, religion, etc. against the bosses, to win decent wages, conditions and rights for all of us.
We should study and learn from both the strengths and weaknesses of struggles like the 2008 strike of cleaners on London Underground, which saw a highly precarious, super-exploited, mainly migrant workforce win significant wage rises.

For mass self-defence against fascism, and socialist answers to the decay on which it feeds

Meanwhile, the economic crisis will undoubtedly lead to a continued growth of the British National Party and other fascist organisations. The BNP membership list leaked in 2008 suggests that the main fascist party has already grown twenty-fold in a decade, fuelled by New Labour’s record in office and the failure of the labour movement to fight back.
The question of physical working-class self-defence was and will be posed in times of higher struggle by the need to defend picket lines against the police, and the role of flying pickets in large-scale workers’ action (e.g., in the 1984-5 miners’ strike). In the present period, however, the question of self-defence is posed by the still small, but growing fascist threat. Already we have seen an increase in small-scale far-right violence against socialists.
Mass counter-demonstrations, physical confrontation and so on by the labour movement and the organisations of migrants, oppressed communities, etc., are necessary to disrupt fascist activities and defend actions/events and communities threatened with attack. We cannot rely on the police, professional strike-breakers who more often than not will defend the fascists against us. To truly counter the fascist threat, we need to organise special working-class squads trained in physical defence and combat. In a period of low working-class struggle and few strikes, this will not be an easy task. It is essential, however, to begin propaganda for it in the labour movement now.
If failure to organise such self-defence is one measure of the failure of the ‘official’ anti-fascist movement, represented by Unite Against Fascism on one hand and Searchlight on the other, failure to develop a social programme to fight racism and fascism is even more disastrous. Unity with ‘anti-racist’ bosses and capitalist politicians against the BNP is worthless. The far right recruits mainly from lower middle-class elements threatened with ruin by capitalist society and, in a period of low class struggle and a moribund labour movement, from impoverished and demoralised sections of the working class. An ‘anti-fascist’ alliance of the labour movement — or, more accurately, the trade union bureaucracy — with sections of the ruling class will only strengthen the BNP’s appeal as an apparent champion of the dispossessed, or those who believe they are dispossessed.
We need an anti-fascist movement which seeks to mobilise the working-class and poor, black and white, British-born and migrant, to defend ourselves against the bosses and demand jobs, homes and services for all. The precondition for destroying fascism is a labour movement which appears, not only to workers, but to the middle-class layers on which the far-right organisations feed, as a force capable of remaking society. Nothing else will reliably undercut the growth of racism and the fascists’ expanding base.

Fight for women’s liberation! Against all oppression!

We will see increased pressure on household budgets, cuts in services and the growth in domestic violence which usually accompanies recessions; and we are already seeing the threat of a resurgent right-wing moralism, represented in its first stages by the campaign of religious organisations, the Tories and the Tory press to cut back access to abortion.
We need a labour movement that fights for women’s liberation, and a labour movement-oriented women’s movement, demanding equal pay without compromise, defending and extending abortion rights and reproductive freedoms, and fighting for free, universal, 24-hour childcare, well-funded services and other demands to life the burden of domestic labour off women’s shoulders and make equality real. To make these things happen, we need socialists to start taking women’s liberation, and the beginnings of a revival in feminist activism, whatever its limitations, seriously.
The farce of equal pay cases in local government and the NHS, which ended with many low-paid women workers suing their own unions over their failure to take on the employers, shows how far we have to go. So does the moralistic, reactionary attitude that much of the left and labour movement takes to sex workers’ attempts at self-organisation.
Left activists should work out and fight for programmes for the labour movement to oppose all forms of oppression — from the question of LGBT oppression and sexual liberation to that of the oppression suffered by young people.

Workers of the world unite!

In every country workers are exploited by a ruling class; workers in every country have more in common with each other than with their capitalist — or Stalinist — rulers. Meanwhile the capitalists are organised on a global scale. The British labour movement must end its nationalist complacency and self-isolation and seek to unite with workers across Europe and the world to coordinate our struggles and fight for a levelling up of wages, conditions and rights. We want the reorganisation of the European Union on a democratic basis as part of the struggle for a Workers’ United Europe. “No to the EU” is a British nationalist, not a working-class slogan, whatever ‘left-wing’ gloss is put on it.
Against political domination, we fight for the right to self-determination of every nation and for consistent democracy. We oppose the occupation of Iraq and the threat of new wars by Britain, the US and their allies in the Middle East, while also opposing political Islam as a reactionary, anti-working class force. We are for an international labour movement fight to impose unilateral disarmament on all nuclear weapons states.
Against both the impositions of the IMF and other international capitalist institutions on poorer countries, and those countries’ ruling classes, we support the struggles of workers and peasants. Against the depredations of international capital, we fight for workers’ control, social ownership and planned use of the world's resources and technology to abolish hunger, illiteracy and poverty.
We need an internationalist politics based on working-class struggle, not trailing after campaigns of the “Make Poverty History”-type. Our starting point is solidarity for workers’ struggles in every country from workers in every other country. Workers of the world, unite!

*** Fight the anti-union laws!

When they finally started to push back the militant trade unionism of the 1970s, the Tory governments of the 1980s tried to screw down the lid by bringing in laws that fundamentally undermined workers' right to organise and take action. Meanwhile a wave of privatisations and bankruptcies swept the British industrial landscape. Whole sectors of the economy (coal mining, machine tools, docks, newspaper printing, textiles, railways) were shattered, whole communities devastated and huge sections of the labour movement beaten down and broken.
With only a very small amount of tinkering, New Labour has kept in place the laws that make trade unionism in Britain only semi-legal. Tony Blair boasted in 1997 of maintaining “the most restrictive trade union laws in Western Europe”.
We need a mass campaign to repeal all the anti-union laws and win a positive charter of workers’ rights — to unionise, strike, picket, take solidarity action and so on. The United Campaign to Repeal the Anti-Trade Union Laws should be supported, but at the moment it is mainly limited to Parliamentary lobbying and occasional protests. To win repeal we will most likely have to confront the laws — break them wherever and whenever we're strong enough, and keep breaking them until they're unenforceable.
Since 1997 thousands of postal workers have taken unofficial, illegal industrial action against victimisations and management bullying; Tube workers have refused to work over safety issues and won; and baggage handlers at Heathrow walked out in solidarity with sacked Gate Gourmet catering workers. In general, however, the union leaders have discouraged and undermined illegal workers' action, rather than championing, encouraging and helping organise it as is necessary.

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