The chief things to press in the unions are mobilisation now against the attacks; democratic discussion of a strategy of ongoing action to win; and clear union demands on a Labour government to replace the Tories.
With those, a 24-hour general strike — in other words, a bigger version of 30 November 2011 — could greatly increase confidence and solidarity. Without them, it would be just a protest.
The TUC congress in early September voted to consider a general strike. Len McCluskey of Unite, Mark Serwotka of PCS, and Bob Crow of RMT, backed that call on 20 October. Socialist Worker and the Socialist Party picked up on that and went for “General Strike Now” (SWP) or “24 Hour General Strike Now” (SP)?
The SP is strong in the leadership of the civil service union PCS. It wriggles out of fighting now against pay freeze, job cuts, pension cuts, etc., by saying that that only a general strike, or something close to a general strike, will do.
The invocation of a general strike (and not in fact “now”) becomes not a means of advance, but a means of evading or downplaying the immediate struggles whose escalation is the way we might get to a general strike.
In 2011, SWP and SP focused on hyping up the 30 June and 30 November strikes. SW headline: “November 30: our day to smash the Tories”.
The SWP decried (as “boring”) calls from AWL for democratic mass meetings of strikers on those days, to debate future strategy and demands. They opposed calls from AWL for self-controlling strategies of rolling and selective strikes.
The effect was to leave workers, after the great mobilisation on 30 November, passively waiting for the union leaders to name another day, and easily sold out on 19 December 2011. We don’t want a repeat in 2013.
You think a 24-hour general strike is unrealistic?
150,000 was a big turnout for the TUC’s 20 October 2012 demonstration. But it’s smaller — unsurprisingly so after 19 December 2011 — than the 500,000 on 26 March 2011. (Both figures TUC estimates).
Demanding the TUC call a general strike can’t reverse the ebb. Organising and winning battles now, and fighting effectively for rank-and-file control in the unions, can.
Maybe some unions are considering another big multi-union one-day strike in early 2013, primarily against the public sector pay freeze. That’s better than nothing.
But for it to be more than a lower-key re-run of 30 November 2011, the movement must be remobilised.
On 20 October AWL headlined “Fight for a workers’ government”. That’s even further away than a general strike.
We are for advanced slogans which raise our sights above the humdrum of immediate possibilities. Only, we’re against slogans which tend to divert away from tackling the hard tasks of today by way of abstractly appealing to a future great dawn which will make them all easy.
A 24-hour general strike could defeat or beat back the Tories!
An escalating movement of which a 24 hour general strike is part can do that. A re-run of 30 November, by itself, can’t.
SWP’s and SP’s invoking of the future 24-hour general strike as the sunrise which will dispel all Tory darkness is misleading in two ways. Firstly, no government would give up just because of a 24-hour general strike.
Secondly, the agitation evades the issue of what replaces the current government if the coalition does break up.
A Labour government pushed to deliver improvements by strong pressure from the unions which fund Labour and control 50% of the votes in its conference would be a step forward.
But no 24-hour strike can guarantee that. If the labour movement does not have a better political option than the current miserable Labour leadership, then the Tories could well win a general election even after industrial militancy had broken up the current government coalition. Strikes can do many good things; but they are not a tool to win elections.
And if the Tories lose...? Ed Miliband is aiming for a Labour/ Lib-Dem coalition, or a right-wing Labour government continuing many Tory policies, and the unions are not seriously challenging him on that. Strikes are not a substitute for political action to change political options.
The SWP and SP slogans express wishful thinking rather than a clear idea of means and ends.
What about a full, open-ended, continuous general strike rather than just a 24 hour one?
An open-ended, continuous general strike, though still not a substitute for politics, would indeed change the political framework.
Unless cut short by bourgeois concessions or working-class exhaustion or betrayal, a full general strike would, by its own momentum, develop towards a direct challenge to capitalist power in general, not just to the current government.
A full-scale general strike is a serious thing! If it were on the agenda now, the worst thing for the labour movement would be slippery, demagogic agitation, drawing out none of the implications, such as SWP and SP provide.
In fact no-one campaigns for a continuous general strike now.
If by some freak the TUC were to call “now” for a full general strike, then not enough workers would come out for it to be effective. It would be a fiasco.
This year looks like being the lowest for strikes since the record lows of 2005 and 1997-9. In the first eight months of 2011 there were 225,000 striker-days. Compare: 2011, 1,388,000 — 2010, 365,000 — 2009, 456,000 — 2007, 1,040,000.
In a time of social crisis, this ebb can change quickly into flood-tide (perhaps, for example, by big battles elsewhere in Europe stirring up Britain). But such change will not come through a call by the TUC.
If you need ideal conditions before you call for a general strike, then you will never do so.
AWL’s forerunners did agitate for a general strike in 1972 — when, in July, there was a spreading mass strike movement to force the release of five dockers jailed under Tory anti-union laws, and the TUC called a one-day general strike, cancelled when the dockers were set free.
We agitated for a general strike during the miners’ strike of 1984-5.
At both those times SW rejected a general strike slogan as too advanced. In 1972 it eventually started talking about a general strike — but only, it emphasised, “as propaganda”, not as agitation, and only after the TUC had made its call. In 1984-5 it glumly insisted that “the downturn” (average annual striker-days for 1980-5: 9.8 million, about 30 times as many as 2012) made large action impossible.
The SP, then called Militant, has advocated “24-hour general strike” in all times and tides.
In 1984 they could have made a difference by using their strong position in Liverpool Labour council to pull the Liverpool labour movement into a local general strike against cuts, a move for which there was wide support. Instead they made a rotten compromise with the Tories.
Against both catchpenny opportunism and timeless formula-mongering, we recommend Trotsky’s precept: “to base one’s programme on the logic of class struggle”.