After a spike because of the 2011 public sector pensions dispute, the level of strikes in the UK fell to a seven-year low in 2012.
Royal Mail, a key bastion of public sector unionism and industrial strength, was privatised in October 2013 without any effective resistance. A strike planned for 4 November was called off and anyway was called after the privatisation had gone through.
At the Grangemouth oil refinery and petrochemical plant, arguably the most economically significant workplace in Scotland, bosses were able to inflict a crushing defeat on a well-organised, industrially-powerful, and previously-militant workforce.
Teachers’ unions have dithered on calling a national strike in their dispute on workload, pay, and pensions, and university workers’ unions’ held back from escalating their strikes by calling another one-day walkout for 3 December.
Firefighters remain in dispute over pensions, but the strikes are sporadic.
Another concerted mobilisation of the big battalions of organised labour against the Tory government, along the lines of the 2011 pensions dispute, seems unlikely soon. Unison’s leaders promise a fight on the public sector pay freeze “next year”, but recent history suggests that “next year” for the Unison leadership never actually arrives; it always means the year after the current one.
But as Tories hail the “economic recovery”, workers continue to suffer the worst squeeze on real wages since the 1870s. A barrage of Tory triumphalism about a recovery that workers are frozen out of cannot but lead to explosions of resistance, even if they are at first episodic and small scale.
Revolutionary socialists in the labour must orient to those explosions whenever they occur, and do whatever we can to support them, broadcast them, and help them win. In the meantime there is much work to do, educating, organising, preparing.
Tube workers’ union RMT has already declared a counter-offensive in response to London Underground bosses’ announcement of job cuts and ticket office closure, planning a campaign of industrial and political action involving passengers’ advocacy groups, disabled activists, and the wider London labour movement. The campaign is not just industrial-economic, but political — the impetus for the cuts is the 12.5% reduction in central government funding to Transport for London.
The RMT’s “Every Job Matters” campaign challenges the logic of the government’s cuts project, a full-frontal class assault on working-class living standards.
The approach of declaring a counter-offensive for positive demands, rather than calling one or two days of tokenistic strike action when a bosses’ attack is imminent, or even already carried out, is one from which the whole labour movement should learn.
The campaign by outsourced cleaning, catering, and security workers at the University of London for equality with their directly-employed colleagues is also an example to follow. Organised through democratic assemblies of workers where the direction of the campaign is discussed and voted on, the “Tres Cosas” (“Three Things”) campaign shows that precariously-employed, migrant workers, who have been ignored, poorly-served, and even undermined by some mainstream unions, are not incapable of organisation and militancy; quite the contrary.
Socialists should take up the cause of the Tres Cosas campaign throughout the whole labour movement, agitating for political and financial support from other trade union bodies, inviting speakers from the campaign to union branches, and publicising its actions. Wherever other such campaigns and disputes emerge, like the Curzon cinema workers’ fight for living wages or the Hovis bakery workers’ successful battle against zero-hours contracts, we should do likewise.
The revolutionary left is too small to effect a large-scale revival of industrial class struggle through acts of will. But we can help amplify those disputes that do emerge, not as passive supporters but as active agents embodying class-struggle memory and experience that can help shape disputes and help them win.
Workers’ Liberty’s dayschool, “Marxism At Work”, on 7 December aims to help comrades develop the practical skills necessary to carry out this work, and the political understanding that must underpin it.