The SWP on industrial strategy: five three-quarter truths

Submitted by martin on 8 February, 2014 - 11:47
Precariat

Five three-quarter truths, piled one on top of another to reach a conclusion, make a conclusion which is only three-quarters times three-quarters times... true. Or 24% true. Or three-quarters false.

Example: the SWP's current argument on "work, class, and resistance", as developed in a day school sponsored by the SWP's International Socialism Journal in London on 8 February.

The SWP enounces five three-quarter truths:

1. The working class is a whole. It is not two separate segments with a wall between. There is no separate "precariat" class.

2. Public service workers are part of the working class.

3. Only strong industrial action like strikes can win.

4. One-day strikes by public service workers' unions on issues like pay and pensions rally workers and make them more confident to take on other issues.

5. At present few workers are confident to wage big strikes unless the union officials back them. The union officials make a difference. Not all union officials are the same. Pushing left-wing union officials is important.

Conclusion (three-quarters false): the "strategy" of building "Unite the Resistance" is correct.

UTR is the latest SWP trade union enterprise, the successor to the once ballyhooed, now forgotten Right to Work and Organise for Fighting Unions. Essentially it consists of a series of conferences and meetings where SWP speakers share platforms with left union officials who are on relatively good terms with the SWP, and they join in calling for "more action" (which comes down to: more one-day strikes without planned sequel).

At the day school, SWPer Paul McGarr finessed the problem of "action" meaning one-day strikes by invoking the "all out, stay out" slogan which flickered on and off in SWP speeches in the run-up to 30 November 2011: aha, the SWP presses left union officials to call a one-day strike, and then converts it into an indefinite general strike by organising workers to stay out the next day and so on. That was not a seriously pursued policy on 30 November and 1 December (etc.) 2011, but just an occasional phrase.

SWP speakers rebuked disputants from RS21 (the latest SWP split-off) who argued that the SWP ends up over-valuing alliances with and nudging of left union officials. (***)

Paul McGarr argued that even when you are against left officials on industrial issues, you must be "with" them on others such as racism. I decoded this as saying that if left union officials will support SWP initiatives such as the rally for UN anti-racism day on 22 March, then the SWP strives to keep "in" with them whatever they do on industrial issues. The SWP has a bad record of such attitudes.

The trade union strategy here may have some link with the SWP's bureaucratic botching of its response to complaints by women members of sexual abuse by its former national secretary Martin Smith, a botching which triggered the conflicts leading to the recent split-offs from the SWP (ISN in spring 2013, RS21 in December 2013). The SWP leadership was so defensive about Smith, so it is said, because they valued his supposedly exceptional ability to schmooze left union officials.

Implausibly (and oddly: I'd never heard the claim before), SWP speakers claimed the 30 November 2011 one-day strike on public sector pensions as (at least in large part) their own achievement, the product of a "convergence between the party and some left officials" possible only because of the canniness of SWP policy.

SWP speakers defended their perspective as a sort of golden mean. On the one hand, there are Counterfire and the People's Assembly, "cheerleaders for the left bureaucracy". On the other, there are the more recent SWP split-offs, which SWP speakers presented as arguing that neo-liberalism has rotted the soul of the working class (Richard Seymour), offering vague enthusiasm about the "precariat" as a magic bypass for the difficulties in the labour movement (other ISNers), or seeing breakaway unions as a cure all.

In the middle, the SWP, with the golden mean.

Again, SWP speakers Alex Callinicos and Paul McGarr presented the alternatives in assessing the condition of the working class as either "everything has changed" (allegedly the recent SWP split-offs' view) or "nothing has changed", or a sage SWP middle way: some things have changed, but not others.

True enough, but what has changed, and what hasn't?

Neo-liberalism means sharpened global capitalist competition, and the redefinition by capitalist states of their role as one of making their national terrains attractive sites for global capital to nest in. Consequently it means accelerated and continual restructuring of labour processes, cascading internationally.

Further, and essentially because of the weakening of union organisation caused by defeats and unions' inability or unwillingness to keep up with the pace of restructuring, it means (as one non-SWP speaker at the day school, Phil Taylor, put it) continually revised internal differentiation of the working class.

Over the neo-liberal decades since 1980, inequality between the rich and the worse-off has risen, and so also has inequality between the better-off and the worse-off sections of the working class.

When I argued this point at the day school, SWP speaker Alex Callinicos said I was wrong, and in fact the spread of techniques like performance management to university lecturers showed a "homogenisation" of the working class.

It is true that the divisions between better-off and worse-off in the working class are not static, that there is constant pressure for levelling down, and that management techniques pioneered against the worse-off are then applied to the better-off. But "homogenisation" and "differentiation" can happen simultaneously. They do happen simultaneously. University lecturers (the SWP's main "industrial base" these days, I think) may be hit by performance management, and yet the gap (in pay, security, conditions, pensions) between them and the cleaners in their universities may grow.

Unions have generally retreated to selective damage limitation for the better-off and more easily organised sections of the working class, leaving the worse-off, and many issues affecting the better-off, in the "too difficult" basket.

To think that socialists can solve the problem by bypassing the existing unions and going out to organise the "precariat" directly is fantasy. To organise the worst-off sections of unorganised workers, you first have to have, available and ready for the task, a large body of organised workers, and that is not to be found by bypassing the existing unions. (The justly famous IWW of the pre-1914 USA owed much of its initial impetus to the Western Federation of Miners, based on large, stable workplaces).

SWP speakers cited some valid and important statistics showing that, contrary to much talk, the proportions in the British workforce of temporary and part-time workers have not increased much. Though the bosses want to make us think otherwise, in fact in most jobs they want stable, long-term workers.

As in all previous periods of working-class history, socialist and trade union organisation in the coming years will depend on bodies of activists won among the better-organised, better-placed, better-off sections of the working class.

But it must also address the issues across the whole working class; it must reach out, as far as it can, as fast as it can, to the worse-off sections of the working class.

This mandates an orientation centred not round getting joint conferences and rallies with left officials (though such things may be useful as an ancillary), but around socialist workplace bulletins which take up all the workplace issues, not just those which the left officials have selected as suitable for one-day strikes; around a battle to democratise the trade unions and remake trade union organisation from the rank and file upwards.

I disagreed with the basic policy the day school promoted - summed up in concluding plenary speeches by Ralph Darlington and Paul McGarr - and I wasn't happy that the responses to me in debate mostly dealt with my points by caricaturing them and equating my views with those of the "precariat" enthusiasts.

However, the day school also showed that those who think the SWP is "finished", and all those who remain in the SWP are not worth talking to, are wrong.

It was held in the same hall as the ISN had for its public launch, done jointly with the ACI and SR, in 2013.

For the ISN-ACI-SR event the hall was half-full, and got much emptier as the meeting continued. There was little real debate, and no effort to respond to points which those of us there from the AWL made.

For the SWP-ISJ day school - a routine second-string activity for the SWP, not a big public focus - the same hall was crammed full from the start to the end of the day (219 people registered at the door). There was evasion and demagogy in the debate, but, with the SWP now shaken up, I was called to speak in every session, and other speakers made an effort to respond to what I said and to what RS21 speakers said. The norm at SWP meetings in recent decades has been very different: dissidents have routinely not been called to speak, or been ejected from supposedly public meetings.

A number of the platform speakers were not SWP, and gave contributions not exactly fitting in with the SWP storyline.

Phil Taylor gave a barnstorming presentation on performance management. He concluded with a valuable list of ideas on how to fight it in detail. SWPers in the floor discussion that followed mostly (not all) contented themselves with bluster ("just say no") or with the thought that good one-day strikes over pay (or, as happens with the PCS and the NUT, catch-all demands for the government to negotiate about all issues) would make workers more confident when facing performance management.

Lucia Pradella said that precariousness and poverty are structural to capitalism, and affect the whole working class. Socialists should work for a collective, unifying response.

However, we need "a realistic consideration of the factors which divide the working class". In Italy, she said, the "precariat" debate is an old one. Ten years ago, or so, there were many activists who said that they were organising the precariat and did not want to work with the unions. Now "everyone is precarious", and that debate has faded.

But the fact still remains: "the unions did nothing to organise the precarious workers", nor even much to combat the pressures and tactics imposing precariousness on the bulk of the working class.



*** One of the SWP's defences was that they had backed Jerry Hicks for Unite general secretary against Len McCluskey.

Though Hicks's personal sincerity and personal record are estimable, we do not think that Hicks, and the motley crew around him, represented any better programme for Unite than McCluskey. On the whole, I doubt that the SWP would have voted Hicks if McCluskey were willing to speak at SWP-sponsored events, instead of giving favour unilaterally to the People's Assembly initiated by Counterfire, another SWP split-off.

Elsewhere, for example in the NUT, the SWP is not really more distant from the left officials than Counterfire is.

Comments

Submitted by martin on Sun, 09/02/2014 - 18:38

A query by a comrade has reminded me of one exchange at the day school:

Me: One-day strikes by public sector workers are better than no strikes by public sector workers, but they're not an adequate answer.

SWPer: I disagree with the last speaker. It is only by strikes that we will end this rotten capitalist system. [Loud applause follows].

Not all the responses from SWPers were at that level, though.

Submitted by Liam Conway on Sun, 02/03/2014 - 22:21

SWP comrades in the NUT make a lot of noise about action but the reality is that they are mostly cheerleaders for the leadership. They are suppoting the re-election of Blower for General Secretary for a start. They have added little to the one day strike protest strategy apart from left chest beating.

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