From the 9th to the 12th September, Brighton will play host to the 144th TUC Congress. As is the norm lately, this will be preceded by a "lobby" from Socialist Party front the National Shop Stewards Network. These are some brief thoughts provoked by constantly seeing links to the lobby on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere.
In 2010, the lobby called on the TUC to call a demonstration. In 2011, to name the date of the next co-ordinated strike action in the pensions dispute. However you dressed it up, what it essentially amounted to was anticipating where the plodding, lacklustre trade union "left" would go next and being the first to demand it publicly. When it inevitably happened, the radical end of reformist trade unionism could trumpet it to the skies, writing off the lack of accomplishment from these limited actions thanks to the "betrayal" of the right-wing unionists.
This year, however, it looks like they are actually demanding the impossible. Though of course with restraints so that what could be a revolutionary act is reduced to gesture politics. A 24 hour general strike, of the kind that's happened over and over in Greece to little avail. That'll learn em.
True to their lack of a halfway-decent analysis of material interests or political conditions, however, the SP are ever optimistic:
Some of these [right-wing union] leaders may argue that the demand for a 24-hour general strike against austerity is abstract and in any case wouldn't be possible under Thatcher's anti-union laws. But as with the pension dispute which reached its highpoint on N30, effectively a public sector general strike, it is possible to coordinate strike action against austerity on a scale of millions. One of the main reasons that the pension attack was chosen as a focus for action in the first place was because it gave the maximum potential for joint strike action.
So, it turns out, they're not even calling for a general strike but a coordinated strike by all trade unions which will look like a general strike. Sort of.
Except here's the problem. In Britain today, only 23.5% of workers are members of a trade union. It's true that this amounts to around 6 million workers, but it still leaves whole swathes of the economy unorganised - for example, the service sector. Where there are unions, many have an extremely low density and lack both the membership density and the recognition agreements required to effectively ballot for and call a strike as part of an official dispute.
Then there is the problem with calling coordinated strikes even amongst the big unions. The pensions dispute is a perfect example of just how long it takes to build up an effective coalition, and how quickly it can fall apart.
Even after all of that, this is still all on the (entirely ridiculous) presumption that the union tops have the political will required.
A coordinated strike action on the scale the SP describe isn't impossible. But it is improbable to the extent that we can safely rule it out. The only other option is for the TUC itself to "call" a strike, which is illegal and would see it (and all participant unions) bankrupted when their assets are seized. A definite no-no.
So why go through this charade? The standard line is that this will "boost the confidence" of workers. But will it, really, beyond those who've already bought the party line? If anything, it will continue to demobilise workers by playing into the illusion that we need "good" leaders to do our fighting for us even as they fail again and again to live up to the expectations placed upon them by the left.
There is no easy answer to austerity. The labour movement in Britain is in an awful state, don't let the TUC's six million membership fool you on that. We've a long way to go to build an effective, militant movement from below - though that's not to say there aren't plenty of positive examples to follow. One thing's for sure, however - this kind of leftist gesture politics will get us nowhere...