Guide to taking strike action

Walking off the job

Tips and advice on how to effectively organise and carry out strike action at your workplace.

Our labour is the ultimate weapon that workers possess. Without workers bosses cannot make a profit. Strike action can be very powerful, but at the same time it, at the very least, reduces take home pay. More worryingly it may also lead to dismissal. Hardly, surprising therefore, that strike action is usually last resort taken of workers.

Now, in the much of the west nowadays, the vast majority of workers have very little experience of organising or being on strike. Here are some tips if you are forced to take such action and/or you are locked out by management.

While striking is sometimes necessary, on-the-job action, such as good work strikes, go-slows, or working-to-rule can be more effective.

Involving everyone

It is vital that all those on strike are directly involved in activities either in the form of picket duty, collecting cash, speaking or touring around, making contacts, speaking at meetings etc. These activities should not be confined to strike committees or more experienced members - by involving everyone this can help prevent boredom and stop isolation and demoralisation. Every striker should be encouraged to take part as it gives a purpose to the strike and helps make strikers class conscious. The most effective and inspirational way to involve all strikers is to regularly hold mass pickets.

Direct democracy

All strikers should be involved in the democratic running of the dispute through being on a daily basis. If tasks are rotated this should ensure that each striker builds up his/her organising experiences. As many decisions as possible should be made (and be seen to be made) when all strikers are present. If a list of peoples' specific skills are drawn up at the beginning of the dispute it can give strikers a start to organise from.

Here are some suggestions of skills and tasks to get things working for you - they may not all apply to your situation but all the issues in this list need to be considered:

  • Picketing
  • Visiting workplaces, community centres and trade union meetings to speak and raise money
  • Preparing resolutions for other union branch meetings
  • Organising petitions and financial collection groups for outside supermarkets, workplaces etc
  • Treasurer/s to oversee all monies coming in and being spent
  • Producing posters and leaflets and other publicity
  • A research team to investigate the company's finances, draw up a list of political contacts in other union branches, other unions, workplaces etc
  • A press co-ordinator to issue statements to the press (including left-wing press)
  • A welfare officer to attend to any striker's personal difficulties and to suggest forms of assistance - financial particularly but also legal assistance when someone is arrested and/or charged
  • Entertainments group - to organise fund-raising social nights. These can help draw in other workers, and demonstrate to strikers' families and friends they are also seen as part of the struggle.
  • Newsletter editors - a regular strike bulletin (daily if possible) is needed to let people know what is happening. This helps prevent rumours and can hold the strike together. The bulletin should encourage contributions from as many strikers as possible. This can be written and produced very quickly using Desk Top Publishing equipment if it is available.
  • Legal officer - especially when people have been arrested and are awaiting trial, such a person can assist solicitors in getting statements. S/he may also wish to try and get legal observers at the pickets - these can help put some pressure on the police to behave properly.
  • The most effective way to ensure direct democratic control of any dispute/strike action by those workers directly involved in it is to hold weekly (or more often) mass meetings. These should be used to discuss and democratically decide the conduct of the dispute and to elect people to run it on the striker's behalf between strike/dispute meetings.
  • A strike committee (or action group, or whatever name is decided) should be elected by a mass meeting and thereafter accountable to, and anyone replaceable by, another mass meeting, if the strikers decide this is necessary. This group will co-ordinate the day to day work created by the decisions at the mass meetings. Any posts or committees should also be democratically elected in this way - there should be no appointments. The strike committee should include a secretary (takes minutes and co-ordinates on going work), treasurer and a chair (for meetings).

Cash

If a strike is to last then finance should be sorted out as quickly as possible - those on strike are going to run out of money very quickly without any wages coming in. Official unions often set up fighting funds but if controlled by union officials, the money obviously can't be controlled by the strikers.

In 'official' disputes small amounts of strike pay can usually be arranged by the union but not in 'unofficial' disputes.

Part of the strike committee should be given the responsibility for raising funds. All monies must be controlled by the strikers themselves - if it is controlled by the union bureaucracy then disagreements over the strike or tactics can lead union officials to threaten the strike by withdrawing the funds.

Factory/workplace collections are the usual source of money. Appeals should also be made to unions and community organisations. The biggest collections are usually made when a striker has had the opportunity to speak to other workers. There is nothing as inspiring to other groups of workers as hearing from people on strike.

Every penny should be accounted for. Any distribution of the funds should be made in a way agreed at a mass meeting. This will often cause problems but it must be done and be seen to be done. A treasurer should be accountable to the strike committee in between mass meetings.

Media

This usually involves strikers' bulletins, leaflets for the general public, translation of materials and articles in newspapers. This should include the left-wing press, anarchist and socialist, which will be supportive. The most important communication, however, is direct - from worker to worker. Public meetings, including street meetings, can also be used to gather support. Leaflets need to be printed in all relevant languages.

Official or unofficial

Even today most strikes are unofficial, and it is almost certain that any strike for union recognition will be 'unofficial.' In brief the terms are used to define strikes which are covered by trade union legislation (which will differ in different countries) and those that are not. Trade unions can have their assets sequestrated if they support a strike not covered by trade union legislation.

We would argue that it is not that important whether a strike is official or not, if a group of workers are forced to take strike action then they should be supported, full stop. If the union officials don't support this then tell them to get lost.

Full-time officials

There is a very long history of trade union officials initially giving support to a strike, offering help and assistance and then leaving the strikers to their own devices. It is essential that every strike committee should prepare their fellow members and strikers for this eventuality, financially, physically and psychologically.

This means that the strikers should organise independently of the union bureaucrats from the start and must seek to be self-supporting. Strikers need to be able to rely for aid and solidarity outside of the officials and bureaucracy.

The full-time official (usually appointed by other bureaucrats rather than elected by the workers) is supposed to represent and be under the control of the strikers. In reality, this rarely happens. The official's decisions will often (usually?) be what the union solicitor says is the best strategy, which in practice means anything is possible as long as it is within the anti-strike laws, or their interpretation of it.

Union officials will wish to avoid, at all costs any threat to the funds of the union. If union officials do attend strike meetings it should be made clear that s/he is a paid official and should therefore be expected to do as the members want - not the other way round. Beware: union officials sell out.

'Revolutionary' groups

These are not well supported at the moment. If they come and offer support demands should be placed on them and their members. They should be expected to respect strikers' wishes. Those that do respect strikers’ wishes usually find a better hearing for their ideas in times of discussions, particularly during difficult periods in the strike.

A strike must not be subordinated to boost the potential of a revolutionary group over the needs of the people on strike. Collection sheets and materials should be headed with the strikers' logo/slogan and not that of the revolutionary organisation. This makes good sense anyway - many people are reluctant to give to such groups, and are more willing to give to a group of strikers.

Direct action/solidarity/flying pickets and anti-union laws

It is essential to put a daily picket on the workplace(s) which is the source of the strike.
However, unless it is a very large workplace (involving hundreds of workers) then very few strikes are ever won by keeping the action confined to the workplace(s) at the core of the dispute - strikers will quickly become isolated and eventually defeated.

If it is obvious that the bosses are not budging within a couple of weeks, then this may mean having to dig in and prepare for a lengthy battle. Solidarity action is the key to winning such a struggle. This means involving workers in other workplaces, usually with the same employers and sometimes unions. But not always, as other workers in and out of unions, often with different employers, are used to produce goods or do work to offset the loss of production at the source of the strike.

By far the best and most effective way to win solidarity action is to picket the workplaces of the workers you want (and need) to involve. These are called flying pickets by militant trade unionists but secondary pickets by the bosses, who are shit-scared of them and wish to outlaw such solidarity action by the use of anti-union laws.

All full-time, repeat all full-time union officials, fall into line with the bosses and the State's laws when they are used or even threatened. In most cases the threat of action will usually result in the full-time official distancing him/herself from any strikers organising flying pickets.

If these laws are threatened or used then a strike can only be won if the striking workers and their supporters are prepared to defy the law, the bosses who use it and the trade union officials who will not break it.

'Break the law, not the strike, not the workers' movement - no state interference in the democratic running of a trade union or workers struggles.'

As picketing is so vital, then so is the control of workers on a picket line. Stewards should be elected by a mass meeting to control the conduct of all workers and their supporters on the picket line. If other workers are brought in to assist in picketing, then these people should be clearly identified by the strike committee on this basis and subject to the control of the same committee.

The strike committee must always retain the right to remove anyone from the picket line who they decide is acting contrary to the interests of the workers on strike and placing a dispute in jeopardy by their conduct. Drinking of alcohol should be banned on picket lines.

Contact should be established with sympathetic lawyers when a strike and picketing takes place, as action in the course of a strike could lead to harassment and arrest. Legal support is very important in such circumstances.

The building of permanent links between workers is vital during a strike - this is especially the case with workers in the same firm and/or industry - this will help in defeating future attacks on all workers.

Regular direct contact between workers, before, during and after a strike, can go a long way to breaking isolation and encouraging rank and file resistance.

Unemployed people and scabbing

To guard against scabs it is essential to work amongst unemployed people - alongside Claimants' Unions or groups - and, if possible, to organise them, so that unity of action can be established to fight threats to end their meagre benefits if they do not accept scab jobs.

Leafleting or picketing of dole or employment agency offices, especially when strikers’ jobs are being advertised, is vital. Unemployed people should be encouraged to get involved in the strike. In the SITA bin workers strike of 2001, supporters leafleted employment agencies and blockaded coaches filled with replacement staff.

Discussion meetings

Discussion meetings between workers on issues relevant to a strike should be organised during and after the strike. This will encourage discussion and aid in the development of new ideas and tactics to use during the strike.

At the end of the strike the experiences of the workers should be written down. Successes and failures should be analysed and then they can be used in future strikes. Strikers may not win their particular struggle, but they can help others to learn from their experiences and win the next time.

Occupations

The most effective means of preventing the employer/company from resuming production during a strike, or of disposing of the premises and assets, is by occupying the plant or office. Unless the numbers on strike are very large then it is likely that 'outside' support will be needed, including from amongst the unemployed. Details, methods and planning can only be decided on the site and according to the circumstances prevailing. Occupations and work-ins were a major part of the struggles by trade unionists in Britain during the 60s and 70s.

Strike support groups

It is important that as soon as possible that an independent Strike Support Group is set up. The purpose of this is for strikers and supporters to decide how best to co-ordinate support for the strike. This Group must be accountable to the strikers and no actions which are not supported by the strikers should be initiated.

In conclusion

These are just some (very brief) suggestions and basic guidelines for the conduct (and hopefully success) of an industrial dispute or strike.

The essence of taking and winning strike action is to keep this completely under the direct control of the strikers themselves and independent of the trade union and political bureaucracies - large or small.

The real message is: to win a strike strikers have to be prepared to fight the full time union officials as well as all the other forces ranged against them. All full time officials will settle for something which is infinitely more in line with what the bosses want than what the workers have been or are struggling for.

Updated from Revolutions Per Minute issue 2 (published in1996) February 24th 2003
Edited by libcom