Excerpts from a letter commenting upon a few strikes in Britain

Dave Walton (aka David Wise) writes to German Wildcat in September 1989 on recent strikes by steel workers, oil workers, tube drivers etc.

Submitted by Fozzie on July 13, 2022

Excerpts from a letter published in German Wildcat, September 1989 commenting upon a few strikes in Britain

If it hadn’t been for the existence of the most draconian labour laws in Western Europe, almost certainly one would have seen a ”repeat” of The Winter of Discontent both in 1988 and 1989. A ”repeat” in the sense of strikes all cascading together, tumbling over each other in some rambling sort of way.

However, these present strikes in Britain have been more under union control than those recent strikes in France or Italy –despite the fact that the unions have infiltrated and used the co-ordinations there. But in contrast to France say, where the strikers have won very little and basically nothing in pay rises, despite the existence of ”new” organisational forms, here strikers have been remarkably successful this year.

Almost every major strike – railway workers, local government officers etc - has been won both in terms of wage increases and in pushing back and even thwarting restructuration, particularly pay bargaining. The only exception – and it was a devastating one – was the defeat of the dockers. The dockers’ defeat has had though, amazingly enough, very little real impact on other striking sectors and, it seems, for other sectors preparing to strike. Set against the grim reality that these strikes have been won against the most reactionary regime in Western Europe – now going to lunatic lengths in the proposed poll tax to subjugate the rest of the population - they’re no small victory. Ironically, strikers here have been more successful than their French counterparts facing a modern, flexible, social democratic state.

But then, when all is said and done, though glad to see the return of the ”English disease”, making one feel rather better inside, they’re also not very inspiring affairs and quite unlike the ransacking and violence of the miners strike and the printers etc even though these strikes were defeated. This is not to worship violence for its own sake – a kind of metaphysic of violence – merely to note the rage expressed in these actions really did point to something more than a fairer version of the old order.

As for ”new” content, well, I don’t know enough about that on that real intimate level which is of course necessary. Most of the time you simply cannot know this vis-à-vis those little changes/facts etc that can potentially open entirely new perspectives as time goes by. Finally you are involved in the relatively limited parameters of your own space. Certainly, there’s been the reemergence of rank ‘n’ file unionism despite having a new name but I’m not sure what it means. It’s still after all, rank ‘n’ file unionism and not ”open” in the sense through which the form of a new world –if there is to be one – could come.

For instance, the old shop steward structure among striking steel erectors was thrown out but only in order for a new shop steward structure to be established which was prepared to get rid of a ridiculous two year agreement signed by engineering (AEU) bureaucrats. The new structure, though more prepared to fight, nonetheless wasn’t that different from those they’d overthrown. At one important moment at least, when 16 big building sites were on strike in London in early summer, this stewards committee made decisions behind the backs of striking steel erectors – decisions that it seems – weren’t really challenged by striking steel erectors although there was muted anger among a small minority.

Interestingly too (the mood is catching) these organisers no longer called themselves shop stewards but ”coordinators”, imitating their French counterparts. This has happened not only in the construction industry (maintenance building workers on the North Sea oil platforms used the term too) but also among London Underground train drivers.

Indeed, the tube drivers were the first to deploy the tag. A nagging doubt remains. Aren’t they just shop stewards under a new guise? We shall see! Certainly there’s been an attempt to discipline some of these coordinators – particularly by UCATT officials in the building industry. On the Isle of Grain in the Thames estuary during spring, some union bureaucrats were beaten up and thrown off sites by strikers where previously some heavy action had taken place and railway lines had been uprooted and gantry cranes pushed over etc. It’s hardly surprising therefore that the union big wigs came down on them squashing all resistance though getting squashed themselves in the process.

Sounds exciting doesn’t it? Well, it could have been a splendid precursor to something much bigger but the action remained confined to the Isle of Grain and London sites and limited to steel erectors who never really attempted to generalise their dispute to other building trades – never mind others. When they did make a gesture in that direction it was conceived in such an archaic union manner. A meeting was held at Conway Hall in central London by steel erector coordinators and though other building workers were invited it had to be care of the union card when 70% of building workers aren’t in unions. If only they’d made an appeal on pasted up posters to all building workers or, something similar! That perhaps might have meant a new mood was in the air!

On the North Sea oil platforms it was a little better. Building workers involved girl friends/wives in occupations over the appalling safety standards on the rigs and during the dispute began to make appeals to oil production workers. Some responded, but then the action petered out. (Did the coordinators lose their nerve as after all, they were taking on the mighty oil companies well noted for their brutality? Even so, some maintenance workers were well pissed-off when the strikes – on the eve of getting dramatically bigger – were ended by the coordinators).

Similar things can be said about the tube drivers. They never opened their coodination to other underground workers. They kept their elite role intact vis-à-vis other railway workers. Despite this lack there was also a fair degree of radicalism within that somewhat myopic narrowness. Bureaucrats, mainly belonging to ASLEF were ordered out of meetings and it seems, the coordinators were basically anti-party (some, it was said, had been Tory voters). It was only later that Trotskyists moved in to try and colonise the coordinations. At the end of their long strike, even though finally the strikers had relinquished the running of their dispute to the ASLEF bureaucrats, drivers at a final coordination meeting ferociously refused - deploying the heaviest language –”listen motherfucker” – to talk to any media representative. It was a response not seen since the early, heady days of the miners’ strike. All in all, the tube drivers’ action was something of a step in the right direction.

Really what’s needed is an analysis of the organisational composition of shop stewards over the last 20 years or so evaluating how their role has changed. In the 60s, the Situationists, most likely prodded by Solidarity in Britain, could hold to the view that shop stewards were basically an autonomous revolutionary body, or, potentially so - if one could only get to them - and clue them into real autonomous theory. Of course, it tended to smack of leftist handing theory down to the masses but there was rather more to it than that. Maybe it was an understandable perspective then at a time when there was hardly a national pay bargaining structure in existence and grabbing what you could (free collective bargaining!) usually depended on how bloody-minded you were prepared to be at a local level.

Certainly, the situation was very open and some shop stewards here did latch on quickly to aspects of some of the most advanced and fresh theory in existence. However, 70s reorganisation and the emergence of a national pay bargaining on a big scale plus a much greater integration of stewards into the union/state hierarchy put paid to what had increasingly become, a mistaken concept though not perhaps, initially. (see enclosed text I wrote in 1979 on The Winter Of Discontent). In a sense, I don’t think the fully employed workers have still recovered from that subtly shattering experience. It would be worth investigating how the stewards fragmented throughout the 70s, for example, the substantial increase in the number of senior stewards often on 100% facility time paid for by the company/state dept or multi-national and thus becoming almost as remote from the sharp end of an intensifying workers’ alienation as the union bureaucrat in his/her office. During the savage Thatcher years of the 80s you really wonder just how much has that position been reversed.

Indeed, some recent statistics and which the Trotskyist SWP eagerly pounced on, say that the number of shop stewards has risen from 300,000 in 1979 to 360,000 now! Basically though, the shop steward apparatus – with all its manipulations, encouraging/derailing struggle syndrome, ignoring mandates, decisions taken by themselves etc – has continued virtually unscathed. Perhaps what one is beginning to see is a union rank ‘n’ filism powered by those shop stewards at the real bottom end of the union hierarchy who feel sufficiently estranged from this hierarchy to borrow the term coordinator in order to give merely the appearance of something different? It was certainly more than that in the early days of the tube strike.

It may be the beginning of something different but there again, probably not as
it’s going to take some fundamental sea change for this ”new”
movement to break out of the union carapace.

D.W. September 1989