Fighting to win: Thoughts on strike tactics

McDonald's workers on strike in September of this year

With railway workers, cleaners, cinema workers, food couriers, and posties either having come out on strike or due to, 2017 has seen marginal uptick in industrial action. This is a heartening sign, but with so few of us having strike experience, we need to make sure we're thinking tactically.

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on November 19, 2017

2011: some reflections

During the big 2011 public sector disputes I was working at a school. It was a mostly young workforce and most of my workmates seemed to have understood strikes as an expensive form of symbolic protest.

This was an idea bolstered by the action (or lack thereof) of the unions. In each instance, the unions moved the focus of the strike away from the workplace. There was no attempt by the unions to organise picket lines; instead any picket lines had to be organised by workplace activists. In a time of low class struggle, this meant very few picket lines.

Instead of picketing, unions encouraged strikers to attend long A to B marches where, at the end, marchers were treated to speeches by union bureaucrats and Labour Party dignitaries.

If 2011 was your first experience of taking industrial action, my workmates' understanding of strikes was reasonable: strikes are largely symbolic affairs, a show of dissatisfaction rather than an attempt to leverage the power we have in the workplace.

Why Strike?

In 2011 and many subsequent disputes, media-friendly rhetoric and imagery has been posited as the means to victory.

Leaflets, when created, are directed at the public and make a softly-softly case for strike action: we don't want to do this, we were pushed to do it, blah, blah, blah.

Incidentally, also in 2011, Reviving the Strike was published. Causing a stir amongst trade unionists on both sides of the Atlantic, the book makes simple point: the goal of a strike is to shut down production and, failing that, be as disruptive as possible to the functioning of the workplace.

If we're being generous, we could say that the big unions have forgotten this simple truth. A more radical critique would suggest that militant and potentially uncontrolled strike action jeopardises the narrowly privileged position unions hold as mediators between employees and employers. In either case, in a time when unions continue to haemorrhage members, it's strike action that actually sees membership grow in any meaningful way.

Public support, the media, and meaningful action

The goal of this softly-softly approach - the staged marches, the absurd deference to labour law, the shying away from any militant rhetoric - is to gain "public support". For a trade union establishment in retreat, it's not surprising that such a fundamentally conservative tactic has replaced any appetite for real struggle. More worrying is when strikers themselves orient their actions around such a nebulous and illusory goal.

It's nice to have people sign petitions and there's no doubt that a kind word from a passerby while on a picket line can really raise the spirits. But when the class struggle moves from the shopfloor to the court of public opinion, public support soon comes to mean media support.

It's possible that we might get some favorable coverage in the Guardian Comment is Free section, but strikes are never going to get unbiased - nevermind positive - coverage from the corporate media. Media bosses - broadsheet or tabloid, public or private - share the same class interest as the targets of the strike action and, indeed, often experience industrial action themselves.

At best, it's naive to plan a strike strategy based on chasing their support. More likely, it's setting ourselves up for demoralization, wasted effort, and ultimately conceding defeat before we even begin.

Public support in the abstract doesn't do much either. The junior doctors' strike had wide support as these things go. Yet, it made very little difference in the end. Ultimately the union capitulated and recommended that its members - who showed a level of militancy and commitment far surpassing that of the union hierarchy - accept what could, at best, be called a compromise deal.

Tube strikes, on the other hand, are routinely condemned by the media, the political class, and much of the public at large. Yet, tube workers have a much better track record at winning disputes. Some of this stems from the industrial muscle tube workers can exert, but it still goes to show that levels of generic public support have very little impact.

This is not to say that outside support is to be ignored altogether. Link up with other local workers, union branches, and community/political groups and do so in such as way that engages them organisationally with your struggle. The community pickets put on in support of the ongoing Picturehouse dispute show how outside support can bolster strikes. This needs to be our model: engaging and activating a core of people outside your workplace whose support goes beyond words and who will actually come out to support you when you take action.

A note on boycotts and marches

Put bluntly, boycotts are a symptom of our weakness. They individualise disputes on to the consumer and buy into the capitalist logic the we can 'vote with our feet/dollars/pounds'.

There's no point in calling a boycott unless we're willing to actively enforce it. Yet most boycotts are called by small groups who don't have the numbers or influence to achieve their aims and, instead, pin their hopes spreading the message through social media. This is not a recipe for success. Organising an effective boycott takes time and effort; time and effort that could be spent in far more effective ways.

Likeswise, marches don't win disputes. They are not, however, without their place. But they're something we do for ourselves: to build up our shared experience of struggle and to boost morale.

A number of years ago, I went on a cinema workers march. It wasn't large, no more than 100 people, the majority cinema workers. The route was only roughly planned out: the goal was to hit up the corporate headquarters of some of the UK cinema chains. How we got from one to the other was left up to us and in the process we blocked traffic for short periods.

I don't think anyone had any illusions that the march as going to win the dispute and, importantly, that wasn't the point. I felt a deeper sense of solidarity and hope on that single, small march that I have in any number of TUC marches with their lofty rhetoric and tens of thousands of participants.

Taking action

Have no illusions: we are fighting from a position of weakness. In these times, it's tempting to believe that no matter how much we might desire militancy, we have to be realistic: we can't challenge the anti-strike laws and we might alienate the public if we push things too far. Maybe a big march or positive coverage is the best we can hope for.

The problem with this attitude is that when pockets of resistance do crop up, we can be sure that the trade union establishment will be the first to promote such an outlook. We have to maintain some sense of optimism that allows us, however small our numbers, to use whatever solidarity we've built up and inject whatever militancy we can into the struggle.

Reach out to other workers in the supply chain: turning away a single delivery truck is worth more than turning away dozens of customers. Build up those community links on a real, sustained, organisational level. And we when you organise a picket do so with the explicit goal of stopping scabs.

Be ready to resist management, the police, and even your own union officials (as anyone who has been down to the picket lines of the recent Picturehouse dispute can attest) and actually implement an effective picket line. For those members of the public who truly support you, leverage that support into real, concrete action. Nice words are grand, donations make a real material difference, but it's actions that count: coming to the picket line, bolstering it, and possibly even taking the sort of action that might get workers in trouble, but doesn't carry the same risk for supporters.



6 years 8 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by syndicalist on November 20, 2017

Interesting read, thanks Chili.

"Have no illusions"

Been saying that for decades. And it doesn't mean its a negative.
When I was active-active, I would never try and "over promise".
Surely set goals and hope that some if not all are won. Yet understand
that the battle can be pitched and there are different levels of victory and defeat. Be "sober" in thought, creative in practice and militant in fight.

Gonna share on my FB thinger