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...
Lobby the TUC conference,
Lobby the TUC conference, whilst they laugh into their paper plates of prawn sandwiches and volovants.
The SP paper, 'the Socialist' seems to have had the headline, 'General strike now!' on the front cover of every issue for the last 2 years, just as they do on all their literature. Its empty, meaningless, sloganeering.
Phil wrote: So why go through
I think it comes straight from Trotsky. Since "the historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership", 'transitional demands' are meant to capture the imagination of the workers, and when they fail, to therefore make the case for 'revolutionary' change. By which it is meant, electing the Trots as leaders, solving 'the historical crisis of mankind'.
I'm no Trotsky expert, but it seems the 'limited yet impossible' nature of the demands are precisely the point. The TUC will fail to call a general strike, 'the masses' will be disappointed, and the party will say 'this wouldn't happen with us in charge.' The irony of course, is that far more workers take part in strike action than lobby the TUC for general strikes. From which it could be concluded that workers are in advance of the 'vanguard', prepared to strike but not to piss about with pointless lobbying.
Jesus is that the NSSN's new
Jesus is that the NSSN's new logo? Love how they have the hands inside the TUC arrow.
Another element behind this
Another element behind this is making 'busy work' for members of Trot organisations to keep them engaged. All that building for, calling on, passing resolutions through your (probably moribund) union branch. Makes a pleasant change from selling papers, and is a means of earning those all-important cadre points.
On the subject of transitional demands, the 'harder' (for which read 'more mental') Trot organisations like the various WRP splits tend to see transitional demands as being almost solely a means for "exposing the bureaucracy." The Socialist Party approach is slightly different: they tend to position themselves to 'the left of the left' -- so when the TUC was calling for a national minimum wage of £4-something, the SP were calling for a NMW of £7-something and calling it a transitional demand. Type 1 Trots denounce Type 2 Trots for centrism; Type 2 Trots denounce Type 1 Trots for ultra-leftism. And so it goes.
The SWP vacillate between Type 1 and Type 2, driven mostly by the imperative to build the party.
Type 1 and 2 Trots sound like
Type 1 and 2 Trots sound like an illness. 'I had a bout of Type 2 Trotskyism, but it's kept under control with regular injections'.
Symptoms may include foaming
Symptoms may include foaming at the mouth and an uncontrollable urge to talk about Palestine. If left untreated, may cause those within earshot to lapse into coma.
I will put aside the fact
I will put aside the fact that this article taken on its own suggests there is no point in trying to fight austerity as I am sure that’s not what you mean.
The Socialist Party does not routinely call for a general strike; this demand has been thought through and discussed at great length. No recent paper before June this year carried the demand. As you well know previous lobby have been pushing for national demos and co-ordinated public sector action.
If you think our description of a general strike is really not a general strike then the same would have to said of those that have taken place in Europe over the last years. For example Greek trade union density is not wildly different to here, 28%. Now of course non-unionised workers came out in Greece during these strikes and SOLFED encouraged workers here to do on 30th Nov 2011 through poster campaigns. Why was it right to call for this then but impossible now?
'The union leaders lack the political will' So that’s it then? Give up?
Union leaders can be pressured by the rank and file, the fact Nov 30th happened at all shows this. Also they can be replaced. Do you really think there is no point fighting in the union for better leadership?
So the lobby is important and I would encourage attendance to...
Get the idea of a 24hr general strike discussed and raised in the movement. It is a difficult to achieve but very possible situation given the depth of the cuts to come.
Discuss and work on building an organised and active rank and file and how this can be used to pressure into action and replace right wing leaderships as well as take action independent of those leaderships where possible.
Visibly show the TUC right wingers that there is support for a fight against austerity and that they should be worried about losing their positions if they continue to duck it.
All of this can be carried on using this demand during the demo in October
So you can dismiss the patient tactics of working in the unions as they actually exist but one thing's for sure, however – that kind of leftist gesture politics will get us nowhere...
Well depressing as that will
Well depressing as that will sound, neither the existing TUC demo's and days of action nor the marginally enhanced versions being promoted by the likes of the so-called Socialist Party, were they likely to happen, can even dent the current austerity onslaught against us let alone significantly shift the balance of power in our favour. They are no more than set-piece actions by organisations actively working against our interests as a class which can only in the end lead to even greater demoralisation.
These are the opposite of attempts to generalise (in the right conditions) actual workplace and related struggles by workers in defence of specific attacks which we face through self-organisation and direct contact between the workers involved rather than our 'official representatives' Achieving that does involve some long term commitment to working at base level and without the certainty of success.
The culture of workplace and 'community' resistance in the UK lacks much of that experienced in some other parts of Europe and elswhere precisely due to the past stranglehold of the 'official labour movement' organisations which weighs heavily on any attempt at 'unofficial' self-organising and direct action. Direct comparison with Greece without taking this and the objective level of the economic crisis there into account are of little value to us.
There will of course be some workers on these TUC and other related demo's who realise all this in their 'heart of hearts' and they are certainly worth addressing with some honest appraisal of the situation.
Phil Brighton wrote: Now of
I think you're missing the point of what I called impossible: the TUC calling a general strike. I gave both legal and material reasons why that giant bureaucratic organ wouldn't take that action. At no point did I say that workers taking industrial action regardless of union membership was impossible.
No. Organise from below, from scratch if need be. Build a rank-and-file that can actively take control of its own struggles, rather than merely be "harnessed" by the left to push union leaders to a slightly left-of-left (but still incredibly limited) position.
Getting unions to join in a single day of legal industrial action is very different than getting the TUC to call an illegal general strike. Union leaders can be pressured, in that they will want to avoid being outflanked from below, but there is a limit to this. Pretending that limit doesn't exist, rather than encouraging workers to push beyond it and leave their leaders behind, is just promoting illusions.
Yes. I'm an anarcho-syndicalist. I really think that.
Quote: 'The union leaders
No-ones advocating giving up, its a political disagreement on how to approach things.
Take the sparks campaign against the BESNA. What worked was the threat of walkouts and wildcats predominately within the union but also outside it at times. What didn't particularly work was sumply lobbying the unite leadership to 'take action'.
I respect some of the good stuff rank and file SP'rs did in that campaign, saw a lot of youse there all the time on cold wednesday mornings, and i get on well with your lot round my way but I still think youse are on a hiding to nothing making these sort of demands on the TUC. I also think your 'party line' (for want of a better phrase) attitude towards the union leadership is hopelessly optimistic, case in point in relation to the above being your call for people to vote for 'len mcliskey a year ago.
So how do we help further the
So how do we help further the development of a politicised and organised rank and file across the working class? I am not talking here about some lobby of the TUC, but more generally, about the battle we have just fought and lost with the union bosses over the pensions mobilisation.
People often sound glib in their declarations for a rank n file or syndicalist response, as if these were ideological positions rather than practical solutions that can emerge from the current struggle. We inherit rank and file language from the 1970s, but what has changed?
We entered this (post 2008) period of deep crisis following two decades of the lowest levels of strike action for 100 years. Compare this to how we entered the last deep crisis, between 1968-1973. Then, there had been a rising level of sectional strikes, where workers could build strong and militant rank and file organisations, such as shop stewards networks and other forms. When the deep crisis really hit and the ruling class offensive began, this rank and file began to develop a generalised response, moving beyond its sectionalism - and also able to act autonomously from the union bureaucracy, and was able to lead a few victories.
We are not in this position now. We are not moving from a gradual build up of sectional strength through localised struggles. But workers know there is a general ruling class offensive that requires a general response.
While I do not in anyway believe in restricting ones perspectives to the 23% or six million organised trades unionists, you still need a strategy to relate to this organised labour movement.
I am active in my local branch of one of the smaller public sector unions. I was impressed by how the networks of fellow socialist activists nationwide (SWP, SP and non-aligned like me) were able to use what remains of the democratic structures within these smaller unions to make J30 happen. And then our town-centre lunchtime strike rallies were often able to draw in lots of people beyond the strikers, people from waged and unwaged sections of the working class in every sector, and many other individuals and groups angry about the cuts. J30 paved the way fro N30. But it felt like a far bigger machine was then stepping in to take control. Local trades councils were shouldered aside by the Unison and Unite full time machine and the TUC. But these machines did bring out vast numbers, while attempting to police the politics, trying to restrict all slogans and speeches to pensions rather than the cuts in general. And of course, then these conservative union machines lead the sell out.
I really hoped that building strike action on this scale would inspire other acts of working class resistance. Obviously I hoped that through building for N30 we could build up the grassroots networks within the workplaces and unions that could either push the union machine into escalating the action, or outflanking it to prevent the sell out. Even if we could not do this, I thought N30 might still be an important example, in that it might popularise the idea of strikes and collective action.
My point here is that there is not a simple dichotomy between those who fight within the unions and place collective demands on the union leaders - and those who favor a rank and file strategy. I hoped to build the rank and file through building J30 and N30. (I must add that the results are not stunning).
Fighting within the existing unions does not entail a belief in a left takeover of the union machine as a solution. Lots of us know that the unions are there to negotiate the terms of exploitation within capitalism and that their leaderships, cultures and structures will resist anything that grows into a challenge to capitalism. But this does not mean that we abandon a movement of six million workers, do not attempt to fight within the unions to resist the sell outs of the machine.
P.S. I agree that as well as these generalised actions, there are also important sectional actions like the sparks. And that these are sometimes more amenable to rank and file initiative. And that they may hopefully act as a conductor for wider class anger. But mentioning these should not be counterpoised to the fight within the unions for a generalised response.
Some Facebook responses to
Some Facebook responses to this article that I thought might be of interest.
Person A: "pretty ironic a so called anarchist uses's the law as a cover to hide behind in not pushing for a general strike"
Person B: "Don't agree, the struggle for Socialism needs to be rooted in your everyday life not bureaucratic channels, direct-action: http://libcom.org/news/article.php/direct-action-gets-goods-16122005"
Person C: "The POA have taken loads of illegal strikes and have not seen their assets seized. The TUC, like them or not (and we admittedly do hate them) have the power to organise action and with the slightest effort on their part can get hundreds of thousands out on the streets and millions to take strike action. THAT isn't a gesture, it's not a token, it's mass action and it puts pressure on trade union bureaucrats and the government, it keeps them on their toes. And yeah it gives confidence to the workers, absolutely, to the point where hopefully in the future we will be able to organise mass action without having to put pressure on any organisation. Then again I don't want to give any article referring to the NSSN as an SP front the time of day."
Person A: "your completely missing the point as most anarchists do i'm afraid,
its not about rooting it in winning over bureaucrats at all. its
raising the ideas amoungst the class the most advanced layers, just think last year we raised the idea on march 26th for a 24 hour public sector general strike by november the 30th it caught on and happened. consciousness changes as events unfold, dialectics my friend
Person C: "http://www.youthfightforjobs.com/wordpress/wordpress/?p=565
HA HA! Perfect timing! Yes!"