Standing on the picket line

During the election campaign that saw Labour sweep to power in 1997, Tony Blair boasted that his government “would leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world.” And so it did, not only maintaining the anti-strike laws implemented by Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit but adding to them. Aside from the other arguments that this adds weight to – such as the need for the organised working class to end all loyalties to the Labour Party – this point demonstrates the need for a strategy of re-empowering worker militancy.

There is an organisation known as the United Campaign for the Repeal of Anti-Trade Union Laws, which has been trying to challenge restrictions through law and policy changes. The core of their argument is that Britain’s laws are in violation of the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which the country has signed up to. Thus, there are legitimate grounds to “demand our human rights and freedoms for the 21st century.” It cites the United Nations’ view that “the common law approach [in UK law] recognising only the freedom to strike, and the concept that strike action constitutes a fundamental breach of contract justifying dismissal, is not consistent with protection of the right to strike.”

The limitation to this approach is that, aside from anything else, it has failed to yield gains. The Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill fell in parliament, and all that this sought to do was “reduc[e] regulatory burdens on trade unions in relation to the balloting and notice requirements for lawful industrial action.” The much broader Trade Union Freedom Bill, which still “does not go as far as the international laws ratified by the UK” fell during a Labour government and stands no chance whatsoever during a Conservative one.

Britain has the strictest anti-strike laws in the west, often reducing official picket lines to a handful of people and reducing the effectiveness of industrial action

This, once again, highlights what the Solidarity Federation call the “paradox of reformism;”

The reason that reason gets us nowhere is that politics is not based on good arguments but on power relations. Democracies institutionalise power struggles to a certain extent, since it’s rather disruptive to have periodic coups and civil wars every time there needs to be a change of government. But only certain interests are institutionalised. Here’s a clue: they’re not ours.

If we want to win, we need to recognise that being right doesn’t cut it. It’s a matter of power. A case in point: it is true that the British welfare state was founded at a time when the national finances were in a far worse state. But it’s worth looking at what the ruling class were saying when the welfare state was founded. For the avoidance of any doubt, let’s hear from a Tory: “We must give them reforms or they will give us revolution”, said Quintin Hogg in 1943. When the ruling class feared the working class, a welfare state was a price worth paying. Now they don’t fear us, they feel confident to dismantle it. So the paradox is without the threat of revolution, reformism is a non-starter. On the other hand, with an unruly mob on the streets and a strike-prone workforce, those reasoned reformists all of a sudden look like workable negotiation partners to whoever’s in government. They’ll no doubt claim it was their ‘responsible’ protests which got them there.

It’s all about the balance of class forces. It’s primarily a power struggle, not a moral argument.

Thus, if we want to defeat the anti-strike laws there is a very simple answer. We need to break them. To make the laws unenforceable is to render them obsolete.

The threat of leadership

Of course, things aren’t quite that simple on the ground. From the position we are in at present, there is a lot of work to be done to ensure that we can put the theory into practice.

Thatcher and Blair didn’t just implement the most restrictive trade union laws in the western world. They brought about a significant culture shift which has played just as much a part in diminishing the strength of the organised working class by eroding class consciousness. I examined this point more fully here, as well as the ways we can challenge it. But, thanks to Cameron’s all-out assault in the name of austerity, class is back at the top of the agenda and half of our work has been done for us.

This isn’t to encourage complacency, of course. The fact that class consciousness is rising in struggle, particularly amongst the young, is a reason to redouble our efforts in agitating for a militant, direct action strategy in the fight against the cuts and capitalism.

But as consciousness increases, we also need to be aware of – and to challenge – illusions in official leadership and hierarchies. This goes for the Labour Party, of course, and for the numerous other sects which style themselves as our vanguards and revolutionary leadership. But, in the particular arena of industrial disputes, we need to be particularly wary of the influence and intent of the trade union leadership.

As Anton Pannekoek wrote, the leaders and bureaucrats of the union movement “sit in conferences with the capitalists, bargaining over wages and hours, pitting interests against interests, just as the opposing interests of the capitalist corporations are weighed one against another.” This is how “they learn to understand the capitalist’s position just as well as the worker’s position” and so take it upon themselves “to regulate class conflicts and to secure industrial peace.”

Though portrayed as enemies or rivals, trade union leaders and bosses end up collaborating to quell industrial unrest to the detriment of workers

Writing previously on the limits of trade unionism, I cited the Communication Workers’ Union as one example of the contradiction between member militancy and leadership sell-out. But there are others, not the least of which was the conduct of the Trades Union Congress during the battles against Thatcher.

As an article for Australia’s Green Left describes it;

In 1980, the steel strike was the first national strike against the Tories. The steelworkers went for a 17% pay increase (the inflation rate was 20%) and fought to protect jobs. British Steel offered 2%, and proposed plant closures and 52,000 redundancies.

The steelworkers fought hard. Huge pickets were mounted at some sites, like Hadfield’s in Sheffield, and flying pickets were organised against private sector steel users.

After a 13-week battle, the workers won a 19% wage increase (including 5% for productivity trade-offs), but thousands of jobs were lost. It was a victory for the government. The main reason for the partial defeat was the isolation of the steelworkers.

Following this, the Tories moved to beef up anti-union laws by outlawing solidarity strikes and picketing. The TUC’s response was to call a national day of action, in which 250,000 people marched in 130 cities. But there was no follow-up action and the anti-union legislation was passed.

By October 1981, the Tories were on the nose. The Social Democratic Party-Liberal Alliance was scoring 59% in opinion polls. The Tories announced new anti-worker legislation, which included outlawing unions from engaging in political action, allowing employers to sack and selectively redeploy workers, and sequestrating unions’ assets if they broke industrial laws.

The union tops failed to call for strike action. Instead, they adopted a position of “non-cooperation” with the act. If a union was attacked, the TUC promised to support it.

In the first major test of the Tory’s legislation, railway workers launched an all-out strike to stop trade-offs in working conditions. The strike was solid and picket lines were respected.

The TUC called a general council meeting, ordered the workers back to work and warned that if the strikers did not obey, the rail union would be suspended from the TUC. The union was forced to accept defeat and go back to work.

The TUC “non-cooperation” with the act turned into a cynical betrayal. The rationale was that the strike must end to get Labour re-elected.

… The next major industrial stoush was in the printing industry, between the National Graphical Association and Eddie Shah, the owner of the Stockport Messenger.

Shah won an injunction to have the union remove a picket line but the union refused. The union was fined £150,000 for contempt of court. The picket line at Warrington was attacked by 3000 riot police. The cops broke the line, chased people into neighbouring fields and beat them up.

A further fine of £375,000 was imposed and the union’s assets were sequestrated. The union called a 24-hour strike and went to the TUC for support, citing its pledge to defend any union under attack.

The TUC decided not to support the printers — a move warmly welcomed by Thatcher. Thornett’s describes the TUC’s decision as a “total collapse in front of the anti-union laws without a shot being fired — a defining moment in the history of the British trade union movement.”

Thatcher now knew that she could pick off each union one by one. The coalminers were next in line, followed by Murdoch’s attack on the newspaper printers.

This was nothing new, only the TUC and trade union leaders accepting their “capitalistic task of securing industrial peace – now at the cost of the workers.” As such, forging independence from the leaders and hierarchies of trade unionism is vital for working class militancy against the bosses to flourish.

Mass assemblies and strike committees

As opposed to bureaucrats voting behind closed doors to end action for their political interests, regardless of the effect upon those in struggle, workers need to be making decisions for themselves as a collective.

Tom Mann, the syndicalist leader of the Liverpool Transport Strike committee, addresses a mass assembly of workers

The main vehicle for that is the mass assembly. Workers build confidence in their own strength through collective action, and an integral part of that is the ability to make decisions for ourselves. Thus, rather than limiting the input of the workforce to a statutory ballot, after which union leaders and executive committees decide the timing and the form of action, assemblies of all workers involved in a given dispute allows for this open debate and decision-making. It makes it easier to organise pickets, plan solidarity and fund-raising actions, and generally maintain the strength of an action.

Where mass assemblies are not practical, for example in disputes and actions spread across a broad geographical area or involving a number of sites, an elected strike committee is the next best option. Such a committee should be composed not of representatives imbued with the power to make decisions for their constituents, but of delegates with strict mandates who are accountable to those who elected them and instantly revocable.

In establishing such a committee, those taking action are able to coordinate their activities efficiently and respond to issues rapidly whilst still making sure that it is ordinary workers who are calling the shots, beyond the reach of the demobilising forces of trade union bureaucracy. This also, again, reinforces the idea that workers are able to take action of their own accord, as a class, and helps to build the confidence and consciousness required not only for significantly larger actions such as a general strike but also to reinforce how things will look in the event of a radical re-organisation of society in workers’ interests.

An instructive example of the former is the Seattle General Strike of 1919. This saw the entire city shut down whilst a general strike committee comprising three delegates from each striking local effectively ran the city and ensured that vital services were maintained.

Fundraising

In the workers’ movement, solidarity isn’t just a word. It is a weapon. It is the basic principle behind working class people combining to defend their collective interests and reciprocally supporting each other’s struggles.

A picket line of the CNT-AIT, the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union

In practical terms, it can take many forms; from joining and supporting the picket line of another workforce to donating money to those who have withdrawn their labour. The latter is particularly important if we want to build a culture of industrial action that is independent of union bosses, because the availability or refusal of strike funds is one way in which they are able to demobilise people and turn action on or off as they see fit. Hence the importance of locally controlled strike funds.

Such monies do not, obviously, spring up out of nowhere. By bringing the control of funds back to the grassroots, so we also bring them the responsibility for raising them. There are a number of ways to do this. Self-organised groups, such as Liverpool Antifascists, use benefit nights and gigs to raise money. As they put it, “these events not only serve to raise money … but to lay down links in communities and raise awareness of the … cause.” Thus, not only do such actions raise cash, they also forge the community links and sense of comradeship that is equally vital to maintaining struggles.

In particular, this is a good way of drawing those outside of the affected workplaces into the action, and they can be encouraged to contribute to the fight not only financially but by turning up at pickets or demonstrations as well.

Practical solidarity and mass picketing

Not all disputes follow the same pattern. As such, there is no single formula that can be prescribed to guarantee success. However, as a general principle, building practical support and solidarity is integral to any potential victory. Particularly, as in Britain, if you are standing up in defiance of restrictive laws. The broader the base of support for an action, the harder it is for the bosses or politicians to make workers suffer any backlash.

One of the most recent examples of this is the Lindsey Oil Refinery dispute of 2009. When workers at the plant took part in a wildcat strike against the use of cheap labour and the threat of layoffs, they were sacked. The bosses were well within their legal rights to do this, as the law grants protective rights only to those who engage in official action on the back of a statutory ballot. However, what they weren’t banking on was the anger that this would provoke across the industry. It sparked wildcat walk-outs across the country in solidarity with the sacked workers and, though the Unite union stepped in to negotiate an end to the unrest, it was this unofficial solidarity which saw the wildcats’ jobs reinstated.

On a smaller scale, during a protest outside Liverpool Town Hall as the City Council set its budget implementing service and job cuts, police found themselves powerless to do anything when protesters blocked the road and refused to move. The Public Order Act makes obstruction of a public highway unlawful, and gives the police the power to move on assemblies of more than 20 people, but due to the sheer volume of people and their determination to make a stand, it was as though the act simply didn’t exist.

This point is particularly important when considering one of the most effective tactics in deterring strike breakers – the mass picket. According to the code of practice on picketing (PDF), such picketing is unlawful on the same basis that all public assemblies of more than 20 people are. The code of practice cites concerns that such “may well result in a breach of the peace or other criminal offences” and warns that “anyone seeking to demonstrate support for those in dispute should keep well away from any picket line.” However, as innumerable examples of non-violent direct action demonstrate, an action being unlawful doesn’t matter in the slightest if there are sufficient numbers and practical solidarity to make it effective.

The 2010 firefighters' dispute in London was characterised by mass pickets and militant blockades

The 2010 London fire disputes are an excellent case in point. During the strikes inspired by attacks on pay and conditions, near enough every firefighter who was on strike was on the picket line, supported by public demonstrations of around 200 people. This enabled them to stage blockades of scab fire engines in order to keep those brought in to undermine the action from doing their jobs effectively.

Going beyond the unlawful to the illegal, there is no reason that the same principles cannot apply. We know, for example, that the government is putting contingency plans in place to deal with mass strike action, drafting in scabs from unorganised workforces and off the employment lines. In terms of practical solidarity, one important response to this will be following the example set during recent postal disputes and getting the argument out to such potential strike breakers for stable, secure employment over scab jobs. However, as I’ve argued previously, the fact that six people can put a munitions factory out of action and then be acquited of all charges on the back of a significant support campaign and the sympathy of the jury suggests that those who sabotage, occupy, or blockade scab firms needn’t become martyrs in doing so.

Such things cannot be condoned by trade union leaders. Not only do they defy their established role as the managers of industrial peace, but the legal and financial implications for any union supporting such action automatically takes it off the cards. However, rank-and-file self-organisation has the specific advantage of there being no figurehead to single out, no corporate entity to penalise.

There are innumerable other actions that can be taken, to strengthen a picket line, raise money for those on strike, or demonstrate practical solidarity. Where there isn’t a full withdrawal of labour as in a strike, there are still plenty of creative forms of direct action workers can utilise. The point is that, under the control of the workers taking part in them and built on a broad foundation of militancy and solidarity, there are few limits to what can be achieved.

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  1. […] It’s all about the balance of class forces. It’s primarily a power struggle, not a moral argument. [via Phil Dickens at Property is Theft]. […]



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