Lessons from the Strike Wave

The wave of strikes which erupted in Britain in June last year have mostly ended in defeat overseen by the unions. Trade union membership continues to decline and it’s easy to see why. Although consecutive governments have attacked the rights of workers to organise, to strike and to picket, the unions have proven themselves both unwilling and unable to fight against this legislation, enforcing it instead, going above and beyond to keep struggles within legal boundaries that make any wider resistance impossible. Nor have they fought against the unprecedented 18 years of declining real wages, which the TUC itself calculates has been the worst since the Napoleonic wars! We will look at two of the many examples of unions sabotaging workers' struggles.

Union Sabotage

In the April the UCU ballot of lecturers 85.6% voted to strike. Despite this there were no strike days called by the union between March and September. Instead the UCU leadership decided to go with a Marking and Assessment Boycott, with only a handful of local strikes against punitive pay deductions for those joining the boycott. Out of the 80,000 strong membership of the UCU in HE, only a part are actually involved in marking, and therefore could participate in the boycott. With the UCU not being on strike these workers just had to support the action from the side-lines. This is while workers in the boycott faced pay deductions that would often be 50% of their wages, but at certain universities, such as Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Winchester, it was as high as 100%. The boycott ended up being mostly ineffective, largely due to the huge amount of scabbing, with unqualified people marking students work, as well as universities handing out provisional results or certificates, to allow students to graduate on time. When the UCU announced the end of the boycott in September, workers were simply assigned a gargantuan amount of work to mark, with tight deadlines and no extra resources. Any workers who refused to mark to the deadline were at risk of losing their jobs. The UCU then went on to announce five days of strike action nationally, to start in September coinciding with the influx of new students. But as the proposed strike got closer they wrote to all their branches giving them the option of calling off the strike at their universities, effectively letting branches break their own strike. This led to a situation where instead of 140 universities going on strike, only 42 walked out – less than a third. This splitting up of a national strike into a handful of isolated strikes is nothing more than sabotage by the leadership of the UCU. Even a blind man could see that the UCU was not trying to win this struggle.

It’s elementary that strikes are more effective when the struggle is spread across all layers of the workplace. During the recent government attempt to cut teachers’ pay, the National Education Union (NEU) attempted to recruit support staff, such as teaching assistants and administrative staff to join the fight. The majority of these support staff are not in any union and the NEU balloted 57,000 of them for strike action. The response from GMB, Unite and UNISON, the unions who have historically organised support staff in schools, was to put forward a complaint to the TUC! The TUC and the unions have carved up much of the economy, with different unions claiming different parts of it as “theirs.” The TUC sets up these deals, and imposes sanctions on unions that break them, even if, as in this case, the unions aren’t actively organising this section of workers. The TUC upheld this complaint imposing a fine of £153,952 on the NEU, even while its members were involved in a national strike. This fine has to be paid to GMB, Unite and UNISON. The actions of these three unions and the TUC sabotaged an attempt at a unified struggle. This clearly shows the different interests of rank-and-file workers and the union bureaucracy, who have no interest in workers uniting and fighting to win better pay and conditions. They only care about keeping their own positions in their respective sectors.

Instead of organising an effective struggle that could force the bosses to accept the demands of workers, unions do what they can to weaken the struggle, organising as few strike days as they can get away with, cancelling them whenever possible. The unions are more than happy as long as they can keep control of the struggle and in doing so, keep their position as permanent negotiators in the sale of labour-power. They are a vital cog in the machinery which keeps capitalism functioning. They are embedded in the structure of capitalism and the result is that they support capitalism and respond to and support the needs of the system. When profitability of capital requires wage cuts, worse conditions and sabotage of effective struggle this is what they fight to achieve, as the examples we quote clearly show.

Working Class Self-Organisation

You may ask, well what is the solution? The only solution to unions being unable and unwilling to fight for a better life for workers, is for workers to take the struggle into our own hands. Workers need to form their own strike committees which can coordinate and unify the struggle on a wider scale. As self-organised bodies, these are controlled by all the workers involved (whether in unions or not), and unlike union structures, don’t have to play by the bosses’ rules to keep a permanent position under capitalism. The wildcat strike on North Sea oil rigs last autumn was a positive example of how we can take the struggle forward. Workers formed their own strike committee, taking two waves of strike action across 19 platforms, after years of heir own unions refusing to even ballot them. Despite the unions (Unite, RMT, GMB) sending a threatening letter claiming wildcat action would never achieve anything, echoing the threats of the gas barons to shut down platforms, these workers put so much pressure on the North Sea bosses that they were forced to respond. A new collective bargaining agreement was announced in December, with Unite claiming credit, while the workers who actually took action were disciplined! This struggle didn't manage to link up with workers beyond the North Sea, which could have allowed it to raise bigger and more political demands – but, in a sea of union-controlled strikes, their efforts show how workers can self-organise.

Any successful fightback will have to unite workers not only in their own workplaces but across industries and ultimately across national borders, as a global working class with the same interests and conditions. But as long as capitalism exists, any concessions won will only be temporary. Unions will never support the abolition of wage labour or the struggle for communist society and no change in leadership will change that. The only thing that can truly end the horror of capitalism is the overthrow of the capitalist class and the creation of a new society, based on production for human need. Resisting the attacks on our standard of living, taking our struggles into our own hands beyond the union framework, is the first step in the struggles to come.

The above article is taken from the current edition (No. 65) of Aurora, bulletin of the Communist Workers’ Organisation.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Aurora (en)

Aurora is the broadsheet of the ICT for the interventions amongst the working class. It is published and distributed in several countries and languages. So far it has been distributed in UK, France, Italy, Canada, USA, Colombia.