30 years on from the 1978 lorry drivers’ strike: the same class struggle, the same attacks by the ruling class

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"Through press and parliament, television and trade union apparatus, all factions of the bourgeoisie are screaming with one voice: the lorry drivers, sewerage workers, ‘public sector' employees, Leyland car workers, dockers and dustmen are endangering the health of the ailing British economy with their strikes and militant actions...Just like the lorry drivers in Belgium and Holland, oil workers in Iran, steelworkers in Germany, miners in America and China, or the unemployed steelworkers in the North of France, the workers in Britain are an­swering the onslaught of capitalism world-wide crisis by refusing to bow before the ‘national interest', and are instead putting their own class interests first".

This sound very familiar: the resurgence of the international struggle of the working class - see our article One class, one struggle for a summary of the recent development of international struggles - along with the government calling on workers to accept sacrifices in their pay and conditions for the good of the economy. Clearly today is not the same as 30 years ago: then the economic crisis had only been developing for 10 years; now it has been ravaging capitalist society for 40 years and the working class has another 30 years of experience. However, just as the lorry drivers then refused to accept the government's call to prostrate themselves on the alter of the national economy today the Shell workers have struggled against similar calls.

As the article shows the 1978 strike was characterised by its wildcat beginnings and widespread solidarity. The Shell delivery drivers' strike did not start as a wildcat, but it has been characterised by expressions of solidarity from drivers in other companies, including what would appear a fairly widespread response by drivers in several delivery firms in Scotland faced with the disciplining of 11 drivers who refused to cross picket lines.

On Monday 16th June the BBC Website reported that: "Tanker drivers from different companies have ended their protest outside the Grangemouth fuel depot on the final day of a four-day walkout by Shell drivers.

The action came after 11 drivers employed by Scottish Fuels were reportedly suspended for refusing to cross the picket line". No more details were given but it is clear that the potential for an escalation of the strike influenced the unions' and bosses' decision to put an early end to the struggle.

Today the media and politicians hold up the Winter of Discontent as a threat to the workers: 'your strikes in the 70's led to Thatcher's savage attacks'. But for the working class we have to take inspiration from these struggles and the workers' refusal to accept the capitalist logic that they should bear the brunt of the crisis. As the last 30 years have clearly demonstrated at the cost of millions of jobs and deteriorating living and working conditions, if we accept sacrifices today the capitalist state will be back demanding even more tomorrow. We have no choice but to struggle to defend our living and working conditions

Phil (July 2008)


THE LORRY DRIVERS' STRIKE

Through press and parliament, television and trade union apparatus, all factions of the bourgeoisie are screaming with one voice: the lorry drivers, sewerage workers, ‘public sector' employees, Leyland car workers, dockers and dustmen are endangering the health of the ailing British economy with their strikes and militant actions.

It's true!

Just like the lorry drivers in Belgium and Holland, oil workers in Iran, steelworkers in Germany, miners in America and China, or the unemployed steelworkers in the North of France, the workers in Britain are an­swering the onslaught of capitalism1s world-wide crisis by refusing to bow before the ‘national interest', and are instead putting their own class interests first.

We salute these 'wreckers' of the capitalist system!

The crisis is not of our making and it won't go away if we stop struggling. It's not the working class which stands to benefit from the division of the world into arbitrary nation states, which viciously compete for an ever-shrinking slice of the world market: a competition which inevitably leads to even greater recession, depression and finally world war, like those wars of 1914 and 1939. The increasing rivalry between capitalist nation states and the misery it brings to the sick and elderly, to the vast majority of society, can only take place at the expense of the proletariat. It's workers' wages and living standards which are depressed in order that countries can make their commodities cheaper and their war machines more effective. So when workers refuse to accept austerity and instead strike for their own demands, when they weaken the ability of nation states to wage competition and war, they offer a way out of the barbarism into which the ruling class has plunged humanity over the past six decades.

Through our struggles we learn that workers, in fact, collectively produce the world's wealth and objectively control its produc­tion and distribution. The strike by 35,000 lorry drivers demonstrated the power we have to bring the capitalist state to its knees and the potential power and ability we have to replace this rotten system with our own re-organisation of the world to the benefit of all. But through our struggles, we also learn that this will be a long and arduous process, fraught with many traps and pitfalls. The lorry drivers' strike demonstrated this as well.

TGWU vs THE LORRY DRIVERS

We can see exactly who our enemies are when the Tories and the CBI bay for our blood, when the army breaks our strikes (as it did the firemens1 and the tanker drivers in Northern Ireland). But the Labour Government didn't call a State of Emergency when faced by the defiant lorry drivers. Is this because it is a workers' government? No! Callaghan said it quite openly: why call in the army and make us fight even harder when the trade unions could break the strike more effectively? When the trade unions can ensure--against the wishes of the workers--that the state continues to get its essential supplies; when the trade unions limit our effective picketing, apologise for our strikes, stop them spreading, and falsify our demands.

The lorry drivers didn't wait for official union 'permission' to defend their living standards when faced with what was in effect a wage-cutting offer from the bosses, but swept out on unofficial strike which, through their militancy and class solidarity, quickly spread throughout the entire country. Their determination to use their class strength was reflected in the militant use of mass, flying pickets which ensured that the strike was effective, and in their calls to other sectors of the class such as the dockers to support the struggle. The pickets spread not merely to lorry-haulage firms, but to ports, factories were supplies were normally delivered and even, in some cases, to entire towns, which were ringed by determined workers. Yet while many strikers recognised the need to organise their own actions, free from the dictates of the union bosses, and oblivious to the hysterical reaction from the state's press, they didn't recognise that this apparatus extended directly into their ranks via the shop stewards-vital cogs in the state machine.

At first the union bureaucrats ignored the strike, hoping it would soon peter out with­out strike pay, and left it to the shop stewards to keep a tight reign on things. And sure enough, everywhere the pickets went there was a shop steward insisting that he should control the strike, that the workers' action had no effectiveness unless it was kept within the trade union cage. So the first thing that went by the board was the drivers' ability to control their strike, to ignore the divisions between 'private' drivers, state drivers, 'hire and reward' drivers, and between drivers and other sectors of the working class. The second thing that went out the window was the demand for less working hours. "Not realistic" said the stewards, reminding drivers to keep within the bounds of what the state considered permissible, to consider the state's needs and not their own. But this was just the start.

When it became clear to the bourgeoisie that merely limiting, containing and controlling the strike was not enough-that it had to be sabotaged and ended-the stewards called for the strike to be made official. That is, they demanded the help of the rest of the state to crush the strike, despite the fact that many drivers recognised they were better off 'on their own', and opposed this move. Transport and General Workers Union boss,

Moss Evans, laid it on the line when he said the strike was being made official in order to control, and then end it, as quickly as possible. So that the state should function smoothly, so that the strike should be in­effective, the stewards and full-time officials worked hand-in-glove. They devised and imposed 'rules1 about who should picket and where. Along with the rest of the state, they said workers should only picket firms "directly involved11 and thus helped invent the concept of "secondary pickets11 which were outside the law. Who ever heard about 'secondary1 pickets before this strike? But along with the rest of the bourgeoisie, the unions went along with--and were at the head of-this attempt to control one of the workers1 most effective weapons.

Then the stewards and officials joined hands with the government directly, in the so-called Emergency Committees, to draw up a list of supplies and goods that could by-pass the pickets and prevent the country grinding to a halt. From No.10 Downing Street, to the local stewards, a direct link was forged with the sole aim of rendering the strike useless and defending the national interest. To add insult to injury, lorry drivers were invited to participate in the 'enforcement1 of these supply codes-the destruction of their own strike--in the name of workers' democracy and participation in the struggle, demands so beloved by the Trotskyists and other Left apologists of capital. Again many drivers fought against these attacks, tearing-up union-signed 'dispensations', and refusing to let the goods go through. Finally, the stewards broke the unity of the strike by negotiating with each local region separately, setting drivers who had 'won' a settlement against those who hadn't, and sowing immense confusion about the aims and future of the strike.

THE NEED FOR WORKERS' AUTONOMY

The lessons are clear. The unions and Labour Government worked together--just as they did to impose the social contract--in order to defuse and defeat the strike as quickly as possible. It was the drivers' militancy and class initiative that forced the Govern­ment to give ground on the wage claim- driving another nail in the coffin of the 5%-while the unions worked against the strike right from the start. That's why the Labour Party won't heed Margaret Thatcher's stupid calls to curb the power of the unions. For Labour knows that strong unions are essential for controlling the working class.

The mass, permanent organs of struggle (the unions) that workers fought to build last century when capital could afford to give real reforms have in this period of crisis become fetters, barriers to the advancement of workers. As the crisis becomes deeper, the unions have even less chance to hide the fact. In the 1974 miners' strike, stew­ards could put themselves forward as the most militant workers, the highest flying pickets, in order to gain control over the angry workers and to lead them back to the promised land of a Labour Government, and the austerity of the social contract. But today, Labour is already in power and has once again demonstrated its anti-working class nature. With the economy even worse off, stewards must act even more to halt our struggles; they can afford to show us even less of the leash.

The unions divide the class and ensure that our anger is spent, not fighting collectively, but by allowing the Ford workers, the Vauxhall workers, the bakery workers, health service workers, steelmen and miners to take on the state one-by-one. This is a recipe for defeat and demoralisation. Meanwhile, the whole bourgeoisie, from right to left, screams at us that unions are our organisa­tions-that steward-controlled committees which function to save the national capital are in fact workers' Soviets. These are lies!

Workers Soviets or councils, regrouping workers irrespective of trade or pay, private or public sector, cannot grow out of organs of the bourgeois state, like the trade unions. They are the form which workers will use to clarify how best to struggle against the state, and they are the means--the real power in the land-to enforce this struggle.

Such organs will only grow out of struggles which are controlled and spread by workers themselves, with elected and revocable delegates responsible to the mass of workers, not to the unions and the state. The lorry drivers' strike shows not just the possibi­lity of such autonomous struggles, but the real pressing need for them.

KT (Winter 1978)