International class struggle: The need to unite the workers' struggles, and the confrontation with rank-and-file uniomism

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The more and more obvious bankruptcy of world capitalism, which is now sinking into a new recession, is beginning to alarm seriously even the most optimistic analysts of the ‘perspectives' for the economy in all countr­ies. At the same time, discontent, anger, combativity continue to mount within the work­ing class against the increasingly generalized attacks on its living conditions:

-- unemployment with less and less benefits, lasting longer, with decreasing prospects of finding a job; on the contrary, we are seeing more and more lay-offs in the name of ‘restruc­turation', ‘reconversion', ‘privatization';

-- the dismantling of the whole apparatus of social benefits, in the spheres of health, pensions, housing and education;

-- the fall in incomes through the suppression of bonuses, the increase in the working day, wage limits and freezes;

-- the deregulation of working conditions: reintroduction of weekend working, night work, ‘flexible' hours;

-- the increase in sanctions at the workplace, the reinforcement of police controls, especi­ally over immigrant workers, in the name of defending ‘security', of fighting ‘terrorism' or ‘alcoholism', etc.

On the level of the economy and the consequences for the lives of the social classes which are exploited and disinherited by this society, it is the less developed capitalist countries which show the future for the industrialized ones. Today the character­istics of the historical bankruptcy of capit­alism manifest themselves very violently in these countries (see the article on Mexico in this issue). However, these characteristics aren't limited to the ‘under-developed' areas and in the most important industrialized centers capitalism is showing the same symptoms of flagrant bankruptcy: the aggrava­tion of unemployment in Japan, the US debt now bigger than that of Brazil, plans for massive lay-offs in West Germany, to give only some of the most significant indications.

Faced with this tendency for the crisis of capitalism to unify the conditions of exploit­ation and poverty for the workers in all coun­tries, the working class has responded inter­nationally. A whole series of workers' strugg­les have developed since 1983 and have been intensified since 1986, ranging across all countries and all sectors. The present wave of struggles constitutes a level of simultaneity in the workers' response to capitalist attacks which is unprecedented in history. In the most industrialized countries of western Europe -Belgium, France, Britain, Spain, Sweden, Italy, the USA, but also in the less developed countries, especially in Latin America, in eastern Europe where there have been signs recently of a revival of class combativity, in Yugoslavia where a wave of strikes has been unfolding for several months - everywhere in the world, in all sectors of the economy, the working class has entered into the fight against the attack on its living conditions. The tendency towards movements involving more and more workers, in all industries, employed and unemployed, the tendencies towards the outbreak of spontaneous movements, towards the development of the proletariat's confidence in itself, towards the search for active solidarity, are all present, to various degrees, according to the moment and the country, in the current struggles of the workers. They express the search for unification in the working class, a unification which is the central need in today's struggles.

It is in order to parry this tendency towards unification that the bourgeoisie is using all the tactics it can find to divide and divert the means and aims of the struggle - above all on the terrain of the struggle itself through the intervention of the unions and base unionists:

-- against the extension of struggles: corporatist and regional isolation;

-- against self-organization: false extension by the unions;

-- against unified demonstrations, the use of union and corporatist division, of all kinds of tricks with the date and timing of demos.

All this is wrapped in a verbiage which becomes all the more radical as workers' distrust towards the unions is more and more transformed into open hostility, and workers' militancy results in the mobilization of large numbers of workers in assemblies and demonstrations:

"The struggles in Belgium (spring ‘86) underlined the necessity and possibility of massive and generalized movements in the advanced countries. The struggles in France (winter ‘86-‘87) have confirmed the necessity and possibility of the workers taking control of their struggles, of the self-organization of the struggle outside the unions, against them and their sabotaging maneuvers.

"These are the two inseparable aspects of the workers' combat which will be more and more present in the movement of struggles which has already begun." (IR 49, 2nd quarter, 1987).

After the railway strike in France and the telecommunications strike in Britain at the beginning of the year, the workers' struggles in Spain and Yugoslavia lasting several months, and also the recent struggles in Italy, confirm in their turn the general characteristics of the present wave of struggle. The simultaneity of struggles, and the tendency to take them in hand confronted with the strategy of the left, the extreme left and the unions, confirms the development of a potential for unification.

Spain: Union divisions against workers' unity

In Spain, above all since February, not a day has passed without strikes, assemblies, demon­strations, from the mines to the airlines, from health to steel, from shipyards to trans­port, from teaching to building. The ever-so serious paper Le Monde put it like this: "Many workers now seem to be persuaded, rightly or wrongly, that going into the street is the only way to make themselves heard." (8.5.87).

The working class is obviously ‘right' to feel the need to go into the street to look for solidarity and unity in the face of the bourgeoisie. This is true for the working class in all countries. In Spain it is a tradition, inherited in particular from the Francoist period when the police forbade striking workers to stay in the factories, to demonstrate from factory to factory and to search immediately for solidarity. This is something which already characterized the massive struggles of 1975-76 in this country.                                                 

From the beginning of the movement this year, the first attempts at unification could be seen in certain sectors of the working class: agricultural workers from the Castellon region held a number of demonstrations which brought in other workers and the unemployed; in Bilbao, workers from two factories imposed a joint demonstration against the advice of the unions, and the same thing was done in the Canaries by the port workers of Tenerife and the tobacco workers and truck drivers. However, despite these signs of a push towards active solidarity, in February-March the unions managed to contain the thrust towards extension and in particular the thrust towards extension, and in particular to isolate the movement of 20,000 Asturian miners to the north of the country: in this movement there were hardly any general assemblies or organized demonstrations. From the beginning of April it seemed that the unions would be able to stop the movement thanks to an unprecedented array of divisive tactics. Workers Commissions (the PCE union), the UGT (PSOE union), the CNT (anarchist union) and a whole plethora of professional or branch unions including base unions like the ‘Coordinadora' in the ports, went to work to divide things up into different demands, different sectors, different regions, to disperse the movement through rolling strikes, notably in the transport sector.

But while the union maneuvers managed to contain the important potential which was there, they only succeeded in stifling combativity in one place to see it reappear immediately after­wards somewhere else. Many work stoppages, short strikes and demonstrations took place outside any union directive and in many sectors there is an atmosphere of thinly buried conflict. The bourgeoisie, which can't stop the workers from going into the streets, has done all it can to ensure that they don't join up in common demonstrations and develop an active solidarity between different sectors. It has done this through the game of union divisions completed by the systematic inter­vention of the police forces when these divis­ions no longer suffice. Thus, in certain places all the workers' energies are mobilized towards almost daily confrontations: in the port of Puerto Real in Cadiz, the workers and many elements of the population have been battling with the police for weeks; in the mines of El Bierzo, near Leon in the north, while discontent has been evident since the beginning of the year since the beginning of May there have been daily clashes with the police in which the whole population has been involved. The death of a worker in Reinosa, a steel town near Santander, in some particularly violent confrontations, has once again tragically confirmed the fact that the ‘left' parties - in this instance the governing PSOE - are just as much the guard dogs of capital as those of the right. 

These confrontations with the police in small, relatively isolated industrial towns like Reinosa and Ponferrada in the north of the country, Puerto Real in the south, show the depth of the workers' discontent, of their combativity and of the tendencies to unite all categories together against the attack on living conditions, and against the intervention of the forces of order. However, these systematic confrontations often constitute a trap for the workers. All their energies are mobilized into these street battles, ritually orchestrated by the police and by those who, within the workers' ranks, reduce the question of the means and aims of the struggle to these clashes alone. In this work the unions and ‘radical' base-unionist organs have a division of labor; thus, for several weeks, the battles in Puerto Real are ‘programmed' for Tuesday at the port and Thursday in the town: It's no accident that the media in Europe are only now beginning to talk about events in Spain, and then only about the clashes with the police, whereas the workers' struggle has been developing over several months. The workers can't win in these isolated battles with the forces of order. They can only exhaust their strength to the detriment of a search for extension and solidarity outside the region, because only massive and unified struggles can face up to the state apparatus, to its police and its agents inside the working class.

The tendencies towards the unification of simultaneous struggles through the workers taking control of their own movements have not yet reached their full flowering. However, the conditions which give rise to these tendencies - frontal and massive attacks on the working class, the matur­ation of consciousness about the need to fight together - are far from exhausted, whether in Spain or in other countries.

Italy: base unionism versus the self-organization of the struggle

The tendencies towards the workers taking charge of their own struggles have manifested themselves on several occasions. In France in particular, in the railway workers' strike, at the beginning of the year, the necessity and possibility of self-organization could be seen in broad daylight. This experience has had a profound echo in the whole international working class.

In Italy today this need to organize the struggle outside the traditional union framework has been in the forefront of the movement which has been developing in several sectors: railways, airlines, hospitals, and particularly in the schools. In this last sector, the rejection of the contract accepted by the unions resulted in self-organization through base committees, first in 120 schools in Rome, then on a national scale. In the space of a few months, the movement gained a majority over the unions and organized three national assemblies - in Rome, Florence and Naples - of delegates elected by provincial coordinations. Within the movement there was a confrontation between the tendency which sought to stabilize the committees into a new union (unione Comitati di Base, Cobas, which had a majority in Rome), and the ‘assemblyist' tendency, which had a majority in the national assemblies and which clearly reflected the profound rejection of trade unionism developing throughout the working class. For the moment, this is being expressed more through a general rejection of any notion of delegation - which still leaves the door open to base unionism ‑ than through a clear consciousness of the impossibility of building new unions. But the fact that trade unionism, in order to maintain control over the movement, has been obliged to put up with the ‘base committees' is a sig­nificant expression of the workers' slow disengagement from trade unionist ideology, and of the need for the self-organization and unity of struggles that they represent.

On the railways, the movement began with a ‘self-convened' assembly in Naples which gave rise to a regional coordination, then to similar organs in other regions and a national coordination which assembled in Florence. The need for unity was expressed in the fact that, at a national railway workers' demo in Rome, a leaflet calling for a joint struggle was distributed by the non-unionist minority of the schools' base committees. In the railway workers' coordinations the weight of the left­ists was very strong right from the beginning Democrazia Proletaria (a radical left group like the PSU in France, only more important) straight away tried to fixate the attention of the movement onto the idea of fighting both inside and outside the unions, thus making the unions the main preoccupation of the movement and pushing the question of unity into the background.

The depth of this process of accumulating experience, of reflection, which has gone on over a number of years, is being expressed more and more openly: through short wildcat strikes like that of 4,000 municipal workers in Palermo, Sicily; through regroupments to discuss what has to be done, like the assembly of 120 workers from different categories in the public services, in Milan in March, which debated how to organize faced with the treason of the unions. In response to this ferment there has been a whole ‘sapping' work carried out by various leftist and base unionist groups For the first time in Italy, the Trotskyists played a role, in the teachers' movement. The libertarians have shaken off their torpor to warm up the cadaver of anarcho-syndicalism. Democrazia Proletaria has been working hard to transform the base committees, which began as proletarian organs, into base unions, and to keep control of the demonstration of 40,000 school workers in Rome at the end of May, by polarizing attention around the question of the recognition of the Cobas to ‘negotiate' with the government to the detriment of joining up with other sectors who are beginning to mobilize.

However, while the bourgeoisie, by calling up all the political forces able to contain the working class ‘at the base' has kept overall control of the situation, the present situation in Italy is an illustration of the historic weakening of the left wing of the bourgeoisie's political apparatus in the face of the working class. La Corriere della Serra, a newspaper no less ‘serious' than Le Monde, notes in an article entitled ‘Uncontrolled Malaise' that: "The crisis of the unions is not episodic, but structural ..." From its bourgeois standpoint which can only see the working class in the trade unions, it there­fore considers that: "Class interests are obsolete." But it then immediately asserts that "this doesn't mean that the unions are managing to control the spontaneous and centrifugal manifestations of those (egotistical? wildcat? rebellious?) fringes who don't intend to renounce the defense of their own interests." And this is indeed why the bourgeoisie is trying to control the movements:

-- through the trick of radicalizing the left, since traditional trade unionism is completely discredited among the most combative workers -who are becoming increasingly numerous;

-- through the attempts to discredit the most militant elements of the class by presenting them as ‘egotistical'. But stupid stories such as "the teachers are ruining the holidays of the hospital workers who aren't looking after railway workers who don't transport the bank employees" are less and less able to hide the reality of the growing mobilization.

Although Italy has seen relatively fewer open expressions of the present international wave of struggle, the movement of spring ‘87 shows that the period of fragmentation and dispersion of struggles has come to an end in this country as well. The intensification of attacks against the working class, the accumulation of distrust towards the unions, a greater confidence on the part of the workers about the possibility of action for themselves - all this will lead the class to­ward more massive and determined actions.

The development of the perspective of unification

The general characteristics of the present workers' struggles aren't just being manif­ested in the industrialized countries of Western Europe. In the less developed count­ries, like Mexico (see the communiqué in this issue) but also in the eastern bloc (see also in this issue), the working class is showing a growing combativity which con­firms the international dimension of the struggle.

In Yugoslavia as well: since February ‘87 a wave of strikes against new government measures on wages (which had already fallen by 40% in six years) swept through the country. The measure which consisted of making the workers pay back several months wage increases was the last straw. Beginning with strikes by 20,000 workers in Zagreb -industry, hospitals, schools - the strikes then spread to the province, then to the whole country, and to other sectors like the ports, the shipyards, steel and agriculture. This movement, which for three months the bourgeoisie was unable to get under control, showed all the characteristics of extension, combativity, and initiatives taken directly by the workers. And this all the more strongly because the unions there are evidently part of the state apparatus, as in all the countries of the east. Thus we saw strikes taking place outside of any union directives, collective decisions by workers to leave the official unions - which denounced the strikers as "anti-socialist", numerous assemblies where workers discussed and decided on their actions. Faced with this situation the unions have asked for greater autonomy from the govern­ment in order to regain their grip over the working class.

In all these events, the central question posed has been the unification of struggles - unity in action through the workers taking charge of their own struggles. This has been the case in Spain as it has been in Italy and Yugoslavia. And the working class has been far from passive in the other countries of Western Europe. In Belgium, the miners of Limburg, who sparked off the spring ‘86 movement which marked the beginning of a new acceleration in the current wave of struggles, entered into the fight once again. This was in a context of reviving combativity marked by short strikes in several sectors, after the relative calm which followed last year's movement. In Holland, after the Rotterdam dockers had been tied down by the union tactic of ‘surprise strikes' at the beginning of March, the municipal workers in Amsterdam launched a strike which in two days spread throughout the city. The unions had prepared the same scenario as in the port of Rotterdam, but the workers came out rapidly and spontaneously, threatening to extend the struggle to the coast and the railways and rejecting the union tactic of ‘surprise' actions. However, lacking an alternative to the unions and with the bourgeoisie quickly retreating from its plans, the workers returned to work Nevertheless, this brief movement marked a change in the social climate in the country and deepened the perspective of a development of struggles against the increasingly draconian measures being taken by the bourgeoisie. In Germany as well, in response to the plans to lay-off tens of thousands of workers, particul­arly in the Ruhr, there have been several demonstrations including one which united industrial and municipal workers. This shows that even in this country where the mobilization of the workers lags behind what's going on in other countries, there will be no lack of struggles as the effect of the world recession begins to be felt more keenly in Germany.

Struggle Committees: A general tendency towards the regroupment of combative workers

A particularly significant expression of the maturation going on in the working class is the embryonic appearance of struggle committ­ees, regrouping combative workers around the problems posed by the necessity to struggle and to prepare the struggle, outside of the traditional union structures.

In spring ‘86 in Belgium, a committee was formed in the Limburg mines and took the initiative of sending delegations to push for extension (to the Ford factory in Ghent, to rallies in Bruxelles); in Charleroi, some railway workers came together to send delegat­ions to other stations and other sectors in the region, such as urban transport; in Bruxelles a coordination of teachers (Malibran) was also formed, regrouping unionized and non-unionized teachers with the aim of "fighting divisions in the struggles". These committees, arising out of the spring ‘86 movement, finally disappeared as the movement retreated, after being gradually being emptied of their class life and taken over by the base unionists.

Such regroupments don't only appear as the fruit of an open struggle. In an open struggle they tend to regroup a larger number of partic­ipants, at other moments they regroup smaller minorities of workers. In Italy, for example, in Naples, committees of sanitation and hospital workers have existed for several months. The hospital workers group, made up of a small minority of workers, meets regularly and has intervened through leaflets and posters and by speaking up at assemblies called by the unions in favor of extension and against the proposals of the unions. It has had an import­ant echo in this sector (the unions no longer call assemblies in the hospital!) and even outside it among railway workers. Committees of this kind have also appeared in France. At the beginning of the year, the unions did all they could to involve the whole working class in the defeat of the railway workers, by organizing a dead-end extension under the auspices of the CGT - which hadn't hesitated to condemn the rail strike when it began. In the face of such sabotage, workers in gas and electricity, then in the post office, set up committees to draw the lessons of the railway workers' struggle, to make contacts between different workplaces, to prepare the next round of struggles.

Even if these experiences of struggle committees are at their beginnings, even if the committees haven't managed to keep going for long and fluctuate a lot in the wake of events, this doesn't mean that they are simply ephemeral phenomena linked to partic­ular situations. On the contrary. They are going to appear more and more because they correspond to a profound need in the working class. In the process towards unification of struggles, it is vital that the most militant workers, those who are convinced of the need for unity in the struggle, should regroup in order:

-- to defend, within the struggle, the necessity for extension and unification;

-- to show the necessity for sovereign general assemblies and for strike committees and coordinations elected and revocable by the assemblies;

-- to push forward, both within and outside moments of open struggle, the process of discussion and reflection, in order to draw the lessons of previous struggles and to prepare the struggles to come;

-- to create a focus for regroupment, open to all workers who want to take part, whatever their sector and whether or not they are unionized.

Such regroupments don't have the task of constituting themselves into political groups, defined by a platform of principles; neither are they unitary organs englobing all the workers (general assemblies of the employed and unemployed, committees elected and revocable by the assemblies). They regroup minorities of workers and are not delegations from unitary organs.

In 1985, with the relative dispersal of struggle, the growing distrust towards the unions led many workers to take a wait-and-see attitude; their disgust with the unions made them retreat into passivity. The acceleration of the class struggle in 1986 has been marked not only by more massive struggles and by a tendency for workers to take charge of their own actions, but also by more numerous attempts by the more combative workers to regroup in order to act upon the situation, The first experiences of struggle committees correspond to this dynamic: a greater determin­ation and self-confidence which is going to develop more and more in the working class and which will lead to the regroupment of workers on the terrain of the struggle, outside the union framework. And this isn't just a possibility, but an imperious necessity if the working class is going to develop the capacity to unite, against the bourgeoisie's maneuvers aimed at keeping it divided.

This is something the bourgeoisie has already understood. The main danger facing the struggle committees is trade unionism. The trade union representatives and the leftists are now themselves promoting ‘struggle committees'. By introducing to them criteria for participation, platforms, even membership cards, they are aiming to recreate a variety of trade unionism. And by maintaining them in a corporatist framework and proclaiming them as ‘representatives' of the workers, whereas they are only the emanation of those who participate in them and not of general assem­blies of workers, they again drag them back onto the terrain of trade unionism. For example, in Limburg in Belgium the Maoists managed to deform the reality of the miners' struggle committee by proclaiming it as a ‘strike committee' and thus turning it into an obstacle to the holding of general assemb­lies of all workers. In France militants of the CNT (anarcho-syndicalist) and elements coming from the PCI (Program Communiste - which has now disappeared in France) tried to recuperate the committees of postal workers and gas and electricity workers. They proposed a platform of membership "for a renewal of class unionism". Thus introducing in a ‘radical' manner the same objectives as any union. And against the principle defended by the ICC of the need to open up to any workers who wanted to participate, an element from the CNT even talked about "the danger of seeing in these committees too many ‘uncontrolled' workers"!

Despite the difficulties there are in constituting such workers' groups and keeping them alive, despite the danger of being strangled at birth by base unionism, the struggle committees are an integral part of the constitution of the proletariat into a united, autonomous class, independent from all the other classes in society. Like calling for the extension and self-organization of struggles, supporting and impulsing such committees is something which revolutionary groups must take up in an active manner. The development of struggle committees is one of the conditions for the unification of workers' struggles.

MG, 31.5.'87.

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