Tea Break: What went wrong with the strikes in 2007?

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Printer-friendly versionSend by emailWe are reprinting here one of the articles from the first edition of Tea Break (July 2008). Tea Break, which was distributed at the time of the recent nation-wide strike by local government workers, describes itself as "an irregular workers' bulletin of users of libcom.org encouraging workers to take regular tea breaks, talk to their workmates and unwind from the working day". It's a revised form of the Dispatch bulletin which we commented on in WR 307 (‘Dispatch: Workers' groups and the potential for wider intervention and discussion').

The article in question offers a strong analysis of the way the large-scale public sector strikes of 2007 were dispersed by the trade unions, leaving the workers with little to show after returning to work. Although sometimes focusing on the problem of ‘union leaders' and their ties to the Labour party and the government, the bulletin rejects any idea of democratising the unions, which is the stock in trade of the leftist groups like the SWP. In a separate box, the bulletin places more emphasis on the need for the struggle to be controlled by mass meetings open to all workers regardless of union membership:

"What you can do...

• Vote for industrial action where possible and encourage others to do the same.

• Visit other workers' picket lines and discuss how you can help each other.

• Make links between workers. Invite all staff at your workplace to your pay dispute meetings whether temps, permanent, members of your union or not.

• Do not cross the picket lines of any group of workers.

• If you absolutely have to work, do not cover the work of any strikers and take on-the-job action like go-slows and work-to-rules. Don't forget to take regular breaks!

• Take control of the strike. Make decisions in open workplace meetings with as many people involved as possible rather than leaving it to union full-timers"

This is a promising initiative which should be repeated in future outbreaks of the class struggle. We think however that the initiative should move towards acting as a ‘physical' collective rather than a purely online one, which tends to reinforce the impression that the group is a rather ‘confidential' effort by people already involved in running the libcom forum. A group that advocates workers coming together in open-ended meetings to decide on the orientation of the struggle cannot shy away from functioning on the same basis.

What went wrong in 2007?

Gordon Brown preaching pay restraint, union leaders talking about ‘co-ordinated strike action', sound familiar? It should, because exactly the same things were being said last year. Despite brave attempts in 2007, workers suffered another defeat, unable to assert our own interests against both our bosses and unions who did deals behind closed doors, ignored strike votes, witch-hunted their members, and dragged on consultations for months.

Just like this year, 2007 started with a 2% cap on public sector pay rises. This led to a wave of strikes which, while impressive, were stopped before many even got started. To reverse this trend, we need to learn from previous mistakes in order not to repeat them again.

Postal staff started well, with rolling strikes and a work to rule followed by wildcat strikes across the country. With the second wave of official strikes due, the CWU leadership called them off, entering ‘meaningful negotiations'. These lasted weeks and came to no firm conclusion apart from leaving strikers in Liverpool who had continued with unofficial action unpaid and out on a limb, as the CWU refused to release details of deals for fear of a massive negative reaction from its members.

There were also strikes by 200,000 civil servants, significant strikes by health and local government workers in Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham, and in the private sector by thousands of workers at Grampian Foods, Coca Cola and Heinz. So with hundreds of thousands out on strike, how did we not get the victory we needed?

First we need to look at what was promised: ‘prolonged and sustained strike action' and coordination between unions. And what we got: strikes cancelled at the slightest hint of a deal, majority votes rejected as not enough of a mandate, local union members witch-hunted by the national executive after refusing to remain neutral over the dispute.

So how do we respond to this? Certainly not by appealing to the union leadership! While the right wing press complains of Labour's close ties to the unions, they fail to mention the unions' close ties to Labour: it's a short jump from trade union leader to cushy ministerial position or fat pay check sitting in a think tank, and that's where their interests lie (since their wages go up regardless of whether ours do). Trying to replace leaders or ‘democratise' the unions is another old game that was bankrupt even when union membership was higher and more militant, it just catapults militants into the same positions and compromises they attacked moments before.

What's needed is independent activity outside these structures and that us at the bottom of the union ladder look after our interests regardless of what's said by those at the top. This means cooperation of workers across boundaries of union, sector and the public/private divide. Even small numbers of workers can have a big effect if they break out of these restrictions. By taking our breaks, leaving on time, organising go-slows, walking out in defence of victimised colleagues, in fact, taking action without waiting for people who've got no interest in our situation, except in us continuing to give them permission to take control of our struggles, we can make this year's strikes more successful than the last.