Faced with the global economic crisis, struggling behind the unions leads to defeat

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There is no evidence for an economic recovery in the UK.

In a few days at the end of June a range of High Street names showed what effect the continuing crisis is having. Thorntons is closing 120 and maybe up to 180 shops. Carpetright is closing 94 stores. Jane Norman is shutting 33 shops. TJHughes is looking at going into administration. Habitat is going into administration and closing most of its shops. Clinton Cards is to be restructured. Lloyds TSB is cutting another 15,000 jobs, making more than 40,000 since 2009. Inflation is running at 4.5% (5.2% on the higher RPI measure), there’s a public sector pay freeze, the state pension age is rising. Council workers in Southampton, Shropshire and Neath Port Talbot have faced the ‘choice’ of pay cuts or job losses.

And it’s not just here in Britain. While no-one can be unaware of the draconian austerity plans in Greece and mass unemployment in Spain, the working class faces the same worsening conditions in economic giants such as Germany where real household incomes have fallen over the last 10 years. No section of the working class is spared.

So how do we respond to this situation? Specifically, how does the working class respond faced with not just inflation but also declining real wages, the threat of job losses, working harder and longer when in work?

After the public sector protest strikes on 30 June can we draw any lessons about how to struggle, or how not to struggle? 750,000 teachers and civil servants from 4 unions, NUT, UCU, ATL and PCS, on strike, 30,000 marching through London, many of them on strike for the first time in their lives. Following on from the student struggles against increased fees last winter and the demonstration of half a million on 26 March we can see there is real discontent in the working class. When you hear Dave Prentis saying that the disputes on pensions are the “biggest since the general strike” it sounds impressive – until you realise that Unison, the union he runs, was not striking and so was instructing its members to cross picket lines. The unions are dividing us.

We reject the idea that we fight among ourselves over the declining resources the ruling class is willing to spend to maintain the working class (pay, pensions, benefits, education, health). For instance, the division between public and private sector workers, the question about whether private sector employees should pay more tax to maintain public sector pensions. Unions do not reject this notion, they negotiate about it. They have already accepted a move away from final salary pensions for new civil service entrants. We cannot allow our struggles to be reduced to a walk-on part to support union negotiation or they will be able to impose anything they like.

We reject the notion that we should campaign to get rid of this particular LibCon government – whoever is in office will impose the cuts because that is the logic of capitalism in crisis, as the Labour government was doing until May last year.

Developing a sense of being part of the working class

While the unions were in overall control of the strikes and demonstrations on 30 June, workers were trying to understand and draw lessons from the experience. On the picket lines and demonstrations they were discussing. Those on strike for the first time were gaining experience, those who remembered the strikes of the 1970s and 1980s were remembering what a picket line means. On the one hand it is a real effort to persuade other workers to join the strike, on the other it is a source of strength and solidarity for the workers taking part. All made extremely difficult when the law and the unions enforce token picket lines of no more than 6 people.

At the same time strikers and their supporters were drawing inspiration from the struggles going on elsewhere in the world. However distorted the media reporting, workers remember the struggles about pension reform in France last year, which became a focus for discontent about all the attacks, and have been particularly inspired by the struggles in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain and Greece. At rallies any mention of these struggles got a cheer. The fact is that when workers go into struggle they recognise other struggles on the other side of the world as their own.

In this we see, in embryo, in small scale discussions by a minority on picket lines and demonstrations, two of the most important strengths of the working class – its history and its internationalism.

The lessons of both the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s and the international struggles going on today tell us about the need for the unity of the working class. For instance when we look back at the most important struggles in the 1980s we see that some of the strongest sectors of the working class of the time, with widespread sympathy here and abroad, such as the miners and then the printers at Wapping, were defeated. This was not for lack of militancy and determination, but because they allowed their struggle to be confined within the bounds of their industry, their union, and its demands.

Where workers have been able to extend their struggles across different sectors they have been immensely powerful. In Poland in 1980 price rises were withdrawn and the government fell. In France in 2006 the threat that workers would support the students struggling against the CPE not only made the French government withdraw the measure but the German government withdrew similar legislation. The struggles going on internationally with the holding of assemblies show the importance of discussion among workers, including the unemployed and future workers, all meeting together.

Discussion of the lessons of past struggles here and abroad is the best preparation we can make for future struggles as the present round of austerity measures begins to bite.  

Alex 2/7/11