In preparation for the recent public sector strikes three ‘Generalise the strike assemblies’ were held in London. They weren’t the only assemblies held throughout the UK at the time; similar events were held in Birmingham, Leeds, Norwich, Bristol and Sheffield. The ICC were only able to attend the second two in London. And what interesting experiences they were.
First of all, the call to generalise the strike expressed in the name shows dissatisfaction with the union proposal for a one-day protest strike, dividing workers up between those called out and those who are not, with union led marches through London and other cities. This feeling that the union action did not answer the needs of the struggle was the one thing that united the people at the meetings, however different and even opposed their views. The fact that such assemblies were held is a step forward in itself. Prior to the 26 March demonstration in London, the ICC called for meetings where those interested in not taking part in another A-B march could come together to pose some questions about alternatives. At the time, this call had very little response from within the politicised milieu.
This time, it seemed that a group of people had determined that we weren’t going to be just led around by the unions, and that what was needed was an alternative place to meet to discuss and collectively decide upon action.
It was clear from the people attending the assemblies that this is a very heterogeneous milieu:
There were unionised and non-unionised workers, as well as students, workers who were called out on strike, and others who would have had to wildcat or take a sickie if they wanted to participate.
There were members of organised political groups such as the ICC, the AF, Solfed, and members of other organisations, such as People’s Assemblies Network – as well as plenty of people not affiliated to any political group.
In the London assembly some people were warning about the strike as a pre-emptive action by the unions, whereas others were urging people to join unions as a way of fighting for jobs etc.
The political range was also reflected in the range of ideas put forward for 30 June. Should we go for some kind of a ‘spectacular’ event that would get media attention, something like blocking roads in Docklands, pulling up the railings outside Parliament, camping in Trafalgar Square, or some other kind of direct action – primarily aimed at ‘the bankers’? Or we should be focussing on the fact that this was a strike day, and so the focus should be on trying to engage with the strikers?
Other attendees focussed on more local events, putting forward the idea of making connections with pickets and also trying to bring workers on different picket lines outside different workplaces together.
Some, inspired by the assemblies held in Spain and Greece, put forward the idea of assemblies and a camp in Trafalgar Square, while others warned that the struggle cannot simply be transplanted and will need to develop here before we can do that.
The debates at both meetings were lively and organised very well. Speakers were listened to, very rarely interrupted, and a good level of patience (and humour!) was maintained.
Initiatives and proposals arose out of the discussion of the need to pose an alternative to the workers on strike and others supporting them on the day itself, including the idea of holding some kind of an ‘assembly’ at Parliament Square, as a conscious counter point to the run of the mill speeches given by the union bureaucrats.
Overall we feel this has been a positive experience. The main difficulty in these meetings was that while politicised groups and individuals ‘came together’ to discuss common work in spite of political differences, the discussion was entirely focused on action, what we could do on the day. For instance we could state opinions on the role of the unions, or on what is positive or negative in the assemblies in Spain, but these were not questions to be taken up and clarified in the discussion. This limited our ability to agree a common approach to the struggle we are all trying to support, and will often prevent it altogether.
One of the last questions posed was how do we keep this momentum going? Outside of periods of mass, open struggle it is highly difficult to maintain a consistent activity. What we can do is discuss the questions raised by this union day of action, and particularly the one that came up again and again on pickets and demonstrations – what can we learn from the experience of the 70s and 80s? – in preparation for future union demos and future workers’ struggles.
. The word ‘assembly’ has been used in a number of ways. In the movements in North Africa, Spain and Greece an assembly was the public place where people met to discuss and protest, something which developed out of the movement itself. Here, the meeting has been called by a politicised minority. In addition, the ‘assembly’ intended for Parliament Square is of the ‘public’ type – a chance for a mass of workers to come together and discuss/listen. It’s a much more broad based event than the organising meetings.