Workers’ groups: the experience of the 1980s

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In the last issue of World Revolution we republished one of the ICC’s first attempts to draw a balance sheet of our experience with groups of militant workers, responding to the need for independent class struggle, that came out of the struggles of the 1970s[1]. In this issue, we look at examples of this phenomenon in the 1980s.

The period 1983-88 saw a wave of international workers’ struggles in response to the very severe attacks being mounted on living standards, often under the leadership of right wing teams like the one headed by Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the US. This was the period of the miners’ and printers’ strikes in the UK, quite massive strike movements in Belgium and Denmark, and militant struggles in a whole series of other countries: Spain, Holland, Yugoslavia, Brazil, South Africa.... In 1986 and 87 workers in Europe took some important steps towards self-organisation: in France, railway workers launched a very determined strike against the advice of the unions and took charge of the struggle through general assemblies and coordinations. In Italy, education workers and again railway workers formed base committees to keep their strikes and the extension of their movement in their own hands. 

Alongside these developments, smaller groups of militant workers again began trying to get together to fight against union sabotage and call for the self-organisation of struggles. International Review 50 (third quarter of 1987) published an editorial on the development of workers struggles and devoted a section of the article to the reappearance of struggle committees within these movements:

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 Brussels); in Charleroi, some railway workers came together to send delegat­ions to other stations and other sectors in the region, such as urban transport; in Brussels 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 union, in favour 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 manoeuvres 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 (Programme 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[2].

Members of the ICC were involved with groups of this kind in a number of countries. In a future WR we will look at our experience in the UK, but perhaps the most important episodes as far as our own militants were concerned were in France. In Révolution Internationale 154, published in March 1987, we published a general article on the struggle committees that had emerged in the wake of the railway workers’ strike, and a leaflet produced by one of these committees. We reproduce both of them here. 

Struggle committees - Preparing the struggles to come

Despite all the attention, hopes, sympathy and enthusiasm shown by workers towards the railway workers’ strike, a certain feeling of anger, bitterness and powerlessness emerged at the end of the strike. Anger and powerlessness when the railway workers went back defeated. Anger and powerlessness about not having come out on strike when it was most needed, at the beginning: “we missed our chance, we should have been out with them, all together”.

To a large extent this feeling was the product of the counter-offensive of the bourgeoisie against the struggles which began in January. Once the danger of extension to other sectors had passed, once the railway workers had got bogged down in a sectional dead-end, in ‘blocking the trains’ and so on, all the bourgeois forces got to work.  The objective was to try to turn the failure of the railway workers into a rout for the whole working class. On the one hand, the government hardened its tone against the strikers and against...the CGT[3], which had actually been rejected by the strikers; on the other hand, the unions called for a ‘tough, unlimited strike’ in other sectors when they had been against the rail strike from the start.

This is a real trap for the workers. A false alternative: either follow the CGT and the other unions in isolated strikes with no perspective, into defeat; or else do nothing and take the risk of making it seem that we are accepting the government’s austerity policies.

Don’t remain passive about union manoeuvres

The two prongs of this trap did not completely ensnare the workers. Yes, the SNCF (national rail) workers were defeated. And with them, the whole working class. However, the near universal refusal, especially in the public sector, to follow the CGT did not allow the union to transform the failure into a rout. Neither the workers in EDF (electricity), RATP (bus and metro), and still less the PTT (post office), to mention only the most militant sectors, have been exhausted, demoralised, or disoriented by a long, tiring, isolated strike which is what the unions were calling for.

So the trap didn’t shut completely because the workers didn’t follow the unions, but neither did they all do nothing. In the assemblies, where there was a strong participation, in the workshops, the post offices, the EDF agencies, the bus and metro depots etc, there were many discussions: “now, it’s too late, we should have done something at the beginning, like the railway workers. Now it’s not the moment, especially not with the CGT! We can’t let the CGT and the others get away with their usual manoeuvres!”

Group together!

There were several responses to this situation. One of them, in this atmosphere of mobilisation and discussion, was the regroupment of workers in struggle committees. We saw this among workers in different EDF agencies in the south of Paris, whose leaflet we publish below. Similar groups were set up, or tried to form themselves, in the Paris sorting offices and among the van drivers. These groups, which refused to allow the unions to monopolise things, had the aim:

- of establishing links between different workplaces

- of drawing a balance sheet of the railway workers’ strike

- of preparing the struggles to come.

For our part, as revolutionaries, despite the return to work at the SNCF, RATP and PTT, we pushed for the formation of such committees. Our militants working in the post office took part in the formation of the struggle committee which called itself ‘Postiers en colere’ (Angry postal workers) and in the distribution of its leaflet:

“....we have decided to form a struggle committee. This is not a new trade union but has on the contrary been decided by those at the base. We don’t want to leave the monopoly of information to the unions, nor the choice of the moment to call for a struggle. We’ve had enough of manoeuvres and lies! We need to prepare the struggle:

- by setting up contacts and information between the different offices

- by preparing for the widest possible unity at the base, unionised and non-unionised

- by proposing the most unifying demands for all workers: 700 francs for everyone; against job-cuts and unemployment. Despite what we are told, unemployment is also hitting postal workers, at least indirectly by jobs being suppressed and the freeze on transfers”

The leaflet ends with a call to join the committee, addressed to all those who agree with the lessons of the railway workers strike:

- it’s the general assemblies which take the decisions, which nominate their strike committees and revocable delegates;

- it’s the general assemblies which formulate the demands and, when necessary, negotiate by coordinating their efforts;

- it’s the general assemblies which take charge of extension towards other sectors.

The two committees, the one in the EDF and the one in the post, made contact with each other and held two meetings with the aim of creating an inter-category struggle committee. About 15 workers took part in these meetings. Unfortunately the ability to mobilise for a real activity fell away very quickly. At the second meeting, those present decided to stop the PTT committee for the moment given its lack of echo, to verify the real level of mobilisation among the EDF comrades and to maintain contacts with a view to future struggles. That’s where we are today. We encourage readers to let us know about any similar experiences they may know about. 

Committees to prepare the struggle

However limited these experiences were, the emergence of struggle committees is likely to take place again in the near future.

This is because they correspond to a necessity that is felt more and more among workers, to regroup and organise themselves with the aim of preparing the struggle and not give a free hand to the unions, to break their monopoly on information. To oppose their efforts to sabotage and isolate the struggle. To defend the need for general assemblies to organise the extension and unification of workers’ struggles.

They also correspond to a possibility: the railway workers’ strike has awakened the consciousness of many workers. This awakening is bound to be expressed in the preparation and unfolding of the coming struggles.

These committees are not new trade unions, even if they do face this danger. But this means their death. They are not and cannot be embryos of future general assemblies or strike committees which have to be elected by the assemblies. Such strike committees cannot survive outside of an actual strike.

On the other hand, the struggle committees we are talking about here can play a very important role:

- developing contacts and links between different sectors and categories, during and even before the struggle;

- drawing lessons from previous struggles, being a place for discussion;

- being places where workers from different sectors, or the unemployed, can get together

- faced with the unions, being instruments that can propagate the lessons of strikes like that of the railway workers, that can defend the need for every struggle to break out of the prison of isolation and spread;

- to organise themselves to carry out that task, intervening with leaflets, speaking out in strikes and assemblies, not only in their own sector, but in others’ as well.

This is the main focus of our intervention in the various committees which appeared during and after the railway workers’ strike, and this is how we intend to intervene in the committees which we are sure will re-appear in future struggles – and, we are sure, quite soon. 

RL 21.2.87

 

Leaflet by a struggle committee

To all the electricity and gas workers

To all workers and unemployed

We are a group of workers from combined energy agencies in the southern suburb of Paris. We have decided to coordinate and get together in a STRUGGLE COMMITTEE to defend our interests by ourselves.

We applauded the struggle of the railway workers in December 86, and their ability to extend the struggle nationally despite the opposition of the trade unions. At the beginning of this strike, as with the EDF strike in Paris at the end of ’86, it was non-unionised workers who were at the origin of the strike.

The way the rail workers controlled their struggle has made it clear that we need

-            to function on the basis of general assemblies

-            elected and revocable strike committees

-            elected delegates to coordinate different depots

BUT THE RAILWAY WORKERS WERE ISOLATED BY SECTIONALISM

Like workers from other sectors, we electricity and gas workers were not able to come out on strike at the same time as the railway workers or establish direct contacts with them. Neither did the rail workers understand the urgent need to right from the beginning send massive delegations to find us.

When the isolation in the SNCF sector was obvious, in January, the trade unions – with the CGT at the forefront – started talking about extension. But this was a dead-end kind of extension. We saw this at Montrouge, Massy, Sceuax, Bourg la Reine, etc. We had every reason to go on strike like the railway workers because we are subjected to the same attacks by the government and we are seeing our spending power diminishing more and more while the burdens of the job get heavier. And what have the unions done about this?

They have kept us cooped up in our agencies.

They advised us against contacting our comrades on strike in the RATP or the SNCF or other sectors.

They manoeuvred to stop us looking for solidarity outside or seriously informing the population.

They organised power cuts at any given moment, without consulting us, which had the effect of setting workers in the private sector against us, and to make a laughing stock of the power cuts that were necessary to show that we are on strike (but could be less brutal and not at hours when other workers are going to work)...

Their full timers, as usual, told lies at one agency to the next, making a parody of consultation, and then pushing us to come out on strike at precisely the moment when the railway workers’ strike was being defeated.

These specialists in top-down strikes also got us wasting our time guarding the centre at Bagneux against fictional attacks by extreme right wing shopkeepers, all in order to distract us from any real EXTENSION to other sectors carried out and controlled by ourselves.

When we asked for an account of what they’d been doing at our general assemblies, they arrogantly informed us that they had gained 200 new CGT membership cards. This is not what we went on strike for! It’s a mockery, especially when you consider that there has been no small number of membership cards given back or torn up!

WE HAVE TO CIRCULATE INFORMATION ABOUT WHAT’S HAPPENING:

Just as at the SNCF the unions pushed workers into dead-end days of action, in 86, they tried to lead us into a week of inaction. But in several agencies many of us didn’t go along with this or obey our union leaders or seconds in command; others, with tears of rage in their eyes, stopped taking part in this new push-button strike aimed at buffing up the image of the unions.

At Montrouge however, the strike was ended collectively with a will not to allow ourselves to get demoralised, and several of us tore up our union cards or are going to do it.

At Vanves, a majority refused to let themselves be manipulated, not out of passivity but because they don’t want to come out on strike in any old way on the orders of people who want to decide things for us: here the CGT violated the decision of the general assembly by quietly calling its members to come out on a two hour strike! This is division in action!

DON’T LET OURSELVES GET PENNED IN LIKE SHEEP!

Many of us have lost several days pay for nothing but a bitter taste of defeat. But despite all the union intrigues, we mustn’t get discouraged.

Whether you’re in a union or not, we call on you to join us to prepare for the coming struggle. Here is the truth: the government and the unions are each playing their role in attacking us and preventing us from achieving UNITY, which is the only guarantee of our strength.

The more we stay mobilised and grouped together, the more we will hold onto the lessons of the SNCF and the false extension by the unions at the beginning of 87. We have had enough of union manoeuvres. LET’S PREPARE THE STRUGGLE TOGETHER.

For the next struggle, let’s establish direct contacts at the EDF and with other sectors:

-            CIRCULATE AND CHECK THE INFORMATION ABOUT STRUGGLES IN DIFFERENT AGENCIES, DIFFERENT CENTRES AND IN OTHER SECTORS

-            PREPARE THE GREATEST POSSIBLE UNITY BETWEEN UNIONISED AND NON-UNIONISED, without having any illusions in the Intersyndicales[4]

-            MAKE SURE WE FUNCTION THROUGH GENERAL ASSEMBLIES, ELECTED STRIKE COMMITTEES, AND ELECTED AND REVOCABLE DELGATES TO THE COORDINATIONS

-            TAKE CHARGE OURSELVES OF EXTENSION TO OTHER SECTORS

-            GENERAL ASSEMBLIES AND COMMITTEES SHOULD BE OPEN TO ALL OTHER WORKERS AND UNEMPLOYED WHO WANT TO FIGHT WITH US

FOR ONCE, LET’S DO SOMETHING CONCRETE! LET’S GET TOGETHER! LET’S UNITE!

 

20 January 1987.

Struggle Committee



[1]. http://en.internationalism.org/worldrevolution/201209/5113/organisation-proletariat-outside-periods-open-struggle-workers-groups-nu

 

[2].  International class struggle: The need to unite the workers’ struggles, and the confrontation with rank-and-file unionism http://en.internationalism.org/node/2998

 

[3]. The main union confederation, controlled by the Communist Party

 

[4] joint union committees

 

See also :