Workers’ groups: The experience in the UK in the 1980s (Part I)

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The 1980s was a period of important working class struggles in Britain as well as in the rest of Europe and the world. The ‘Thatcherite revolution’, capitalism’s response to the inability of Keynesian economics to deal with the economic crisis, was a means of ruthlessly culling unprofitable industrial sectors and involved a brutal assault on workers’ jobs and living conditions. The classic expression of this policy was the decision to decimate the UK mining industry, which provoked the year-long Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. This struggle was a focus for the whole working class in Britain, but although its defeat came as a bitter blow, the effects of which would make themselves felt even more strongly in the longer term, it did not bring an end to the wave of struggles in Britain. Between 1986 and 1988 there were widespread movements involving printers, BT workers, teachers, health workers, postal workers and others.

Given the historic strength of the trade unions in Britain, none of these struggles gave rise to independent forms of working class self-organisation on the scale of the movements of education workers in Italy or rail and health workers in France during the same period[1]. But even so, just as in other parts of Europe, these movements played a part in stimulating small groups of militant workers to get together outside of the union framework. As in Italy, France and elsewhere, communists often played a significant role in these groups, even if they were expressions of a wider process. But inevitably it is the communist minority – since it tends to have a more permanent existence than workers’ groups produced by the immediate struggle - which has taken on the task of preserving the memory of these experiences and drawing out their principal lessons.

What follows does not in any way claim to be a complete reconstruction of the experience of workers’ groups in the UK during the 80s. It is based mainly on articles published in World Revolution at the time, although the libcom library also contains articles written by other participants in the process and copies of bulletins and leaflets produced by these groups. Obviously we are writing it from our own political viewpoint, but we welcome further contributions, especially by others who can bring first hand knowledge from the time, in order to develop a broader discussion at a time when the formation of similar groupings is once again on the agenda.

Picket and the print strike of 1986

Coming in the wake of the defeat of the miners, the 1986 Fleet Street printers’ strike was another major test in the battle between the classes. It was provoked by the attempts of Murdoch’s News International group to introduce new technology and working practices which meant job-losses and tighter work discipline. As in the miners’ strike, when the NUM concentrated the workers’ energies on achieving a total shut-down of the mining sector rather than going directly to other workers who were also on the verge of struggle (dockers, steel workers, car workers), the print unions kept the struggle locked up in one part of the newspaper industry by insisting on the tactic of closing down NI’s Wapping plant. But whereas in the miners’ strike there was little overt criticism of the NUM by the workers involved in the strike, the effective sabotage of the strike by the print unions was rather easier to see, especially their specious argument that the strike should not be spread to the rest of Fleet Street because by allowing the other newspapers to carry on and capture NI’s sales, the blockade of Wapping would force Murdoch to his knees.

It was in this atmosphere that the unofficial strike bulletin Picket appeared. Compiled by both printers and others, it provided regular updates on the progress of the strike and ran to 43 issues, all of which can be found in the libcom library[2]. It was very quickly condemned by the union officials, prompting the ICC (WR 95, June 1986) to publish an article expressing its solidarity with the bulletin:

Picket: the need for a break with unionism

At a time when the police and the print unions are trying to ram home the isolation of militant printworkers and complete their defeat, it’s no accident that they should create a minor witch-hunt against the comrades who produce Picket, a bulletin that’s a direct product of the printers’ strike. For months the TUC, the NGA and SOGAT[3] have tried to blame violence at the Wapping demonstrations on outside agitators (ie revolutionaries, workers, the unemployed expressing their solidarity). Now they have discovered an “enemy within”.

Bill Freeman, the print unions’ ‘national picket co-ordinator’ has said he “deplored its contents” and that “steps were being taken to locate its authors and prevent its publication” (Guardian 12/5/86). With the print unions more and more in collaboration with the police, militant pickets had better watch out for repression from the unions who won’t hesitate to finger them to the cops. We solidarise with Picket against any attempts by the unions or the police to silence it.

The hostility of the union leadership to Picket is a class hostility to any attempt by the workers to break from the hegemony of the left and the trade unions. That the leftist press has totally ignored Picket is characteristic, as it is not an ‘official’ trade union organ, nor the product of a leftist sect, nor a rank and file front group.

As they say themselves, Picket is produced by “printworkers”, “SOGAT/NGA pickets” and is “not connected to any group or party”. It is a workers’ bulletin which expresses criticisms of the TUC and the print union leadership at a national and branch level. It contains descriptions of the activities of the pickets in the print strike, letters from supporters and critics, tenants in Wapping and other practical information. While this kind of information is a vital component of any strike bulletin, this emphasis is at the expense of any analysis or attempt to use the bulletin as a focus for the organisation of militant printworkers.

Picket is not a political group with political positions and an orientation for the struggle, but an expression of militants who are trying to fight back against the capitalist offensive. However, hostility to the TUC, the police, the print unions and the bosses is not enough, nor is combativity on its own. But Picket refuses to offer any slogans, “which have come to be the method of hypocrisy”. This comes from a fear of being like the unions or the left whose slogans are not hypocrisy but lies to disorientate the working class. In fact Picket do have a perspective, that “the strike will be won by picketing”. This fixation on one form of action ignores the need to extend the struggle to workers in other sectors.

They criticise the TUC for having “worked overtime to contain the strike, stop it and then sink it. They want to get control over the growing picketing movement in order to demobilise it”. But there is no criticism that could not be found in the more extreme leftist press. In the end the touchstone of a working class orientation is the push for extension and self-organisation, which inevitably means outright opposition to the whole union apparatus. Picket says “the sacked printworkers need to build on their own organising abilities to picket. It remains for ordinary pickets to take complete control of the strike”. We agree with this, but Picket undermine their position by putting self-organisation as only rank and file action against union “sell-outs”. Today the production of Picket is a thorn in the side of the union leaders, but without an attempt to go beyond being just an information sheet with militant comments, tomorrow it could well end up as just another voice for rank and file unionism. RJ (address for contact with Picket supplied).

In World Revolution 103, April 1987, with the definitive defeat of the printer’s strike we published a balance sheet of Picket’s activities:

Picket: balance sheet of a struggle group

One of the most significant expressions of the maturation of the present international wave of workers’ struggles is the appearance of small groups of militant workers organising outside the unions in order to push forward the extension and self-organisation of the struggle. With the official winding down of the printers’ strike in Britain, it is an appropriate time to draw a balance sheet of the group Picket which emerged from this struggle.

The appearance of struggle groups is intimately bound up with workers’ growing distrust for the trade unions. After the railway strikes in France, for example, a group of workers from the electricity industry produced a leaflet ‘To all electricians and gas workers, to all workers and unemployed’ in which they showed how the railworkers’ general assemblies had functioned, and how the unions kept the strike isolated in one sector.

The ICC’s section in France pushed for the formation of such groups. In particular our militants in the post office participated in a group which put out a leaflet showing “it is necessary to prepare the struggle:

- by establishing contacts and information between different centres

- by preparing the largest possible unification at the base, between unionised and non-unionised

- by proposing the most unifying demands for all workers”

Membership of the group was open to all who agreed on the main lessons of the rail strike:

 - that general assemblies take the decisions, elect the strike committees and the revocable delegates

- that it’s the general assemblies which are charged with extension to other sectors

These struggle groups are not new unions. They aren’t nor can they be the embryo of future general assemblies or strike committees.

However, such groups can play a very important role:

 - making contact and forging links between different sectors during and even before struggles;

 - drawing lessons from previous struggles;

 - defending the need for all to struggle and not to stay isolated in one sector;

 - not leaving the unions the monopoly of information.

Picket: a gain of the struggle

The group Picket formed by printworkers and others around the struggle at Wapping was an expression of the same process within the class. It was by no means as clear about the anti-working class role of the unions as the groups in France, But precisely because of the strength of trade unionism in Britain it was of considerable significance that such a group should appear outside the structure of the unions, and that so many of the printworkers involved in the struggle should look to it as a valuable source of information and encouragement to their fight.

Picket above all reflected the workers’ distrust in the official structures of the unions. In contrast to the miners’ strike, which was characterised by a loyalty to the NUM, the print strike ended with the workers expressing a strong feeling of having been ‘sold out’ by the print unions, even if this was largely put in terms of criticisms of the Dean-Dubbins leadership of SOGAT and the NGA. The pages of Picket were thus frequently given over to bitter criticisms of the print union hierarchy and the TUC and other unions for sabotaging any solidarity with the printers.

In the same way, just as the printers’ strike in its most dynamic phase contained a real push towards solidarity and unity with other workers, so Picket expressed a certain understanding of the necessity for the extension of the struggle. In one issue, for example, they recognise that a weakness of the miners’ strike was that “most activists were sucked into the fund-raising circuit”; in another they insist, in response to a letter advising the printers to rely on the leadership of the London branch representatives, that “the pickets are the leadership of the strike...Extending the strike will be done by picketing, not as you outline it. And it is necessary to link the strike to other workers. Ours in a common struggle”.

Picket’s fatal flaw

It cannot be said, however, that this call for extension was central to Picket’s activities. On the contrary, the fundamental weakness of Picket was that it never seriously challenged the printers’ illusions that their demands could be won if only they could mount a really effective blockade of News International.

Unlike the leftists, Picket did not ask the workers to put their trust in union officials even at the most ‘rank and file’ level. But publishing page after page celebrating the initiative and self-activity of the pickets was completely inadequate when that activity was caught up in dead-end strategy. In fact, it could only mean tail-ending the most radical postures of the unions.

As one unattributed letter Picket received rightly said: “the organisation and activity of the strikers has contained elements both of autonomy from the structures and processes of capital, and of dependence on them”.

This equally applies to Picket itself, which on one page could attack ‘the unions’, on another criticise only ‘the leadership’ and very uncritically advertise the activities of rank and file union bodies; which could talk about extending the struggle while at the same time tirelessly propagating all the fixations on blockading Murdoch’s publications, on the battles with the police at Wapping, on abusing scabs – all of which became part of the union trap to prevent the extension of the struggle.

The need for a balance sheet

Such ambiguities are inevitable in a grouping thrown up by the immediate struggle. They can only be overcome through a continuous process of discussion and confrontation of ideas within the class. The last words of the last known issue of Picket (no 43) seem to indicate the beginning of an attempt to draw some lessons after the set-piece confrontations at the ‘anniversary’ celebrations: “But the real cause of it all, Murdoch’s production and distribution, continued totally unhindered, certainly making more than a few pickets go away thinking that they should have a rethink of strategy”.

Unfortunately, Picket itself does not seek to stimulate any such a rethink. In the previous number, months after the struggle has been effectively defeated, and two weeks before it was officially called off, Picket continues with its usual triumphalist proclamations: “we raised the stakes” and “if NI think they can beat is , they take on not just us, but our history”. Workers can hardly draw lessons from their defeats if they can’t recognise defeat when it’s staring them in the face! In fact this blindness was conditioned by Picket’s unwillingness to raise a discussion about the real needs of the struggle.

Symptomatic of this was that Picket never called for the holding of general assemblies to discuss the aims and methods of the strike. Equally significant was Picket’s extreme reluctance to engage in discussion with proletarian political organisations – those who most unambiguously defended the necessity for the struggle to break out of the Wapping trap. It is positive that Picket reprinted articles on the print strike or on Picket itself from World Revolution, Workers Voice and Wildcat. But these were printed without comment and without any attempt to distinguish them from similar reprints of articles from the leftist press.

In a previous article on Picket (WR 95) we said that if it did not seek to provide a focus for discussing and analysing the printers’ struggle, it could end up as another voice for rank and file unionism. Picket was indeed drawn deeper and deeper into this trap. But, at the time of writing, the main danger of this inability to draw out the lessons of the struggle seems to be that Picket will simply vanish without trace – precisely at the time when the most militant workers need to reflect on the causes of the defeat at Wapping and the perspective for participating in future struggles. This need exists not only in the print, but at British Telecom, among the miners, the teachers and throughout the class. Picket itself may not be equal to the task. But its very appearance shows that the development of other workers’ groups and struggle committees is now definitely on the horizon in Britain as elsewhere.   L’A

In the second part of this article we will look at initiatives to form workers’ groups in others sectors during this period: health, post, and education.



[1]. http://en.internationalism.org/worldrevolution/201211/5287/workers-groups-experience-1980s

[2]. http://libcom.org/history/picket-bulletin-wapping-printers-strike-1986-1987. For a discussion and recollections about some of the people involved in the group, see also: http://libcom.org/forums/history/anarchistscommunists-wapping-dispute-28042006

[3]. Society of Graphical and Allied Trades and the National Graphical Association – the two main print unions at the time

 

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