Signs of the struggle to come
The class struggle is gradually developing. In some struggles there have been encouraging expressions of solidarity. In other struggles explicitly political questions have been raised around issues such as pensions. This has been taking place internationally, since a turning point in the class struggle in 2003. This came after a decade and a half of relative quiet in the working class, marked by disorientation and the campaign over the ‘end of communism’ after the collapse of the eastern bloc.
But some critics think we’re fooling ourselves, that we’re clutching at straws in a period in which the working class, at least in Britain and the industrialised countries of Europe and North America, is simply not responding to the attacks on it. After all, in the last few years statistics have shown very few strikes in Britain, and in 2005 we saw the fewest ‘working days lost’ since records began.
The scale of strikes is certainly important, and the working class will have to develop massive struggles, but it is not the only aspect we have to analyse. At the present time we are not at that level, and there are vital qualitative developments we need to understand and respond to.
The international context
The class struggle can only to be understood internationally. For instance, the UNISON strike at the end of March took place at the same time as the student struggle against the CPE in France and important strikes in the public and engineering sectors in Germany. This already makes it part of a more significant international expression of the working class than a similar UNISON strike four years ago.
We first became aware of a change in the mood within the working class through a greater interest in the positions of the communist left among a tiny minority of young people. This was confirmed in 2003 when there were large strikes over the issue of pensions in both France and Austria. This is an issue that poses the question of what future capitalism has in store for us, and one faced by workers in many countries and has continued to be an important concern in many struggles since then, including the UNISON strike last March.
The development of solidarity
The question of solidarity is central to the development of the class struggle today, and some strikes have arisen specifically as acts of solidarity. The most famous was the Heathrow strike in August last year when baggage handlers struck in solidarity with Gate Gourmet catering workers who were all sacked. Several features make this strike stand out. First of all, it took place only a few weeks after the London bombings, in the face of a huge campaign against terrorism. Secondly, it cut across the ‘ethnicity’ division that the ruling class are so keen on pushing, with mainly white male baggage handlers expressing solidarity with mainly Asian women workers. And it was an illegal solidarity strike taking place in the face of opposition from government, media and unions.
These aspects have been seen in other strikes since. For instance in February 50 power workers in Cottam went on strike in support of Hungarian workers paid only half as much for the same work. During the UNISON strike in March there were also important expressions of solidarity: in the Midlands where Polish agency workers in the street cleaning department struck in solidarity with their permanent colleagues. When they were sacked, the permanent workers struck to win their jobs back. There was also a solidarity strike by teachers in a London college in solidarity with their colleagues during the UNISON strike.
Postal workers in Belfast also expressed their solidarity as workers across the sectarian divide. 800 workers struck against fines, and increased workloads before mobilising against the victimisation of two workers, one from a ‘Catholic’, the other from a ‘Protestant’ office. They marched together up the Shankill Road and down the Falls Road, across the sectarian divide and against the opposition of the CWU.
The central question of solidarity that we have seen in struggles here is an expression of something we are seeing around the world today: the New York transit strike at the end of 2005 was defending the rights of new workers who would be hired in the future. In the struggles in France against the CPE not only did the students go to the young unemployed in the suburbs but also there was a real possibility that employed workers would come out in solidarity, which is why the government caved in with important concessions to their demands.
The role of the unions
In May 3,000 car workers walked out at Ellesmere Port against the threat of redundancy, a few days before 900 job losses were announced. This, along with the other examples of class struggle, shows an increased militancy in the working class, particularly when we remember just how difficult it is to struggle against lay offs. Like several of the struggles we have seen in the last year or so, at Heathrow, Belfast, and Cottam, it was a wildcat. Workers were not prepared to wait for union instructions and approval. In fact unions tried to calm things down, as well as directly opposing strikes. However, that is not the whole story. The unions in Britain are very experienced, very good at playing their role for the ruling class, they know just how to limit and contain the class struggle, while making all the right noises. After the Ellesmere Port walk out, Roger Maddison of Amicus spoke of how difficult it is to struggle against redundancies. After opposing the solidarity strike at Heathrow Tony Woodley of the TGWU called for legalisation of solidarity strikes – subject to all the union ballots and delaying tactics to limit its effectiveness – in other words for it to be brought under control.
The fact that struggles are developing outside the unions, even in the face of union criticism, does not mean that they are finished. They will have an important role to play in the coming period, sometimes openly opposing struggles, but more often to lead them into a dead end.
The working class is facing attacks that are harder to hide: growing unemployment; massive redundancies in the NHS; further erosion of pensions; many young workers starting out with huge debts from student loans. At the same time there is greater willingness to struggle, to express class solidarity, and there is a new generation of young workers coming into struggle, questioning the future that capitalism has to offer. This can only lead to a greater sense of identity within the working class, a sense of belonging to a class with its own interests. The perspective that’s opening up is toward a greater involvement of workers, towards more massive struggles increasingly unified against the capitalist class. Alex, 28.11.06