How can workers defend themselves?

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How can workers defend themselves against redundancies, pay freezes, worsening conditions at work and cuts in public services? The scale of the attacks launched against the working class, both before and after the election (see "Austerity budget: the enemy steps up the class war"), make it clear that there is no option but to fight. But it takes courage to strike in the present climate of rising unemployment and victimisation by bosses and government and the level of action in Britain remains at a historically low level according to official statistics. However, recent strikes and threats of action show that there is growing anger within the working class but also that the will to struggle is developing.

This courage and will, which is the first requirement if workers are to defend themselves, is exemplified by the workers at BA who have remained united and determined in the face of all the attacks from the bosses with majorities of 80 and 90% supporting action. Tube maintenance workers in London went on strike for a day in London at the end of June, again in the face of legal threats from the bosses, and more action may follow. Last year, the workers at Visteon and Vestas showed enormous courage in taking action in the face of redundancies (see WR 324 and 327).

The need for unity across the working class

However, anger and militancy are not enough on their own. The BA strike may now be entering its final stages with a deal being put to the workers that will give the bosses the job cuts they want and the right to force new workers onto worse pay and conditions. The resistance to the victimisation of the workers, through the withdrawal of travel rights and the use of disciplinary action, which has now become the focus of the strike, is part of the struggle but was not the reason for taking action. However, the deal being put to the BA workers has worse implications than the loss of pay and harsher conditions of work since it may create a divide between workers. As we argued in the article on the strike in the last issue of World Revolution, the efforts to divide and isolate the flight attendants has been a feature of the strike. This has been a deliberate strategy of the BA bosses who have created a climate of fear so that workers are not sure who they can trust.

The old lesson that unity is strength has been bitterly learnt and re-learnt by the working class. We have seen it recently with the postal workers who have gone from wildcat strikes that created a dynamic force of unity and strength to separate days of action that dissipated their energy and undermined unity. This is not new. Some 25 years ago the miners' strike ended in defeat because the workers, for all their inspiring courage and class solidarity, struggled alone. This tells us that groups of workers, even when as large and united as the miners were, cannot succeed on their own. This is all the more true in times such as the 1980s and today when the class war is intensified by the bourgeoisie as it makes the working class pay for the crisis of its economic system. In Britain, we have seen the oil refinery construction workers wage a successful struggle by extending the struggle across sites and employers and across different nationalities, despite the nationalism expressed by some of the strikers.

Workers in the public sector face not only the prospect of 600,000 redundancies according to Treasury projections (and must fear more given the comprehensive spending review). The ‘reform' of the Civil Service Compensation Scheme will savage redundancy arragements for civil servants. Talk of the ‘gold-plated' conditions of civil service workers is countered by the Mark Serwotka of the PCS saying this compensates for pay which is on average 7% lower than in the private sector. Both sides are attempting to isolate and divide public and private sector workers when all are under attack and the only way to resist is to unite.

This effort to extend the struggle is a feature of some of today's struggles. Thus, in Spain workers at the shipyards in Vigo joined with unemployed workers (see WR 332) while in Turkey workers at the Tekel tobacco company tired to link with workers in sugar factories facing the same state-led attacks (see WR 331). Tekel workers also posed the question of the need to take control of their struggle away from the union, and since then a minority of workers have organised to discuss the lessons and how to take it forward. More recently we have seen large strikes in Greece and demonstrations in other countries against the austerity measures of the ruling class.

Workers can only unite across all the divisions imposed by capitalism if they take control of their own struggles, something we have seen workers attempt to do in several struggles. At the start of their struggle last year workers from Vestas organised themselves without any union involvement, but when the union did come in they started to isolate the workers, preventing anyone else joining the occupation. Time and again unions keep workers divided. This is not because the unions have bad leaders who sell the workers out but because unions have become part of capitalism. In the nineteenth century workers created unions to fight for their demands. From the First World War  in the early 20th century unions were recuperated into the capitalist state apparatus.

From class unity to class consciousness

Ultimately, the unity that we must strive for goes beyond industries and sectors, beyond ethnic groups and countries, to reach across the whole working class. This dynamic inevitably brings workers face to face with all of the forces that seek to divide them, both obvious enemies like the courts and the state as well as supposed allies, like the unions and the parties of the left, the ‘socialists' and ‘communists'. This requires workers to take the final step: to develop their understanding of what they are fighting against and what they are fighting for. To know who their enemies are and who are their comrades. In short, to develop their class consciousness.

Today there are a million false explanations and solutions for the economic crisis. We are told it is the fault of the bankers, the speculators, the regulators, or the government, or even to the greed of parts of the working class, such as in Greece, who are unwilling to work until they die. We are told that we just need a bit more of Keynes, or a tax on financial transactions or the renewal of manufacturing or that the cuts could be found elsewhere, such as by closing tax loopholes according to one of Unite's bosses. The same union has also been happy to help BA find the savings it wants to make - at the expense of the workers.

As we show elsewhere in this issue, the present economic crisis doesn't come from this or that part of capitalism but from its heart. Economic crisis is not some temporary aberration but the way of life of capitalism. Time after time the working class pays the cost in lives ruined and hopes crushed. The truth is we have all the resources, all the technology, all the skills and knowledge and all the people necessary for every human on earth to have all the food and drink, shelter, education and healthcare necessary to lead a meaningful life. What stands in the way of this? Profits - and the economy and society that produce these profits. As workers' struggles develop, the possibility of ending the profit-based world for one based on human solidarity gives a perspective for our struggles. With will, unity and consciousness every obstacle on the way can be overcome.  

North 09/07/10