Radical Workers’ Block on anti-cuts demo: What lessons for the future?

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The first Saturday after the government’s spending review was announced, 23 October, there were a number of demonstrations against cuts up and down the country called by various unions. The number of people participating, varying from 25,000 in Edinburgh, 15,000 in Belfast to 300 in Cardiff, shows that workers here are angry, just as they are in France.

However, the trade union demonstrations provide no viable framework for struggling against cuts in jobs, pay and services, quite the reverse. That’s why we supported the call “on all anarchists and militant workers to join us in forming a ‘Radical Worker’s Bloc’ on the demonstration, not to beg the trade union bureaucrats to take action, but to argue that we fight the cuts based on the principles of solidarity, direct action, and control of our own struggles”. This came from South London Solidarity Federation (see libcom).

The problem with the approach of the unions and their supporters is that they focus on ‘Tory cuts’, putting the deficit down to the bail out of the bankers, to financial speculation – when these are nothing but symptoms of the crisis of capitalism. The cuts are just some policy choice by “a government of millionaires” (Socialist Party leaflet) when “The government could have taxed the rich” (Karen Reissman, health campaigner and Socialist Workers Party member at the rally in Manchester). They know perfectly well that the shadow chancellor, a former postman, sees the need for cuts, and that until 6 months ago a Labour government, including trade union sponsored MPs, was imposing them. The leaflets handed out at the London demo could even remind us of this – but only in order to try and draw us back into the an alternative version of the same old policies behind the unions or some alternative electoral bloc (eg the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition).

After all the radical talk of joint action at the TUC this year, the focus of its campaign about the cuts is a demonstration at the end of March next year. So the message we hear is “We should bombard the TUC and trade union leaders with demands for action now” (according to the National Shop Stewards Network), “Push trade union leaders into calling local and national strikes” (Socialist Worker online). In the first place, if we have to do all this bombarding and demanding and pushing on the TUC and trade union leaders, it does raise the question of why we need them in the first place – after all plenty of workers have gone into struggle without any union support from China and Bangladesh, to workers at Vestas on the Isle of Wight who occupied the factory without belonging to a union in the first place.

The reality is that the unions are not just useless at organising struggles; it is not just a question of their “lethargy” as the South London SolFed leaflet calls it, they actually divide us. For instance keeping BA cabin crew and BAA workers apart even when they were struggling at the same time. The London demonstration was another example of where the unions really stand. Called by the RMT, FBU and UCU, all of which have ongoing disputes, it only attracted 2,000 people, less than a tenth of the number in Edinburgh. Clearly the unions did not mobilise their members, afraid of what might happen if striking workers got together on the streets. This is how we understand Bob Crow’s call for the TUC to move quickly to organise mass action against the cuts – as a way to prevent workers taking the struggle into their own hands.

The Radical Workers’ Block attracted between 50 and 100 people according to the estimates on libcom, demonstrating that a minority in the working class is putting the unions in question, even here where they are traditionally so strong. Efforts to make its distinctive voice heard included a megaphone, leaflets and press of those on the Bloc, although this was difficult given the myriad of competing union, Trotskyist and anti-cuts groups. At the end a comrade from the ICC discussed with one from the Anarchist Federation whether the Bloc should attempt to speak, concluding it should – next time. Next time too we can learn from the example of the recent struggles in France where internationalist anarchists and left communists worked together to call meetings at the end of demonstrations where instead of listening to union speeches the real issues of the struggle were discussed. As Solfed say “We can’t put our faith in anything other than our solidarity and ability to organise.

Alex, 5/11/10.