Workers fight for their own side in the class war

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As soon as the “period of mourning” for the Queen came to a close, with its deafening hymns to national unity, over 500 dockers in Liverpool confirmed that they were going on strike, followed straight away by the dockers in Felixstowe who had already been out on strike in the weeks prior to the Queen’s death. Planned strikes on the railways, postponed by the unions “out of respect for the Queen”, are to go ahead, and will be accompanied by further strikes in the post, on the buses, on the underground. Other disputes, involving council refuse workers, construction workers, Amazon warehouse staff, and others rumble on. Education workers and others are also being balloted. The “summer of anger” looks like turning into a hot autumn and perhaps another “Winter of Discontent” as workers face spiralling prices and miniscule wage increases.

Meanwhile, the liberal/left wing press has denounced the Truss government’s “mini-budget”, which ostentatiously removed limits on bankers’ bonuses and offered tax cuts which will clearly benefit the very rich, as a declaration of class war by the Truss government. And that of course is correct: the ruling class is constantly at war with those it exploits, and in times of crisis above all is forced to lower the living standards of the exploited, whether it does it crudely and openly or in a more subtle, step-by-step approach.  But that’s because the class war is not some ideological deformation, a choice adopted by our rulers. It is the fundamental reality of this social system, which can only live and “grow” in the soil of the exploited labour of the majority.

And what the strikes this summer and autumn have shown is that the exploited class is taking the first steps towards fighting the class war on its own terrain and for its own needs.

Significance of the revival of class struggle in Britain

We have written elsewhere[1]about the international significance of the current struggles in Britain, as a sign that the working class has not disappeared, has not been engulfed by the accelerated disintegration of the capitalist system – and thus as a kind of appeal to the world working class to respond to the onslaught on their working and living conditions by returning to the path of struggle.

The capitalist system first took roots in Britain, and in the period of rising capitalism in the 19th century the working class in Britain was, at certain moments, in the forefront of the workers’ movement internationally. It was in Britain that the workers first formed trade unions to defend themselves against brutal levels of exploitation, and later a political party, the Chartists, which sought to put forward the independent interests of the class in parliament and society as a whole.

The unions and parties which the workers created have long since become cogs in the capitalist system, but the militant spirit of the working class did not die with them, whether we are talking about Red Clydeside in 1919, the General Strike of 1926, or, in the late 1960s and 70s, the waves of struggle which marked the emergence of the working class from the long counter-revolution which descended on the international working class from the late 1920s on.

It was to counter the militancy of the working class in Britain that the bourgeoisie, led by the Thatcher government but with the full support of the world ruling class, launched a major counter-offensive. This took its most evident form in the defeat of the year-long miner’s strike, which opened the door not only to the closure of the pits but to the dismantling of whole sectors of British industry. But dockers too suffered from important defeats in 1989 and again 1995-98.

The process of “deindustrialisation” had its economic motivations – in particular the search for higher rates of profit in the “emerging” economies – but it is no accident that it also dispersed some of the most combative sectors of the working class, not only the miners but also the workers in the shipyards, in the steel and car plants, on the docks and so on, while the new measures of “privatisation” also ensured that important sectors like the railway workers no longer faced a single state boss but several, and could thus be more easily divided.

All this was accompanied by a new ideological offensive, based around the theme that the class war was over, the class struggle was consigned to the history books. And with the collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989-91, this campaign took wings across the world, insisting even more forcefully that the working class was dead and that any idea that it could change the present system could only end in failure. The “death of communism”[2], we were told, meant the end of any hope there could be an alternative to capitalism.

The collapse of the eastern bloc marked the entry of capitalism into a new, final phase of its decadence, marked by growing fragmentation and chaos at all levels. Again, this process hit the working class in Britain with particular severity, sharpening social atomisation, feeding the rise of urban gangs, nourishing divisions between different ethnic groups, emphasising new “identities” to replace class identity and thus class solidarity. In the last decade or so all these divisions have been further exacerbated by the campaign around Brexit and the stoking of the so-called “Culture Wars” by both right and left wings of the bourgeoisie.

The working class in Britain has thus found it particularly hard to recover from the set-backs of the 1980s and the 1990s.   But today, despite this long retreat, despite all the divisions, the working class is once again raising its head, and in many cases it is the “traditionally” militant sectors, those with a long history of past battles – rail, docks, buses, post – who are providing a lead which can be followed by other sectors which may be more numerous but don’t always have the same history of class struggle: education, health, distribution, and so on. The economic crisis, and above all the surge in inflation, poses the objective need for all workers to fight together, and in doing so, to recover the sense of belonging to a class with its own independent interests and, ultimately, with its own alternative for the future of society. And while these struggles are not directly pitting themselves against the capitalist drive towards war or openly denouncing the appeals for sacrifice on behalf of the conflict between NATO and Russian imperialism, the very fact that they are taking place in the face of such appeals is evidence that the working class, above all in the central countries of the system, is not ready to sacrifice itself on the altar of capitalist war.

Union strikes and “wildcat” initiatives

Most of the strikes in the key sectors have been well controlled by the trade unions, who have carried out their role for capitalism by keeping the strikes isolated from each other (just as they did with the miners and other sectors in the 1980s), spreading them out on different days, even among workers in different parts of the transport system (rail, tube, buses…), and often restricted to one or two days of strike with notice given long in advance. But a sign of the underlying combativity of the workers is the prominent role being played by left-wing union leaders. Mick Lynch of the RMT (the main rail union) has been most in view, and he has been widely praised for his ability to answer hostile questions in media interviews. For example, he has replied to the media charge that the rail strikes were being waged on behalf of a privileged sector, insisting that his members are fighting because all workers were under attack and need to struggle together. The general secretary of the Unite union, Sharon Graham, has distanced herself from Labour’s mealy-mouthed attitude to strikes and has gone over the head of her own bureaucrats to set up “Combine Committees” bringing together union representatives from different sectors (refuse, warehouses, hospitality etc). We should not be surprised if, as the struggles continue into autumn and winter, we hear more appeals to working class unity and more common actions, demonstrations and so on. For leftist groups like the Socialist Workers’ Party this is offered as proof that the rank and file can force the leaders to fight if they put enough pressure on them, but for communists who understand that the unions have become state organs, the radicalisation of the unions obeys the need to adapt to the class movement in order to retain control over it.

We should also note that the fighting spirit of the workers has also expressed itself in unofficial actions, even wildcat strikes, in a range of different sectors. In their article Wildcat Strikes in the UK: Getting Ready for a Hot Autumn,  the Communist Workers Organisation made a (non-exhaustive) list of the following examples:

10 May: some 100 refuse collectors in Welwyn Hatfield walked out in protest against a manager accused of sexism, racism and bullying.11 May: some 300 construction workers at a refinery in Hull went on strike because of wage payments being delayed or incomplete.17 May: over a thousand offshore oil workers in the North Sea walked out across 19 rigs demanding their wages match inflation.27 July: some 100 workers at a food plant in Bury walked out in response to not being allowed proper breaks at work.3 August: hundreds of Amazon workers at various sites in Tilbury, Rugeley, Coventry, Bristol, Dartford and Coalville have staged walkouts and slowdowns in response to a pay “rise” of only 35p more per hour.10 August: hundreds of contract workers, including scaffolders and maintenance workers, at refineries, chemical plants and other facilities in Teesside, Grangemouth, Pembroke, Fife, Fawley and Drax walked out in a fight over pay, picketing motorists entering and leaving the facilities”.[3]

The CWO followed up this article by publishing the appeal of the Offshore Oil and Gas Workers Strike Committee, which explains why they are launching a “wildcat” without waiting for a union ballot[4]:

“Our unions say they haven't got the numbers currently to ballot for strike. We say that's rubbish as the whole North Sea are absolutely livid about our treatment.
The wildcat strikes that are being talked about and planned are a result of years of inaction from the unions and our employers and have made us feel like we can only get things done by taking things into our own hands.
We have went through the whole due process when it comes to raising our grievance. We used the proper channels but feel we are being led down the garden path.
The whole of the UK is up in arms about the cost of living. We are no different”[5].

This strike was denounced by the RMT, Unite and the GMB who said in a joint letter that “Our concern is that unofficial action risks everything. Some operators on the old infrastructure will use industrial unrest to justify early decommissioning and all we’ll get is more redundancies. Others will see a divided workforce and will exploit that.”

The actions at Amazon are also interesting, because the majority of workers took strike action without being part of a union at all. The “workerist” group Notes from Below have published accounts from some of the workers involved in the strikes, this one from Amazon’s “Fulfilment Centre” in Coventry:

We worked through the entire Covid pandemic, including the lockdowns. We’ve been waiting for information about this pay rise since April with everyone expecting at least £2 extra per hour. However, management announced on Wednesday that we were only going to get a 50p rise per hour.

We only planned to go on strike two hours before it actually happened. We had seen the strikes at Tilbury and Rugeley fulfilment centres on TikTok during our break time, and it inspired us to strike. We watched those videos at 11am, and started spreading the idea of a walkout through word of mouth around the warehouse. By 1pm, we had over 300 people who walked out and stopped working. At the beginning, we had no help with the strikes from any trade unions. We organised it all ourselves. However, after we walked out, GMB made some contact with us about joining the union and giving us advice”[6].

This account sheds light on a number of issues: an element in the current upsurge of class anger is the fact that numerous sectors - health, recycling, transport, distribution etc -who were told during the pandemic that their work was essential, and that they were heroes for carrying on, are now being rewarded with insulting wage increases. It also shows the capacity for workers to take strike action without any union “assistance”, as described in more detail in an account from the first Amazon wildcat[7]

But it also shows that the trade unions are always ready to step in an “organise” the workers for their own good. If it’s not an official union like the GMB (which calls itself “a union for all workers”), as in this case, then there are a number of “rank and file”, semi-syndicalist organisations like the United Voices of the World and the IWGB (The Independent Workers' Union of Great Britain) who have specialised in recruiting the more precarious sectors hitherto ignored by the main union bodies. And we should not forget that the lowest level of the official unions, shop stewards or local organisers, can also set up pseudo-independent strike committees and coordinations that are not genuine expressions of strikers’ mass meetings and seek to act as the final bulwark of the trade unions.

The unions, and the basic ideology of trade unionism, have a very long history in Britain and it will take a long time and many confrontations with union sabotage before workers are able to develop autonomous forms of organisation on a massive scale – in particular, sovereign general assemblies where workers can debate and make their decisions about the way to extend and unite their struggles. And it is also likely that the new “anti-union” measures announced by the Truss government will help to reinforce the idea that the unions really do belong to the workers and need to be defended, even though the unions have become very adept at policing and normalising previous anti-strike legislation (ballots, limits on secondary pickets, etc).

Nonetheless, we can see in some of these recent examples that the authentic class tradition of deciding actions at general meetings, of organising mass pickets and calling directly on other workplaces to join the struggle, has by no means vanished from the collective memory of the working class in Britain and still exists in embryonic form.  The present wave of strikes is an essential preparation for the struggles of the future to reach the much-needed levels of self-organisation that will enable the workers to unify their struggles.







Strike wave in Britain