Union control reinforces divisions

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On February 1st around half a million workers from different sectors in Britain were on strike – rail and some bus networks, civil servants, and in particular workers in education, both schools and universities. This was the biggest number of workers out on one day since the strike wave in Britain began last summer.

Responding to a growing feeling in the working class that “we are all in the same boat” and that we need to struggle together, the more militant union leaders, like Mick Lynch, echoed by their supporters in the extreme left (SWP etc), have for some time been using a more radical language, talking about the need for working class unity and solidarity and even coordinated strike action[1]. And although up till now the unions have been careful to avoid large demonstrations composed of all the different sectors involved in the current movement, on February 1st, in Bristol, a “joint rally” between the education, civil servants and rail workers attracted around 3,000 workers; in London, a much bigger demonstration, probably tens of thousands, gathered at Portland Place and marched to Westminster. Dominated by the banners of the National Education Union and the Universities and Colleges Union, there were also small contingents from the RMT and the health unions and a larger number of civil servants. And there were smaller demonstrations in a number of other cities, such as Leeds and Liverpool.

These demonstrations were very lively, with a strong presence of young workers, many of whom arrived with their homemade placards and who cheered especially loudly when new contingents of workers, from whatever sector, arrived on the scene. Such events are an occasion for workers to gain confidence from being part of a wider movement.

But as the title of the leaflet issued by our section in France put it, “It’s not enough to come out in large numbers, we have to take control of our struggles!”. In France, while the number of strikes is far lower than in Britain, the unions have been calling big demonstrations to protest against the increase in the retirement age from 62 to 64. On the most recent “day of action” perhaps 2 million were on the streets. But our comrades pointed out that in previous struggles against pension reforms, in 2010 and 2019, big demonstrations alone had not forced the government to withdraw its attacks; and the demonstrations themselves became a kind of ritual event, consisting of “coming with your colleagues, walking with your colleagues under the deafening noise of the sound systems, and leaving with your colleagues. No assembly, no debate, no real meeting. These demonstrations were reduced to the expression of a simple parade”.

Exactly the same could be said about the demonstrations in Britain on February 1st. Much of the enthusiasm was generated at the beginning of the marches, as workers gather together and recognise that they are taking part in something bigger than their own workplace or their particular sector, but once the march comes to its pre-organised conclusion, after listening passively to a few speeches by union officials, the vast majority of participants look for the nearest underground station and go home. Once again: no assembly, no debate, no real meeting.

The uses and abuses of pickets

The same process of “disempowerment” can be seen with another characteristic element of the current strike wave: the picket line. The organising of pickets at the entrance to workplaces on strike days is an elementary expression of solidarity, and it’s evident that one of the tasks of these pickets is to persuade as many colleagues as possible to join the strike. And the engagement of workers in the struggle has been shown on many occasions in recent months when scores and even hundreds of workers have turned up on the picket line, routinely ignoring the laws which formally restrict picket lines to 6 strikers.

But, like the rallies and marches organised by the unions, where workers are largely separated in their separate contingents waving their particular union flags, “official” picket lines end up accepting the most important limits to the struggles imposed by so-called “anti-union” laws, which are actually designed to prevent workers’ actions from escaping union control and which are therefore rigorously enforced by the union apparatus. Thus, calling on colleagues at your workplace who belong to a different union or no union at all not to cross the picket line, and in particular sending pickets to other workplaces and sectors and asking them to join the struggle - all this is illegal “secondary picketing” which contains the danger of a real unification of workers’ struggles. The result is that pickets under union control end up acting as boundaries separating workers from one another.

The necessity for workers to organise the struggle themselves

The leaflet from our French section also points out that, whereas the struggles against pension “reforms” in 2010 and 2019 ended in defeat, it was a different story in 2006 in the struggle against the CPE, proposed government legislation that would institutionalise job insecurity for those starting employment: “In 2006, the precarious students organised massive general assemblies in the universities, open to workers, the unemployed and the retired, they put forward a unifying slogan: the fight against casualisation and unemployment. These assemblies were the lungs of the movement, where debates were held, where decisions were made.

Result: Each weekend, the demonstrations gathered more and more sectors. Waged and retired workers joined the students, under the slogan: ‘Young lardons, old croutons, all the same salad’. The French bourgeoisie and the government, faced with this tendency to unify the movement, had no choice but to withdraw its CPE”.

What forces the ruling class to back down - even if it can no longer grant any lasting improvements to the living conditions of the working class – is the sight of a working class that is threatening to break through all the divisions between union and profession and to organise this unity through its general assemblies and elected strike committees, embryos of the future workers’ councils. And the present struggles of the working class in Britain and in other countries – even though still weighed down by corporatist ideology which sees each sector having its own disputes with employers, its own particular demands – contain the potential for this re-emergence of the working class as a real power in society, as a force for radically changing society.

This is why even the smallest gathering of workers, whether on the picket lines or at rallies and marches, who begin to question why the struggles are still so divided, who are not satisfied with the empty rhetoric of the trade unions, who pose the problem of what is the most effective way to struggle – represents an important step in the struggle, and one that revolutionaries should encourage at every opportunity.

Amos 4.2.23





February 1st strikes and demonstrations