The workers' struggle in 1985: Balance-sheet and perspectives

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A year particularly difficult combats, confronting a more and more skilful, but also more and more frightened bourgeoisie. The perspective for these combats: their unification, through a long process of experienced and confrontation

As always at the beginning of a new year, the ruling class has drawn up a ‘social balance sheet' of the previous year. To hear them, they all agree on one point: 1985 has been marked by a generalized retreat in the workers' struggle.

Page after page is filled with statistics showing the fall in the number of strikes, and the number of ‘strike days lost'. Then they explain: in these times of crisis, the workers have at last understood that their interests are not in contradiction to those of the companies that employ them. And so they refrain from striking, the better to defend their jobs.

Far from sharpening class antagonisms, the econ­omic crisis is supposed to have reduced them. The crisis is supposed to have demonstrated the truth of the old song that the exploiters sing to the exploited when business is bad: ‘we're all in the same boat'.                          

Even the majority of the groups within the prol­etarian political movement line up behind the analysis of a retreat in the class struggle. To all intents and purposes, only the ICC develops the opposite vision, recognizing an international recovery in the class struggle since the end of 1983. This recovery (the third following the waves of 1968-74 and 1978-80) is worldwide: obvious in the under-developed countries, it also appears clearly in the devel­oped countries - especially in Western Europe - as long as we consider the reality of the class struggle, and place it within its historical and international dynamic.

Paradoxically, the bourgeoisie, with all its governments and its political apparatus (parties and trade unions) is well aware of the situation, and is constantly developing and deploying a whole arsenal of political, economic and ideol­ogical weapons to ward off, to confront the proletariat's combativity. The bourgeoisie reveals in practice its fear of the working class threat,         while the revolutionary groups indulge in pitiful lamentations because their class' movement is not faster, more spectacular, or more immediately revolutionary.


In this article, we intend:                                               

1) To demonstrate that the reality of the class struggle in 1985 totally disproves this idea that the world proletariat is passively submitting to the demands of capitalism in crisis;

2) To draw out the resulting perspectives for the proletariat's worldwide combat.

How to look at the facts

A few preliminary remarks are absolutely necessary before drawing up a chronology of workers' struggles throughout the world during 1985.

Generally speaking, it is true that in the West European countries the official statistics reveal a low level of strikes and strike days lost during 1985, compared to those reached at the end of the ‘60s or during the ‘70s. But this is not enough to determine the direction of the dynamic of the workers' struggle ... still less to con­clude that the workers are rallying to the necessities of the capitalist economic logic.

Firstly, strike statistics (inasmuch as they are not faked by governments always anxious to demon­strate their ability to maintain ‘social peace') are generally swollen by long strikes, confined to a single sector (like the British miners' strike). Now one of the major characteristics of the evolution of workers' struggle in recent years, strongly confirmed in 1985, is the ten­dency to abandon this kind of action - which is a trade union specialty - whose uselessness is appearing more and more clearly- to European workers.

As we will see, the short, explosive kind of struggle, usually unofficial at first, and quickly trying to spread, such as the strikes in Belgium during October or the Paris metro strike in December I985, is much more significant and characteristic of the coming period, and appears very little (or not at all) in the official strike statistics.

From this standpoint, the low statistics of the number of strike days does not mechanically express a retreat in the working class' struggle, but rather a maturation in its consciousness.

Secondly, going on strike in 1985 is not at all the same thing as going on strike in 1970. The threat of unemployment hanging over every worker like the sword of Damocles on the one hand, the combined action of all the forces of the bourge­oisie - with the unions in the forefront - to prevent any mobilization of the class on the other, means that in the mid-‘80s, it is much ­more difficult for the workers to launch themselves into struggle than during the ‘70s or at the end of the ‘60s.

A quantitative comparison, that puts a ‘strike day' today on the same level as one a decade ago, completely ignores the gravity of the historical evolution of the last 15 years. In this sense, we can say that a strike in the mid-‘80s is more significant than a strike in the ‘60s or ‘70s.

Thirdly, no strike statistics can take account of another crucial aspect of workers' actions in our epoch: the struggle of the unemployed. Even at its first steps, the beginnings of the organization of unemployed committees in Germany, Italy, Britain and France represent an important element - and one that is completely ignored by the statistics - of workers' combativity today.

1985: The world working class refuses to bow the knee to the logic of capital in crisis

The ruling class may dream that the crisis will push the workers to adopt the logic of capitalist profitability. But throughout the world, reality daily disproves its lying propaganda. 

Taking account of the forgoing remarks on the significance of today's workers' struggles in the most developed countries, a rapid survey, month by month, of the major struggles that have marked the year 1985 is enough to reduce to ridicule such assertions.                                                     

Obviously, the list that follows cannot claim to include all the important struggles of the year. The bourgeoisie has a conscious and systematic policy of blacking out all the news concerning the workers' struggles. This is already true within one country: it is all the more true at   an international level. Therefore, for example, we cannot cite examples from the so-called ‘communist' countries, even though we know the working class is fighting there, as it is in the West. 

Even if January was marked by the decline of the British miners' strike, already in February when it was drawing to a close, a new wave of workers' struggles was beginning in Spain, and was to last until March, hitting, amongst others, shipyards, the car industry (especially Ford-Valencia), the Barcelona postal workers (a spontaneous struggle which remained for a long time under the sole control of the strikers' assembly), and the farm laborers of the Levant region.   

The month of April began with the explosion of workers' struggles in Denmark - another ‘paradise of Scandanavian socialism' - with a general strike mobilizing more than half a million workers. During the same month, in Latin America, in the country of the ‘Brazilian miracle' and in the midst of its ‘transition to democracy', 400,000 went out on strike and paralyzed the very modern suburbs of Sao Paulo, the major industrial concentration on the American sub-continent (despite the appeals of the new unions, the workers refused to call a halt to the struggle at the death of the new ‘democratic' president).                                                                   

The month of May witnessed the outbreak of the first large-scale struggles of the South African miners.                         

The month of June began with the strike of 14,000 New York hotel workers who themselves organized the extension of the struggle with mass flying pickets. The myth of the USA as a country reduced to the muscle-bound social peace of Ronald Reagan was once again disproved. Still during June, and once again in response to government austerity measures, strikes proliferated in Columbia, to the point where, on the 20th, the unions were forced to organize a general strike.                                                                

The month of July began with the outbreak, in the USA, of the Wheeling Pittsburg engineering workers' strike: the steel industry is hard-hit in the US. Their struggle - in one of the major industrial regions of the world's most powerful country - was to last until October.

In Britain, where strikes had been breaking out continuously ever since the end of the miners' strike, a large and unofficial strike began on the railways and spread rapidly; in Wales, railwaymen's strike pickets broke down trade barriers to help the pickets from a striking steel works. In France, the largest shipyards in the country went out on strike, and twice, in Lille and Dunkirk, the workers broke out of union control to confront the police for several hours. In Israel, still during July, workers reacted immediately to the ‘socialist' Peres government's announcement of a whole series of austerity measures (price rises of up to 100%, wage cuts between 12% and 40%, 10,000 government workers laid off): the union (tied to the ruling party) had to organize a 24 hour general strike (followed by 90% of the working population). But when the moment came to go back, whole sectors stayed out, while the union bosses talked of "a real risk of things getting out of control".

During August, in ‘socialist' Yugoslavia, a stream of austerity measures unleashed a wave of strikes that hit several regions: the most important strikes mobilized the miners and the dock workers.

In the month of September, particularly draconian austerity measures (food prices multiplied by 10, bread prices by 4, household gas by 20, at the same time as a 4-month wage freeze for all state employees) were announced in Bolivia, one of the world's poorest countries, but with a rich tradition of class struggle, especially in the mining industry, provoking a generalized reaction from the workers. The COB (principal union) called for a 48-hour general strike, the widely followed. The movement was violently repressed. The workers immediately prolonged the general strike for another 16 days. In France, at the end of September, an unofficial strike broke out on the railways - the biggest since the end of the ‘60s. It spread rapidly, forcing the government to withdraw - temporarily the new measures of control that had provoked the movement.

In October, in Belgium, strikes break out in the post office, the railways, the Brussels underground, the Limburg mines, which all go through the same stages: starting unofficially, rapidly spreading to other workers in the same sector, followed by a temporary ‘withdrawal' by the government, for fear of further extension. At the same time, Holland is hit by a similar wave of strikes affecting essentially the firemen, lorry drivers, and various branches in the port of Rotterdam.

On the 6th of November, just as the Limburg miners were going back to work, in Greece 100,000 state and private sector workers came out on strike against the ‘socialist' government's austerity measures. During the same month, Brazil was once again hit by a wave of strikes (500,000 workers). In Argentina, where the new ‘democratic' government imposed, in 1985, wage cuts of up to 45%, a period of agitation and workers' struggles began, which had to continue until January ‘86. Still in November, Sweden ‑ another socialist ‘paradise' - went through the largest strike wave since the end of the ‘60s: slaughter-house workers in the north, locomotive repairmen throughout the country, industrial cleaners at Borlange and above all the strike of the child-minders, who organized their struggle themselves throughout the country, against the state and the unions, culminating on November 23rd with a simultaneous demonstration in 150 different towns. In one demonstration, the workers chanted: "The support of the unions is our death." In Japan, well-known for its lack of workers' struggles, a strike breaks out against the threat of massive lay-offs on the railways. The month of December - to close this brief survey of 1985 - is marked by renewed struggles in Spain: the hospital and health services in Barcelona; in the Asturian mines (against an unprecedented upsurge in industrial accidents); the region of Vigo in Galicia, but above all Bilbao, are hit by strikes in various sectors - once again in the shipyards, but also among; the unemployed taken on by the town council. In France, the Paris metro drivers walk out after disciplinary measures were taken against several of their comrades, and paralyzed the capital in a few hours. In Lebanon, torn apart by wars between rival factions of the local bourgeoisie and by international antagonisms, a 100% price rise provoked a general strike, and calls from workers from the Muslim sector to those of the Christian sector, saying: "famine doesn't recognize political colors; it hits everybody except the ruling minority".


We have intentionally presented this glimpse of the major movements of the workers struggles ‘in bulk', simply according to their chronological order.

Whatever the differences between the proletarian combats in the peripheries and those of the cen­tral countries, they are all elements of one and the same struggle, one and the same response to the same attack of world capital in crisis. It was first of all necessary to demonstrate clearly the worldwide aspect of workers' resistance to disprove the absurd idea that the economic crisis has calmed down the class struggle. It is necessary to point out this unity, the better to bring out, taking the differences between the workers' struggles as a starting point, their global dynamic.

The differences between the workers' struggles in the central industrialized nations and in the periphery

An overall look at the workers' struggles throughout the world today highlights the fact that, whereas in the under-developed countries they tend rapidly to assume a unified form, even if this is still behind union leadership, in the industrialized countries, the struggles have tended to be less massive at the end of the year than at the beginning: after movements like those of the British miners or the workers in Denmark, today we are witnessing a multitude of shorter, more explosive, more simultaneous, but also more isolated struggles.

This is essentially due to different degrees of economic development, and to the different strategies adopted by the ruling class according to the socio-political conditions confronting it.                     

In all the under-developed countries, whose economy is totally bankrupt, the ‘austerity' measures that capital is forced to take against the workers are inevitably far more massive, direct, and violent. Capital has no economic room for maneuver. Sky-high price rises on basic consumer goods, real wage cuts of 30% to 40%, immediate and massive redundancies such as those in Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil during 1985, are attacks that hit all workers immediately and simultaneously.

This creates the basis for large-scale movements very quickly capable of bringing together millions of workers.

Generally, the local bourgeoisie has no other means of confronting such movements than to use the most vicious and merciless repression. A repression that is made possible by the local Proletariat's numerical and historical weakness, and by the ruling class' ability to recruit its forces of repression amongst a vast mass of the population, jobless and marginalised for generations.

But such methods are increasingly inadequate, and run the risk of a total social destabilization (as we have seen in Bolivia, where this time, repression only exacerbated the workers' struggle). This is why today we are witness­ing a sham ‘democratization' of regimes in under-developed countries, often under the pressure of the imperialist powers (eg the pressure applied by the US and its European allies on the governments of South Africa, Latin America, Haiti, the Philippines) whose sole aim is to create union and political apparatuses capable of controlling the workers' struggles (far more dangerous than the hunger riots that have become chronic in some of these countries) and lead them into a nationalist dead-end.

These new control apparatuses benefit from the strength they draw from the workers' lack of experience in bourgeois ‘democracy' in these countries, and their illusions in them - at least at first - after years of civilian or military dictatorship.

In the developed countries, and especially in Western Europe, the situation is very different. On the economic level, the bourgeoisie still has room for maneuver - even though the system's crisis is reducing it day by day - which allows the ruling class to spread out and plan its attacks in order to avoid taking measures that hit violently and immediately too many workers at once. Its attacks are increasingly heavy and massive, but it works to disperse their effects, so that they appear to each sector of the working class as a particular, specific attack. At this level, if we compare 1984 to 1985, we can see clearly that this is a conscious policy on the bourgeoisie's part.

The policies of ‘privatization' of the economy's state sector and the development of so-called economic liberalism at the level of firms' operation is part and parcel of this strategy[1]. The layoffs due to ‘industrial restructuration' thus look like a specific question of job creation in new private companies that ‘come to the rescue' of the old bankrupt ones. The number of lay-offs remains the same, but they appear scattered in so many different companies, so many ‘individual cases'.

On this level, the world bourgeoisie seems to have learnt the lesson they were given by the big scare of Poland 1980: in the peripheral countries they understand that brutal repression is no longer enough, that it is absolutely necessary to create local ‘Solidarnoscs' capable of sabotaging the social movements from the inside; in the most industrialized countries, they know that too obvious economic attacks (like the one that unleashed the explosion in the Baltic towns in August 1980) are too great a risk for the stability of their social order.

Western Europe: the battleground of the most decisive confrontations

As we have shown on many occasions - in particul­ar in drawing the lessons of Poland 1980 - it is in Western Europe, the world's oldest and largest industrial concentrations that the most decisive confrontations of the world working class strugg­le will be played out[2]. This is where the proletariat is most concentrated and most exper­ienced. But it is also in Europe that reigns the bourgeoisie with the greatest experience of the class struggle.

This policy of dispersing workers' struggles through an apparent dispersal of the economic attack is in reality only an aspect of the comp­lex arsenal systematically developed by the bourgeoisie in this part of the world in order to confront the workers' struggle.

During; 1985, the European bourgeoisie has used all these methods, and has developed them in a more and more concerted manner. At one and the same time, it has had recourse to:

1) A division of labor between different union and political forces,

2) Ideological campaigns,

3) Repression.

The division of labor between, on the one hand the governments, which, whether right or left, have systematically enforced policies of ‘rigor' (ie increased exploitation), and on the other the forces of the ‘left' (both parties and unions) whose job it is to keep control of the workers, which have radicalized their language the better to channel the workers' reaction into dead-ends, or more simply to sabotage any mass mobilization on a class terrain.

During 1985, this movement to ‘radicalize' the left wing of the capitalist political apparatus has appeared first and foremost in the develop­ment and increasingly frequent use of ‘rank-and-­file unionism', ie union tendencies (usually under the impulse of the leftists) which criticize the union leaderships and apparatus, the better to defend the union terrain. Especially active in Belgium (in the Limburg mining industry), they have played an important part in the strikes in Britain (support for the shop stewards), in Spain, in the USA, in Sweden....

The big unions themselves have radicalized their language. The CGT in France is notorious for this. It has tried to make workers forget its mentor the French CP's 3-year participation in government; for LO in Sweden, the union tied to the Socialist government, which has increasingly been overtaken by the struggles at the end of the year; for the UGT in Spain, which because it relied too heavily on the PSOE in power, is more and more taken for a scab union.

But this radical language has only served to hide a systematic work of demobilization.

Unlike the ‘60s and ‘70s, when they could still organize massive street demonstrations with impunity, in order to polish up their image as the ‘workers' champions', the European unions don't take such risks today. They know that the workers' growing suspicion of them (concretized in a massive desertion of the unions) is only matched by the suppressed anger rumbling in the ranks of the exploited. They know that any large workers demonstration on a terrain of the defense of their class demands[3] runs the risk of gett­ing out of control. This is why the union strat­egy in most European countries is either to call demonstrations where the time and place are only announced at the last minute and as discretely as possible, so as to try and make sure that only solid union sympathizers take part, or to call many different demonstrations, but in different parts of the same town, taking care to avoid any meeting between groups of marchers (in Spain, France and Britain, the unions have become past masters at this game of dispersing proletarian combativity).

Ideological campaigns. Here again, the bourgeoi­sie's activity has been particularly fertile. European workers have been daily hammered over the head with campaigns on:

-- The uselessness of struggle in times of crisis - above all after the defeat of the British miners' strike;

-- How lucky we are to live in ‘democratic' coun­tries - especially during the struggles in South Africa;

-- Terrorism, trying to identify all struggle against the state with terrorism; in Belgium, this campaign has taken on gigantic proportions, to the point where, among other things, the government could decide to put crack troops at the gates of certain factories ... the better to protect them against terrorism!

-- The defense of the region, branch of industry, or even of the company, trying to make workers believe that the defense of their living condit­ions is the same as that of the instrument of their exploitation (‘defend the nation's coal' -Limburg, Britain, the Asturias); (‘defend the region' - the Basque country in Spain, the Lorra­ine in France, Wallonia in Belgium, etc).

Repression. Along with its economic, political, and ideological weapons, the European bourgeoisie has constantly developed its weapons of police repression. 1985 has been marked, in particular, by the examples of Belgium, which we have already mentioned, and above all of Great Britain where the bourgeoisie, in the wake of the miners' strike and the riots in Brixton and Birmingham has carried out a reinforcement unprecedented in the nation's history of the forces and methods aimed at the repression of social struggles.

Perspective for the class struggle

But if the world bourgeoisie - and especially the West European bourgeoisie - has been driven to such a development of the weapons for the defense of its system, it is because they are frightened. And they are quite right to be frightened. The third international wave of workers' struggle is only at its beginning, and its slow development is an expression of the depth of the upheaval to come.

In Western Europe - which will determine the future of the world workers' struggle - the workers' tendency to abandon forms of struggle that consist of long isolated strikes in symbolic fortresses expresses, even if it is in a form that is still too dispersed, an assimilation of years of experience and defeats, of which the British miners' strike is one of the most spect­acular recent examples. In this sense, 1985 has marked a step forward.

As for this dispersal, the basis for the present strategy of scattering workers' struggles in Western Europe is condemned to wear out more and more rapidly under the effects of the worsening economic crisis and the accumulated experience of the confrontation between the workers' comba­tivity and the union jail.

The limited room for maneuver that the bourg­eoisie still possesses in the industrialized countries can only go on diminishing, as its system's internal contradictions sharpen, and its palliatives for the crisis - all based on putting off the day of reckoning thanks to credit - are exhausted. On this level, the under-developed countries show the way for the industrialized regions.

As for the unions' and the ‘left' fractions' surviving ability to sabotage the workers' struggle, the permanent contradiction, the constant clash between the thrust of proletarian forces everywhere, and the practical and ideolog­ical barriers raised by these institutions, is leading; slowly but inexorably to the creation of the conditions for the flourishing of a truly autonomous workers struggle. The desertion of the union barracks by an ever-growing number of workers throughout Europe, the proliferation of struggles that start and try to spread with­out any official union support, bear unequivoc­al witness to this.

The working class can only become conscious of its strength, and of how to develop it, through the combat itself, a combat that will confront it, not only with the government and the bosses, but also with the union and the left forces of capital.

The perspective of the class struggle is the struggle's continuation. And the continuation of the struggle is and will be more and more the combat against dispersal, for its unificat­ion.

And at the end of today's process of a developing international movement, lies the internationalization of the workers' struggle.



One and the same struggle throughout history

Strikes yesterday and today

For almost two centuries, the working class has used the strike to resist and combat capital's exploitation, to which it is subjected more directly than any other exploited class. However, it is obvious that a strike's significance is determined by the historical context in which it is placed. Like those of the 19th century, the workers' struggles of our epoch express the same antagonism between the exploited class which is the bearer of communism, and the exploiting class which profits from, defends, and ensures the continuation of the estab­lished social order. But unlike those of the 19th century, today's workers' struggles are not confronting a capitalism in the height of its youth, conquering the world, and pushing to make unprecedented progress in every domain. The strikes of the 1980s are fighting the reality of a senile, decadent system, which has twice plunged humanity into the horrors of world war, and which after 20 years of prosperity from the ‘50s onwards, thanks to the reconstruct­ion of what it had destroyed previously and to the development of weapons capable of destroy­ing the planet several times over, has been floundering in an unprecedented economic crisis since the end of the ‘60s.

Today's workers' struggles, because they are the only real, effective resistance to the totalitarian barbarism of decadent capital, are the only hope for a humanity subjected to an endless terror.

But capitalism's mortal wound, the fact that its laws have become historically obsolete, does not make it any more conciliatory towards its slaves. On the contrary. Today, the working class confronts a bourgeoisie that is cynical, adroit, experienced, capable of acting together nationally and internationally (Poland 1980) to confront the workers' struggle.

Because historically there is more at stake, because the difficulties encountered are greater, every sign of workers' resistance takes on a far greater importance today. Those who, today, in the name of a merely verbal ‘radicalism' con­sider strike after strike, struggle after struggle, with the same ‘transcendental disdain', because they are not yet ‘revolutionary enough' only express the impatience of those who understand nothing about the revolution and the complex process that prepares it. To ‘forget' the elementary necessity of placing today's workers' struggles in their context, their historical dynamic, makes it impossible to understand them at all[4].


[1] On the economic level, the weight of the state has never been greater than it is today ... and it is constantly increasing. We need only consider the ever-growing share of national income that, in one form or another passes through the state's hands. On a strictly economic level, the only used of this so-called ‘liberal' policy is to accelerate the concentration of capital thanks to a more rapid elimination of unprofitable branches and companies, to the benefit of big capital. 

[2] See ‘The West European Proletariat at the Heart of the Class Struggle', in IR 31.

[3] Obviously, the forces of the Left are still ready to mobilize the workers, but on inter-classist or ambiguous terrain: for example, the present anti-NATO campaign in Spain, or the campaigns for ‘democratic right' to strike in Germany.

[4] See ‘Understanding the Struggle: Marxist Method Against Empiricism' in IR 41 (2nd Quarter, 1985), and ‘What Method For Understanding the Recovery in Workers' Struggles' in IR 39 (4th Quarter, 1984).


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