The revival of class struggle and the dangers of radical unionism

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We are seeing the return of the wildcat strike, with unofficial walkouts in the post and the civil service, by fire-fighters and by BA workers at Heathrow. In the context of the developments in the struggle of the working class internationally this year, and particularly the large strikes and demonstrations against the attacks on pensions in France and Austria (see WR 266 and IR 114), this is a small sign of increasing militancy.

Workers face many open enemies in these struggles, including the bosses and the government and the more devious enemy of the unions. Even more dangerous are those who would condemn the development of militancy and class consciousness to a dead-end; not with faint praise, but with absurd cries of victory: 'Postal workers 1st class victory' and 'We've given Royal Mail a good hiding' screamed the headlines in Socialist Worker 8/11/03 with the article stating "Victory! At last, a real victory by a big group of workers against a very important employer." Really?!

The reality of the recent postal workers' strike is very far from the great victory presented by SW. Workers walked out over the demand for increased London weighting, but on this aspect of the 'real victory' SW is silent as the grave. It spread because of management provocation, as workers were immediately "faced with a wave of intimidation, bullying and enforced changes to working practices by local managers. Those who have refused to accept the changes have been suspended. Their fellow workers have walked out on unofficial strike in solidarity" (WR 269). Unsorted mail was sent to other offices leading to solidarity strikes in other areas.

If we have any doubts that the provocation was carried out by the bosses acting in concert with the government, we only have to look at the way the same policy of provocation is being carried out in other industries. For instance, the Department of Work and Pensions has imposed a wage settlement even before there was a ballot, and at a time when the main civil service union, the PCS, is balloting its members on national pay bargaining. Workers walked out on strike. Fire-fighters, faced with the provocation of half their meagre pay increase being deferred, walked out on a wildcat strike answering only 999 calls. Strengthening the union against the workers

At first sight it may seem insane for the government and employers to provoke wildcat strikes at a time when we are seeing a new development of militancy, but they have a clear strategy. "What's at stake in the post office isn't just the question of making it more competitive economically at the workers' expense. The postal workers have in the last two decades established themselves as the most militant sector of the entire working class in Britain" (WR 269). The ruling class is provoking workers to struggle to teach the whole class a lesson.

Let us go back to the Socialist Worker and its presentation of the 'good hiding' suffered by Royal Mail: "Union busting charter smashed", "Bosses must negotiate NOT impose change", and the six points management insisted strikers sign up to before they could return to work have been withdrawn for the moment and will be discussed with the union. In other words, workers who originally struck for pay, or to defend working conditions, or in solidarity with other workers, were left appearing to rely on the CWU to negotiate conditions in which it was possible for them to return to work without the immediate imposition of a whole barrage of new attacks. Attacks which will only be brought in after negotiation. And make no mistake, the Royal Mail intends to complete the 30,000 planned job losses (17,000 of which have already been achieved) and the brutal increases in productivity envisaged in the 'Way Forward' national agreement.

Although the postal workers were too angry and too militant to be held to a limited, legal strike delayed by a postal ballot, they were not yet strong enough to break the bounds of the union altogether. It was an open secret that the CWU was in fact controlling the strike through its 'rank and file' apparatus of workplace representatives and officials. Management demands for an end to time granted for union activity only added weight to the notion pushed by both mainstream and leftist media according to which the union takes the credit for workers' militancy, and the leftists add that the strike was to defend the union against attack.

If we look only at the immediate result of the postal workers' strike than we find that it is the unions that achieved the 'real victory', not the workers. We need to look beyond the immediate result. The turning point in the class struggle

By provoking workers in many different sectors the government and bosses are showing that they need to force through the economic attacks necessitated by the crisis. But we also need to understand what it tells us about the overall development of the class struggle.

"The ruling class is fully aware of the threat posed by the working class. The capitalist state has a whole apparatus for dealing with workers' actions: the trade unions, democracy, leftists, courts, police, etc. Nonetheless, its greatest fear is that the workers will develop their class identity and on the basis of this begin to pose political questions about the nature of capitalism, and the need for an alternative" ('Turning point in the international class struggle', WR 269). By class identity we mean the recognition by workers that they are part of a class with common interests to defend. The nature of the attacks being imposed provides the basis for this, particularly when those attacks, involving the intensification of exploitation and growth of mass unemployment, are repeated in industry after industry all over the world, or involve the dismantling of social buffers such as health and pensions. In addition, the attacks on pensions, whether in France, Austria or the civil service in Britain, pose the question of what future capitalism can offer those who have put up with a lifetime of exploitation.

For nearly a decade and a half the bourgeoisie has benefited from the propaganda campaign it developed using the collapse of the Eastern European countries and the Russian imperialist bloc to tell us that workers must remain within the framework of the unions and democracy or their class struggle would lead inevitably to the most brutal Stalinist state capitalism. This lie is no longer so effective in holding back the development of struggles and the sense of class identity that goes with them.

It is no longer enough for the ruling class to divide workers up between those in the capital and those in the rest of the country with the issue of London weighting (as for teachers, council workers, postal workers) or members of different unions (in schools, railways) or different enterprises or bargaining units (civil servants are divided into 170 such units, the break up of British Rail into different concerns). The militancy and the solidarity expressed in the post and other strikes recently illustrates this point.

Despite the fact that the post strike was provoked by the ruling class at a time that suited them, that it has been used to create a propaganda to strengthen the unions, it has been an important sign of the increasing militancy in the working class world wide today. It is that militancy and the massive struggles that it engenders, which will lead to the development of the class identity that is so important in the further development of class consciousness.

Alex, 6/12/03.


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