Sometimes we meet people who are concerned that, faced with enormous attacks on its living standards, the working class response is nowhere near the level needed to resist them. This is an understandable concern but we need to approach the question from a different angle. For a start we have to consider the class struggle on an international scale, and if we look around the world we can see many example of open and sometimes massive reactions by workers (see the articles on Turkey, Greece and Algeria in this issue for example). But even if we restrict our horizon to the UK, over the last few months we have seen a good deal of discontent among workers in many different sectors and industries facing attacks on pay, pensions, hours and conditions and redundancies - bus drivers in London, Leeds, Rotherham, health service workers in North Devon, London Underground electricians, workers at Fujitsu, South Yorkshire firemen etc. And before that the postal workers' strikes, several strikes in colleges, such as Tower Hamlets. And now Unite is balloting BA cabin crew - again - and the PCS balloting civil servants about strike action.
It takes courage to fight back today
The train of rising unemployment, underemployment, debt, and increased workloads set in motion by the economic crisis certainly demands a response from those facing these attacks, particularly as we know there will be worse to come over the next few years, as much as capitalism can get away with. But in the context of such an open crisis, it can also be harder to struggle, particularly as the bosses can use the threat of unemployment as blackmail against workers, as we saw with postal workers last year and BA workers since December.
When BA cabin crew voted 90% in favour of strike action at the end of last year they did so knowing that the airline is under financial pressure: earlier in the recession it appealed for its employees to work for free one month; they have seen other airlines go into administration, and they know redundancies are coming. In fact it was precisely the fact that over 800 of the workers who voted in the first ballot had been made redundant that gave BA the legal excuse to challenge that ballot.
Civil servants are being balloted by the PCS for strike action against the loss of redundancy protection and compensation terms. It is an open secret that whoever wins the next election will impose cuts in government spending and job losses in the civil service.
Workers face many other difficulties in struggling today. The economic crisis makes bosses more desperate, more intransigent, more bullying. Then there is the law which is used to intimidate workers, and provide an alibi for the unions.
Class struggle is against the law
The injunction against the strike of BA cabin crew called for 12 days over Christmas and New Year, as well as a similar injunction by First London buses, overturning massive votes in favour of action, have led to complaints that "Trade union rights have never been more under threat in this country" (Martin Mayer, Chair of United Left, on libcom.org). In fact Unite has done very well out of the injunction: it has been able to appear very militant while calling off any action.
But injunctions are not the only way the law affects the class struggle. First of all for a strike to be legal there has to be a ballot and notice given to employers. This doesn't threaten the unions but strengthens them while weakening the position of the workers who face long drawn out negotiations, repeated ballots, action called on and off as a walk-on part ‘to force the bosses to negotiate'. Whether in BA or Royal Mail this simply shows the control the union has over the workers.
Then there is the ban on ‘secondary picketing'. This does not threaten the unions either, since they base themselves on negotiation with specific employers. In fact it strengthens them against their members, workers who need to spread their struggles if they are to impose a favourable relation of force. This complements the state policy of breaking up industries into multiple ‘provider' franchises - for instance it would be illegal to link up struggles by bus drivers not only in Leeds and Rotherham, but also in First London and CT Plus in the same city. A situation so ridiculous that Unite is campaigning for a single pay scale for bus drivers across London - allowing the union to appear to want to link these workers without any real links in struggle.
The fact is that when workers are able to go into struggle without ballots, without giving statutory notice to bosses, when they can turn the sympathy of other workers into an extension of the strike to those workers, then they are much more powerful, much more likely to win concessions. The Lindsey strikes a year ago and last June demonstrated that, ending with the announcement of new jobs. What has prevented those strikes being a beacon for the working class today, in the way the Tekel strike is in Turkey, is the difficulty they had with the divisions imposed between British workers employed by British contractors and foreign workers employed by foreign contractors, feeding illusions in nationalism - although these divisions were beginning to be addressed at the end, with appeals to Italian workers for example.
Those who peddle the notion that unions are the way to defend workers' interests are getting upset at BA setting up the Professional Cabin Crew Council as a ‘scab union' alternative to Bassa (Unite), and also that the pilots' union has declared itself ‘neutral' on the issue of BA training other staff to replace stewards in the event of a strike. Yet "Unite's alternative proposal, "The Way Forward", agrees to allow new crew to work on different pay and conditions. It also agrees to a two-year pay freeze" (http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=20113). Just like the CWU which called off the postal strikes last year in favour on negotiations on how to bring in the Royal Mail modernisation programme (job losses and increased workloads), Unite is also working to bring in management's cuts in a controlled and negotiated way, a way that won't risk too much resistance. That's what unions are there for.