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Trade Unions and the Class Struggle: The Shrewsbury 24

The Shrewsbury 24

In March 2021, the court of appeal squashed the convictions of the Shrewsbury 24. Trade unionists, some of who were imprisoned, had struggled almost 50 years to clear their name. The issues of their case, which included official disinformation, police malpractice, the right to organise and protest, have not gone away. Workers are still confronted with the capitalist state and the class interests of employers the machinery of government seek to protect.

The Shrewsbury 24, were in 1972, part of the first national strike by construction workers for higher wages, better working conditions and the use of casual labour to keep wages down. Striking workers had peacefully picketed building sites in Shrewsbury to persuade other to join the strike. Five months later, they were arrested and charged under the 1875 Conspiracy Act with unlawful assembly, intimidation, affray, criminal damage and assault. Many of those convicted also found that upon their release they had been blacklisted by the construction industry and were unable to work.

The attack on the Shrewsbury 24 was politically motivated. The government wanted to break the union and used The Information Research Department (IRD), a secret Foreign Office cold war propaganda unit set up under the Atlee Labour Government to spread disinformation. George Orwell prepared a list of notable writers he recommended the IRD not to employ. Never trust a snitch.

The Information Research Department, Fake News and Government Trust

And to spread disinformation against the Shrewsbury 24, the IRD used fake information broadcast through a ITV documentary, 'The Red under the Bed'(ITV Nov, 1973), to smear the striking workers. The documentary was aired the night before the jury went out to consider its verdict.

Danny Friedman QC, representing 12 of the pickets, said a "covert Foreign Office agency" known as the Information Research Department (IRD) provided "considerable assistance" in the making of the programme.

The IRD "consulted the Security Service", also known as MI5, about the programme, Friedman said, which was also praised by then Prime Minister Edward Heath. Heath said at the time: "We want as much as possible of this."

Friedman told the court: "It is obvious...a covert executive agency played a part in deliberately propagandising against the core subject matter of the proceedings."
(https://www.thejournal.ie/shrewsbury-24-ruling-ricky-tomlinson-5389409-Mar2021/)

The use of "fake news" is not new. The capitalist state has a long history of disinformation and now cannot understand why it is not believed over a whole range of political issues. The mendacity of governments and politicians was a point forcibly made by the journalist, Peter Oborne in his book, THE ASSAULT ON TRUTH (2021). Oborne, now a political leper, called out successive lies of governments from Tony Blair (Iraq War) to Boris Johnson (Brexit and the Covid Pandemic).

The genie will not get back into the bottle. As one academic recently wrote:

"Since the start of the pandemic, the UK Government's decision-making has tampered with the trust of the British people on numerous occasions, including by U-turning on decisions at the last minute; giving contracts to personal contacts without recourse to due process; and those contracts subsequently failing to deliver. The U-turns may not have been so inimical were they not done after categorical statements indicating the exact opposite of previous proclamations - for example, Boris Johnson, announcing on 5 January that schools would stay open and then, 24 hours later, announcing a month-long national lockdown".
(J Baxter, WHY THIS GOVERNMENT MAY NEVER REGAIN THE TRUST OF THE PEOPLE January 15 2021)

The capitalist state is not a cricket umpire. The capitalist state takes the side of employers in the class struggle. Governments administer capitalism in the interest of the capitalist class. It is, as Marx pointed out in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, "The executive of the bourgeoisie.

The Capitalist State and the Class Struggle

The political assault by governments on the construction workers was the beginning of decade's long attack against trade unions, shackling them with political legislation, blaming them for high inflation, and using the secret police to infiltrate their organisations.

In 1969, James Callaghan secretly urged officials to destabilise troublesome trade unions "by one means or another". In response to his call, senior officials suggested undermining difficult trade unionists through "inspired leakages to the press" (ITV NEWS 24 July 2018). During the Miners strike of 1984-5 the security and intelligence services were involved in the strike. Sources at GCHQ said that it was ordered by Mrs Thatcher to track the movements of union officials and the transfer of funds (GUARDIAN 16 May 2005).

And then there is the use of the police and army to break strikes. From the imposition of the Combination Acts onwards the state has imprisoned workers and broken strikes. Successive Labour and Tory governments have used troops to break strikes, for example, the Fire Fighter disputes in 1977 and 2002-2003, both of which took place under Labour administrations. Governments always tell workers to take pay cuts and work harder never telling employers to pay workers more and give them more holidays.

Between 1980 and 1993 there were six Acts of Parliament which increasingly restricted unions' ability to undertake lawful industrial action. Secondary action, better known as 'sympathy strikes', was outlawed and picketing was restricted. Ballots were needed for official industrial action from 1984 and these had to be postal ballots from 1993. Further anti-trade union legislation was introduced in July 2015 by tightening rules on strike ballots.

What can Unions Do?

Although unions have learned to use ballots as part of the negotiating process, they have imposed increasing financial costs, while the requirement to give employers seven days' notice further reduced unions' ability to respond quickly and potentially reduced the effectiveness of any action they took. However strikes do take place although the most effective strikes are those which threaten more pay and better working conditions by having a majority of workers behind the strike. These are few and far between.

The result of trade union legislation, along with the ineffectiveness of trade union organisation following successive trade depressions and the disappearance of heavy industry like coal, steel and ship building, has led to a largely compliant workforce - a fraction of its size in the 1970s. In 2017 strike action was at its lowest since the miners' strike of 1893 (GUARDIAN 30 May 2018).

A third of workers are precariously employed - in the gig economy, in zero hour jobs or as agency temps. Employers can silence dissent by cutting anyone's hours to zero. Tesco tried to strip between £4000 and £19,000 off staff wages. British Gas threatened to sack hundreds of long-serving boiler-servicing engineers for refusing longer hours and poorer terms and conditions. And socialists are told that the class struggle does not exist and was a figment of Marx's imagination.

There has been a slow recovery in trade union numbers over recent years and some success as trade unions and workers win legal cases such as workers at Uber and Asda. Nevertheless, workers are disencouraged from organising into trade unions and we have a government intent on making protest that much harder. However, court cases can be lost on appeal, you need money and time to pursue a legal case against employers with more resources and governments can always introduce anti-working class legislation, making claims in court more difficult (STRIKES AND THE GOVERNMENTt 1893 -1974 Eric l Wigham and TROOPS IN STRIKES, S. Peak 1984).

Then there is the introduction of Artificial Intelligence by employers into the work place. AI is increasing being used to 'hire and fire' workers, check on productivity, monitoring home working and other areas of employment to the benefit or employers not workers. This has led to the TUC calling for the removal of the nefarious use of AI from offices and factories but they face an uphill task: it is not their offices and factories. (FINANCIAL TIMES 29 March 2021).

Only Socialism can end the Class struggle

Socialists have long questioned the continual class struggle over higher pay and better working conditions. Workers need to recognise that the industrial field of the class struggle is always tilted in favour of the capitalist class. Capitalists not only enjoy the protection of the state but they also own the means of production and distribution as private property.

And it is this economic and political power which enables employers to hire and fire workers, resist wages claims and better working conditions, and call upon the capitalist state to undermine unions and strike action.

This continual struggle need not take place. The class struggle exists because of the private ownership of the means of production and distribution by the capitalist class to the exclusion of everyone else. Workers are exploited by producing more than they receive in wages and salaries. And employers are always trying to increase the intensity and extent of class exploitation.

Employers and their governments cannot end the class struggle. But workers can.

If workers became socialists, took democratic and political action in socialist parties and established socialism they would not have to face a class of employers and their state. They would work in safe and pleasant conditions within the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. In other words, a free association of individuals adhering to the socialist dictum:

'from each according to ability to each according to their need'

Socialists are sympathetic to workers in their struggle to find refuge in trade unions and to struggle for higher wages when trade conditions permit and also to resist worsening conditions of employment. Nevertheless the pressures of capitalism on the lives of workers will not go away, in or outside trade unions. Employers will always have the means to introduce new technology, like AI, which benefits their interests not workers. The capitalist system which gives rise to the problems facing our class must be abolished by a socialist majority otherwise the ups and down of the class struggle will persist from one generation of workers to the next.

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