The Strike Weapon in the Class Struggle
In response to numerous potential strikes this summer the Tories recently passed emergency regulations to allow employers to recruit agency workers to cover official industrial action. Unions, opposed to the anti working class legislation claimed that it would worsen industrial disputes, concerns largely echoed by employers in the recruitment sector.
In many respects it is knee-jerk reaction by a government who has no interest in the day to day struggle of workers trying to improve their wages and working conditions. The Act is in a long line of anti-trade union legislation dating back to the 1960s when the Wilson Labour government unsuccessfully tried to impose its “In Place of Strife” legislation followed by the Tories Industrial Relations Act of 1971. The “In Place of Strife” legislation would have imposed settlements where management and unions could not agree and would have implemented a ‘conciliation’ pause of 28 days before a strike could take place. The Industrial Relations Act created the National Industrial Relations Courts (NIRC) with the power to call strike ballots and order a “cooling off” period. Any union failing to comply with the Court would be fined.
Anti-trade union legislation continued during the 1980s and 1990. The Tony Blair Labour government embraced this anti working class legislation and tried, unsuccessfully, to impose a partnership between employers, trade unions and the State.
The trade unions’ weapon for bringing pressure to bear on the employer is the strike, by means of which production is halted. Train drivers, for example are going to refuse to work on the railways over a number of days in July and August after successfully balloting members. Strikes, though, are only effective when market conditions are such that an employer does not want to lose profit if the service is curtailed or that production is stopped. At such times the employer will either make concessions to avoid a strike or quickly settle if a strike is declared.
So, what is the socialist position of the strike weapon? Unlike the capitalist Left we do not see the strike as a harbinger of revolution. Nor do we see it as a litmus test of the class struggle which goes on all the time whether there are strikes or not. Unlike the SWP, Counterfire and other Trotskyist groups, socialists do not parasitically feed off non-socialist working class anger and discontent against employers.
We do not see strikes as a process leading to barricades and confronting the forces of the state as a prelude for one set of leaders to be replaced by another. Only a socialist majority, without leaders and the led, taking democratic and political action within political parties can establish socialism. Socialism is not dependent on working class strike action. The socialist party of Great Britain has always insisted on the necessity for the workers to gain control of the machinery of government. Including the armed forces, before trying to establish socialism.
Socialists see the usefulness of the strike weapon to gain temporary improvement but are also aware of its limitations. These limitations come out of the reality of capitalism and the fact that the capitalist not only own the means of production and distribution but also enjoy the protection of the machinery of government including the armed forces. The disadvantage faced by many service workers is that the type of job they do - driving ambulances, fire engines or trains – makes it a practical possibility for the government to use temporary contract workers or troops for strike breaking.
Socialism sees democratic practices as being indispensible in the conduct of trade unions and in particular strike action. No strikes should be started without a ballot and no settlement should be accepted without one. Trade unions should not have leaders and the union should be in the control of the whole membership who then makes decisions. In no way should unions be affiliated to anti working class political organisations like the Labour Party.
In the main, anti trade union legislation will be enforced against trade unions including breaking strikes and imprisoning trade unionists. In some parts of the world trade unionists are tortured and killed. Trade unions also come up against the trade cycle where the union’s ability to halt production is of little use during an economic depression when employers are reducing production or going bankrupt. And in taking strike action workers are confronted with employers who have greater financial resources than those of the unions.
The financial power of employers during strikes can be seen in the disastrous months long strike of the miners in 1926, the strike of firemen (1977-80) when the Labour government used troops as strike-breakers and again in the ill-considered miners’ strike of 1984 which saw miners forced back to work after a year as the employers not only had the forces of the state using violence against them but the resolve of the Thatcher government to see the strike defeated. Long strikes also have the disadvantage of weakening the unions as they deplete their funds so any increase in pay won, has to be off-set against the loss of wages lost during the strike.
Under capitalism, with or without the strike weapon, trade unions and workers generally are faced with extreme limitations of what they can do due to their class position. Something Marx wrote about the imitation of trade union action is as true now as was over a hundred years ago:
“The working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects...that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady.” (VALUE, PRICE AND PROFIT)”
Marx went on to say:
“Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s pay fair a fair day’s work they ought to inscribe on their banners the revolutionary watchwords: “Abolition of the wages system”
Object and Declaration of Principles
The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.
Declaration of Principles
THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN HOLDS:
1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.
2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.
3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.
4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.
5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.
6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.
7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.
8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.