May Day has been chosen as a day of trade-union protest, arising out of a decision reached at a special Trades Union Congress held on 5th March. Some unions are making it a one-day strike, others are limiting it to shorter walk-outs and others again are merely holding protest meetings, or standing aloof. The strikers may number several millions and the event was widely reported in the press as a TUC General Strike.
In fact it bears hardly any resemblance to the planned and purposeful organizing that a serious General Strike would call for. Its timing alone shows that the General Council of the TUC is well aware of how little effect it will have on the Government, whose wage policy it is designed to change. The resolution carried on 5th March reads:
Congress calls upon the General Council . . . to invite affiliated unions to join in a day of national protest and stoppages against the wage control policy and increase of food prices.
It also called upon the General Council to organize this “as quickly as possible”.
On 5th March the government’s wage policy (The Counter-Inflation Bill) had not become law; it was still being debated in Parliament. If they believed in the effectiveness of the day of protest as a means of forcing the Government to drop its policy, the TUC could have organized it without delay. Instead, they waited until after the Bill became law at the end of March and then chose May Day. Had they chosen a date before the Bill was passed their bluff would immediately have been called — because it would have been demonstrated at once that the Government had not been deflected from its intention to enact the new law, any more than the Government was deterred from going on with the Industrial Relations Bill against which the TUC organized a similar day of protest on 12th January 1971.
Discretion has been the order of the day for the TUC, and with some reason. In nearly two centuries of trade-union history it is impossible to find a single occasion on which a government and Parliament have been prevented by strike confrontation from passing a law they were set on. The reason for this is a simple one. Governments calculate that their legislation has the backing of a majority of the electorate, or at least will be accepted by them at the next election; and nearly three-quarters of the electorate are not trade-unionists.
While the unions have not been able to use confrontation to prevent laws being passed, they have been able to influence the laws in which they are particularly interested in another way. The workers need trade unions, but so also do the employers: under modern conditions the relatively orderly functioning of industry without organizations with which employers can negotiate pay and conditions is unthinkable. The government and the employers need trade-union law. But so also do the unions, if only to give them access to the courts to protect their £140 million funds. (In the early days and again from 1859 to 1871 this protection did not exist and the unions were at the mercy of those who misappropriated their funds.)
So, on numerous occasions, the unions have been able to “do a deal” with government or opposition, Tory, Liberal or Labour, for relaxations of the laws in return for the offer of trade-union concessions or support at elections. The last occasion was in 1969 with the Wilson government. The bargain then was that the Government, while not dropping their intention to go on with their Industrial Relations Bill, cut out certain clauses offensive to the unions in return for a TUC pledge to deal with “unofficial strikes”; at Wilson’s insistence this was written into the TUC Constitution.
The latest move of this kind is the suggestion by Scanlon of the Engineering Union that if the Government would amend the Industrial Relations Act the way would be open for the TUC to seek agreement with the Government on inflation and wages policy. He expressly disclaimed any intention to challenge Parliament.
More Effective Ways
All of this is a far cry from the idea of a serious General Strike. The purpose of such a strike, as with any other strike, should be to use the stoppage of work to hit the employers financially by stopping the production of wealth and profits. Its method would not be to create chaos by bringing all workers out but to bring out the smallest number that would be effective in the industries where the impact would be greatest. (In the 1926 General Strike the strikers called out to help the miners numbered under 2 million.)
As Marx showed and as experience supports, strikes are most effective when capitalism is expanding, factories are working to capacity and profit prospects are good — for it is at such times that the employers least want to interrupt production and are most likely to make concessions. Indeed, provided that the employers know the threat is a serious one, the concessions may be forthcoming without a strike or with one of very short duration. It was the weakness of the 1926 Strike that government and employers looked at the TUC General Council and decided that the threat was bluff. The same is true of the TUC decision of 5th March, which was so little regarded that it caused hardly a ripple on the Stock Exchange. It would have been very different if the threat had been taken seriously.
The 1926 General Strike has another warning: the absurdity of leaving such matters to the TUC General Council. The TUC General Council (unlike the central body in Denmark, where a General Strike recently took place) is not a trade union, does not engage in the ordinary wage-negotiating functions of a union, and is rather a kind of political organization for the big trade-union supporters of the Labour Party. Action by, say, half a dozen unions, under rank-and-file control, would be the appropriate way.
The approach of the Socialist Party of Great Britain to strikes has always been based on the facts of capitalism on which our whole principles are framed. Those who control the machinery of government, including the armed forces, dominate society — hence the necessity for a Socialist working class to use the vote to gain that control for the purpose of achieving Socialism. It follows that the employers with their wealth and the backing of the State can always win against strikes if they think the issue important enough. As it was put in the Socialist Standard in April 1919:
On the economic field the masters are in a far stronger position than the workers and can beat them any time they decide to fight to a finish.
It is for the unions therefore to weigh up carefully at a given time whether the employers will be likely to make concessions in order to prevent production being interrupted. Strikes should not be “on principle” and fought to a finish, but for what in the circumstances appear to be attainable objects.
The “illegality” of strikes is not itself a deciding factor. The unions, in their two hundred years, have often been expressly illegal or outside the law and have often been able to ignore laws which are on the statute book but which employers and the government tacitly allow to be ignored. It is, however, essential for unions when weighing up a situation to decide whether in the particular circumstances the government will actively intervene and decide to carry the fight to a finish against the unions, with their certain defeat.