Strikes: the Socialist Viewpoint

Because the Christmas holidays compel us to go to press early with this issue, the above articles were written at the beginning of December.

The Firemen

The Firemen’s strike which started in November provides an outstanding example of how capitalism regards the working class. The firemen, who had never gone on strike before, had a long-standing grievance over pay. Their demand was for a 30 per cent. increase. The Government’s response was that it would not agree to any rise of more than 10 per cent, in the “public sector” of employment; although rises in industry go above this figure, and though wages are now running substantially behind prices.

From the beginning of the strike, the principal question raised was the moral one: were not the strikers acting without conscience towards their fellow men? Firemen were repeatedly asked by radio and television interviewers to envisage children and old people in blazing buildings. Soldiers were hastily organized to use military fire-fighting equipment. When deaths did take place in fires, they were reported on the front pages of the papers.

This humane aspect is readily taken up as a weapon by the capitalist class and its government. Nurses, teachers, doctors and other workers who perform vital services always have put in front of them the consequences if they strike. The argument must be (and is) heeded; but it would sound better if it were not connected with our rulers’ desire for cheapness. And if they themselves put other people’s lives before their own profit and security. An illustrative comparison is the decision of governments not to “give in” to ransom-demanding hi-jackers, i.e. their preparedness to let any plane-load of people be killed rather than to suffer a political disadvantage.

Who has put lives at risk in the firemen’s strike: the firemen—or is it the Government? Callaghan’s stated concern was that one concession would pave the way for others and undermine the “pay policy.” The unstated part was that this could lead to the Labour Party losing political power. While this consideration over-rules the merits of the firemen’s case, it should be pointed out that it is not “life” in general that is jeopardized by the situation: it is working-class life. The fire-prone areas are industrial districts and close-packed housing in Glasgow, East London, etc., not where the well-to-do have their residences. The latter can, in any case, retire to their cottages in the country where the part-time fire brigades are outside the dispute.

All workers should see the cynicism of the ruling class in this matter. As employees, they have to struggle against pressure on their living standards; as the working class at large, they are the victims of every “situation” and crisis in capitalism—and then told it is their greed and lack of moral fibre that is to blame.

Robert Barltrop

Bitter end at Grunwick

The Grunwick strike was called off after more than a year of agitation because the strike committee decided “that there is no point in further mass picketing, and there is little hope of any other tactics bringing victory” (The Times, 29th November 1977). “Victory” meant reinstatement of the eighty strikers and union recognition in the Grunwick factory.

Thus ends a sad episode in working-class struggles. Its history was described in last month’s Socialist Standard; it is to be hoped that some lessons at least will be learned from it. The Times report said: “The strikers feel that the union is not on their side.” It would be better put that the union mismanaged the whole thing from the start, and ended having spent (according to the Financial Times, 8th November 1977) approximately a quarter of a million pounds of funds to no purpose.

In front of everything else, strikes practically never achieve their objectives when they are prolonged. Effective action is short and sharp; since the aim is to disable the employer, the most effective strike of all is the one which never takes place, i.e. the strikers’ demand is met because the employer is anxious that production shall not be held up. If this is unpredictable, the unions should (as Marx advised them to) test the situation. But when employers show that they are prepared to resist indefinitely, the unions should recognize that they have virtually no hope of winning. Grunwick demonstrates this.

Second, the strike must be united. A ballot of all the members or employees should be the condition for its taking place, and also a ballot on returning to work. Only a section of the Grunwick workers took part in the dispute, and the basis of the strike was weakened correspondingly. It was hoped that workers in other unions could be persuaded to cut off services such as electricity and postal deliveries (post office workers did so for a time). This again should be more than a hope. It should rest on a voted-upon decision by the other unions to act in sympathy, and should take into account the possibility of action by the government.

The performances of Labour MPs and left demonstrators, striving to make political capital out of the Grunwick dispute, were wholly discreditable. They distorted the issues, alienated public sympathy, and contributed to the eventual demoralization which an unsuccessful prolonged strike produces. We sympathize with the strikers whose action began as a revolt against the contemptible Grunwick employer Ward. They may have learned things about trade-union organization, and about wage-labour and capital.

Robert Barltrop