The Strike Weapon
The original basic idea of the strike was for the workers in a single factory to stop production and thus bring pressure to bear on the employer to make concessions on wages and working conditions or see his profits turned into losses. Later, as unions became organized nationally, the aim was to hold up a whole industry or several industries simultaneously. A further development was to organize a strike covering several essential industries as a means to force the government to alter its policies or even to force it to resign, the so-called General Strike. Britain had its “general strike” in 1926. Others had already taken place in various European countries, and in recent years there have been dozens, in Italy, France, Japan and elsewhere.
Looking first at the straightforward wages-and-conditions strikes, how much do they achieve and what are the conditions governing their success or failure? Karl Marx, writing about the conditions of more than a century ago, held that the over-riding factor is not whether trade unions do or do not organize numerous strikes but whether trade is booming or in a depression.
If the former, the employers have urgent reasons not to see production halted; if the latter, they may prefer to have a showdown. And cases are not unknown in times of bad trade of employers themselves provoking a strike, as was the complaint of strikers at Massey-Ferguson in 1975 (Financial Times, 22nd May 1975) and the statement of a union official at Ford’s: “You almost feel that the management are looking for a punch-up.” (Sunday Telegraph, 24th April 1975.)
A management spokesman at Ford’s was quoted as saying about “militants”:“These men have given
us a rough ride since a similar dispute in 1972. We should have crunched it then but we gave way because business was booming.” (Observer, 25th May 1975.) Marx’s view was echoed by Hugh Scanlon of the engineering union in an interview given to the Sunday Times (12th May 1974): “The union movement is only strong so long as there is relatively full employment . . . so long as there is not a crisis of capitalism. I’ve never fooled myself that once the economic boot goes on the other foot, those who preach about getting round the table to settle our disputes would be as ruthless once again as they were in the ’thirties.”
Scanlon was speaking from experience. Efforts by his union to enforce concessions on wages and hours had been meeting stronger organized opposition from engineering employers, and settlements had to be accepted far below the claims that had been lodged. And in the past two years engineering wages, like wages generally (after allowing for the big increase in prices) have fallen. One lesson was entirely lost on Scanlon and the TUC. Along with the Labour Party, they have for years believed that the capitalist crises he feared could be avoided by the policy of so-called “stimulating the economy” — that is, inflation. They still believe it in spite of all the evidence that it has been a total failure.
Governments always play a role in strikes whether purely industrial or partly or wholly political: the role of curbing pickets and protecting the property of the employers. If a strike affects food supplies or other essential services the government will intervene actively as they did in the 1926 general strike. They decided then to fight it to a finish and quickly succeeded though the miners stayed out for months, fighting a lost battle.
A similar ruthless determination was shown in the 1974 railway strike in India by Mrs. Gandhi’s government. They brought in the army, arrested thousands of union officials and strikers and served notices of eviction on the families of railwaymen living in railway housing estates which are subsidized by the government. The strikers were forced back to work.
But just as employers, in line with the state of trade, sometimes do not choose to fight to a finish, so on occasion they will make it clear that they do not want the government to take extreme measures. This happened under the Heath government. Having won the 1970 election a policy of “standing up to the unions” (he said he was prepared to face a general strike if necessary), and having pushed through the Industrial Relations Act, his government found that influential employers did not want a showdown with the unions — it was before the depression had developed seriously.
This produced the strange situation of an anonymous donor paying £65,000 into court to avoid a threatened engineering strike over the fine that had been imposed on the union (The Times, 9th May 1974), and the offer of £2½ million by a secret group of businessmen to persuade the miners’ union to end their strike (The Times, 12th February 1974). And most big employers took no notice of the clauses in the Act making the closed shop illegal.
What of political strikes and general strikes? Under the Heath government numerous one-day strikes were organized having as their object such things as to prevent the enactment of the Industrial Relations Act (all without the slightest effect) or to prevent rising prices, or in protest at “wage restraint”; while in other countries there were general strikes to force a change of government policy or a change of government. What happened in this country shows the futility of them all. The government was indeed changed at the 1974 general election and the Industrial Relations Act was repealed, but it merely replaced a Tory government running capitalism by a Labour government doing the same, a government forced to grapple with the same problems in much the same way. Prices and unemployment rocketed to post-war record levels, and a new “wage restraint” scheme was introduced in flat disregard of election pledges.