1980s >> 1985 >> no-971-july-1985

A Strikebreakers Charter

The recent controversy in the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) which led to the resignation of its general secretary. Larry Gostin, over whether or not the right to work during a strike is a fundamental “civil liberty”, showed up the unreal legalistic world in which civil libertarians imagine we are living. “Civil and religious liberty” was one of the slogans under which the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which resulted in political power passing into the hands of the direct ancestors of the present capitalist ruling class, were carried out. This was based on what has been called, appropriately, the theory of possessive individualism in which human beings were seen as originally free and independent individuals who had set up social and political institutions as a way of preserving and furthering their individual interests and rights. This was a revolutionary doctrine at the time as it provided a justification for opposing political regimes left over from feudalism as illegitimate, which denied individuals their supposed nature-given (or god-given, as some put it) right freely to pursue their own self-interest in the economic field. Today this ideology is somewhat anachronistic (the Orange Order parades under it each year in Northern Ireland) and leads to bizarre conclusions when applied to modern-day capitalism.

If we are to take this ideology literally, the fundamental activity of any society — the production of wealth — is achieved today by certain members of society freely contracting to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary to certain other members of society. As this is a contract freely entered into by individuals it can also, according to the ideology of civil liberty, be just as freely ended at any time by one or other party. For instance, if the seller of labour power recognises that the buyer (the employer) has not fully respected their side of the bargain, or if he or she simply wants a better deal, then they are free to refuse to work; they can go on strike. Thus civil libertarians are prepared to recognise a right to strike as a fundamental civil liberty possessed by all individuals in a “free” society. But equally, those like Larry Gostin argue, an individual has the liberty not to strike if he or she so chooses, even if the rest of their work colleagues have decided to exercise their individual right to strike. Hence, for them the right to strike-break is also a civil liberty, just as fundamental as the right to strike.

This whole theory is based on a number of myths, above all that the wages contract is a bargain between free and equal individuals. This is not at all the case since one side (the employer) has the whip-hand by virtue of being a member of the class which monopolises the means of production; that is to say, the means of life. This results in the rest of society being able to live only by selling their ability to work to an employer. They have no choice about this — they are forced to sell it as a condition for obtaining some access to the things they need to live. But this is not all; the employers only agree to buy the ability to work of individual members of the excluded class if they think they can make a profit out of selling what they produce. In other words, the class which monopolises the means of production in effect uses its position to hold the rest of society to ransom by extracting a tribute from them as a condition for allowing them to use the means of production.

So the fundamental social activity of wealth production, far from being achieved through free contracts made between individuals as civil libertarian theory assumes, is in fact achieved through the economic and political coercion of one class in society by another. Social relations at the point of production are relations of coercion, domination and exploitation, in which individual rights are overridden and where might is right. This places strikes in a completely different light. They are a means resorted to by members of the excluded, exploited class to resist and mitigate their oppression and exploitation by the monopolising, employing class. They are part of the class struggle built into the capitalist society which the revolutionary civil libertarians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped to usher in.

To be effective, a strike needs to involve as many members of the workforce as possible, ideally all of them, since in their struggle to resist the downward pressure from their employers the only weapons the workers have are their members, their determination and, above all, their unity. That “unity is strength” is something workers have learned by bitter experience. Strikes can — and have in the past — been the work of a determined minority imposing their will on a majority of their colleagues. This can work, but experience has also shown that a strike has much more chance of success if it has the approval of at least a majority of those concerned. This is why it has become a working class tradition to take strike decisions democratically, whether by a show of hands, a delegate conference, individual ballot, or some other way. A unanimous decision would be ideal, and sometimes this is achieved, but more normally the decision to strike is a majority decision. From the point of view of class interest of the workers involved, it is reasonable that this majority decision should be binding on those who voted against strike action as, if the minority were allowed to go to work, the effectiveness of the strike would be undermined. A strike is a trial of strength, a battle in the class war in which unity is an important, in fact the key weapon on the strikers’ side. So for naive civil libertarians to intervene in such trials of strength by proclaiming, in accordance with some abstract principle, the right of individual members of the minority to go to work, is to weaken the strikers’ side and so, objectively, to strengthen that of the employers. No wonder the trade union members of the NCCL voted against the right to work during a strike as a fundamental liberty. And no wonder Gostin and the others won the support of the media, Tory and SDP Members of Parliament and other opponents of the working class and their trade unions.

We will give Gostin the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is sincere but naive (rather than a conscious agent of the employing class), but this episode well illustrates the unreal view civil libertarians have of the world in which we are living. Present-day society is not a community of free and equal members but a society divided into classes with irreconcilable interests, an antagonism which manifests itself from time to time in strikes. Rather than proclaiming the right of strikebreakers to work during a strike, civil libertarians would be advised to examine whether the fact of a minority monopolising the means of production to the exclusion of the rest of society is not a much more fundamental infringement of the principle they proclaim of an individual’s right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. For the class monopoly of the means of production means wage-slavery and the denial of free access to what they need to live and to enjoy life to the majority of the members of society. This is a major denial of liberty today, one whose removal would usher in a really free society of equals in which legal guarantees to protect the rights of the individual would be unnecessary since all individuals would be free. As a matter of fact, with the abolition of class society strikes would no longer happen because the antagonism of interests of which they are a manifestation would have disappeared.

The right to strike is not a characteristic of a free society; on the contrary, it is the hallmark of an unfree society since strikes are only necessary when society is divided into antagonistic classes, one of which exploits the other. Having said this, what is called the right to strike (but which is in reality the might to strike) is important to the wage and salary earning class as long as class society lasts.

Adam Buick