Enough is enough is not enough
Over the past decades, employers have been fierce and unrelenting. Companies laid off workers, attacked unions and demanded concessions. Governments of all stripes helped by eroding labour standards, de-regulating industries, privatising services and permitting job out-sourcing. Being in a weak position the union leaders recoiled from the prospect of waging an all-out class war to challenge the employers so they accepted the new contracts, no matter how damaging, in the hope that lost ground could be regained. Emboldened by this, employers demanded workers forfeit more established practices, even as the stock market boomed and profits soared. With few notable exceptions, strikes were defeated, union recruitment drives failed and workers became demoralised.
But now trade union militancy and strikes have returned to the forefront of British politics. The Socialist Party does not minimise the necessity and importance of workers keeping up the struggle to maintain the level of wages and protect working conditions. There are now once again some signs that general combativeness is rising. Unions are the single most effective way organised workers can counter the bosses. Workers who risked their lives during the Covid pandemic and are now suffering from a cost of living crisis not of their making say they deserve substantial pay raises, and are prepared to go on strike to try to get it. Employers can no longer expect their workforce to compliantly roll over and be strong-armed into conceding cuts in wages and conditions. Increasing numbers of workers across all sectors are saying enough is enough. The current labour shortage means they have a bit more leverage. It has got the bosses worried.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government intends to introduce new laws that are aimed at trade union industrial action by insisting key workers must maintain essential services during any strike. The government wants to make it more difficult for ordinary working people, firefighters, nurses and teachers to express their democratic wishes and to take industrial action in defence of their jobs and pay. Make no mistake. The government’s legislative plans are an assault in the class war on workers’ ability to resist the employers’ offensive. Trade unions are workers’ front line of defence against their employers under capitalism.
The legislation will permit employers to sue unions and sack employees if legal minimum service levels are not met. Union members who are instructed by the employers to work and refuse to do so could lose their jobs. The new law will also back employers bringing an injunction to prevent strikes or seeking damages afterwards if they go ahead with unions facing court actions and possible sequestration of funds.
When workers strike or work to rule, the bosses find out who really runs the workplace, who keeps the machines humming, production going, and the money flowing. But that said, it’s important to clarify that the employers have the power of the state behind them and when push comes to shove, they do not hesitate to bring that powerful institution to bear upon the workers. In addition, most workers have practically no savings, so cannot afford to stop working for long.
Hence the strategy of a series of short strike stoppages. Adapting to match the new reality, rather than calling for a general strike, individual unions seek to coordinate their actions for increased effect. Solidarity is one of the greatest weapons we possess. Many workers are realising that it is the worker and the worker alone who has to take care of their economic interests, as they’ll get nothing from the politicians who fill parliamentary seats and cabinet posts or the bureaucrats in their professional union posts.
When the government goes on the offensive against workers on behalf of the capitalist class, this may lead workers’ organisations to more radical actions, to the capitalist society exposing its class nature, to the general public opening up to revolutionary ideas, and consequently, to the class struggle becoming conscious and political rather than just defensive and economic.
To be sure, participation in strikes does not automatically make workers class-conscious. Even when workers acquire revolutionary consciousness they are still compelled to engage in the non-revolutionary struggle. As workers we fight in the here and now, where we are and where we can. We don’t see such day-to-day struggles as a diversion.
Our preferred trade union strategy is to be active in unions where they exist, but not to do it with a parochial perspective but with a class-wide viewpoint that involves all groups in society that have no opportunity to participate in unions and to engage them as much as possible in a conscious class struggle. The strike weapon is not a sure means of victory for workers in disputes with employers. There are many cases of workers being compelled to return to work without gains, even sometimes with losses. Strikes should not be employed recklessly but should be entered into with strategy in mind.
Socialism demands the revolutionising of the workers themselves. This does not mean that workers should sit back and do nothing, the struggle over wages and conditions must go on. Workers are learning the hard lessons and it is becoming clearer that this is a secondary, defensive activity. The real struggle is to take the means of wealth production and distribution – the factories, farms, offices, mines etc. – into common ownership. That is the larger, political struggle.