Wednesday, July 06, 2011

What next after #30June?

About three quarters of a million workers took strike action on 30th June. This wasn't as big as some strikes in recent years, and certainly nothing close to the 'winter of discontent' evoked by the right-wing press. But I think it was far more important than the previous ones of the last decade, because it was a) far more political, b) not simply a sectional strike over conditions, and c) rooted in certain grassroots responses to austerity. It followed from a mass demonstration in London that was a concentrated manifestation of the working class in this country, representing far more than just the trade unionists present. At a big building meeting for the strike in the week before it happened, there was a wide variety of trade unions, parties and campaigning groups present. You can watch some of the videos from the event here. Here's a list of the groups represented:

Action for ESOL. Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC), Brent Fightback, Camden Keep Our NHS Public, Camden United Against the Cuts, Central London Right to Work, Coalition of Resistance (CoR), CWU London Region, CWU North/North West London, Day-mer (Turkish and Kurdish Community Centre), Defend the Right to Protest, Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC), Ealing Alliance for Public Services, Education Activist Network, Hackney Pensioners Group, Hands Off Our NHS, Islington Disabled People Against the Cuts, Islington Hands Off Our Public Services (IHOOPS), Keep Our NHS Public, National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), NUJ London Magazine, NUT Camden, NUT Croydon, NUT Ealing, NUT East London Teachers Association, NUT Hackney, NUT Islington, NUT Islington 6th Form College, NUT Newham, NUT Southwark, NUT Wellington Park Primary School, PCS Central London Valuation , PCS DWP North London, PCS Euston Towers, PCS LPS London & South branch, PCS Office of the Public Guardian, Queer Resistance, Right to Work (RtW), RMT Eurostar, RMT Fleet branch, Southwark Save Our Services, TUC Barnet, TUC Greenwich & Bexley, TUC Haringey, TUC Slough, TUC Waltham Forest, UCU City & Islington College, UCU City of Westminster, UCU Conel, UCU Greenwich Community College, UCU Hackney, UCU Kings College, UCU Lambeth College, UCU Left, UCU Lewisham, UCU London Metropolitan, UCU London Region, UCU Richmond College, UCU South Bank University , UCU Tower Hamlets, UCU Westminster Kingsway, UK Uncut, Unison Camden, Unison Haringey, Unison LFEPA, Unison Tower Hamlets, Unison United Left.

I'm not bigging up diversity for the sake of it. Many of these groups would overlap in terms of their activists and politics, and anyway I don't suppose every group has the same social weight. But the point is that among these are groups that really need to work together, as well as some that aren't rooted in the labour movement but have nonetheless understood the importance of supporting it - just as the student movement has. Take UK Uncut, for example. It's contribution to the strike was a simple gesture of solidarity: they brought breakfast to striking workers on the picket lines. In a previous post, I argued that UK Uncut's major contribution so far had been to shift the field of signification, forcing a different kind of discussion about tax and spending into the mainstream media. This is doing a bit more than that, I would venture - it's building relationships between anti-cuts activists who aren't necessarily unionised and trade union activists whom the media try to pick on and single out as some sort of gluttonous alien presence within an abstemious, belt-tightening society.

Of course it isn't only UK Uncut that are doing this sort of thing, but it's an imaginative intervention. Such relationships need to be expanded and deepened. There will be more strikes. There needs to be a lot more industrial action if this government is to be defeated. And when that happens, communities of activists able to back up the strikers, counter the propaganda, raise funds, connect their strikes to wider political objectives, etc., will be essential. So, 30th June was an excellent start. And there will be a series of political campaigns between now and the next wave of strikes in Autumn - the campaign to save the NHS now being launched, for example, as well as the demonstrations outside Tory and Liberal conferences, which should be big - to keep the momentum going. Moreover, there will be furious debates in those unions such as the GMB, Unison, and Unite, which didn't participate in these strikes. The Labour leadership has made it very clear that it is opposing any strike action while negotiations are ongoing (even though, as Francis Maude made abundantly clear in his floundering BBC Radio 4 interview on the day of the strike, the government isn't actually negotiating on the main issues). I expect that this is part of the reason why the union leadership that is closest to the Labour leadership has felt compelled to sit the recent strike waves out. So, rather sooner than I expected, the anti-cuts movement is posing a hard question for the labour movement. Ed Miliband has signalled that he wants to reduce union influence in the Labour Party, and is broadly tilting toward the right, particularly the 'Blue Labour' types. The question now is whether the unions closest to Labour will act independently, or waste their energies trying to buttress a weak leadership for fear of something worse following him. Similarly, the CWU now faces the question of whether it will support strike action to stop the closure of mail centres in London, which are known to be militant strongholds being targeted to facilitate privatization. But there's more to it than this.

I argued before that a precondition of the success of anti-cuts movements was 1) a plausible, popular explanation of the crisis, 2) a set of solutions based on that explanation (an alternative economic strategy), 3) a unified political movement capable of taking those arguments to a wider public. I would pose this in opposition to what might loosely be termed 'syndicalist' responses to the cuts. These would involve the idea that 'struggle' alone is a sufficient basis for action, and that such 'struggle' can be conducted independently of the existing mass parties and unions, almost without reference to fixed political norms or concepts. Perhaps that doesn't seem to be a pressing danger. But syndicalism arises historically where the extant labour bureaucracies and associated reformist parties have become too invested in the current bargaining system to really fight for the interests of workers. I'm not really convinced we're at that stage with the trade unions, but in countries where reformist parties are in power, and implementing cuts, and doing so with the acquiescence of union leaders, such tendencies have already manifested themselves in one form or another. I can well see it becoming a tendency here among younger, unorganised activists.

But David McNally raised a different kind of issue in his talk on new socialisms, specifically with reference to Bolivia and Egypt. It was the issue of how to build a popular labour-based response to neoliberalism in a context in which traditional unionism is either in serious difficulty or has been repressed by the state. In Bolivia, elements of the labour movement recognised that workplaces in the neoliberal era were becoming very different to traditional mass production outlets, and as such unions were finding it harder to organise. Not only that, of course. The Bolivian working class also had to contend with imperialism in the form of the IMF and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA, now happily replaced with ALBA). The production centres were smaller, more geographically scattered, and were more difficult to reach. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the most class conscious sector of workers in the Americas was subject to continual erosion so that by the end of the 1990s, the organised working class represented just a fifth of the total urban working class. As a result, some activists turned toward outreach work, setting up stalls in town and city centres, inviting people to join unions. (For what it's worth, this part of McNally's analysis comes straight from Jeffrey Webber's book From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia, which is thus far the best guide to the subject of the country's leftist turn since Cochabamba). The result was the leftist upsurge that resulted in a near revolutionary situation in 2005, followed by the election of Evo Morales.

A huge problem facing organisers in this country is the depletion of the density not only of the trade union movement, but also its militant rank and file. Martin Smith discusses these tendencies in his recent article on the trade union movement in the UK:

The decline of union reps over the last 25 years is worrying, but it is explainable. In 1970 there were around 200,000 stewards in Britain; by 1984 they had reached the 335,000 mark. This dramatic increase was due to the rising levels of militancy and the growth of trade unionism in the white-collar sectors—local government, civil service and health. There then followed a sharp fall in union membership and an even bigger fall in the number of shop stewards. As Ralph Darlington points out, recent estimates vary considerably: some believe that the number of stewards in 2004 was around 100,000, others as high as 200,000. Whatever the truth, it is a serious decline and one rooted in the defeat of key sections of the working class in the 1980s and the decline in industries with strong union representation.

The problem therefore is not wholly dissimilar to that in Bolivia, as a combination of defeats and the re-composition of the class has left the organised core of the working class slump to less than a third. Is there a case for an outreach campaign here? Surely there is. It would make perfect sense for the unions to be engaging in a mass recruitment drive on the basis of resisting the attack on working class communities. Organising and reaching into new workplaces would solve a number of problems. It would it do what mergers and so on have failed to do, in halting the decline in union density. It would help overcome the division that the Tories and Liberals are trying to create between public and private sector workers. And it would also be an important chance to articulate the union's case to members of the public well beyond those who attend organising meetings or protests. Ideally, such drives would involve the full range of anti-cuts bodies and activists. That, I think, would be an appropriate merger between the indignados and rank and file militants of the UK.