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Marxism :: General strike
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From 9 to 12 September, the trade unions will meet in Manchester to mark the 150th anniversary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). No doubt the union leaders will revel in the history of the TUC and the wider labour and trade union movement.
But this congress has to contend with the urgent tasks facing workers and their unions - organisations which still represent what is potentially the most powerful force in society, with over six million members. Not least among the questions facing this congress is that of how the unions can mobilise a mass movement to push out the weak and divided Tory government.
The main lesson of trade unionism has always been that nothing has ever been gifted to workers by governments or the bosses. Everything has been fought for.
This was always the case in periods of relative economic development. But it is particularly true in times such as now, when crisis-ridden capitalism threatens all the past gains made by the working class.
Just yards from the conference centre is the scene of the Peterloo massacre, where workers demanding the right to vote were cut down by government forces. 2019 marks the massacre's double centenary.
But it is another, more recent anniversary that still casts a shadow. The 2008 economic crisis has ushered in a 'lost decade' for workers.
Living standards have been cut by an average of 10% in real terms. But compared to the trends of modest wage growth before the credit crunch, this in reality represents a 20% shortfall.
The brutal pay freeze in the public sector was added to by the attack on pensions in the first wave of the austerity offensive. The Tories looked to make workers pay more in and get less out, as well as to work longer before retirement! This laid the basis for what ultimately became a public sector general strike on 'N30' (30 November, 2011), when over two million workers took action.
The Socialist Party argued that the pensions struggle wasn't a 'normal' dispute where the occasional one-day strike could wrest some minor concessions from the bosses. Ending the battle after a single day's strike action emboldened the Tories, in coalition with the Lib Dems, to continue rolling out their vicious cuts programme.
But it could have been different. If that mass joint action had been escalated it could have forced Cameron and Osborne back - and even driven them out of office.
This strike, which saw massive mobilisations in virtually every town and city, gave a glimpse of the power workers have when they act collectively. But the right-wing union leaders have tried to airbrush this, and other examples of mass struggle, from the history of the movement.
The union for prison and secure psychiatric workers - the POA - moved a motion calling for a general strike to be considered at TUC congress in 2012, the year that followed both N30 and the mighty TUC demonstration of 750,000 workers. When the POA motion was discussed, one union leader tried to dismiss it by saying "we had a general strike once before and it didn't work."
These so-called leaders bear responsibility for failing to organise the mass fight against the Tories that was possible and necessary, both in 2011-12 and since then. They will point to the new Tory anti-union laws, including the undemocratic voting thresholds that meant civil service union PCS members couldn't take strike action against the 1% pay cap despite a yes vote of 86% in their ballot. But the TUC hardly lifted a finger to stop the implementation of the Trade Union Act - not even calling one national demonstration and refusing to enact TUC congress policy advocating a special conference to discuss resisting the laws.
May 2018's TUC demonstration of up to 30,000 was a fraction of what it could and should have been. At last year's congress the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) organised its rally around the demand for the TUC to call a national demo on pay to bring together workers from different areas of the public sector where a mood was developing for joint action against the pay cap. Such a march in the autumn could have been huge and would have been a platform for coordinated strike action, potentially on the scale of 2011.
Last year's congress passed a composite motion on the public sector pay cap unanimously. It called for "immediate steps to develop a coordinated strategy of opposition to the pay cap within the public sector" and, specifically, "a national demonstration in support of our demands". But the demo was not called until seven months later! This led to the isolation of each public sector group and most pay claims being settled. Delegates should hold these leaders to account this week.
There continues to be localised action every week, showing that workers are prepared to take action if a lead is given. However, the role of many of the union leaders has prevented generalised action, helping to create a political vacuum that can complicate the situation, especially when Corbyn is under relentless attack from the capitalist establishment and their Blairite agents.
This will be exacerbated if congress passes motions from transport union TSSA and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) that would, in effect, open the way for a second referendum on Brexit. This would be used by the Blairites and, unfortunately, some Corbynistas, to pile pressure on Corbyn to succumb to another referendum ahead of a showdown at Labour Party conference.
The motions from the Communications Workers Union and Unite the Union are better and should stand alone. These unions should resist pressure to composite with the TSSA and RCM whose motions are not fighting for a general election to bring down the Tories.
This is the best way to bring the labour and trade union movement together, to fight for a Brexit in the interests of workers - against the neoliberal policies of the Tories and the EU - and for the policies of public ownership contained in Corbyn's manifesto for last year's general election. This is the way to face down the Tories and the Blairites who want to close any political channels for workers. Most importantly, it's vital the unions mobilise their members now to lead the fight against the Tories.
Sunday 9th September 2018, 1pm
Manchester Mechanics Institute conference centre, 103 Princess Street, Manchester M1 6DD
Communist Manifesto (25)
General strike (325)
Soviet Union (35)
Transitional Programme (28)
Working class (861)
Article dated 5 September 2018
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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