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British Perspectives 2013: a Socialist Party congress document

Socialist Party documents

British Perspectives 2013: a Socialist Party congress document

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24-hour general strike

45. Elections are one facet of the struggle against cuts. In the short term the most pressing issue is the campaign for a 24 hour general strike.

There is a glaring need for decisive action, both against austerity and the attempts to undermine trade union strength via slashing trade unionists' facility time.

The trade union movement needs to put the latter issue at the heart of the struggle against austerity, making clear to workers, in both propaganda and more importantly deed, the essential role of the trade unions in defending their pay and living conditions.

If the government manage to force through the attacks on facility time it will weaken the trade union movement in the short term.

In the longer term, however, it could rebound on the government as new, younger, more militant and determined fighters develop in workplaces across the country.

46. In 2012 we already saw more militant methods being adopted by sections of workers, particularly in the private sector.

The mass picket lines of the London bus workers were combined with blockades against those bus companies that had successfully injuncted the strike action.

Crown saw three unofficial 24 hour walkouts and the electricians won major concessions via unofficial demonstrations and blockades which in turn put pressure on UNITE to act officially.

A new generation will tend to adopt these kinds of methods as they see that, if they are to stand up to the employers, they cannot allow themselves to be hemmed in by the law.

The Doncaster Tesco lorry drivers and Sheffield Sova recycling strikes, along with other disputes, show how important Socialist Party interventions can be even when we have no members among the workforce.

47. This is a moment in history similar to the early 1920s when the capitalists proposed savage cuts in the living standards of the working class which eventually led to the 1926 general strike.

Faced with such a tsunami of attacks, even some of the most conservative trade union leaders are being forced to feint in the direction of co-ordinated strike action.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, declared to the Guardian (14 December 2012): "My very, very strong view is that the way in which we increase our strength is by coordinating our action." He added: "We have got grounds to take strike action on pay" given that " no government pay policy has last more than three and a half years without there being an explosion".

However, he also states that action should be co-ordinated "within sectors", so he is talking about another public-sector strike not a general strike.

And even this is some way down the road, as he says, "it may not be in the next few months". While another public sector strike would be a step forward, to be effective it would have to be part of a serious strategy of escalating militant strike action until the government retreats.

This is needed urgently. PCS is currently balloting for strike action in the spring, and the NUT is also considering action.

UNITE has moved left under Len McCluskey's leadership, and has pledged that, at least its members in the civil service, will strike alongside the PCS.

However, in the pensions' battle last year UNITE, as the smaller union in the public sector, tended to follow behind UNISON rather than, as is necessary, taking a lead and showing UNISON members what is possible.

48. Of course even a 24-hour general strike against austerity would not be guaranteed to force the government to retreat, never mind to call a general election, unless it was linked to a serious strategy for further action.

Nonetheless, unlike Southern Europe, Britain has not had even a warning general strike for over 80 years, and it would have a gigantic effect on boosting the confidence of the working class and its sense of its own power, while it would terrify the capitalists. Millions of currently unorganised workers would be attracted to the trade unions.

49. The right-wing leadership of the TUC will do all they can to prevent a 24 hour general strike taking place - it frightens them just as much as it does the capitalist class! In 1972, the last time the TUC was forced to set the date for a 24-hour general strike, it was the strikes developing from below which forced them into reluctant action.

Today the anger and bitterness of workers is as great, if not greater, than in 1972. However, the working class lacks confidence of its capacity to win.

It is not aware of its own power. At the same time, the trade union structures remain relatively empty.

While there is widespread support for the idea of a general strike (over 80% in one Guardian survey) it does not occur to the majority of trade union members to attend their branch meeting in order to demand such a strike.

50. The current trade union leadership are seen by many workers as, like relatives, perhaps infuriating but unchangeable.

This outlook is not permanent. In 2011 we saw the working class enter the field of battle for the first time in years, with mass participation in demonstrations, strikes and picket lines.

On the basis of experience workers will fight to force their union leaders to act, of if they can't to push them aside.

The potential for genuine trade union broad lefts, involving fresh layers of workers, is likely to grow in the next period.

51. The unity of Britain's trade union movement, organised in a single federation, is a very positive feature.

However, if the obstacle at the top remains unmoved the possibility of a split in the TUC will be posed at a certain stage.

Where the trade unions succeed in continuing to block struggle we have to be prepared for explosive new developments, even an element of South Africa coming to Britain.

We have already seen low-paid cleaning workers approaching the NSSN as if it is a trade union, as they search for a militant leadership.

As it grows in strength the NSSN will probably have to take on this role in a more systematic way, probably working together with those trade unions that are prepared to take the organisation of the unorganised seriously.

The RMT and the PCS have already done excellent work organising and fighting for cleaners in London. In the US young people first politicised in the Occupy movement are playing a role in the wild cat strikes, demanding a doubling of workers' pay, that have taken place in notoriously anti-union fast-food companies in New York. Similar developments will also take place in Britain.

52. The right-wing leadership of the TUC hold up the anti-trade union laws as a means to avoid action.

As we have explained many times, we are not in favour of taking unnecessary risks with trade union funds.

However, workers are facing the biggest attack on their living standards since the 1930s. To fail to lead a serious struggle in defence of workers' rights would be far more damaging to the trade union movement than anything the law courts could deliver.

And it is possible to go a long way towards a general strike even within the straitjacket of the anti-union laws.

53. If the TUC was to name the day for a 24-hour general strike against austerity, and to use all of its power to mobilise workers, it would get a huge response.

All unions that already had live ballots could plan to strike on the named day, while other groups of workers inspired by the call would want to ballot over the real issues in their workplace, which would also allow them to take part in the general strike.

Without doubt other workers, not currently in unions would also flock to take part. Whether the government or employers could use the law - either against those that hadn't balloted or to rule out ballots - would depend on the balance of forces.

Faced with the threat of a popular general strike, with a clear threat to immediately strike again if any workers or trade unions were victimised, the anti-union laws would be worthless.

54. The limits to how far the employers can use the anti-trade union laws are shown by the situation in UNITE.

Since McCluskey became general secretary not a single group of workers has received a letter of 'repudiation' for unlawful action.

Yet the government and employers have not dared to threaten UNITE with sequestration. Nor have the POA been threatened for their action in defiance of the law last May.

Many European countries have seen general strikes in the last year despite also having varying degrees of repressive anti-trade union laws and restrictions. These, however, have been swept away by the struggle.

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