Friday 4 July 2014

Austerity and Trade Union "Betrayal"

My comrade and former Twitter sparring partner Mark has a post up about the state of the anti-austerity movement after, well, four years of austerity. His basic argument is one I would concur with, albeit with some caveats. He confesses to feeling de ja vu ahead of next Thursday's public sector strike, an action that could see around two million workers take industrial action. He observes that while the cause is just and should be supported, workers are only striking for a single day. There is no joined up strategy to defeat austerity, nor a road map for what happens when people go back to work on July 11th. He sees it in a succession of set pieces of recent years - the TUC march, one-day strikes here and there, rallies down in London, and so on. Yet as time wears on the trade unions and the anti-austerity movement are stuck in a groove of doing the same thing and expecting different results each time.

I have some sympathy with Mark's argument. I said the same sort of things last year when the People's Assembly initiative launched. This from then:
I am tired of what appear to be cyclical motions of activity of the left and the labour movement. It goes something like this.

We start with an issue, say a looming unpopular war, a perceived deficit in working class political independence, or opposition to austerity.

An organisation or group of organisations hold an exciting and energising set of meetings. These are usually along the lines of a massive speakerthon in London - typically at Friends Meeting House or ULU. And followed by local launches elsewhere that often see leading figures of the new movement feature as special guests.

The immediate objective laid out by the Steering Committee is a big set piece event, such as a demonstration, a day of action, or a general election campaign.

Once that objective has been met and a Herculean effort pulled off by all concerned, the next target appears - a local mobilisation or another large set piece such as another national demo, another day of action, another set of elections.

For some, especially those who were tempered by the initial 'heroic' phase of the movement, start getting disillusioned. It might be because there's other things going on in their lives, or they're feeling a bit burned out, or their activity is appearing to have little appreciable effect, or, all three.

As disillusionment sets in for large numbers, people start dropping out of activity.

Those remaining, who by this point are inveterate protestors of all types and self-decribed revolutionary organisations, typically turn in and blame each other and the SWP for screwing it up. "If only the right leadership were present."
I think Mark and many activists of similar mind make two common related, but fundamental errors. The first point is sort of voluntarist. There is no strategy beyond the set pieces because the "trade union bureaucrats" want to keep a lid on things. The one thing the bureaucracy fears more than a Tory government with a fresh mandate is an active membership pushing for action. There might be an element of truth to this ... if you went back to the 1970s. Nowadays things have changed somewhat. These days your trade union full-timer is less a bureaucrat and more a full-time activist. Unfortunately, as the labour movement has declined paid employees have had to pick up the work once done by lay elected officials and trade unionists. It has increasingly fallen on them to do the representing and the organising. Scared of autonomous rank-and-file activity? Chance would be a fine thing, would come the reply. Mark's argument is premised on the opposite view. That the trade union apparatus is and continues to be a break on action, and that workers would brush austerity aside if only the right leadership were in place. This Trotsky-inspired position reduces all political questions to a matter of working class leadership. Sort this out and the rest will follow.

If only it was that easy.

I'm not going to go into great depth about the changed political economy of the working class. I've banged on about it for yonks. But when you have a whole class of wage and salary earners who are mostly outside of their trade unions, and those who are in them display low levels of combativity, political opportunities for big-P politics industrial action are somewhat circumscribed. If you want to talk about the less-than-optimal outcomes of most labour disputes, always pinning it on the "sell-out" antics of unspecified bureaucrats is an abstention from analysis - and for the Trot groups who should know better, betrays an infantile approach to industrial politics.

"Hold on a minute, you might be letting the trade union leaders and full-timers off the hook. Aren't you excusing inactivity? If the TU tops got their fingers out and showed a fighting lead, we can organise a fightback. Look at the late Bob Crow!" The most crucial resource trade unions have is solidarity, the capacity that when push comes to shove, members will respect the ballot decision and abide by it as a disciplined collective. When you lose disputes, the confidence underpinning solidarity erodes. Hence full timers and officials are relentlessly pragmatic. They know it is not a resource to be squandered. And this is doubly the case when we live in an era of industrial peace conditioned by labour movement weakness. If disputes are routinely patchily observed, if membership densities are low, if ordinary members' participation in union structures remains historically depressed, then you can understand why general secretaries pay zero heed to calls for immediate general strikes and indefinite action - let alone using trade union power as a weapon on issues not directly related to members' workplaces.

Sorry to be such a gloom, but disempowered working people and the restricted political opportunities this allows feeds into the treadmill of demos, one-day strikes, more demos, etc. It's not an inability to absorb lessons as such. Yet I remain fundamentally optimistic for a resurgent labour movement. Things cannot and will not stay the same forever. There is something in the air, a sense that the old ways are found increasingly wanting, that politics is disconnected and that working people are getting a raw deal. Presently UKIP and the anti-politics brigade are reaping the benefit, but why not our movement too?


Speedy said...

To achieve that I think you need to develop a new sense of identity and membership. You have to understand what your members really aspire to (gym membership? bargain hols?) and reflect that back. Weave the political agenda through this. You also have to demonstrate effectiveness.

I don't know much about how unions do that these days (I belong to one, but it is unbelievably obscure, although effective in its own way) but my bet is that they probably don't...

Boffy said...

"Presently UKIP and the anti-politics brigade are reaping the benefit, but why not our movement too?"

Because our movement has not presented workers with any kind of practical, immediate solution to their problems that workers find attractive. Why would workers simply accept as solutions proposals for their problems solutions they have seen and rejected in the past?

Thatcher was able to sell off council houses, because it was popular amongst council tenants who were fed up with the bureaucracy of state capitalist provision, and the fact that they couldn't get repairs done etc.

She sold off much nationalised industry because, as the Miners Strikes showed, this state capitalist property certainly had nothing to do with Socialism, and the state capitalist bosses had more power to exploit the workers than did the bosses of private capitalist enterprises, and the customers of many of these state capitalist enterprises found them as bureaucrat and inefficient as tenants found council house provision.

In many ways, this was just a scaled down version of the Stalinist prison that workers found themselves in in Eastern Europe. Its not surprising workers reject those solutions. They are quite right to do so. They have nothing to do with a Socialism that must be built by workers themselves from the bottom up.

Around the world, workers continue to do that, creating their own co-operative enterprises. Yet, instead of supporting that spontaneous working class activity, most of the Left rejects it - probably because it IS outside its control - and instead simply continues to ask workers to accept those old failed statist solutions.

markwrightuk said...

Hi phil thanks for sharing and linking to my article and blog. I always read your blog these days and especially enjoy the insights to parts of teh left as to how you see it being another former SP member it is interesting to hear your thoughts. Saying that this article doesnt really reflect my initial post accuratly . I must clarify i am no longer a trotskyist and no longer a member of the socialist party. Its atmosphere of blindly accepting what the leadership said without challenge and the constant we're right so join us and if not your all wrong mentality really put me and no doubt many others off. I eventually left due to a protracted course of bullying i'd say using my own words against me and trying to silence me from raising any criticisms .

My origianl blog was not saying the answer is we need a better union leadership although that would be nice that is not the point i was making. My line is not the standard trot line eitehr i think the problem with our unions at present and has been for some time now is of a structural position the conflicts between union boss's and your ordinary members who's interests are not the same in any shape or form. I would say my critique of the unions is probably closer to the anarcho syndicalist analysis of trade unions worth looking up i think it helps to understand a lot of why unions are the way theya re and why their structure allows that.. I put forward the proposal of a rank-and-file movement as a clue to building from the bottom up. Not to replace union leaders with better ones. hope that helps . keep up the good work comra