Thursday 25 August 2022

General Strikes

Since being involved in politics, I don't think there's ever been a time when the Trades Union Congress has commanded much attention. But this was the situation for a brief time on Tuesday. Its Twitter account declared there was a big announcement coming at 10.30 that evening, and duly from several corners of the internet-travelling left we saw speculation that it was about to call a general strike. The hour of decision struck and ... it was a campaign for a £15/hour minimum wage. A lot of people were disappointed, quite understandably. But how realistic is a general strike call from the TUC, and the prospect of one taking place?

There are three things that have given this legs. Asked by a clueless reporter about whether British workers should hold a general strike, in an interview early on in the rail workers' dispute Mick Lynch said it was a matter for the TUC but the RMT would support one if they called it. In British political culture, it's the done thing for leading trade unionists to be apologetic about strikes and are expected to damp things down. For the best known general secretary in the country to gesture toward wider action breaks with the received industrial consensus, similar to how Jeremy Corbyn broke political wisdom in 2015. Second, because the RMT have had wide publicity, are commanding popular support in the polls, and other groups of workers are either striking (including wildcat action in Amazon), balloting, or threatening to take action, the horizon of the entire labour movement is lifting. Most of the strikes are defensive as bosses look to chop wages and lay staff off, but some notable successes - such as Unite winning big at British Airways, and victory in the long-running bin dispute with Coventry City Council - have had a catalysing effect. The cost of living crisis is also stiffening resolve, as is the continued ineptitude of the Tory party and its leadership candidates' refusal to be drawn on how to tackle energy bills. There's a combination of having one's back against the wall and a growing awareness that collective action can address the problem - because there's no other way.

And then we have social media. This is more than the enthusiasm for Mick Lynch/Eddie Dempsey viral content, but from many thousands of people a desire for a general strike. After two pretty awful years of ruthless attacks by and rearguard skirmishes against the Labour right, the seemingly sudden eruption of strike action has had a galvanising effect. What was previously closed off now seems immediately possible. A focus on a narrow, conventional politics has become immeasurably broadened to the point where Keir Starmer and his equivocations are irrelevant. But as with all things social media, they come with a note of caution. For as long as Twitter has become a thing, so have the warnings about its being an echo chamber. The confluence of the like minded with identarian politics creates recursive universes with their own dynamics and perceptual filters. It's not that the "outside" doesn't impinge, but what does tend to predominate is a preference - and not always a conscious one - for mistaking the intentional community for the wider community. If something has gravity on Twitter, it necessarily reflects attitudes out there. The consequence is often an underestimation of difficulties and an overestimation of opportunity. Acceleration wins over deceleration and patience.

The general strike call is of this character. Wouldn't it be wonderful to see the ruling class quake as the labour movement unleashes its collective power by going out all at once? Yes. Having the last 40 years of retreat wiped out at a stroke is heart stopping stuff. But should isn't could. Consider the extraordinary efforts that have gone into the RMT's action. Activists have had to work hard over decades to ensure militant trade union consciousness is the default setting among its members. The same is true of all the other workers balloting and entering into dispute. Even wildcat actions have years of simmering resentment and activity underpinning spontaneous walk outs. The process of building workers' confidence to win a ballot and strike takes time, and while that process doesn't have a set length and can be longer or shorter, depending on circumstances, it cannot be short circuited.

What of the practicalities of a general strike itself? Returning to the TUC, as an aggregate of the trade union movement as a whole, at best it is a condenser of the general attitude among all affiliated unions. Or, to be more accurate, of the full time apparatuses that run them. And at its worse, the TUC only goes as far as the most conservative bureaucracies allow. And this is because a general strike immediately puts into question who rules. The 1926 General Strike starkly showed how Britain is run by workers (albeit not for workers), but that the TUC general council had no interest in keeping the strike going until dual power was widespread. With the consciousness of trade union leaders structurally at odds with that of the workers, they were able to demobilise before the moment of decision was reached. Famously, the miners were left on their own until starved back to work - a defeat they did not fully recover from until the early 1970s. As recent experience in the Labour Party shows, it's difficult to win if those with significant institutional power have no interest in winning. On the continent, where general strikes are a more regular occurrence, they tend to be strictly time limited - usually only for a day - and are linked to very specific, economistic campaigns and demands. Trade union apparatuses use them as a means of cooling workers off. They are held to try and limit, not expand class consciousness.

To be sure, a one day general strike in this country given the weakness of the labour movement would be a major step forward. But what would it be for, and how to ensure it wouldn't be a damp squib? People won't go on strike against the Tories, and in 1926 the call was obeyed as the TUC called the other unions out in support of the miners. If it's small and barely observed, that only exposes the weakness of the labour movement and would embolden its enemies. It's a recipe for despair and demobilisation, and would severely limit the appetite for further action - as any student of the defeats of the 1980s would tell you. Therefore, despite what several thousand likes and retweets, and a whole day as a trending topic might suggest, the preparation for and the consequences of a general strike is never a light minded affair. It is not the industrial equivalent of calling a demonstration and having good numbers turn up with placards and banners to listen to speakers. It's the heaviest weapon our movement has, and as such takes a lot of time to move and prepare.

The moment is far from ripe for a general strike, but not for industrial action per se. The task for the left now is to push for action wherever we have influence - workers should not be paying for the inflation crisis. We should be building solidarity with striking workers, bridging work forces, and the Enough is Enough campaign offers a way of doing this. And building public support for action, especially the prospect of coordinated action. Right now, getting one's hopes up and calling for a general strike must be tempered by the necessity for the strikes we have now to succeed. If our movement wins, everyone wins. And if they lose, we all lose, and a general strike will remain a fantasy for a good while longer.

Image Credit


Robert Dyson said...

"The consequence is often an underestimation of difficulties and an overestimation of opportunity".
Wisdom from Phil. Good article.

Graham said...

In the UK, calls for a General Strike have always been a sign of weakness rather than strength and often used by the right of the trade union movement as an excuse for doing nothing.

For instance, throughout the miner's strike a General Strike was counterposed to taking concrete solidarity action like blocking the movement of coal.

The current talk about a General Strike is gesture politics and recognisation that, outside a small number of sectors, the trade union movement is werless.