Building at the Base

Strike Wave

22nd May 2023
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How should revolutionaries interact with the strike wave?

We are in the middle of a massive upswing of strike action. Days lost to strikes are higher than at any point in a generation. Public support for Unions is at a near all time high (rising to hegemonic proportions in millennials and zoomers) and the last 5 years have seen modest but consistent growth in union density after 3 decades of consistent decline.Unions are popping up in brand new employers and sectors (excitingly including Amazon and other areas of the precarious economy) and traditionally densely unionised sectors are seeing a rebuilding of membership and combativeness.

We also have a new generation of trade union secretaries who have taken steps to halt the years of stagnation and failed ‘partnership’ agreements with employers.Sharon Graham of Unite won a surprise election against the establishment left candidate to become general secretary of Unite. In her short time as secretary, sections of the union have been in near contestant dispute with various employers. Huge financial resource has been diverted away from vanity projects and bungs to the Labour Party and funnelled direct in to the sustentation of strikes.

The size and frequency of Unite’s recent wins - often delivering inflation busting pay rises - is also notable.Along with Graham, Mick Lynch has won over swathes of the public to trade unionism with his straight talking, class focussed defence of strike action and attacks on inequality.These are exciting times. We are at the start of rebuilding genuine working class counterpower. But as our class begins the slow, painful task of reasserting it’s power, revolutionaries of all stripes are faced with the massive task of ensuring that our movement stays in the control of the rank and file.

As much as some Union bosses have provided a breath of fresh air, as well as renewed engagement and confidence, there is still plenty of dross out there. Too many union chiefs have been quick to suspend strike action at the first whiff of a joke concession. And even those union bosses who radicals may feel personal sympathy towards are still beholden to the same structural limitations inherent in trade unions.Union beurocracies by their very nature serve as a mediating layer between workers and capital. Sometimes their strength is such that they extract more than capital was willing to concede, whilst other times it is their job to persuade workers to concede pitiful agreements on behalf of the employer class in the name of safeguarding at ‘seat at the table’.

The extent to which unions serve the interests of workers or bosses, and the extent to which they can become catalysts for revolutionary anti-capitalist activity depends almost entirely on the level of independent rank and file activity and confidence.Whilst no radical can be anything but inspired to be a part of this moment, we are faced with some clear threats and challenges.After decades of dormancy and with a new, young membership, many amongst us will have forgotten the lessons of previous generations of struggle.During these past periods of struggle, strong, independent, often cross union committees of rank and file workers understood the nature of union beurocracies and stood ready to defy them, refuse to concede to compromises and support the base to deliver action beyond what the union chiefs were willing to offer.

As we are seeing in the NHS, if we leave it to union bosses, workers will walk away from disputes with less than they could have won... ■

Anon (A Trade Union Member)

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