Solidarity is Not Enough

Strike Wave

26th May 2023

Up to half a million workers in the biggest industrial action in a decade; the number of days lost to strikes biggest since the Thatcher era; largest strike in the history of the health service; worst year for strike action since 1989. Calls for indefinite strikes, hashtag #generalstrike trending. 

There’s an image been going the rounds of left circles for a while – four identical photos of a woman sitting, head down and miserable, by a production line – the captions, “before Brexit, after Brexit, before the election, after the election”. It could as well say, “before the pandemic, after the pandemic” and I’m surprised I haven’t seen someone do that. 

The pandemic gave focus and force to a movement against the intensification of work. The four-day week, the 6-hour day, rising complaints about work-life balance and burnout, demands for hybrid work, all threaten employers’ attempts to recoup the financial cost of Covid. For some there has been a reintensification of work after a period of relative ease working from home. For all of us, realities of life before and after the pandemic have given the lie to the tentative freedoms many of us felt and cautiously explored during the lockdown. The significance of the resistance against work discipline could be seen by the slew of articles in the business and right-wing press in the past year condemning an irresponsible and selfish horde of quietly quitting, millennial serial quitters. After the lockdown, there is a swell of feeling for a deintensification of work. 

Threats to the value of shareholder returns must be dealt with so in response to these sentiments, we have a manufactured crisis – the Bank raised interest rates to trigger an artificial recession to reimpose work discipline via the cost-of-living. This has sparked widespread anger, and the traditional organs of the Left have mobilised to take the reins. The fightback against austerity has been union-led. Public sympathy for the strikes has been strong, but moral support, coins in collection buckets or posts on social media won’t address the wider issue, and nor will marches and rallies. Last summer, an RMT comrade from Bristol AFed commented, If passengers, staff and all workers across the country come together … but despite those early, heady days of chatting to fellow workers on picket lines,  there is a vanishingly small chance of this now. The government’s anti-strikes bill is likely to keep future union demands – and action – modest.

The hashtag #generalstrike is over-optimistic and workers’ self-management is not on the table. The current wave of strikes is not about how the economy is run, but about workers having some say in how the proceeds of the economy are distributed. Union bureaucracies will settle for a few gains, retain authority over their members and then want to see this wave of solidarity and militancy fade into the background routine. Meanwhile, pay rises can be absorbed by productivity deals and changes to conditions so that returns to shareholders are maintained. Away from the workplace, pay rises can be absorbed by inflation until the anti-work wave is deemed to have dispersed, discipline has been reimposed and we’ve been put back in our box – and then the recession will magically go away. 

If the strikes win, they will lead to a new round of maneuvers as capital accommodates to the cost. Employers’ losses to pay rises can be reabsorbed by capital, but demands for the deintensification of work are not so easy for capital to accommodate. There have been some gains, and workers getting pay rises and workers showing solidarity for each other is a wonderful thing to see and part of. But the present moment is about more than only pay rises. The price of goods is based on struggles over the price of labour, and the cost-of-living crisis is both capital’s response to the cost of Covid and to the rise of anti-work sentiment. For the first time ideas around the abolition of work are in the mainstream. Workers want more of the freedoms they saw revealed during the pandemic – including essential workers who saw others enjoying those freedoms but were unable to themselves – when a portal briefly opened, and another world was glimpsed. Time and energy are essential to a life worth living, and we must claw them back. The ‘cost-of-living crisis’ is capital’s answer to this threat. Employers fear giving us more time or more power on the job – these losses cannot be so easily reabsorbed.

In response to capital’s offensive, there is a crisis of action and a crisis of creativity, and a resort to using the same old tactics. These tactics won’t break the chain of capital consuming labour to produce surplus value, and workers consuming goods and services to reproduce themselves again as labour. There is little if any chance of using union organs to promote self-management. The unions have relied on patchwork strikes, a few days here, a few days there. UCU leadership came under fierce criticism from its members in calling off one week of these rolling strikes when the employers tabled a pay offer. Another pay offer has seen the RMT call off its next planned one-day action. The RCN has broken ranks with the GMB and Unison in shooting for a separate pay deal. EIS and the CWU have suspended strike action and are accepting employer-imposed ‘revision of conditions’ as part of their own pay deals. The unions face dwindling fighting funds and the government’s new anti-strike bill. The ultimate objective of the unions is to seek an accommodation with capital before their strike funds are too diminished and the new bill comes into force. 

Independent industrial unions have made some recent gains and perhaps the future might see more small, privatised providers being targeted by syndicalist unions, but their impact is sure to remain modest. There have been some successes at unionising within private contractors in e.g., the education industry and pay deals have been won, but these are likely just to put them in line with other providers. Meanwhile, there are calls from within the trades unions to use union organs to build indefinite strikes. The UCU, for example, has a £30m fighting fund, and even at a daily cost of c.£250,000 could maintain an all-out strike for far longer than the employers could bear. For the union bureaucracy this is not on the table, occupation of admin buildings is clearly beyond the grounds of acceptable behaviour, and building a fighting industry-wide alliance with the Students’ Union or Unite and Unison which represent non-academic staff has never been under serious consideration. In the health service the RCN’s move has broken what seemed the strongest industry-wide alliance in the current strike wave.

It may be that resistance to the Minimum Service Bill will see ‘passengers, staff and all workers across the country’ coming together in a moment the like if which we haven’t seen since the Poll Tax or the Iraq War – but not if it is led by the traditional organs of the Left, with trusted Labour MPs parachuted in to steer it away from the open seas. The curse of the trades unions is representation. Recently, a comrade from the SAC commented that union members cannot be like a football team sitting in the stands hoping the coach will win the matches and I am now remembering the immediate and unprecedented outbreak via social media at the beginning of the first lockdown of neighbours spontaneously organising to check on and support vulnerable people in their communities. We didn’t need representatives to do that for us, we just upped and did it.

The government’s anti-strikes bill is intended to keep future union demands – and action – modest. Rank-and-file anger over limited gains made in the current strike wave may see the question begging, ‘how hard will workers fight against the bill i.e., fight for the unions?’ Or will future struggles see them bypass a hamstrung bureaucracy and fight on terrain of their own making? In the article quoted above, the Swedish comrade also commented, Creative workers find alternatives to striking. Victories over pay are not to be sniffed at, and perhaps more-so victories over casualisation and precarity, if there will be any. But creative alternatives are needed if we are to keep alive ideas of having control over our lives, and the deintensification of work. ■

Northumbria IWW

Audio reading by Nufi

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