Sunday, 10 October 2010

Myth of General Strike

Syndicalist Bedfellows Seduced

YESTERDAY the Global Edition of the New York Times ran a story about last month's general strike in Spain entitled 'For Spanish labor, a dance of discontent'. The general tenor of this report tended to support the sceptical position taken by the syndicalists at the National Shop Stewards' Network (NSSN) steering committee meeting last weekend in London, when they challenged the proposal put by the Socialist Workers' Party members on this committee to work for a 24-hour general strike. This report says the Spanish 'general strike' was according to the analysts 'a well-choreographed dance in which unions could show their discontent with the measures (of the Spanish Government) without significantly damaging their natural ally, the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose popularity is at its weakest point since being elected.' I think that the argument of the British syndicalists to these types of 'general strikes' is that at worst they risk bringing the weapon of the general strike into disrepute in the eyes of the working class, and, at best, are a safety valve weakening serious social unrest. They are not like the British Poll Tax Riot, sometimes referred to over here these days by militants on the left, which was unpredictable and seriously shook the regime but they are a kind of fancy shadow boxing and the leaders of the NSSN should understand this. The vain hope expressed by the SWP mover of the motion in London that he wished that Britain was like Spain and had had six 'general strikes' since 1979, shows the mindless misunderstanding of some on the British left of Spanish politics because, in a way, last month's Spanish general strike demonstrated the impotence of the Spanish trade union movement.

Indeed, most accounts claim that the Spanish strike was not a 'rousing success' and in interviews given after the strike commentators note a certain curious 'concord in which the unions declared victory but could not point to specific concessions they expected to win from the government - while the Spanish labor minister praised the union's bargaining skills'. The Spanish Government measures have cut severance pay for fired workers and made it easier for companies to put workers on less hours in response to temporary drops in demand. There has been a reduction in the collective bargaining power of the unions as well. The unions also oppose the threat in the Socialist Government's proposed budget to raise the pension age from 65 to 67.

The Spanish 'general strike' was called on the 29th, September to co-ordinate with the other European demonstrations but it seemed to turn into pockets of unrest and protest across the continent and didn't have the impact of the Greek struggles earlier in the year. Nor are the Spanish workers united in their struggles, our sources inform us that in Madrid there were three separate demonstrations during the 'general strike': one by the main unions - the UGT and Workers' Commissions; one by the anarchist CNT; and another by the anarcho-syndicalist CGT. But Spain still has 20% unemployment according to the official statistics, though these figures do not take account of the normally thriving black economy in Spain; hence, the Socialist Government is in a weak position and a poll last week in the newspaper El Pais showed the Socialists trialing the conservative Popular Party by 15%.

The problem is that the British left is so aware of its own weakness that it feels a necessity to play-up the events in Spain or Greece to create for itself an ideal type example to aim to remedy our own situation, but very often they not comparing like-with-like and are usually using foreign appearances to overlook and escape from the very real nature of our own situation. In the end on the left we are often seduced by our own slogans and apparently exotic foreign events, and things like the myth of the general strike; which requires more thought and consideration than the SWP proposal offered us at last weekend's NSSN steering committee meeting.

UPDATE: this post is now attracting responses from SWP members, whose comments can be read after the full post here. Click here to read SWP supporter Geoff Brown's post on his blog.


bammy said...

Brian’s opposition to the call from SWP members for 'a 24-hour general strike' argues that it is premature and that members are not ready for it. He wants “less political drama, demos & street theatre & more concentration on grassroots development on the shop floor & in the workplace.”
Most of us would see this as a strange ‘either-or’. Generally, grassroots activity in the workplace and public protest go together. The thousands who turned out in the rain in Birmingham, carrying over a hundred union banners and including over two hundred from Manchester, talked afterwards about going home to build the grassroots and mobilise them in support of both local campaigns like that launched by the South Manchester Law Centre and the street activity on 20 and 23 October, following the Comprehensive Spending Review. When has any serious movement from below not brought people together on the streets?
Equally strange is Brian’s quoting the New York Times on the general strike in Spain on 29 September, as an elaborate ritual manipulating workers. Of course, Spain’s union leaderships have been pushing conciliation and ‘social partnership’ with their equivalent of a Labour government and they have much delayed calling this strike. The significance of the strike is precisely that it has been pressure from the rank and file that has forced the union leaders to call it and it has been the activity of the rank and file that has made it a success, with 16,000 shop stewards meeting in Madrid to prepare it, local assemblies in the bigger cities, postering and leafleting everywhere. On the day, millions struck, electricity use fell to Sunday levels, many thousands picketed, police attacked pickets, in one instance with warning shots using live ammunition.  Well over a million demonstrated on the afternoon of the strike, with slogans such as “Let the capitalists pay for the crisis.” Such mass action is a step forward.  It strengthens workers’ confidence and weakens the government and the bosses. If we are to defeat Cameron & Co, we need action like this.  A 24-hour general strike would be a huge step forward for us too. We need to start now to argue for it.  If not now, then when? If not us, then who?
In solidarity,
Geoff Brown
(You can follow Geoff Brown on his Blog “The Struggle Continues”:

bammy said...

Response from Steve Hester to Myth of General Strike:

I am sorry but this is not a helpful contribution to a debate on the way forward.

The British working class faces an unprecedented attack on our living standards and social gains  - the welfare state is being dismantled in front of us. There is a desperate need for active resistance from the labour movement, coupled with unity across all unions, between workers and service users, between British workers and migrants, between employed and unemployed. The proliferation of anti-cuts campaigns and the clear mood for serious resistance amongst groups of workers like London's tubeworkers and firefighters are very encouraging. The TUC policy for a national demonstration in the spring is extremely significant, however late in the day. It has the potential to become a unifying rallying point for the whole class. But a one-off national TUC demonstration is in reality a first step. Surely the role of the militant minority within the movement is to discuss how to raise the level of confidence and combativity of the whole class, and to put forward the socialist political alternative?

We face an attack on all fronts. We need unity and we need industrial action - the call for a general strike fits our situation very well. Brian's abstract contribution says nothing about the balance of forces in Britain and, strangely, offers no other strategic way forward - profoundly unhelpful.
In solidarity,

Simon Hester
London section secretary
Prospect HSE Branch

bammy said...

More distinguished critism of Bammy's post on the Myth Of the General Strike':

Further comment on the General Strike

Reply. Reference call for a General Strike.

I believe it is correct to work towards a General Strike in the Public sector initially. This does not mean we rule out all other forms of activity and we do not call for it in isolation. We have to see our
struggle as part of an international movement, also we must be wary that workers may move faster than we do.

The CON DEM attacks on the very basis of the Welfare State are unlike anything we have seen for generations, if they are successful we will
be pushed backwards to the period before the post war Labour Government. We have learnt from history that we cannot merely rely on
the TUC and the Labour Opposition to defend us, whilst of course working to influence the TUC tops we must build a mass movement from
the bottom up. Therefore an integral part of our campaign must be to call for a decisive lead from the TUC, including strike action,

Anti-Cuts campaigns are popping up all over the country and some sections of the trade union movement are considering strike action, we
cannot allow them to be isolated, it is crucial that we unify and link up all these actions otherwise we will be picked off one at a time. So,
I firmly believe that as part of an overall strategy for struggle the call for a General Strike is an important element of this strategy.

Terry Pearce

Defend Our Community Services (DOCS)
and UNITE Chair Bracknell

Rachel said...

The suggestion that ‘the working class’ is an homogenous entity where diverse groups like the public sector, industrial labour, unskilled workers, immigrants and the unemployed stand shoulder-to-shoulder against oppression is a joke.

The public sector in particular has long enjoyed an extremely privileged position in the labour market, where their only concern has been to defend their own perqs whilst the rest of us (‘native’ or immigrant) struggle on with temporary contracts, poor or non-existent union representation and minimum wage. But now their jobs and privileges are actually under threat, they have joined those demanding that the capitalists pay for the crisis, despite their own pivotal role in a working class ‘militancy’ over the last century that has been more about protecting the few crumbs tossed to a select few from the master’s table.

Let’s face it, for every worker prepared to go on strike, take to the streets or agitate in the workplace, there’s probably another ten who don’t want to ‘rock the boat’ for fear of jeopardising their individual position. That this is a situation is in dire need of address via vigorous grassroots action against capitalist brainwashing in not in doubt, but to suggest that the TUC is, or ever has been, a vehicle of empowerment here is much more of an abstraction than anything Brian has said.

Opposition to a general strike orientated around the demands of a vanguardist party or ‘militant minority’ prepared to work in tandem with a reformist labour movement is not counter-productive, it’s just realistic. Of course, it’s not a ‘magic bullet’ either but at least it’s not the same old tired ideologies trotted out (if you’ll pardon the pun) to set the plebs up for failure once again.

In fact, even Trotsky, still a poster boy for many modern-day ‘militants’ and by no stretch of the imagination a syndicalist, wrote in the immediate aftermath of the 1926 General Strike that “the entire present ‘superstructure' of the British working class, in all its shades and groupings without exception, is an apparatus for putting a brake on the revolution”; before demanding that the Comintern distance itself from the TUC. Later, in 1928, he said that “temporary agreements may be made with the reformists whenever they take a step forward. But to maintain a bloc with them when, frightened by the development of a movement, they commit treason, is equivalent to criminal toleration of traitors and a veiling of betrayal...”

And yet, even 90 years on (and with plenty more evidence for consistent betrayals of truly radicalised workers by reformist trade unionism and so-called ‘militants’) some people still want us to believe that ‘organised labour’ is unified in the face of a common enemy. Indeed, the suggestion that ‘we’ are now facing ‘an unprecedented attack on our living standards and social gains’ better represents the inability of certain labour/union aristocracies to maintain their bourgeois aspirations than the situation of the unskilled, low paid and ‘lumpen’, whose lot has perpetually been one of demoralisation, debt and depravation.

Ultimately, workers can’t have it both ways. They either come to accept that capitalism in all its guises is their enemy and work towards getting rid of it, or they tolerate consumerism as a milksop for their inferior position and bite down hard when the relative good times of ‘boom’ are replaced by their inevitable shafting in the bad times of ‘bust’.

bammy said...

What do Geoff Brown et al above, mean by their proposal for a '24-hour general strike' in the British context? They mean, I presume: a token strike lasting 24 hours called by the TUC. What's wrong with that? Well, from Madrid my reports suggest a big demo during the day-long 'general strike' but no sign of concrete gains by the unions.

Geoff argues: 'Such mass action is a step forward' and that 'A 24-hour general strike would be a huge step forward for us too'. But the reality is that here it would be a step backwards to something like the TUC 'Day of Action' that was characteristic of the late 1970s and 80s. Geoff further claims: 'It (the 24-hour general strike) strengthens workers’ confidence and weakens the government and the bosses.' I'm not convinced and I think it would probably lead to disillusionment if it turned out to be half baked, and if so, it would bring the weapon of the general strike into disrepute.

The situation in France is different in that the unions there have targeted their actions more thoughtfully; strangling the country's oil supplies. Their unions have organised rolling strikes and engaged in ongoing cat and mouse actions with the government. With one in three fuel stations having run dry Sarkozy last night sent in riot police to lift the blockade at three fuel depots, in Donges, La Rochelle and Le Mans. All this suggests a certain cunning and nous lacking in the British and Spanish trade unions.

My original post brought forth several criticisms, one from my old mate the former miner and revolutionary syndicalist, Dave Douglass, he wrote: 'I wouldn't censure you or anyone, but I agree with them (my SWP critics) on this occasion, you are very negative and a total wet blanket at times, if you've got nowt constructive, helpful or supportive to say, keep ya gob shut man.' Why would I keep mi gob shut about a daft idea like a British 'one-day general strike'? Despite what Geoff Brown says about 'the thousands who turned out (to demonstrate) in the rain in Birmingham, carrying over a hundred union banners and including over 200 from Manchester' who 'talked afterwards about going home to build the grassroots and mobilise them in ... both local campaigns ... and street activity on ... 23, October, following the Comprehensive Spending Review', the protests are only in the low thousands: 2,000 turned out yesterday in London to support a TUC demo. The activists at Birmingham may talk about going home to 'mobilise them (the grassroots)' as if they are sergeant majors commanding the Red Army, but the reality is a bit different on the shopfloor or among the binmen I represent and I don't see them looking forward to a one-day general strike even if it would have any effect. Dave Douglass knows the problem better than anyone: in his autobiography he tells us of a strike and occupation by workers at Lawrence Scott (Mining Supplies) in April 1981, in Manchester – supplying the Doncaster coalfield with cutting machinery - in which the strikers asked Dave's Hatfield Main branch and other NUM branches nationally for support. Dave Douglass writes: 'Arthur Scargill spoke against support' and 'countrywide blacking of all M[ining] S[upplies] products', arguing that 'the miners would not be used as the muscle to win everyone else's battle.' Here Dave is talking about the most militant leader (Scargill) of the most militant trade union (NUM) at a time (April 1981) when the British trade union movement was confident and even then, solidarity and responsibility to other workers was not spontaneous or instinctive.

Readers will have to decide how typical Arthur Scargill's attitude here is of the British working class as whole, but this incident suggests we're in for hard time, and it will take more than some spirited calls from the SWP or the National Shop Stewards Network to mobilised the British working class in a general strike.

bammy said...

Another comment from an activist on the Myth of the General Strike:

My pennys worth is that all the blokes I work immediately with ( or at least the main talkers in a yard of a dozen people) are saying they won't ever do another one day strike. We had 3 over London Weighting, we had a 1 and a 2 and a 3 day over Pensions and numerous before. In the twenty years I've been here we've been out for over a month in one or two dayers (20 working days) and won nothing. They say (entirely correctly) we need an indefinite strike as only that will work. However, if it was a genuine general strike/one dayer they would of course come out.

BUT I work with mainly men of an average age of 45 (maybe more) with a strong trade union/class concious/Old Labour mentality. IS it the case that for younger and less experienced workers we need to start with lower calls than for indefinite strikes? I have no experience to call that.

Glyn unison shop steward, hackney homes, estates maintenance

bammy said...

Comment from S.C. on token 'general strikes'

Very good point re how fed up most workers are with useless one day strikes (or even two day). To acheive anything it has to be allout. Easy for me to say I suppose...SC