THESES ON THE TRADE UNIONS IN BRITAIN
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Theses on the Trade Unions in Britain
The Formation of the Trade Union Movement
The Test of War on the Labour Movement
From Slump to War
Trade Unions - open Collaboration all the way
The Re-emergence of Class Struggle
Theses on the Trade Unions in Britain
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1. There are three fundamental characteristics of the trade union movement in Britain. The first one has been that trade unions arose at the same time as the first stirrings of the organised proletarian political movement. In a word: in Britain the unions came first, before the formation of a proletarian political movement. Deprived of any model or experience to follow, the early trade unions had to learn through practice, faced as they were with an ascending capitalist system.
For the period of their formation we must go back at least to the end of the 18th century, to the workers' clubs and their ingenuous and open-handed efforts which included clandestine actions and violent class struggle.
2. The second fundamental characteristic of the trade union movement in Britain is its historical continuity. Despite many, and vicious, attempts to break these unions, they were able to exist from the first half of the 19th century. Thus the trade union movement has survived intact organisationally, and has been destroyed neither through war nor fascism.
3. The third fundamental characteristic of the trade unions in Britain has been that they were the first ones to be corrupted by the bourgeoisie. From the point when the trade unions were made legal in the 1820s, having failed to just disappear according to the desires of free market economists, open efforts were made to suborn, neutralise and / or buy out the trade union leadership. But the need to ruthlessly exploit the work force meant they could not buy off the bulk of the workers, and so an incessant class struggle took place right throughout the 19th century.
The Formation of the Trade Union Movement
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4. The Trade Unions which were able to survive from the first half of the last century were exclusively craft organisations. The craft skills of these workers also made them indispensable to the employers, so most employers tried to avoid conflicts with them. The skilled workers formed their own clubs or societies to further their own sectional interests. It can be taken as a general assumption that these skilled clubs, or unions, stayed out of the Chartist Movement, especially during the stormy year of 1848, except for the honourable involvement of skilled engineers in the 1842 struggles.
The second half of the 19th century saw the trades unions taking the road of legality and compromise, following the cue from the 'new model' union of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, formed out of the absorption of smaller bodies in 1850-1. The 'new model' union set the pattern for later developments, centralisation of funds and resources into a central body. We do not criticise this centralisation as such; but because it was used increasingly to take away the initiative away from the members, and regions, and concentrate decision making into the hands of those later to be openly corrupted by the bourgeoisie, just as it is today.
5. The TUC, when set up by craft trade unions, was already a corrupt and hostile class enemy for the working class as a whole. References to the English Trade Union leaders made by Marx at the Hague Congress, about it being an honour not to be such a trade union leader, is sufficient to underline this. This TUC, a collection of craft unions, was quickly taken in tow by the Liberal Party. The Trade Union leaders already had their eyes on Parliamentary seats, at lease those with good political connections.
6. The common name for the economic organisations of the workers in the British Isles has been that of trade unions. Strictly speaking there are three types of such unions:
Trades Unions - the organisation of craft / skilled workers into unions protecting their own insular economic interests, e.g. plumbers, carpenters, printers, etc.
Industrial Unions - only able to survive from time to time in the Nineteenth Century, and combining all those in specific industries, but excluding skilled workers, who remained members of their own unions since they could move from industry to industry.
General Unions - few in number (two survive in name only) and generally united mainly the non- and semi-skilled in industries not already organised. These had to fight fierce battles to even exist - the gasworkers union, helped by Eleanor Marx was a case in point.
7. The industrial unions composed those workers who worked continuously in the same industry and had acquired thereby some skills: often referred to as semi-skilled. The nature of the semi- skills is such as to make it difficult for the employers to easily replace them. The types of industries covered here are the railways and the mines.
8. The General Unions were known originally as New Unions, were formed and extended in the 1880s and 1890s. They were the product of large-scale struggles, such as those fought by the gasworkers and dockers, and had to fight to remain in existence. Temporary employment was often a characteristic of these industries.
Eighteen Eighty-eight saw the strike of the match-girls at Bryant & May - followed 1889 by the memorable strikes of the Gas workers and Dockers. The Dockers in London held out for sixpence per hour - «the full round orb of the docker's tanner» - against the importing of blackleg labour. Threats of a General Strike, and more importantly large-scale funds from fellow workers of Australia, helped tip the balance in favour of the dockers. In 1890 the strike movement spread Northward, encouraging those who had not been able to maintain an organised existence until then. In some cases they were able to survive, in others they lost ground, like that of the Gasworkers and the Agricultural Workers.
9. In 1890 the leaders of the New Unions took their organisations into the TUC. The leaders of the old unions were intent on keeping their control over the TUC. By-and-large the rift between the two tendencies, «old» craft union and «new» unions, can be characterised as the former being for the alliance with the Liberal Party and the latter being influenced by the socialist movement. The tussle between the two tendencies resulted in the formation of what is often called the Labour Movement. Changes to accommodate these two tendencies led to the centralising of authority into the union leaderships constituted into the TUC. Local bodies, the Trades Councils, had much of their organising powers restricted - they were deprived of any authority in negotiations with employers over wages, and lost the capacity to officially organise strikes.
10. By 1900 the entire ruling class, excepting for a few odd-balls, recognised that the trade unions were here to stay and had to be lived with. Most union members still could not vote in Parliamentary or local elections, but this mass membership attracted the attention of the bourgeois parties. The Liberals had it mostly sewn up, but the Tories had made attempts to win over «Labour» leaders to their side, even making funds available for the Hyndmanite Social Democratic Federation to stand against the Liberals in order to split the vote.
But this «living» with the unions did not mean that attempts were not made to curtail the organisation and influence of them in the workplaces. This same year, 1900, saw a strike in South Wales over the victimisation of a signalman who had previously led a movement for a pay rise. The Railways Company then took the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants to Court claiming damages and costs. The first Court agreed with the Employers, the Appeal Court found for the Union, finally the House of Lords found once again for the Employers. The Taff Vale Judgement sent a shudder through the ranks of union leaderships - funds could be under threat because of strikes.
The Trade Union leaders now felt the need to look at the legal standing of their organisations - it was no longer a fight for existence, but one for stability. Electoral alliances were now sought out - the old alliance with the Liberals was put to the test. As it became clear that legal protection of union against claims for damages was not going to come through the Liberal Party, shifts of political allegiance started to take place. The setting up of a Labour Representation Committee was purely for limited issues of legislation, and it was on this basis that the Labour Party was being formed. This Labour Party at no time ever had any notion of socialism, social change, nor even class struggle, as it was always there as a party purely of reform.
11. The alterations of the electoral alliances did not solve the problems unions faced before the Courts. Conflicts between the unions and employers over the rights to strike, particularly with regards to the Taff Vale judgement, was a bone of contention between the Union leaders and politicians, but this did not prevent the cooperation of the unions and the state. This was demonstrated by the National Insurance Act of 1911 in which health, unemployment and pension benefits were made available through the contributions of the government, employers and workers. It only really benefited those who could afford it and were in regular employment.
12. The growing collaboration between Union Leaders on Commissions, minor Government posts, etc., did not prevent the class struggle going on at unprecedented levels. The period 1910-3 saw massive strikes, both in Britain and in Ireland, begun mainly as unofficial movements until the Union leaderships moved in to curtail them. Some of the strikes were violent, at least on the part of the employers and the State. Police and troops were used in Dublin, Liverpool and other cities to combat the strikers and maintain order.
13. Those Union leaders who were the most involved in this unofficial movement, such as Tom Mann and James Larkin, where influenced by Syndicalism. This syndicalism, a mixture of the ideas of Sorel in France and De Leon in the United States, was a reaction both to the open class collaboration of Trade Union leaders as well as the deplorable Parliamentarian types involved in the development of the Labour Party. The conclusion of this sort of syndicalism was in the replacing of the old leaders with new, and better, less corruptible, leaders.
The Test of War on the Labour Movement
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14. At the outbreak of the First World War what was becoming known in Britain as the Labour Movement - the TUC with its political representatives in the Labour Representation Committee - turned out to be extremely safe for the bourgeoisie, social chauvinist to the core. Their defencism of the state and ruling class has been unshaken, right throughout the Second World War and all the other crises affecting «our Country».
15. Those who fought against the war almost from the start were those who had a clear perspective of advancing the interests of the workers before the war broke out. Those who wavered before August 14th 1914 were generally the ones who rushed headlong into supporting the war and defending 'Our Country' once the war broke out.
16. Other expressions of class struggle arose, in the form of shop stewards and works committees (direct representatives of the workers on the shop floor, as opposed to union representatives from the outside) because of the direct conflict between capital and labour within the factories. Even though some of the issues were clearly counter-productive, like the opposition to «dilutees» (preventing unskilled workers taking up skilled work) by and large they reflected a growing mood of discontent amongst workers. Shop stewards had made an appearance before the war, but the local employers had effectively stamped them out before they could take a hold. During the course of the war the shop stewards led the agitation for wage rises, because inflation was reducing the real wages of workers, leading to stoppages of work often of two weeks duration. The employers would have liked to have fought this out, but the demands of war curbed their zeal for lock-outs and victimisation. Although not a revolutionary movement in itself, these shop stewards and works committees represented a desire to continue the economic battles despite the war.
The struggles over wages and conditions continued after the war, right throughout the period 1918-22. The total union membership topped 8 million in 1921, the number of days affected by strikes never much less than 20 million during this period. Unofficial strikes were largely because of the existence of the shop steward movement; but many of the big strikes were official because the trade union leaders perceived there were sectional interests to be defended.
17. It would be logical to expect that those who were most consistent in their opposition to the war, and in fighting out the class struggle, would form the natural constituent of a Communist Party in Britain. That was not to be. The main component in forming the Communist Party of Great Britain turned out to be the British Socialist Party, an organisation which was far from having had a record of involvement in the class struggle. When the BSP was formed, it took up a hostile position towards the industrial struggles of 1910-13. The opposition to «industrial» as against that of «political» issues (which was in fact little more than involvement in the lowest levels of the state administration), was matched by a virulent hostility to «German Expansion», and by a patriotic defencism. The BSP was late in its conversion to an anti-war position, beginning with the expulsion of the Hyndmanites in 1916, and lacking in its involvement in the industrial struggles which went on during the war, especially towards the end.
But even more serious was the fact that the BSP, which was an affiliated body to the Labour Party, having a seat reserved on its Executive Committee, wanted to remain in the Labour Party. This issue effectively disrupted the negotiations to unite all the potential revolutionary forces into a single Communist Party, and even those who accepted the discipline imposed by Moscow to join despite the issue of affiliation to the Labour Party, soon found themselves expelled before the year was out.
18. In 1920, the year of the founding of the CPGB, a Red International of Labour Unions (known as Profintern) was set up in Moscow. There was only limited success in influencing some Shop Stewards and Works Committee, however influence amongst some sections of miners became apparent. This inability to make large-scale inroads into the existing unions showed the fault line within the existing economic organisations in Britain. Bodies such as shop stewards and works committees were hostile to the centralised existing unions, especially as the union leaders saw shop floor organisations as a threat to their authority. As the Labour Party was the 'political representatives' of the trade unions, these shop floor organisations tended to be hostile to the Labour Party as well.
19. Towards the end of 1921, changes took place in the policies from Moscow. The Third Congress launched the United Front, not what we envisaged it in Italy as a Workers United Front, the united front from below (that is through economic organisations - the trade unions), but as an alliance of political parties. Back the CPGB went to try to get into the Labour Party. Even after secret attempts at horse-trading, it all came to nothing. Eventually the secret minutes were published which showed that the CPGB were prepared to abandon all of Moscow's principles and policies, just for the control of an MP or two. In fact the CPGB showed its contempt in practice for the Comintern by saying it wanted to turn the Labour Party into the Communist Party.
20. By 1923 the British Bureau of Profintern undertook a sharp about turn. No organised opposition in the existing unions were henceforth to be tolerated. The Red Union strategy was abandoned without a word of explanation. No thought was given to tactical considerations, nor to the needs of the workers involved, who were supposed to observe discipline to the Leaders of these unions, even when they operated as strike-breakers. The strategy put forward was that of trying to influence trade union leaderships, with or without any real organisation of the workers into a class force. And so in 1924 the Minority Movement, an electoral machine within the unions, was launched.
21. The launching of the Minority Movement represented a shift in Moscow's position, having recognised that affiliation to the Labour Party had failed; the way to the British workers was, as Zinoviev put it, «through the wide portals of the trade unions». The CPGB went to the task with wild abandon, seeking to affiliate bodies, such as trade union branches and Trades Councils, to the Minority Movement. At the same time overtures were being made to «left-wing» trade union leaders, even to the TUC's General Council as a whole. Trade Union leaders were praised and lobbied, taken to Russia where they were feted and glorified - and so the ill-fated Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee was experimented with.
In 1925 the British ruling class was not ready for a conflict and so they deferred the brewing fight with the miners for nine months. The apparent 'retreat' of the Government, by holding a Royal Commission, was hailed as a victory - Red Friday. The miners were to pay a heavy price, a bitter nine month strike, the following year.
22. Apparently the CPGB thought that the trade union movement could substitute for the Soviets in a revolution, but this strategy was to fall apart in the 1926 General Strike. Besides having mixed up the roles of trades unions and soviets, as if they are interchangeable, the CPGB did not realise that to prepare the workers for a fight meant empowering the bodies through which they would organise the struggles. To have done this would have led to a rift between the union branches and their leaderships, as well as an equal rift between the Trades Councils and the TUC. The CPGB was calling for the Trades Councils to become Councils of Action, organising centres for a General Strike, while still subordinated to the TUC's General Council. Anybody with any sense would have realised that the TUC would cut and run at the first sign of a real fight, calling for everybody to return to work!
From Slump to War
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23. The failure of the General Strike subdued the British workers for many years. But they were still not broken, with strikes still repeatedly breaking out. The issue outstanding for the workers' movement was what role would a majority Labour Government play. The experience of the Second Labour Government, 1929-31, demonstrated for all to see that emancipation of labour would not come via the ballot box.
24. After the General Strike the TUC began its own reorganisation. During 1928-9 direct talks between a representative of the employers (Mond, Chairman of I.C.I) and Turner, Chair of the TUC, cleared the air between the two camps. Nothing directly came of these talks except that Sir Alfred Mond clarified the point that the employers saw it as in the interests of all in industry that workers be allowed to be members of trade unions.
The CPGB by this time was in the grips of another Moscow inspired about-turn. This was the period of «social fascism», when the existing Labour leaders had to be denounced as just as bad, if not worse than, the fascists. This policy lasted until the victory of Hitler in Germany in 1933. A later change, to that of the United Front against fascism, which again made overtures to Labour Leaders, was greeted with the infamous «Black Circular» of 1934, which banned CP members from posts within trade unions and the Trades Councils, even after the Minority Movement and related bodies had been discarded.
25. Individual trade unions began their own form of reorganisation, funds often being at a precarious level after the General Strike. In the case of the Transport workers unions a reorganisation took place, forming the Transport and General Workers Union, the third largest union, during this period. The leader of this reorganised union, Ernest Bevin (a sponsor of the Mond-Turner talks), was to be one of the most determined bulwarks of the trade union machinery, defending its interests against all comers. Bevin can be regarded as the archetypal Union Baron, a law unto himself. He centralised the union affairs into the newly built Transport House, headquarters also of the Labour Party. Bevin was not only the landlord of the Labour Movement, he was also its Press Baron, ensuring that the trade union mouthpiece, the Daily Herald, became a power in the land.
When the Labour Government of Ramsey MacDonald reacted to the financial crisis facing the national economy by cutting back on the payments to the unemployed, it was Bevin who effectively split the Labour Party. The TGWU sponsored its own MPs, and insisted that they toe the union line. With ten per cent of the Labour Party Conference votes, through its Block Vote, Bevin was a power who could not be ignored. But more than that, Bevin was influenced by Keynesian economics and was more aware than many what was needed for capitalism in Britain to survive. This insight prepared Bevin to ensure the collaboration of the trade union leaders throughout the 1930s, the war and the subsequent Labour Government.
Bevin was also active in curtailing the various attempts of the CP to get footholds in industry and transport. CP members had encouraged a Rank-and-File Committee amongst Busmen in London from 1933 onwards. Bevin allowed this to run for some time while he prepared counter-measures. This Rank-and-File Committee, unfortunately confined to Busmen and to London, was broken in 1937 when their leaders where expelled from the Union. As usual Rank-and- File types of organisation were totally unprepared for such actions. Rank-and-Filism believes it to be a better representative of shop floor democracy - entrenching themselves into trade union branches, arguing that the stalwart branch attenders can be convinced that they are the representatives of an absentee membership. In reality a democracy of handfuls of members claiming to represent a mass membership.
26. The TUC leaders were keen to show that collaboration was not merely limited to Labour Governments. In the two years before the outbreak of war they gave the pacifists of the Labour Party short shrift, pointing towards national unity against the common foe. While the Chamberlain Government continued with its policies of appeasement, Ministry officials were consulting TUC leaders during 1938 and 1939 on plans for war preparations and air-raid precautions. This set the tone for the collaboration in a War-time Government of National Unity, continuing on through to the post-war Labour Government and beyond.
The Mond-Turner talks of 1928 had set the scene for these developments. The bourgeoisie knew their union leaders well. The common opposition to fascism did not lie in some fanciful vision of democracy: it was that the British bourgeoisie did not need fascism to continue to govern.
27. The TUC Congress meeting on 1st September 1939, declared fully for war and curtailed its sessions so that members could rush back to participate in the war effort. The venue turned out to be significant - the seaside town of Bridlington gave the name to an agreement arrived at by Congress. This Bridlington Agreement forbade the transferring of union members from one union to another - known in TUC circles as «poaching». This was to prevent unions which had agreements with employers, to represent their workers, being surplanted by other unions who wanted to spirit away some of their disenchanted members. This sort of competition was to be firmly outlawed, a special TUC Disputes Committee to act as a Tribunal where conflicts arise. A clear signal was sent to the member unions, growth could only take place by assimilation of smaller unions, not elimination.
Trade Unions - open Collaboration all the way
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28. The tendencies up to and including the Second World War have continued right through to the present day. The only significant change is that the existing relationship between the trade unions and Labour Party is under review through the modernising of the Labour Party. The Trade Union Block Vote at Labour Party Conferences is under question. But for the previous half century it had served both themselves, and capitalism in general, very well indeed.
29. The War-time Government of Churchill found the collaboration of the TUC to be indispensable. The stresses and strains upon society were such that the ruling class were aware of the need to make promises that post-war society would be different, be better, than the misery of the 1920s and 1930s. The Welfare State, with state assistance «from the cradle to the grave», better education, housing, etc. was duly delivered by the Labour Government of Attlee, based upon plans drawn up by Liberals. This was the absolute minimum that was necessary to not only fight the war, but also to plan for reconstruction during the post-war period. Rather strangely, some on the left have declared all this to be a conquest of the working class, as if the Labour Government had implemented all this out of their own heads. The Labour Government was just as quick to utilise the still existing war-time regulations against dock strikes.
With the introduction of the Welfare State the appalling indignities of the Poor Law means-testing of benefits was done away with, and replaced with the principal of assistance as a general right. Pensions were available to all irrespective of work histories. Proper unemployment benefits were available for those without work, sickness benefits for those incapable of working, etc. All this was possible, and sustainable while the majority of the population was still at work. The 1950s appeared to be a quiet time as far as the class struggle was concerned, except for the experience of dockers trying to switch unions.
30. The Blue Union of the Dockers (so-called because of the colour of their union card) was an old union called the National Association of Stevedores and Dockers, based in London. The militant dockers had formed unofficial committees in the Northern Ports, being organising centres for class struggle. Finding themselves in conflict with the union they were members of, the Transport & General (called the white union after the colour of its union card), the question then arose as to how to proceed, whether to remain unofficial committees, or to try to 'reconquer' their union. They opted not for independent existence but to join en masse the Blue Union as an organisational way of switching unions. Sometimes referred to amongst dockers as the biggest gaol break in history, the Blue Union suddenly became a National organisation. Having allowed the transfer of members from the TGWU, the NASD were expelled from the TUC. The entry of the Blue Union into the Northern Ports found its bitterest opponent not in the Port Authorities (the Government body running the docks) but in the Transport & General, because it had lost its closed shop and dominant position on the docks. The ending of the T&G's closed shop, without collaboration with the Blue Union, meant that control over the dockers could not be asserted. That situation could only be overcome eventually with the introduction of containerisation on the docks, the marginalising of the Blue Union, and the introduction of T&G Shop Stewards. Mechanisation and Containerisation meant that the overwhelming majority of jobs on the docks would disappear. Although the existence of the Blue Union could provide a cover for the independent class struggle on the docks at one stage, it could not unite workers against containerisation, nor effectively unite workers across industries in fighting the consequences of new technology and work methods.
The Re-emergence of Class Struggle
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31. The 1960s began as a quiet period, but soon gave way to strikes and turmoil, following financial crises of the economy, and more importantly political crises in the Conservative Government of MacMillan. With inflation edging up, wage settlements began to increase in order to catch up. Soon threats of strikes over pay were quickly becoming the norm rather than the exception. Heated factory meetings, agitations, strikes were beginning to be called the British disease - it seemed to have come out of nowhere. Somebody or something was to be the scape-goat, and this was generally to be regarded as shop stewards. Every strike, or threat of a strike was the fault of individual trouble-makers, to be identified and branded by the Press. Where the shop stewards had got out of the control of the unions, the alliance between the bosses and the unions were sufficient to restore peace, as in the dismissal of 17 «trouble- makers» at Ford in Dagenham, London, in 1962.
But the shop stewards had mostly had a collaborative role, as the Donovan Report of late 1960s pointed out - «For the most part the steward is viewed by others, and views himself, as an accepted, reasonable and even moderating influence; more of a lubricant than an irritant.»
32. But the 1960s would appear as a thoroughly restrained period in comparison to the following decade, the 1970s. The opening year of this decade, 1970, saw a short but bitter strike at the normally quiet Pilkingtons glass-making plants in St Helens. A strike provoked by a wage miscalculation was to escalate within 48 hours into more of a running fight than a straight-forward strike. This running battle wasn't just against the employers, the workers had to fight the union in order to hold a strike at all. The General & Municipal Workers Union organised within the plants in Pilkingtons, and had an agreement with the employers that only members of their union could work in the plants. The usual arrangement for a closed shop was that a worker needed to take his union card to be checked by a shop steward before he could start. The arrangement here was simpler - it was a condition of employment that every worker had to join the GMWU, a form having to be filled in agreeing for union subscription to be deducted from wages before he could start work. The strikers found that generally speaking the shop stewards were against them, and so was the local branch to which they all belonged. A resolution passed by the local branch in support of the strike appears to have been passed, but the strike was not made official by the national leadership. From then on the strike was unofficial and in out-and-out conflict with the GMWU, branded by some as a Scab Union.
The strike lasted for seven weeks in all, during April and May, the strikers eventually setting up a Rank-and-File Strike Committee (RFSC) to run the strike, totally separate from the existing union. Strikers were asked to fill in forms instructing Pilkingtons to stop deducting GMWU union dues from their wages. About half the workers appeared to have done so. GMWU officials and shop stewards then went to everyone who filled in such a form and tried to get them to reverse their position.
The RFSC started as a ginger group (traditional rank-and-filism) which aimed to change, or more correctly improve, the union leadership. Obstructed in this aim, they tried the Dockers tactic, that is switching unions. Negotiations began to join the TGWU en masse [the irony of the situation should not be ignored, the same Union the Dockers deserted], the initial discussions seemed to be favourable. Then the TUC Disputes Committee ruled against such a transfer. Finding the union switch option ruled out, they set up their own union, the Glass & General Workers Union and talked about trying to enter the TUC. The RFSC did not see this union they were setting up as anything different in structure from the one they were leaving, except that it was more responsive to their needs. The Glass & General was not recognised by Pilkingtons, although some unofficial negotiations took place over problems as they arose. At the beginning of August there was a fight for recognition, and it was in this fight that the break-away union was destroyed. Those who went on strike were told that they were discharged, but could be re-engaged on the employer's terms as new workers (losing continuity of employment, pension rights, and so on). Although there had been enquiries from other workers to join the break-away union, the Glass & General soon folded and those still on strike returned to the name of RFSC, while public appeals went out for the sacked workers to be reinstated. The adoption of the old title implicitly recognised they had lost the fight to escape the influence of the GMWU.
33. The Heath Government brought in new laws to curb industrial disputes, which it then tried to implement. It included a National Industrial Relations Court, which was very similar to what the previous Labour Government had tried to introduce. But the Heath Government was soon caught up in the fierce battles breaking out everywhere, virtually simultaneously. In the docks, the issue of containerisation was again causing problems. This time the law was used to prevent dockers picketing outside their own dock areas. Court orders were served on five dockers to stop such picketing. They refused and so were duly arrested. The Pentonville Five, named after the gaol they were taken to, started off a national dock strike, with an unofficial general strike breaking out, which the TUC only just managed to bring within the bounds of safety. The Government quickly backed down, with a seldom heard Official Solicitor stepping in, asking the Courts for the Five to be released, and the Courts were only too happy to be off the hook. It was either that or the gaols would have been filled to bursting point with strikers, official, unofficial, sympathetic, in fact any name one would care to give them.
34. The 1970s was a decade of fierce class struggle, a mixture of official and unofficial strikes, the bulk starting as unofficial. The most significant official strikes were those wage claims of the Miners Union which systematically defeated the Tory Government of Heath in 1972 and 1974. It was as if the Miners wished to repay the Tory Government for the appalling tragedy of 1926, and they went to it with a vengeance (this re-match was to lead to Thatcher's preparation for the even more decisive defeat of 1984-5). Under the leadership of an unofficial strike committee in Barnsley, in which Scargill was a motivating force, flying pickets were sent out to picket other coal depots, transport, etc. The decisive struggle to close the Saltley coke depot, part of a generating power station in Birmingham, was achieved not by the remorseless actions of fighting pickets alone, struggling day after day. It was the police who closed it down when faced with tens of thousands of workers who had marched out of their factories in the Birmingham area to march on Saltley Coke Depot. This tipped the balance of forces decisively in favour of the strikers. To have continued the struggle to keep open the Coke Depot, the police would have turned parts of Birmingham into a battle zone. That is why the police officers ordered Saltley Coke Depot closed. The state learnt these lessons well, for the battles fought a decade later would be in quiet Yorkshire country roads, or at least places well away from urban areas.
35. The listing of strikes during the 1970s would in itself be a formidable task. Suffice it to say that they not only did great damage to the Heath Government, but also to the subsequent Wilson and Callaghan Labour Governments as well. These Governments were caught between financial and economic crises on the one hand (the oil crises being just one of the issues they had to deal with, a factor behind the accelerating inflation), and the increasingly defiant working class, which needed to struggle over economic issues, precisely because of raging inflation. It was during the latter part of the 1970s that the ruling class took a decision that they were going to end the Keynesian notions of maintaining as buoyant an economy as possible, and experiment with the alternative notion of monetarism. Actually, it was introduced by the Labour Government of Callaghan, in an infamous speech where he said that from now on the country must live within its means. Callaghan, and especially his economic advisers, set the scene for Thatcherism.
36. The significance of events of the 1970s was that struggles were beginning to escape from the control of the unions. The fact that in most industries the overwhelming majority of the workers are in the existing trade unions is part of their stability - their so-called strength. This makes the role of the union leaders important as far as the ruling class is concerned. It is in the general interests of the ruling class that this should remain. There is little interest amongst capitalists for union busting.
All workers in a particular sector / trade can be members of a union, there being no political bars to everyone joining, as long as they pay their subscriptions and don't cause too much trouble. They can believe any ideas they like - branch resolutions mean nothing much anyway. As the union branches and meetings are incapable of affecting the policies of the unions, because the membership can not declare an official strike, the workers are not able to take union matters into their hands. That is most why, generally, strikes and other actions commence as unofficial strikes, after which the union officials move in to try and keep the strike in some sort of order.
Workers on strike confront two barriers within the unions, the shop stewards and union officials (full-time employees of the union). The shop stewards are those who are elected by the membership in a particular workplace. Between them, the shop stewards and union officials try to get the workers back to work, irrespective of the issues involved, or how passionately the workers feel about the strike. The workers, if determined to continue the strike, will continue to vote in their mass meetings against a return to work. The strikers would have their own agenda, their own issues to be discussed and their own minimum requirements for a return to work. But it is not just a simple question of removing the existing shop stewards - bitter experience has shown that replaced shop stewards then have to go in to negotiate with the bosses, to face a hostile mass of strikers, to start the same manipulations and double-dealing which the previous stewards had fallen into.
37. The reaction to this type of movement, an unofficial type that threatened to break out of sectional boundaries, was to shift the balance of forces against the workers onto a general social level. This found its expression under the name of Thatcherism. The Thatcher Government still found itself against fierce class struggle - only a battery of legislation could control the workers. The new laws kept the lower ranks of the unions in line, it was quite sometime before it had an effect on the masses of workers who had to be bludgeoned by more drastic measures.
38. One of the most fundamental parts of the strategy of the Thatcher Government was in preparing the ground before taking on a significant section of workers. They would deal with one industry at a time, make an example of them and then move on to the next. The isolating of industry by industry was a key to the success of Thatcher. They ran down the steel industry, reducing the need for coal, before dealing with the miners. And even before the start of the miners strike they made sure they had two key resources, large coal stocks, and the ability to turn to burning oil in order to generate electricity. The miners were to be made an example of in front of the rest of the class.
39. But beyond the defeat of the miners, in order to subdue the mass of workers, wholesale butchery of industry was needed. A key part of the monetarist theory was that state subsidies to industry was itself iniquitous. Those industries which were unprofitable, the «lame ducks», should be allowed to go to the wall. But more than that, because of the capitalist crisis, industries were to be run down, and unemployment increased. When there are millions of unemployed, workers should be grateful on having a job. And those who have jobs should be in as temporary employment as possible, in small scale units of production, in service industries rather than large scale production. It is an illusion, to which the bourgeoisie is hopelessly infected, that the workers are fundamentally loyal, that it is just some unknown disease which causes disaffection, maybe the product of handfuls of malcontents who cause trouble. They can not see that the source of the confrontation lie in the economic relations themselves, in the wage labour conflicts which stem from them. The bourgeoisie can not eliminate the class struggle without dispensing with wage labour exploitation altogether - this is impossible, for without the exploitation of wage labour, where would their venerated profits come from?
40. As well as having wrecked industry, they have created an even worse nightmare: a near bankrupt economy. For all the fanciful monetarist notions that the economy would some how adjust itself, in reality the destruction of industry has undermined the solvency of the much vaunted service industries: the reduction of the buying capacity of the working class is leading to a spiralling down of the economy itself. The Tories have been storing up even more economic problems for the future, and it will be this which will cause the forthcoming upward turn in the class struggle. The ineptitudes of Thatcher's replacement, Major, does not lie in the individual, but in the economic situation to which he has inherited. A crisis-ridden Tory Government is the product of the economic situation in which it finds itself, not the foibles of this or that person.
41. The existing unions usually embrace the majority of the workers in a particular industry. Militant minded workers seldom leave the unions, but sometimes form rank-and-file or unofficial groups to fight over particular issues. Because of their nature they tend to be temporary, for the purpose of a particular issue, and disappear - those involved in these unofficial groups hardly ever leave the trade union concerned. This is also because of the sectional, limited nature of the issues concerned. Since a particular trade / profession are often concerned with genuine problems of that category, this type of organisation does not contain the capability of breaking out and being the basis of fresh proletarian expressions. As workers, they go back to being individuals within the trade union concerned, although some may be victimised by the employers or disciplined by the unions concerned.
That is why Communists encourage all forms of struggle which tend toward transcending narrow sectional interests - solidarity and financial contributions are not enough, proletarians need to organise themselves into class-wide economic expressions.
42. There are from time to time attempts to organise oppositions within the unions or in the workplaces in order to fight the class struggles. They can have at the present no other characteristic other than being minorities - an expression of the present consciousness of sections of the more determined and combative workers. They either see themselves as political movements in their own right, or tend to be reduced to the level of rank-and-filism, claiming to be better representatives of a dubious democracy, or more responsive to the feelings of workers (perhaps more adaptive, whether for good or bad). They have no perspective, in the end, of being other than electoral canvassers for the next generation of trade union leaders (who to their great 'surprise' and disgust turn out to «betray» the union members). The final role is one of a loyal opposition within the unions, for which they cease to have any interest for the majority of the workers in any case, and slide into boredom and oblivion.
Rank and file movements, base groups and the like tend to disintegrate and go out of existence. Some say that is how it should be, as they have extreme suspicion of workers organising themselves during this phase of capitalism. Unfortunately, it is not just these groups which disappear, but also those workers who were involved become politically disorientated, demoralised and mostly leave politics of any kind. That does not mean to say that we stand to one side, waiting for them to disintegrate in due course. Wherever possible we take the fight into such movements to see if they can be turned outwards, embracing other workers' struggles.
43. We not only assert that there is a fundamental need for proletarian economic expressions in order to fight out the class struggle. There is also a need for those revolutionary forces who understand the importance of a Communist perspective to constitute a Communist Fraction within these economic expressions, in order to drive forward the organisation and the process of understanding of what is required. Such a Communist Fraction must have as its task participating in all types of struggle in which workers are engaged, to strengthen them and heighten the struggle. It is through such a process, in which the Communists represent the line of march along which the proletarians must proceed, that leads ultimately to the proletariat taking power, and ending exploitation for ever.
Source: «Communist Left», n° 9
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