British trade unions: General Shrug now!

Unions claim that protests over public-sector pension reform will be the biggest since the General Strike. Dream on, brothers.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

The seasons may pass, but the predictions of a coming wave of industrial action in Britain – promised to rival the famous ‘winter of discontent’ of the 1970s – remain much the same.

In 2010, we were first warned about a ‘spring of discontent’ against cuts in public spending, then a summer of discontent and finally another winter of discontent. No sign of any such strike wave materialised all year. This year, the anticipated ‘spring of discontent’ has already come and gone without troubling the scorers who keep count of strikes. Now we are told to brace ourselves for another summer of discontent, as the leader of the UK’s largest public sector union announces that what one newspaper calls ‘wave upon wave’ of strikes over government plans for his members’ pensions will be ‘the biggest since the General Strike’ (of 1926).

As fantasising football fans like to say: just you wait until next season. Like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the return of the mass industrial action of the past always appears to be just out of reach over the horizon. Yet many trade-union officials and media commentators still seem to believe in the myth of a coming season of revived labour-movement militancy, while the remains of the radical left cheer on the delusional with demands on the ghost of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to ‘Call a General Strike Now!’. In response there is tough talk about the need for tough new anti-strike legislation.

Time to grow up and stop telling fairytales about the imminent return of the sleeping giant. As one who will defend the right to strike every bit as staunchly as the right to free speech, and is on the side of those fighting for a better future, I think we have to face the shocking fact that it is not 1926 or 1979 if we are to cope with the problems of the twenty-first century.

There may well be some large-scale token industrial action ahead; many teachers, lecturers and civil servants have already voted for a one-day strike on 30 June. But that will not alter the fact that, despite the ravages of the recession and the high levels of discontent among the workforce, we are living through an era of almost-unprecedented industrial peace.

Take the standard historical measure of these things – the number of working days lost due to industrial action in any given year. In 2009, around 455,000 days were lost in total. That compares to 29million days lost in 1979, the peak of the ‘winter of discontent’ when public sector workers went on strike against the Labour government’s policies of imposing wage restraint. Remarkably, as one recent study points out, ‘strike days lost [were] about 50 times higher in 1979 than now and [there have been] fewer strike days in the past 20 years put together than in 1979, despite 4.5million more people in the workforce today’. So it might not take much to claim the ‘biggest strikes in a decade’ etc. But in real terms it might not mean anything at all.

If we take Dave Prentis, leader of the public sector union Unison, seriously, and look back at the General Strike of 1926, an even more striking contrast emerges. The nine-day General Strike, in which workers from many industries walked out in support of a miners’ strike against pay cuts and longer hours, meant that a total of more than 162million working days were lost that year. Recent annual totals have been barely equal to a quarter of one per cent of that.

Indeed, one unique aspect of this economic crisis compared to past recessions has been the relative absence of strikes and workplace disputes to date over cuts and redundancies. Many in the workforce have reacted more with a shrug of resignation than a surge of militancy. Employees, and their unions where they still exist, have often agreed to employers’ demands for pay freezes and cuts and increased hours as an alternative to job losses.

In short, the trade-union movement has been exposed as an empty shell, which represents few of today’s hi-tech ‘trades’, offers little in the way of ‘union’ between workers and shows less sign of any genuine ‘movement’ in society. The numbers of union members in Britain have approximately halved since their peak in the 1970s. Those that remain are heavily concentrated in the state sector – hence the hope of union officials that the public-spending cuts might provide them with a means of proving that they still matter. Yet the risk in talking up the prospect of action is that these events might rather reveal that they are redundant.

It is not simply a question of falling membership numbers. The unions have little or no relationship with most of the paper members who remain. Recent town-hall protests about cuts that I have seen in London seemed to be staffed almost entirely by union officials and representatives of my middle-aged generation, the same left-wing loyalists who would have been standing there with their placards 20 years ago. Even the one big anti-cuts demo that the TUC managed to hold this year, in London, was largely a collection of every seasoned Labour Party and union activist it could muster from around the country.

The notion that we could almost overnight go from this situation, of no strikes and few active members, to the unions organising the biggest struggle since the General Strike seems surreal. Of course there is plenty of discontent among public-sector workers and there will be token strikes, mostly of the ‘rolling’ one-day variety that gives the appearance of action without needing to do anything too much. But it is not only the organisational problems of the empty shells of trade unions that present them with problems in mobilising the workforce today. Even more importantly, it is the political collapse of a labour movement that no longer appears to known what it is for – selling its members cheap insurance? Pursuing individual compensation claims? – and has no alternative outlook to offer.

For surely the first time ever, trade-union officials are threatening large-scale industrial action apparently without a clue as to what they are asking their members to fight for. The only ‘alternatives’ currently on offer appear to be either: 1) Pretend there is no crisis and that things can simply carry on as before – that is, stick your heads under the blankets like frightened children; or 2) Make the equally childish demand that a ‘Robin Hood’ tax on some nasty old bankers could magically cure the ills of British capitalism and pay for everybody employed in the public sector to live happily ever after.

This absence of clear-cut political lines and alternatives in the dispute makes the present juncture seem even further than 85 years away from the General Strike. That 1926 battle between the government, employers and unions was the culmination of years of industrial and political conflict following the First World War and the Russian Revolution. The country was divided into warring camps. Terrified by the revolutionary tide in Europe, the ruling classes and the British state had spent years preparing for a showdown with the powerful new union movement – sending tanks on to the streets of Glasgow to crush ‘Red Clydeside’, passing a new Emergency Powers Act and setting up a semi-secret state apparatus to take control in the event of a general strike or a civil war, backed by a sophisticated anti-communist propaganda machine. The then-Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George had not been entirely joking in 1921 when he asked an air marshal ‘how many aircraft are there available for the revolution?’ and, on being informed there were only 100 machines, replied that he ‘presumed they could use machine guns and drop bombs’ on the British revolutionaries.

On the left there were also those who understood what was at stake. One socialist leader, the MP John Wheatley from Clydeside, advised the labour movement that ‘we need 10,000 armed men to prevent Britain being a land of coolies’. Once the General Strike began, however, Stanley Baldwin’s Tory government raised the stakes by sending in troops to run emergency services, recruiting an army of scabs (many of them middle-class students) and launching an all-out propaganda war on the ‘Red threat to the nation’. Winston Churchill was in the frontline, assuming control of the British Gazette which the government published daily in place of the national newspapers crippled by the strike. The TUC committee men, who had only reluctantly taken charge of the strike and had refused to make it a genuinely ‘general’ one by calling out all of their members, collapsed in the face of this offensive and called off the action without winning any real concessions, leaving the miners to struggle on alone for months before they were crushed.

Today, neither side bears any comparison to the combatants of 1926. The Lib-Con coalition is a pathetic shadow of the old Tories, better suited to making u-turns than making war; if Conservative prime minister David Cameron is no Baldwin, then the schoolboy Treasury secretary Lib Dem Danny Alexander, supposedly leading the fight against the unions, is nobody’s idea of a modern Churchill. Yet the shadow trade unions are even more of a sad memory of their predecessors. Without any alternative on offer, the sort of protest strikes they hope to call represent little more than a wail of impotence and a ‘we’re still here’ advert for their own existence. The fact that the focus of the protests should be on protecting pensions in the future, rather than defending jobs and services in the here and now, sums up the absence of any alternative to the politics of austerity – and the narrow sectionalism of the public-sector unions’ response. It is hard to see millions of other workers coming out in solidarity with the fight to preserve public-sector pensions ‘at the taxpayers’ expense’.

Of course it is not easy to come up with ‘an alternative’. spiked writers certainly do not have any easy five-point plan to offer; such issues have to be resolved through people’s experience, not dreamt up on the back of an envelope. But to suggest that there will be rolling mass action without a clue what it might be for, and to claim it will be the biggest since the General Strike when you have failed to organise a major strike for 20 years, looks like the sort of useless posturing and pretend leadership that can even make the likes of Cameron and Alexander look strong and able by comparison. I might have more respect for the unions if they had stuck to their old quasi-Stalinist alternative economic policy of state control – even that exhausted creed would look better than nothing.

While we are talking the history of class struggles, a word to our old friends on the remains of the radical left, still calling on the spectre of the TUC to call a general strike (as if such a thing could be ‘called’ out of blue, perhaps using Twitter?). This has long been a standard demand of much of the far left in Britain when faced with a Tory government, come rain or shine, recession or poll tax. Yet they have never really seemed to understand what they are asking for, imagining a general strike to be merely a bigger, amalgamated version of a lot of smaller everyday industrial disputes (of the sort that barely exist anymore).

Yet in the tradition of revolutionary Marxism, which many of these leftists claim to uphold, a general strike has always been seen as something very different from merely a ‘big’ strike. As the Russian revolutionary leader and anti-Stalinist Leon Trotsky observed, a general strike is only possible ‘when the class struggle rises above particular and craft demands, and extends over all occupational and district divisions, and wipes away the lines…between legality and illegality, and mobilises the majority of the proletariat in an active opposition to the bourgeoisie and the state’. It disrupts the country’s life and throws the economy into chaos. Thus ‘whatever may be the slogans and the motive for which the general strike is initiated…[it] inevitably poses before all the classes of the nation the question: “Who will be the master of the house?”’ (Trotsky, ‘Whither France?’, 1936)

Could anybody seriously suggest that the majority of the British workforce is ready to be ‘mobilised against the bourgeoisie and the state’, or that the issue on the table in the politics of public-spending cuts today is really anything as grand as ‘Who rules Britain?’. Ours is the age more of the general shrug than the general strike. If demanding a general strike in response to every conflict in the past was inappropriate and irresponsible, today it appears absurd and entirely irrelevant. All it can achieve is further to discredit those left-wing voices associated with it. Which, come to think of it, may be no bad thing.

If we are to arrive at an alternative political response to shaping the future, we need to separate the present from the past. Maybe we could begin by agreeing that it is not 1926 or 1979, and that neither of those eras is coming back. But at the same time, studying the fights and failures of the past can still teach us valuable lessons – especially about the need for political leadership that faces reality rather than a fantasy world, and tells it like it is, not how they wish it would be.

Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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