Evoking the ghost of general strikes past

The day of industrial action over UK public sector pensions is a gesture, not a general strike – and both sides know it.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Mister Dave Prentis, beloved leader of Britain’s biggest public-sector union, Unison, said this week that Wednesday’s 24-hour industrial action over the government’s proposed public-sector pension reforms would be ‘The biggest since the General Strike’. A remarkable statement of history in the making – and the first time Prentis had used those words since, err, June, when he said exactly the same thing about the previous one-day strike on the issue of pension reform.

Many news teams gobbled it up and delivered the portentous General Strike references the union leaders were after (‘What do we want? A headline!’). Other media outlets went for variations on the theme, declaring that Wednesday’s strikes would be the biggest for 30 years/40 years/decades/a generation.

Each threat of a one-day strike is now accompanied by dark allusions to the General Strike of 1926 and/or the Winter of Discontent of 1978-1979. And each time it becomes more ridiculous to try to make such historical claims and comparisons. The historical reasons why it’s not 1926 or 1979 all over again were examined at some length in an article I wrote on spiked at the time of the June walk-outs (see British trade unions: General Shrug now!), and there is no wish here to do a Dave Prentis by simply repeating myself this time around.

Suffice to say that this week’s token and half-hearted one-day strike bears no comparison to the nine-day General Strike of 1926, which came at the end of an era of revolution in Europe and class warfare in Britain and saw workers across many industries strike in support of the miners, in a battle against a Tory government that deployed emergency powers, troops and an army of middle-class scabs, whilst waging a fierce propaganda war (led by Winston Churchill) against the ‘Red Menace to the Nation’.

Nor does it help to compare the current action to the Winter of Discontent, when the public-sector unions went on strike against the Labour government’s policies of pay restraint. In 1979, 29million working days were lost due to industrial action. Last year, the estimated figure was 365,000 days – not much more than one per cent of the 1979 record. Indeed, there have been fewer strike days in the past 20 years added together than in 1979 alone. So, claiming ‘the biggest strike in decades’ does not take much – and means even less.

However, there is really no need to harp on these points. Because behind the headlines, the leaders on both sides of this dispute know that the historical allusions are part of a phoney war, and that they are engaged in a bit of PR sparring rather than a class struggle.

In the past, some of us might have caused outrage in trade-union circles by arguing that such a one-day strike, however large, was little more than a gesture. Now, however, trade union officials themselves admit the same thing. Their explanations for this week’s action talk about how it allows their members to ‘express their anger’ at the proposed changes to public-sector pensions or, in the words of Trades Union Congress (TUC) chief Brendan Barber, to show ‘the power of the sense of grievance that people feel’.

In other words, this is not a strike in any traditional sense, not a blow against the employers intended to defeat them and force through specific demands. Instead it is seen as a general outlet for public-sector employees’ feelings of injustice and anger, more a therapeutic device than a weapon in a battle. A mass strike called for such amorphous purposes is a gesture in anybody’s book – including, it seems, that of the TUC.

The trade-union movement is unrecognisable from the combative workers’ organisations of the past – as I have said before, it represents few in the hi-tech trades of today, little in the way of unity across the labour force, and less in terms of a dynamic movement in society. But then the Lib-Con coalition government bears little comparison to its hardline predecessors either.

Asked whether he thought the latest dispute could recreate the bitter conflicts of the 1980s, TUC general secretary Barber insisted that ‘A one-day strike in favour of public-sector pensions is a far cry from the days of Thatcher. Even the most ardent Thatcherites would probably baulk at the prospect of the police baton-charging striking nurses and teachers.’ In fact, during the disputes of the Eighties, most notably the miners’ strike, Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government was perfectly content to see the police batter protesting workers of any stripe, including nurses and teachers.

By comparison, the government of Tory prime minister David Cameron presents a pathetic spectacle of indecision and political blancmange. Education secretary Michael Gove’s mild condemnation of public-sector union leaders as ‘militants’ (the horror!) stood out because it was the only effort at the sort of red-baiting union-bashing that would have been normal, and far more vitriolic, in past disputes. For the most part, government statements on this week’s industrial action have adopted a tone of more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, imploring teachers and others to think of the poor children etc. It is all a world away from the days of class conflict when Tory premier Stanley Baldwin could condemn the General Strike as ‘a challenge to parliament and the road to anarchy’, or Thatcher could brand striking miners and their supporters a threat to democracy and ‘the enemy within’.

The leaders on both sides of the current dispute are essentially going through the motions of a strike, engaging in gestures primarily designed to remind us that they are still here. Thus, lo and behold, on Tuesday, the eve of the alleged greatest clash between unions and government since the General Strike, came the headline ‘Ministers and unions to kiss and make up next week’, with both sides reported to be privately confident that a deal could be done over the next few months after the public rituals of the strike had been disposed of.

Little wonder then that, while many public-sector employees are furious over the proposed pension changes, there has been a distinct lack of enthusiasm or energy behind the latest token strike. Millions are understandably angry about the government’s breach of trust and contract regarding their promised pensions, up to and including headteachers and senior managers. That is why the unions have latched onto this issue to make their protest, at a time when they appear impotent to do anything about pay cuts and job losses across the public sector. Yet even though many thousands were expected to join the gesture of a strike on Wednesday, relatively few of them will have done so with serious illusions about how effective it was likely to be. Indeed, where the strike is most solid, such as in the education sector, it is likely to have been in part because governors have taken the decision to close schools on health-and-safety grounds – effectively as much of a management lock-out as a grassroots rebellion.

If it bears any historical comparisons at all, this is to the Ghost of General Strikes Past. Not in the threatening sense of a spectre haunting Britain, either, but in the sense of a ghostly apparition, an illusion, a transparent phantom that disappears in the light of day. The unfortunate truth is that this week’s day of industrial action will have been the biggest waste of workers’ time and energy since the last one. If it is anything like last year’s big union demonstration or June’s day of action, in a few days’ time it will be hard to remember that it happened at all. In 85 years’ time, nobody will be talking about something as ‘the biggest protest since the general strike of 2011’.

Yet, at a time of crisis in UK capitalism, when so much remains in the balance, this illusory fight over the percentage points of public-sector pensions remains the only serious conflict in town. What happened to the wider struggle for the future, for the Good Society? Are we all supposed to have retired from that now?

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

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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