Skip to content
More About Us
Pay Freeze: Learn from the past to shape the future
Feature by Charlie Kimber, September 2008
As increasing numbers of workers take action over pay Charlie Kimber examines the political dimension of the strikes and looks at the lessons we can learn from the past.
Class struggle is on the rise. In the first 11 months of Gordon Brown's premiership there were over 900,000 strike days, almost three times the number in the same period in the previous year. These figures do not include the big local government action in July.
Inflation and the growing recession are discussed daily in the newspapers and in the bus queues. The 35 percent rise in prices as British Gas's parent firm announced profits of £1 billion is typical of the issues driving workers into action. There will be more to come as prices rise, bosses and the government try to hold wages down, repossessions soar and more firms announce job losses.
But there is no absolute law that galloping inflation or a slump in the system automatically leads to sharp class struggle. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky stressed that, for example, unemployment can demoralise and weaken workers struggles, whereas temporary economic revival can raise them.
The greatest potential for struggle is often at turning points, when a slump becomes a boom (however shallow) or, in the period like our own, when the system goes into a downturn. Workers who had grown used to the idea that wages would just about keep up with inflation (however many hours need to be worked, and in however stressful a situation) suddenly find their living standards in freefall.
There is a battle in the heart of every worker between the feeling that hardship is so pronounced that "I can't afford to strike" and, on the other hand, that hardship is so pronounced that "I can't afford not to strike". Which wins out is not preordained, and it can't be read off from the retail price index or the unemployment figures.
As John Molyneux wrote in issue 68 of International Socialism, "The relationship between economic conditions and workers' struggle is mediated by numerous factors: the level and quality of trade union organisation, the level and quality of political organisation, the level of general political consciousness, the level of anger, the behaviour of trade union and political leadership, and the strength, confidence, cleverness and so on, of the capitalist class - all of which are conditioned not only by the current situation but also by the past, and all of which are involved in a complex interaction."
To take one example (from a period of much greater class struggle than today), the revival of struggle which created the New Unionism of the 1880s and 1890s emerged from the combination of several factors. The challenge, particularly from US, French and German firms, to the British capitalist class's economic predominance led to a squeeze on profits. The boom of the 1850s and 1860s passed into a crisis in 1875 and again in 1880 and 1884.
Capitalists responded by attacking not just the unorganised sections of the working class but the whole class, tearing up contracts that has given some protection to skilled workers. The philosophy of "partnership" with a paternalist boss was shattered.
The conservative unions that had painstakingly grown in the previous three decades were hopelessly inadequate to defend workers. The way was cleared for a revolt of the unskilled, of migrant and woman workers, and for the explosive growth of unions that represented the new energy of the movement.
But it also needed socialist leadership to make that potential into reality. Activists such as Eleanor Marx and Tom Mann were crucial to the breakthrough of the new unions. The transformation came from an interaction of changes in the economy, changes in capitalist organisation, and socialist political leadership.
The upsurge in struggle began with the successful Bryant and May Match Girls' Strike of 1888 - led by young women with an average age of 13, many of them immigrants from Ireland or of Irish origin. That readiness for struggle rolled on to the great Dock Strike a year later which for a month virtually closed the Thames to river traffic. Some 16,000 pickets formed into mobile squads and every day tens of thousands of dockers and their supporters marched through London.
After the dockers' victory came a wave of organising the unorganised, a growth of powerful general unions that welcomed women, unskilled and migrant workers - and which often declared the need for a fundamental change in society.
A similar process took place in the years of the Great Unrest (1910-14). From the turn of the century real wages fell while profits rose. But by itself this does not explain the stormy struggles such as the 1907 Belfast dock strike, the Cambrian Combine strike of 1910 and the rail and Liverpool dock strike of 1911.
As Michael Woodhouse put it in a history of the early Communist Party, "The change in consciousness of the working class that produced the 'labour unrest' of the pre-1914 period was a reaction not merely to the decline in real wages, but to deep going changes in the organisation of capitalism, and the capitalists' growing reliance on the state power."
The growth of big centralised conglomerates and their open alliance with the police and the courts during class struggle posed class questions with great sharpness. A battle over wages or jobs could rapidly become a much more generalised struggle.
Also crucial was political disillusion with the Labour Party. As early as 1908 an engineers' union member wrote, "The most charitable thing that can be said about political action [i.e. the Labour Party] is that it is slow, so slow that it breaks men's hearts." As more and more workers understood the need for direct confrontation with the employers and the capitalist state that stood behind them, so a Labour Party that was increasingly subservient to liberalism appeared increasingly irrelevant.
All these factors raised the spirit of class unity and the willingness to fight.
The strikes of the early 1970s also show a combination of economic and political factors. By the late 1960s the long decline of British capitalism compared to its competitors was reaching crisis point. And the situation internationally was uncannily similar to today, with rising oil and food prices and the US embroiled in a long, costly and unwinnable war (in Vietnam). Inflation was rising after a period of relatively low price rises just as the Tories were elected in 1970 with the most right wing manifesto since 1945.
Edward Heath's government then tried to break workers' organisation by allowing unemployment to rise, introducing a centrally policed "wage norm", and introducing anti-union laws. However, this fiercely political assault led to a series of militant strikes and workplace occupations. From the 1970 local government workers' strike, to the mass movement around the sit-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS), to the great miners' strike of 1972 and 1974, workers fought back and won. Militant trade unionism smashed the anti-union laws and freed the five Pentonville dockers who had been jailed for defying them.
Between July 1970 and July 1974 more than three million days were "lost" in political protest strikes against the Industrial Relations Act, more than one million against the industrial relations court and 1.5 million against the government's incomes policy.
The politically crucial ingredient was that some thousands of union activists were members or close supporters of the Communist Party or (a smaller number) the revolutionary left. Despite the CP's serious weaknesses, this independence from the Labour Party meant that struggles could go beyond the limits laid down by the Labour leaders.
The three highpoints of struggle - the 1880s, the period before the First World War, and the 1970s - help us understand how economics and politics interact. They also point to how revolutionaries need to fight to develop the present struggles much further.
Today we have a return of the "stagflation" (stagnation plus inflation) of the 1970s. We have the financial crisis and the deepening recession and the relentless increase in prices. Inflation is up, but so is unemployment. Declining living standards and increased pressure from bosses feeling a squeeze on profits have created the potential for workers to fight.
We also have two other very important factors. The first is a deep disenchantment with Labour. It is hard for union leaders today to tell their members not to fight "because they are damaging their own government" when it is that very government which is implementing the wage cuts, abandoning workers to unemployment and repossessions, refusing to impose a windfall tax on the multinational energy profiteers, and which continues to pour money and blood into the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even the argument that "you'll let the Tories in" has much less impact, given the consensus over all key policies between Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Secondly, although we have gone through a period of low strike figures in Britain, we have seen political radicalisation on a wide scale over the war and other issues. This has created a set of people who can be part of shaping the revival of struggle.
It was interesting that many of the delegates at this year's Unison conference who were most militant over wages and most angry about Labour were also people who had been active in the anti-war mobilisations in their areas. These workers (and here I am not just talking of those in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) or other left groups) who were taking a lead in the wages fight and the push to stop funding Labour had been prepared for this latest phase by earlier political campaigns.
But of course there are also thousands of new militants being created in the course of the present struggles, workers who see no reason why they should "tighten their belts" as the system shows it does not work.
How should the forces who want to see a fightback organise? The first requirement is to be pushing for struggle and challenging the union leaders who are reluctant, or too close to Labour, to fight. There will be a deeply political struggle over how and when to hit back. We have to be at every picket line and every protest arguing for sustained struggle and unity across the working class to beat Brown. The fragmentation of the working class, splintered further by the defeats of the past, is still there. But there are new elements of unity, seen in the strikes of 24 April and 16-17 July, and probably again in the autumn.
In every revival of struggle workers start to push at the limitations of the trade union leaders. In the 1880s this led to the demand for entirely new unions, in 1910-14 there was a mushrooming of syndicalist movements that directly confronted the staid bureaucracies, and in the 1970s a new layer of young militants in the mines, engineering, building and elsewhere challenged the union leaders who had become used to doing cosy deals with the government and the employers.
In some cases union leaders moved left to quell the pressure. In others they were swept away by more combative forces. At present there are signs of this pressure inside the unions happening again. Elections have generally seen those who want a fightback defeat those who counsel inaction (so that those who want inaction do not dare say it openly). And some union leaders have shifted left (some in words, some more seriously). Dave Prentis of Unison is forced to call for the NHS pay deal to be renegotiated and Tony Woodley of Unite fairly overtly called for other workers not to cross the Shell tanker drivers' pickets.
Who is at the top of the union machine matters, and socialist militants should not abstain from this aspect of the wider battle for leadership. For all the dangers that come from the bureaucratic pressures, it is right that the SWP has worked to win national executive positions inside several unions. We will continue to do this on a principled basis, and to ensure we use those positions to develop the struggle and the strength of the rank and file.
Equally every new wave of struggle will widen the pool of those who, although not yet ready to join a revolutionary organisation, want to work alongside others to fight over wages and conditions and to move the union leftwards.
Socialists have to be part of that process, building the Broad Lefts, arguing for them to be active and not just electoral machines, and working alongside others against victimisation and witchhunts, against racism and to democratise the unions. The National Shop Stewards Network is another site for organising.
But in all the examples above, what proved crucial was the strength of the rank and file networks, and what politics dominated them. The weaknesses of the rank and file led to the eventual waning of those movements.
So building at the base matters most. And here we have opportunities far greater than any for a long time. I spoke recently at a meeting of London bus workers who read Socialist Worker. It was quite a small gathering, but very different to almost any meeting I have been to for many years. It represented a real attempt to pull together left wing militants from several garages who could coordinate their work, discuss how to work in the unions and make the leaders at every level more accountable, and how to win more workers to their network.
We need many more such networks and many more such meetings, so that when the union leaders attempt to strangle a fightback there are forces that can act independently to keep a strike going, or to reject a rotten deal or to coordinate action with others.
But we also need urgently to deepen the political radicalism of the movement. Brown has politicised the wages struggle with his public sector pay norm of 2 to 2.5 percent. He needs to be fought on the picket lines, but also ideologically. Activists cannot and should not avoid the questions of whether unions should fund Labour, of whether battle should be postponed in case it undermines Labour, or of whether unions should demand more than was offered at the Warwick Two talks with ministers.
Political issues are raised in every dispute. During the Argos strikes management demanded that the pickets (which had been 30 or 40 strong) were reduced to six. The top union leaders accepted this, but on some picket lines there were energetic debates, and the restrictions broke down. The argument raised the politics of mass pickets and the anti-union laws in a very concrete way.
The London Underground cleaners' strikes have not been just a wages and conditions issue. Of course poverty pay matters, but it has also been a dispute about dignity at work for mainly migrant workers. And as the dispute has developed, the issue of immigration laws has become central. The cleaners have highlighted this vital political question. The unions must be pressured to rise to such challenges.
As well as these specific political questions, what the movement needs is a generalised response to the present crisis. The People Before Profit Charter is an attempt to provide the basis for this - a series of demands which we hope will lead to action. Alongside that we need to develop the political united fronts, initiatives such as Public Services Not Private Profit as well as the Stop the War Coalition, Unite Against Fascism and others.
There is also the basic question of the failure of capitalism and the relevance of the socialist solution. In 1971 Tony Cliff (the founder of the SWP) wrote, "When the government and the employers talk of efficiency, socialists have plenty to say on that score: about the anarchy and waste of capitalist production; the fact that more is spent on advertising than on basic research; that millions are wasted on armaments; that constant re-tooling of car plants takes place not because tools are worn out but because competition demands accelerated obsolescence and never-ending 'new models'."
A critique of the system and the posing of an alternative are needed now. Essentially what is needed is a bold and coordinated response to the crisis. All of this will provide activists who want to join an anti-capitalist, socialist, revolutionary organisation and be the seedbed for a wider left of Labour movement. Politics will be the Achilles heel of any upsurge in struggle unless there are militants organised independently of Labour.
We are still a long way from the 1880s or 1910 or the 1970s. But as the fight grows, so does the potential for many more workers to move from demoralisation or apathy to action. Socialists need to be at the centre of the process and offer political leadership.
Access to this website is free - help us keep it that way. Please make a donation.