Chris Harman

Thinking it through

The thaw sets in

(October 2004)

From Socialist Review, No.289, October 2004.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The anti-capitalist and anti-war movements of the last five years show enormous similarities with the movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But there is, so far, one big difference

The years 1968-74 saw a huge increase in the level of industrial struggle in many countries. There has so far been nothing on that scale this time round, despite big one-day general strikes in several countries (although, unfortunately, not yet in Britain). The wave of demonstrations and strikes among French teachers in the summer of last year has been the exception, not the rule.

As a result, union activists often become demoralised. The buzz they get from big demonstrations can give way to depression as they enter the workplace on a Monday morning. Many trade union leaders draw the conclusion that struggles have to be abandoned, or at least postponed, while they ingratiate themselves with politicians in the hope of winning a few more workers’ rights. It is an approach that lacks historical perspective and any real understanding of how capitalism operates.

Neoliberalism is not something completely new. It is a resurrection of something very old – the pre-1930s capitalist orthodoxy of ‘laissez faire’ economics (which was called ‘liberalism’ in much of continental Europe). There was no room in that for legal rights for workers – which did not come into existence in Britain until the 1960s. Yet this did not stop recurrent, and sometimes huge, waves of industrial struggle. In fact when such rights were granted, it was usually after a wave of militancy had worried the ruling class. They were the quid pro quo the trade union bureaucracy got for defusing such militancy.

When capitalist accumulation is advancing at speed, workers are drawn into expanding workplaces, discover the employers’ interests are opposed to their own and are able take to advantage of the need for their labour to build up trade union strength.

But the accumulation of capital never takes place smoothly. It is punctuated by economic crises in which certain old established industries are suddenly undermined by the emergence of new ones. There is a restructuring of the working class alongside the restructuring of production. Employers take advantage of closures, redundancies and the fear of unemployment to launch offensives against workers’ conditions and organisations.

So periods of a build-up of union strength can be followed by periods of bitter defensive battles. That is how things were in Britain the 1890s, in the 1920s and again in the 1980s. If workers lose such battles, then long periods of retreat and demoralisation follow. Amid the demoralisation, trade union leaders try to defend their organisations (and their privileged position within them) by preaching policies of class collaboration and ‘partnership’, while commentators talk of ‘deindustrialisation’, the end of union strength, even the end of the working class.

Yet restructuring of some employment is not the destruction of all employment. Firms that have sacked people during a recession can take on new people with economic recovery. The running down of some industries is nearly always accompanied by the expansion of others. And even industries where employment is lower than it used to be can become more important – and their workers potentially more powerful – as a result of wider restructuring.

But eventually workers in newly expanding or newly important industries make their mark. Sometimes this happens slowly, as with the build-up of shop floor strength in the motor industry over three decades from the mid-1930s onwards. More frequently the growing bitterness among workers, old and new alike, is unnoticed until it suddenly explodes.

We may not have seen such a generalised recovery of struggle yet. But there are individual, still isolated, examples, which show how the change can happen. So in Britain there has been a new confidence about their capacity to struggle among tube workers and postal workers. And in the summer of last year a group with no previous record of struggle, check-in staff at Heathrow airport, suddenly discovered their strength by taking unofficial action.

As I write, the Financial Times reports that ‘trade unions in Brazil have launched a wave of strikes as the country’s economy continues its strongest recovery in years’. Action is taking place in banks, the chemical and metal industries, and one of the airlines.

An example from Italy shows very dramatically how things can suddenly change. The pro-employer eironline website tells us:

‘During April-May 2004, industrial action by workers at the Fiat plant in Melfi, southern Italy, paralysed all of the car company’s plants by preventing delivery of components from the Melfi factory complex. The protest was not promoted by all the trade unions. The protest led to the blockading of the factory gates by strikers to prevent the entry of workers and vehicles ... The police, on the orders of the Ministry of the Interior, charged the strikers’ blockades ... Pressure for the government to intervene in the dispute transformed the Melfi protest into an issue of national importance ... Only after direct intervention by top management and by the general secretaries of the three main union confederations was the blockade lifted and negotiations opened.’

The ‘Melfi project’ was meant to be a showcase of how to impose harsh new conditions right across Fiat. The complex’s workers had ‘pay levels considerably lower than those at the group’s other plants, and shift schedules permitting the use of equipment around the clock on six days a week’ – and all without resistance from the big union federations. And then its dream factory exploded in the company’s face.

There are three simple lessons from this. First, however weak their past traditions, a group of workers can be driven to struggle by the dynamic of capitalism itself. Second, the way to win is not to wait for laws granting greater rights, but to hit the boss as hard as possible. And third, when workers do that, what takes place has political consequences.

The Melfi example is not, unfortunately, the general pattern in Italy, Brazil or Britain yet. Three swallows do not make a summer. But they do usually indicate winter is over and that hibernation is inappropriate behaviour.

Last updated on 27 December 2009