First Published: September 1982.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
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This issue of Workers’ Socialist Review goes to press just after the Fleet Street employers’ unsuccessful attempt to get EETPU Press Branch secretary Sean Geraghty jailed for contempt of court in leading a strike in support of the health workers.
The failure of the bosses’ attempt – Geraghty was fined £350 plus costs – gave a boost to the whole labour movement. Where do we stand now?The slump
The first half of 1982 (not including the ASLEF dispute) showed a total of strike-days almost equal to the whole of 1981: about 4 million. But that is still a low figure by the standards of the 1970s.
Industrial production has just dipped again, back to the same level as the 1975 slump. Manufacturing industry is some 11 per cent below 1975’s level. The slump – with all its effects in increasing unemployment and pressurising those still employed – has no end in sight.
The Tories are still riding high in the opinion polls after their Falklands sabre-waving. The Labour Party leaders are helping the Tories by delicately trying to purge radical left-wing commitments from the party manifesto, and not-so-delicately witch-hunting Militant.
In the ASLEF dispute the TUC leadership mobilised itself for concerted, disciplined action in a way rarely seen – in order to break the strike. The weight of TUC discipline was used, not to bring other unions out alongside the train drivers’ union threatened with mass sackings, but to force ASLEF back to work.
A gloomy picture? Yes, but it is only half of the reality. During the same period, support for the health workers – especially on June 23 – has reached levels of solidarity action not seen since 1972 or 1926.
Socialists have long agitated for strikes by other workers in support of the NHS workers, but really with the idea in our minds that a few token stoppages would represent a peak achievement. Now, suddenly, solidarity strikes have been mushrooming and burgeoning on a mass scale.
The tactics of the NHS union leaders – rejecting the NUPE conference call for all-out action, and instead going foe more and more spread-out and dispersed dribs and drabs – may yet torpedo the dispute. But in any case the experience of the solidarity action is a lasting gain.The rail disputes
The rail disputes also showed tremendous rank and file militancy. Conditions could hardly have been worse.
The union leaderships were deliberately, grotesquely divisive. The ASLEF leadership had practically conceded the flexible rosters issue before it called its strike. NUE general secretary Sid Weighell sabotaged his union’s strike.
A newly aggressive management, making Edwardes-style threats, with a war-like Tory government behind it, was backed up by a press barrage. Yet both the NUR and the ASLEF rank and file were remarkably solid. ASLEF activists – no thanks to their leaders – were organising successful flying pickets.
The union conferences this year have generally shown a shift to the left. Most spectacular was Arthur Scargill’s first conference as president of the National Union of Mineworkers, which set the NUM firmly on course for confrontation with the government. The miners look like being the next big test case in the continuing war between the Tories and the unions.
The new generation of Broad Lefts in the unions continues to multiply: CPSA, NUR, COHSE, TGWU, POEU, UCW, IRSF . . . these new Broad Lefts vary, of course, in their politics and effectiveness. They are all, however, a distinct breed from the old Communist Party dominated Broad Lefts: more left wing, more activist, less bureaucratic. The political clamour in the Labour Party is clearly beginning to resound through the unions, too.The Labour witch-hunt
And though some of the prominent leaders of the Left (in the LCC, for example) have responded weakly to the witch-hunt, the constituency rank and file has so far been solid. They reject firmly the idea that any group or faction (except, of course, the already-established bureaucracies and the Parliamentary Labour Party!) must depend for its right to existence on “positive vetting” by the NEC.
The Socialist Workers Party has distinguished itself on the left as the most vehement advocate of the view that the working class has suffered a historic collapse – which forces socialists back to rebuilding elementary trade unionism at grass-roots level. They dismiss the activities of the new Broad Lefts and the ferment in the Labour Party as mere resolution-passing, and even propose the remarkable view that the problem with Tony Benn is that he is too left wing for the working class. The Labour Party, they argue, is caught in an insoluble dilemma, because more left-wing policies will surely mean more certain electoral defeat.Obstacles to struggle
There is a grain of truth in the SWP’s arguments, of course. Often there are left-wing resolutions passed at Labour Party GCs or Trades Councils which have very little relation to action. But the point then is not to reject the resolution-passing – which is after all a necessary part of the political development and regrouping of the Left – but to fight to link it to action. And all the evidence is that given a sufficiently clear call from a strong leadership, the apparently ‘apathetic’ and ‘demoralised’ rank and file will respond.
For the situation is not that the voltage of class consciousness has been cut off. The voltage is very high, but the existing leadership is maintaining crucial breaks in the circuit through which the current of class struggle could flow. Occasionally sparks leap through this insulation, showing what is possible.
At the same time as the most modest disputes face great difficulties, in recent months – around the NHS dispute, around the ASLEF dispute, and again around the possible jailing of Sean Geraghty – workers have been talking about a general strike. It seems paradoxical. So long as the outlook for small disputes remain bad, shouldn’t the talk of general strike be dismissed as mere hot air, or sloganising to keep our spirits up? If we are weak factory by factory, how can we be so strong overall?Two and two make ten
The answer is that in the arithmetic of class struggle two and two do not make four, but ten or twenty. Workers who are realistic in being un-confident about small local battles can be equally realistic in being confident about the prospects if only the whole force of the labour movement can be mobilised.A revolutionary organisation
The issue hinges, then, on challenging, winning control over, and replacing the leadership in the labour movement. This is a struggle which is not the work of one day, which proceeds in many different tactical forms, and cannot be accomplished by this or that group proclaiming itself as the saviour come from afar. Nevertheless the essential core and political driving force of the process has to be a revolutionary Marxist organisation, integrated within the existing movement and tactically sensitive to it but absolutely sharp and clear on its political principles. That is the organisation the WSL is working to build.