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International Socialism, Summer 1963


Notes of the Quarter

How to Fight the Sack


From International Socialism, No.13, Summer 1963, p.2-3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


As we stumbled towards a rail strike in May, and drew back, it became painfully obvious that large sections of railwaymen – let alone the labour movement generally – neither knew what to ask for nor how to go about getting it. This would be bad under any circumstances. It is fatal if the arms economy results in more regional and structural unemployment along the lines suggested in our Note on the subject last Spring.

The leaders of the National Union of Railwaymen asked for, and got, a number of concessions in detail: in travel allowances and resettlement grants, in the terms of compensation for workers forced into lower-paid jobs, and so on. Given the consequences of the Beeching Plan for their members, it was a paltry achievement.

Given the importance of the precedence, it was shameful.

This is not a plea for rejecting every rationalization in the industry out of hand. It is clear that the labour movement will have to adapt to this coexistence between what goes for full employment in our society and pockets of hard unemployment. But there is no reason to accept it. or to pay for solving it. If redeployment of productive resources rather than their waste is becoming increasingly important for capitalism, we can strike an increasingly hard bargain for tagging along. What sort of demands? Within the affected industries, retraining on full pay; no loss of pay or benefits or of expected increments throughout a worker’s active life; the State to bear the cost of setting up new communities to replace the old. More generally, economic planning to ease the transition. And within our own movement we shall have to campaign to coordinate trade union policies and make trade-union rights transferable.

These are not the sorts of demands the bosses can meet fully. They challenge the basic premise of their system, that men are subordinate to machines. They are nonetheless realistic – in at least two ways. First, it is not impossible that the system might stretch some distance towards containing them, certainly not in full, but conceivably in part. The arms economy does, after all, put a premium on economic growth and maximum production; counting of social costs is, albeit primitively and in a biased way, becoming respectable even in Tory circles. Second, and this is especially important to us – the demands flow naturally from the problems they purport to solve. Initially they require no higher level of consciousness on the part for the workers than those put forward by the fraternity of Greenes. Yet, unlike Greene’s, they do challenge the system and can be expected to lead to a heightening of consciousness as the classes lock in battle.

To say that the outcome of such a battle must be compromise is neither to invite defeat nor yet to accept the present system, All it means is that so long as the system can give, it has a sure and tried means of anaesthetizing the class consciousness to which it constantly gives rise. It means too that socialists who refuse to budge an inch from such demands run the risk of being left behind by a movement more acutely aware of the resources of capital and the fluctuating nature of working class strength.

The level of class consciousness delimits the choice of tactic as well. At first sight, classic strikes appear to be the very worst weapon we can use in declining industries. Morale is generally not too high; the bosses are firm, the more so as continued work will normally not improve profits. Yet it is precisely because of our weakness that only the most traditional, most accepted and most all-embracing methods of struggle can be considered. This is no argument for Greene’s ‘three days and that’s our lot’ type of strike. In the railwaymen’s case, the bosses should have been kept guessing as to its duration. A total stoppage might have given way later to a ‘rolling strike’ or series of regional stoppages based on the strongest and most militant sections. If and when the struggle, as it unfolded, was seen clearly to raise moral, to clarify and harden the aims of increasing numbers of those involved in it, other, non-traditional, even revolutionary, weapons might have been brought into the fray – running the show as a public service without asking for fares and so on.

But only if and when. Here, as always, the touchstone for our tactics as for the nature of our demands is the real relation of forces between the classes, and the degree to which our class is conscious of itself and hence its power.

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