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International Socialism, December 1969/January 1970



The New Militancy


From International Socialism (1st series), No.41, December 1969/January 1970, pp.1-2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Over the last few weeks we have been witnessing developments among the British working class whose importance can hardly be overestimated. Layers previously dormant have been moving into action. Whole sections have rediscovered a trade-union consciousness for long forgotten. The dustmen had hardly found out what militancy could achieve before the miners – demoralised, aging in a declining industry, cowed by fear of further closures into a declining strike rate – and the firemen had mobilised. This example in turn was quickly learned by tens of thousands of teachers. In all cases the process was similar, pressures forcing their way up from below, forcing union leaders into action.

These movements can only be understood against the background of the last five years. Throughout this period government policy has been to try to restrict or even diminish real wages. The exact methods employed have varied: before 1966 there was ‘voluntary’ wage restraint; 1966-67 saw complete ‘freeze’; since then we have had compulsory ‘norms’ or ‘ceilings’ with a let out through productivity deals. Overall it is doubtful if these policies did a great deal towards preventing the desired rises in living standards. When confronted by militant resistance, the government usually gave in. It did not feel strong enough to take on and smash union organisation as such; it was frightened of the effects of prolonged stoppages in key sectors on the balance of payments. The policy of restraining wages did have its effects, however.

‘Average annual increase in recent years may have been just 1 per cent under what it would otherwise have been’ (Aubrey Jones, in PIB Report, No.77).

More importantly, however, an ideological climate was created which encouraged profound changes in the pattern of control at the shop-floor level. Any wage increase that exceeded the norm seemed like a welcome concession to the workers involved. The fact that such increases had to be paid for by ‘productivity dealing’ that gave more to the bosses than to the workers was usually noted only by a small minority. For the ‘left’ trade-union leaders who wanted to appear militant without taking the risks militancy involved, this was actually an argument for the deal. The result was that the number of workers covered by productivity deals rose from half a million to six million, a quarter of the total labour force, in less than three years.

Yet this was never a situation that could last for long. Its very success was bound to undermine its efficacy for the ruling class. Firstly there was increasing scepticism and cynicism as a result of a variety of factors: the attempt to reduce living standards to make devaluation work; the increasing physical fatigue associated with the implementation of productivity deals; the deepening political fatigue felt in relation to the Labour government; the anger aroused as employers attempted to wrest a degree of control over the strike weapon itself. At times this was even intense enough to produce overtly political strikes from a minority of workers, as on May Day. In recent months a second set of factors have further weakened the old ideological climate: the very anarchic nature of international capitalism has permitted the government a degree of success in coming to terms with its balance of payments problem. Years of enforcing economic stagnation finally have had the desired effect of producing a surplus as the spread of the ‘English disease’ forces up production costs in Germany, France and Italy. Immediately the feeling of ‘tightness’, of national economic difficulty, of the need ‘not to rock the boat’, that bolsters up the ideology of ‘incomes policy’ among traditionally deferential sections of workers begins to be eroded. The only answer the government knows is the halfhearted attempt to pretend things have not changed by retaining the foreign travel allowance. As the Financial Times has put it:

‘Somehow or other (Ministers) will have to try to persuade the British public that consumption, having been held down to secure an improvement in the balance of payments, it will now have to be contained in order to secure an adequate level of investment’ (November 7).

The government and employers certainly have not abandoned their mission of trying to reduce consumption and force up productivity. Where the situation favours them, they act in the most determined manner to achieve these aims. Hence the series of struggles that have been taking place in parts of the motor industry, where the employers are trying to take advantage of the slack created by the stagnation of domestic demand to force workers into acceptance of further deterioration in conditions. Here they have been aided by the fact that mergers have given them increased ability to marshal their resources in overall national strategies, while the focus of workers’ militancy is still localised, with combine committees usually only half-existent.

But among increasingly large sections of workers, the old methods of control are no longer working. This applies above all to those sections that were most affected by wage freeze: those where the scope for localised militancy breaking through the norm was least; those where the union leadership was most acquiescent to the demands of government and employers; those with little tradition of industrial militancy; those where productivity deals had cost the workers most and provided them with least. Here years of freeze and restraint accumulated increasing quantities of combustible material as living standards fell, both in real terms and relatively to other sections.

All that was required to produce a massive flare-up was incontrovertible evidence of the successes that militancy could achieve. So the slow development of the new militancy among the lower paid in the earlier part of the year – the successful strikes of the overseas telegraphists, the British Leyland workers in mid-Lancashire and by the lowest paid steel workers at Port Talbot – gave way to the upsurge among dustmen, which spreading in a matter of days from one depot in Hackney, without any central co-ordination or direction was soon affecting large areas of most major towns and drawing into action other sections of council workers such as lavatory attendants and even grave diggers. Hardly had this movement succeeded than the miners were out, again in opposition to their union leaders, in the largest strike in the pits since 1926. The firemen learnt the lesson immediately, threatened a serious strike for the first time ever and saw some at least of their demands conceded to. Within a fortnight teachers, too, were contemplating serious strike action for the first time ever. The question at the moment of writing is not whether this strike wave will grow, but which section of workers will be next to join in.

For us, however, the real importance of this movement cannot lie in its economic successes. The increase won will no doubt be eaten away fairly rapidly by rising prices. The real significance is that for the first time hundreds of thousands of workers are seeing that the only way in which they can protect their living standards and their working conditions is through collective self-activity. This does not, of course, mean that they have been converted to revolutionary socialism. The vast majority continue to accept uncritically most of the presuppositions of existing society. But it does mean that they have to reject certain elements of the existing ideology; they have to begin to redefine their own view of their own position in society. This creates new possibilities for intervention by revolutionary socialists that can begin to change the terms of the argument. But to take advantage of these we have to be able to relate to the problems seen as important to those actually struggling. We have to be shown that only with a revolutionary perspective can one fight for those things that the mass of workers want. Above all this means that revolutionaries have to be part of the struggle, to not merely contemplate it from outside, and to make the serious effort required to know the exact terms of the struggle, to understand the real issues that have to be raised and fought over, and to communicate this perspective to others involved. Only in this way can we ensure that the present upsurge of trade-union consciousness can result in something more enduring, more aware of itself, and more threatening to the whole capitalist order: a revolutionary socialist movement with genuine roots in the industrial working class.

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