Published 3rd April 2019
Despite some important developments in workplace struggle, and despite the political framework of the growth of the Labour Left, strikes are at a historic low and trade unions face a historic crisis. Professor Gregor Gall, an affiliated research associate at the University of Glasgow and Visiting Professor at the University of Leeds, considers the issues.
Notwithstanding the shortcomings of strikes in the current period for raising collective consciousness and strengthening collective organisation (such as limited mobilisation, economism, sectionalism and bureaucratism), strikes are important for socialists because they are the quintessential form of collective action which is based in the workplace – the key point in the base of capitalism in terms of its production, distribution and exchange. It is here that one of the key challenges to capitalism must be mounted so strikes have a significant portent for changing society and ushering in socialism.
Yet in Britain – and in a situation mirrored in many other countries – socialists face a fundamental problem at the moment under contemporary capitalism. We have a ‘strike problem’ – not of the kind that capitalism and the establishment faced in the late 1960s and early 1970s of a rising number of official and unofficial strikes– but of a drought, of a dearth.
This is a problem of quiescence because it is possible that workers through strong unions can get what they want without striking. Is there any substantial evidence for this? No – the most obvious measure is the number of ballots for strike action. While it has always been that case that most mandates are never implemented, the number of ballots has fallen from c900pa to 500pa from 2002 to 2016. And there is no evidence that industrial action short of a strike – sometimes called ‘cut price’ action on account of it being cheaper to undertake – has taken up the slack either.
And despite closures and mass redundancies, there has been no wave of workplace occupations like in the early 1970s or, unlike in France with ‘bossnapping’, any other form of direct action. Workers in Britain have little recent tradition of such direct action.
It is also worth noting that the outcomes of strikes have an important bearing here – one could argue that their lack of numerical preponderance would be less significant if those strikes that did happen were winning and that this had a demonstration effect (of other threatening strikes). But there is no evidence for this – even the increasing number of longer strikes now under the Trade Union Act 2016 that win come at a price of significant amount of wages sacrificed so a cost/benefit analysis reduces the value of their gains.
So let’s turn to the strike figures – the latest annual figures available are those for 2017. These make grim reading because they record some of the lowest ever levels in terms of 276,000 working days not worked (6th lowest since 1891, the transport sector alone accounting for 68% of all working days not worked, just 79 stoppages (lowest since 1891) and just 33,000 workers involved (lowest figure since 1893). Provisional figures for 2018 show 272,000 days not worked so there is no discernible change (despite the university pension strike of 14 days in early 2018).
Of course, as a counter-balance to this, we can point to a growing number of strikes in the ‘gig economy’ or service sector like those by couriers and fast-food workers. But to do so is really special and ineffective pleading because two swallows don’t make a summer. Taking a wider timeframe reinforces this point.
From 1998 to 2001, the number of strikes per annum ranged from 150 to 215. Thereafter, the number of strikes fell between 2002 to 2005 to 100 to 150 before rising slightly and then falling to below 100 in 2009 and 2010. In 2011, the number of strikes rose steeply in relative terms before rising and falling from 2012 and 2016 with 100 and 150 strikes per year. Despite short term fluctuations, there were only two years in which the number of strikes exceeded 200 per year from 1998 to 2017 while the norm in the 1990s was to be well in excess of 200 strikes per year.
In the early 1970s, there were 200-300 strikes per month.
What is the significance of this? It is evident that the Kondratiev long wage of upswings and downswings within a 40-60 year range has not emerged – we should have experienced an upswing in strikes in the either the 1990s or 2000s. So we have to confront a very serious question, namely, has neo-liberalism as form of late capitalism and as an ideology within workers’ consciousness pulled off an aberration or even broken the previous cycle? This is not to say that we are in for the withering away of the strike to nothing but that we are in a period of a prolong crisis for workers’ collective combativity.
What does the left say about this? The SWP used to be the standard bearer of the line that ‘the strike figures don’t tell the whole picture and so they don’t really matter’. With a recent and prolonged debate in the pages of its theoretical journal, International Socialism, on why are there so few strikes, this has brought out into the open an emerging view that negates the old line. By contrast, the Socialist Party has taken up the mantle here in a re-run of its red nineties for the late 2010s.
Let’s look at some explanation for this historic crisis. One obvious one is the state of the union movement. Strikes by non-union workers are almost unheard of because some prior form of collective organisation is needed for strikes to take place. Union membership levels, despite twenty years of ‘union organising’ is less than 50% of the 1979 peak of 13m, being just 23% density overall in 2017 (the latest available figure) when it was 32% in 1995. The split into sector comes out at 13% in the private sector and 52% in the public sector.
Another is possible explanation is the so-called ‘trade union bureaucracy’ thesis which nearly all on the far left subscribe to in one form or another (although others subscribe to the importance of the division between right and left in unions as a counter-thesis). It emphasises the conservatism of union officials. Does this offer an explanation? While it may have its strengths, it is likely to have some difficulty explaining the historic low in strike activity. That’s because the influence of the union bureaucracy has been a something of a constant. That is unless the traditional counter-balances to the trade union bureaucracy are now weaker than they have ever been.
And there is some evidence for this – which is seemingly a strange situation – because the majority of major unions have been led by the left for the last twenty years. Even USDAW has changed recently. So the broad leftism has taken hold in (or some cases maintained itself) in ASLEF, CWU, EIS, FBU, NEU, PCS, RMT, TSSA, UCU and Unite. The exceptions are GMB, Prospect and Unison.
So can any union today really be said to be actually member-led? The phenomenon of the hegemony of union organising is that this left at the head of all unions is now setting the pace. There are very few genuine grassroots movements within these unions as when the left has won control it took with it its personnel into the national officer positions. Where there is some movement is in the small, sometimes, new unions like the IWGB and UVW.
What about the anti-union laws as another explanation of the paucity of strikes? Until 2017, they have been an almost constant (barring the significance of some particular High Court injunctions). The Trade Union Act 2016 has tightened the screw here with PCS, RMT and UCU being the major casualties. But laws are only as good as they can be enforced if we recall the fate of the Tory Industrial Relations Act 1971 – it was a dead letter and was revoked by the next incoming Labour government in 1974. That said, there is certainly a sense of self-policing with regard to the purchase of these laws. But this self-policing stems from a lack of collective confidence to challenge the law rather than a belief in the legitimacy of the law. It is easy for unions to pass motions calling for the repeal of these laws, but the number of instances of open defiance of them can be counted on just one hand.
What about non-strike alternatives like leverage campaigns? Few unions practice the more comprehensive Unite method of leverage campaigns and, even here, leverage campaigns are as much used in alliance with strikes as alternatives to them. What is perplexing is that with the increased integration of supply chains and the use of just-in-time production systems which make employers’ operations much more fragile there is so little use of this latent power.
So what explains the quiescence? In addition to the lack of easy recourse to workplace collective organisation (as per the union density figures cited above suggest), the key issue may be not levels of employment and unemployment per se but levels of job insecurity, strikes are not seen to be winning, and unions are felt to be too weak to make a difference. So there are massive problems in terms of the key components of the state of working class consciousness, collective confidence, collective organisation and leverage.
Focussing on the issue of consciousness is useful as it helps underpin all the other aforementioned components. Let’s take the biggest political development on the left in recent years, the Corbyn effect and ask the question: why have unions not benefited in terms of increased membership, activism and the like as the Labour Party has from the Corbyn bounce? This is an issue that has been noticed by likes of Dave Ward, Matt Wrack and Corbyn himself but is it based on a misconception of unions and a political party being more similar than dissimilar?
There may be something in the analogy between the two as unions and Labour in as much they are often said to be the components of the singular ‘labour and trade union movement’ and, of course, many unions are affiliated to Labour. Yet let’s set that aside because despite the stated desire from Corbyn and McDonnell for it to be a movement, Labour is not a movement but, other than in some idealised form, it is an organisation that is a political party primarily based around a parliamentary party and parliamentary leadership. Unions, by contrast and despite the domination of their national leaderships, are built around their memberships and their memberships’ willingness to take collective action. Here, it is worth bearing in mind that the level of activism and participation in Labour is exaggerated – of its 500,000 members probably only 10% attend meetings.
So much of the answer to why unions have not experienced a Corbyn effect centres on unions and Labour being different beasts. But that is not the end of the matter to explaining this because that merely provides the context for i) Corbyn has had the advantage of the shock new based on pre-existing foundation of left perspective that had no voice or outlet for its voice; ii) unions are not seen as vehicles for wider political change in themselves as they used to be when Blairism was dominant; iii) the political role of left union leaders has been supplanted by Corbyn and McDonnell; iv) unions are not seen as offering a wider political view point – they remain more economistic in terms of pay and conditions; and v) the left leaderships in unions are longstanding and not new. All this seems to suggest that political change seems more realisable from within Labour than within unions.
All this is, obviously, dispiriting for union activists and left wing ones in particular. Despite often lofty rhetoric, it means the revolution is not just around the corner and neither is there a rising level of struggle. But it is essential to have a hard-nosed assessment of what state workers’ organisations are in if these activists are to set about changing the situation for the better. Knowing the baseline from which to operate helps sets the scale of tasks at hand in a realistic framework.