Socialist Worker

Is it only organised workers who have power?

Issue No. 2209

Marxists believe that the core strength of the working class lies in the way it is concentrated in the workplace. Workers have the most power at the point of production.

It is here that we are brought together in numbers to labour collectively. It is here that we take action to defend jobs, pay, pensions and conditions.

Capitalism is a system based on the drive of competing bosses to make profits, but they can only do this on the back of workers’ labour.

Organised workers in factories, offices, schools and hospitals have the power to disrupt the flow of profit and grind the whole system to a halt. That is why workers’ trade union organisation is rooted in the workplace.

But the working class includes groups without paid jobs – such as pensioners, unemployed people and carers. What role can they play in the struggle?

These groups all have the potential to fight against the ruthless pursuit of profit under capitalism and regularly do so.

Mass movements, such as the movement for black power or anti-war movements, were not centred on organised workers using their industrial muscle.

But they drew important sections of the working class into political activity and had a lasting impact.

Other mobilisations have played an important role in shaping struggle. The movement against the poll tax, culminating in the anti-poll tax riot in London in 1990, was a key factor in bringing down Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher, for example.

Community campaigns to save a local school or hospital can involve great imaginative flair and creativity – and force council leaders and bosses into undignified retreats.

People written off as “unproductive” by the capitalists suddenly show that they have magnificent skills.


Together they digest complex reports, organise meetings, design posters, set up websites, take up court cases, build protests – and challenge those who habitually think of themselves as superior.

A victory in a campaign against a hospital closure, for example, can inspire people facing a similar assault elsewhere.

It can boost all other workers.

No socialist would say that these things are irrelevant because they didn’t involve industrial action.

But there are times when even meetings of hundreds and demonstrations of thousands are not enough to drive the bosses back. There are times when only mobilising the specific power of organised workers can win a victory.

Being part of a wider campaign can strengthen workers’ action. This was shown last year during the successful struggle at Tower Hamlets College in east London.

Bosses wanted to cut around 1,000 places to study English for Speakers of Other Languages and make at least 40 compulsory redundancies.

There are many migrants in Tower Hamlets and demand for these essential courses is high.

When lecturers struck to defend jobs and courses, they deliberately sought to mobilise the community as well.

Students and former students from the college, parents, community activists and other local trade unionists brought solidarity.

After four weeks of solid strike action and a borough-wide campaign, college bosses backed down and withdrew most of the cuts.

The strength of the community campaign helped sustain the strike. But it was the strike that closed the college and terrified management.

The crucial lesson is that battles to defend jobs in the public sector will be stronger if they are rooted in the defence of the services working people use and rely on.

A battle about jobs or pensions or pay will be stronger if it is also about the defence of the NHS, education and so on.

Strikes hit the bosses where it hurts – in the pocket. But they also put up a direct challenge to the automatic rule of the bosses and raise the prospect of organising society in a very different way.

And ultimately, to get rid of capitalism and replace it with a socialist society, workers are the only force with the skills, numbers and organisation to do it.

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Tue 6 Jul 2010, 17:36 BST
Issue No. 2209
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