Socialist Worker

Are some strikes ‘irresponsible’?

Issue No. 2226

The Tories and the right wing media are incensed at firefighters’ plans to strike on Bonfire Night.

They denounce the strike as “irresponsible”. They never mention the “irresponsibility” of the bosses.

When London firefighters struck last weekend, the fire authority put poorly trained scabs in charge of providing fire cover. They put lives at risk.

Fire bosses, led by Tory Brian Coleman, have threatened to sack all 5,500 firefighters in London. It is this threat that led to strikes in the first place.

The bosses and the Tories want cuts that would endanger the lives of firefighters and the public—not just on one 5 November but on every day of every month, permanently.

This is what firefighters are trying to stop by using the only weapon they have, withdrawing their labour. They are striking because bosses won’t listen any other way.

Workers think hard about how strikes will affect those who use their services. But they also consider the implications of not fighting and this is often why they strike—to defend the quality of services and protect those who depend on them.

When jobs and services are at stake, why shouldn’t workers fight back?

Quickly

But, some may ask, do the firefighters have to target Bonfire Night? Isn’t that hurting ordinary people? Can’t they choose another time?

If workers strike when they’re less effective, the bosses ridicule them. When miners began their strike in March 1984, the right wing media laughed—because they weren’t striking at Christmas when there was a higher demand for coal.

Firefighters have chosen to strike when they are most needed—when strikes will be most effective. Effective strikes are more likely to win quickly.

And a quick defeat for the Tory cutters is in all our interests—except the bosses! That’s why they are so vicious about these strikes. They talk of “irresponsible” strikes to try and turn public opinion against the firefighters.

The truth is that the Tories and the bosses hate all strikes. When have they ever praised a “responsible” strike?

Unfortunately, even some of those expected to back the workers haven’t. Labour leader Ed Miliband has joined the attack on firefighters.

Papers like the Daily Mirror may sympathise with the firefighters, but still question their strikes.

This position can only disarm the fight against ruthless bosses. And they are based on a false assumption—that workers and bosses have a common interest in ensuring the smooth running of society.

What “smooth running” actually means is bosses should be able to make profits unhindered—as this apparently benefits us all.

But it doesn’t. Exploitation is at the heart of the relationship between bosses and workers. Bosses are under constant pressure to increase profits by squeezing workers.

They do this even in so-called “booms”—because if they don’t, their competitors could overtake them.

We can never hope that, if only we are “reasonable”, the bosses will come to their senses.

Strikes, which stop the flow of profit, are necessary to defend jobs and services.

Strikes do affect the public by disrupting services they rely on. This is because workers are incredibly powerful—capitalism relies upon their labour and strikes can cause chaos.

But calls for action that affects ­no‑one are often a demand for strikes that don’t hurt the bosses’ interests.

And the disruption caused by a strike is minuscule compared to the horrors wreaked on working people by those at the top of society. In fact, strikes have been a key way of winning improvements for services that the whole working class relies upon.

Some people, particularly those in trade union positions, worry too much about the right wing media. They overestimate its power.

Many strikes win widespread support in the teeth of media fury. Firefighters saw this last week when people they’d never met brought collections, food and support to their picket lines.

Some workers on the London Underground even stopped work alongside the firefighters, citing health and safety fears. For many ordinary people, seeing others resisting is an inspiring confidence boost—which overrides any irritation with disruption.

In any case, the importance of public opinion can be overstated. Strikes don’t win or lose simply based on the amount of public support they win—although solidarity is important.

We need more strikes, not less, and more militants campaigning for them. In the face of vicious Tory cuts, that’s the really responsible thing for workers to do.


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Tue 2 Nov 2010, 18:06 GMT
Issue No. 2226
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