There is huge bitterness towards the Tories among millions of working class people in Britain. We will see that this week at the demonstration outside the Tory party conference in Manchester.
We have already seen it in campaigns to defend hospital services, against attacks on benefits and over the bedroom tax. The anger is there in union meetings among workers who have had years of pay freezes and cuts.
But the level of struggle hasn’t matched the scale of the anger or the attacks we face. Why not?
Some say the working class is too battered by decades of defeat and neoliberalism to mount a serious fight.
It’s true that workers still bear the scars of defeats inflicted by Margaret Thatcher. The anti-union laws have dented workers’ confidence to fight and there have been relatively low levels of resistance during the past 30 years.
We shouldn’t brush off or underestimate the challenges we face. But we shouldn’t overestimate them either. It’s wrong to say that workers in general feel beaten, or are unwilling or unable to fight.
The 4,000-strong People’s Assembly in London earlier this year reflected the thirst for an alternative. Local campaigns over cuts have seen massive mobilisations. A series of local and sectional strikes continue to break out—and they’re often quite militant.
Think of the nine days of strikes by health workers in Yorkshire over pay at the end of last year and start of this year. Or the 11-day dispute at the Royal Mail’s Bridgwater delivery office in Somerset that concluded this month.
And, the anti-union laws aren’t all-powerful either. Just last week a group of social workers in Glasgow took unofficial action to support a suspended colleague—and won.
Yet some union leaders persist with a more pessimistic outlook that insists that workers are not prepared to fight. It allows them to say that they need to rebuild union organisation before they can call any action.
In reality, it is taking action that builds unions. Unions grew massively out of the big public sector pension strike of 30 November 2011.
That strike showed the potential to build serious resistance if unions give a lead. Some 2.6 million workers struck together and joined mass marches across Britain.
The union leaderships called the strike. But its success reflected the mood among workers that there should be a fight. It was a remarkably active and highly political strike.
The walkout was called over pensions—but strikers identified other attacks that drove them to act. Many were driven by outrage at the assaults on the NHS and on education—and at rising unemployment while the rich got richer.
The strike had the potential to beat the government. But a section of union leaders agreed a rotten deal just days later. And those union leaders who opposed the deal themselves failed to act independently and call the sort of action needed.
We had seen a magnificent show of working class strength. Yet union leaders threw away the chance to build on it.
A similar process took place during a recent local government strike ballot over pay. The Unison leadership fostered a sense that nothing could be won and workers narrowly accepted a bad deal.
Yet in branches where a more positive lead was given, workers rejected the leaders’ deal.
The betrayals that followed 30 November haven’t stopped all struggle. And a number of recent disputes have shown that militant action can win. Seven-day strikes at the Hovis bakery in Wigan have forced bosses to abandon zero hours contracts.
Protests won the reinstatement of blacklisted electrician and health and safety rep, Frank Morris, to his job on the London Crossrail project.
Disputes have broken out in both the private and public sectors. The very visible strike on 30 November 2011 helped some groups of workers in the private sector to believe they could take action too.
It isn’t true that union organisation is no longer a serious force. Today there is again the potential for national strikes and coordinated action. Firefighters in the FBU union were set to strike for four hours over pensions this week. This follows a long period of negotiations with union leaders trying to reach a deal.
Firefighters will have to build on their strike and follow it with more action if they are to win. That means the dispute could pose a serious challenge to the Tories.
Post workers in the CWU union will this month begin a national strike ballot over pay, pensions and workload. The action comes just as the government attempts to privatise Royal Mail.
There has been some demoralisation among post workers since union leaders put an end to the 2009 national strike with a poor deal. A raft of closures and redundancies followed. Yet it is remarkable how quickly a militant mood is re-emerging in many Royal Mail workplaces.
Hundreds of thousands of teachers in the NUT and NASUWT unions plan coordinated strikes this autumn. The UCU lecturers’ union is balloting for strikes in the universities over pay.
And the PCS union has agreed to look at the next steps in its industrial action campaign following a consultative ballot.
The experience of the last two years shows that calling action opens up the space for confidence to grow, and for organisation to develop. But it also shows that we can’t take this for granted.
Ordinary union members, the rank and file, themselves need to be organised within their unions. Strong rank and file movements can put pressure on union leaders—and can call action independently if the leaders refuse to act.
This kind of organisation can play a key role at times when the official leadership wobbles. It can make a critical difference to the outcome of disputes. But it doesn’t develop automatically. It grows out of workers’ collective experience of struggle, through developing confidence and understanding the necessity and possibility of organising.
The Unite the Resistance initiative has brought together rank and file workers and those in the union leaderships who want to fight. It has helped to build solidarity with workers in struggle and put pressure on union leaders.
In general, confidence is still very low and there is a distinct absence of the kind of rank and file movement we need.
But we would miss a trick if we ignored another important dynamic. The experience of the last two years has nurtured the development of some workers who are looking for alternatives to austerity. As yet they are an unorganised minority.
They respond to the call to strike when it comes from their union leaders. But they are also frustrated and critical of the slow pace of action that those leaders are committed to. This dynamic is important. It means there is potential to develop an organised network within the unions.
This can link together militant disputes, build solidarity, rebuild union organisation and keep pressure on union leaders to call the kind of action that can win.
The anger among workers doesn’t mean struggle is automatic. But it does help create a volatile situation. For all the Tories’ rhetoric, they are riddled with weakness. David Cameron suffered a serious blow when he lost a Commons vote on going to war in Syria.
And the government is mired in a series of scandals and crises. In recent months it has been forced to make several embarrassing policy U-turns.
There is also the worrying rise of the far right Ukip. On the whole it represents a shift to the right among disillusioned Tories—and therefore is a real problem for the Conservatives. But the rise of Ukip also points to the potential of racism to increase and present a danger to working class unity—a danger that strikes and protests can help keep in check.
The fight in Britain hasn’t been on the same scale as that of other European countries. Yet the Tories’ short time in office has been marked by a tumultuous student revolt, mass workers’ demonstration and strikes, and riots.
The enormous pool of bitterness that the government created can be their undoing. Struggle and strikes can finish them off.