The strike figures for 2017, released last week, make depressing reading.
The number of workers who went on strike in Britain fell to the lowest level since the 1890s. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) show 33,000 workers were involved in labour disputes in 2017, down from 154,000 a year earlier.
There have been only been four other occasions over the past 120 years when fewer than 100,000 workers went on strike.
The number of strike days was 276,000, slightly down on 2016. A single dispute—at British Airways—was responsible for a third of the entire 2017 strike days in Britain.
Any particular year’s figures are a snapshot, and can change based on one or two disputes. For example, the ONS has already recorded 195,000 strike days for the first three months of 2018, largely due to the university workers’ walkouts. We don’t know how many strikes didn’t happen because bosses made some concessions.
But there is no denying a long-term trend. With occasional and important exceptions, such as the big public sector strikes of 2011, the number of strikes has been low and generally falling over the last 20 years.
This matters because successful strikes are the best way for workers to gain confidence and to build organisation. And the lack of strikes is the major reason why bosses get away with low pay and why young workers are discriminated against.
The lack of strikes doesn’t mean workers are blissfully content. The intense pressure of work, the lack of security felt by many and stagnant or falling pay mean the bitterness is as real as ever.
But this doesn’t often lead to strikes. This follows a series of defeats combined with union leaders’ reluctance to push for struggle, and to strangle it when it begins.
We should be wary about claims that structural changes in the workplace are to blame. One reason put out quite widely last week was that “workplaces are much smaller now”.
Except that they aren’t. One study shows that the percentage of workplaces with over 500 employees was 3 percent in 1980. It was exactly the same in 2004.
Another study shows that around 20 percent of workers were employed in workplaces of over 500 in 2004. By 2011 it was very slightly higher.
Of course capitalism is constantly shifting how it exploits workers, and each new form poses challenges to trade unionists. The new layers have to be recruited and organised. But this was done in previous eras much more successfully than now.
Capitalism, by bringing workers together and exploiting them, pushes workers towards collective action. But bosses also try to fragment resistance and encourage everyone to see themselves as individuals.
Workers are more likely to join a union or go on strike if they see successful struggles elsewhere, or at least that their union has a strategy to win.
We need unions that are hungry for action, not shamefaced and defensive about it. Instead of saying, “We hate doing this” union leaders should say, “We are delighted people are standing up and fighting.”
The model of “partnership” with bosses has to be replaced by a recognition of differences between those at the top and those who work for them.
It is 150 years since the Trades Union Congress was founded. Activists have always had to work out how they can use the opportunities created by the union leaders to develop the strength of workers’ own independent networks.
Action is the lifeblood of organisation. The biggest generator of new union members recently was the UCU university strikes where 16,000 people joined the union in a year—many of them young people, many on temporary contracts.
Every activist has to push for more like this, to look for the opportunities for resistance and for solidarity with those who are fighting. And we also need to think how the mood to demonstrate against Donald Trump, or to fight racism and sexism, can flow over into bolder unions and more workplace action.