THE MEDIA coverage marking the 20th anniversary of the Great Miners’ Strike has been very mixed. Some of it has provided a glimpse of the solidarity that sustained the strikers and occasionally there have been images showing the violence with which the forces of the state confronted the miners. But in the mainstream media coverage there is an underlying message.
It is that the strike was the last great episode of a period that is now dead. Today, it is implied, things are different. The working class with its cloth caps and whippets has gone. People no longer show the same allegiance to institutions like the trade unions. Solidarity is a memory, displayed occasionally in plays and documentaries, but not something we will ever see again.
Many people on the left accept at least some of that picture. Such arguments came up at a miners’ strike meeting last week from a couple of young people involved in the anti-war movement. The numbers in trade unions, they pointed out, have been falling for two decades. Where there used to be 11 or 12 million there are only seven or eight million.
There are large numbers of people with no apparent interest in unions. Some of the factual claims they made are true. Union numbers have fallen considerably since the mid-1980s (although there are still as many in unions as there were at the time of the 1926 General Strike or in the 1940s, and twice as many as in 1914).
But all these facts have to be seen in a historical context. The system we live under, industrial capitalism, is about two and a quarter centuries old. That period has not been one of a continual high level of working class struggle that suddenly came to an end after 1985.
The Chartist years in the 1830s and 40s saw a huge wave of demonstrations, the drilling and arming of workers in 1837-9, the world’s first general strike in Lancashire in 1842, and a new wave of mass protests in 1848. But the movement was defeated. In the aftermath workers lost interest in independent politics and if they had a vote used it for one or other of the ruling class parties, the Liberals and the Tories. Trade unions were confined to small groups of skilled workers.
Then, when no one expected it, there was a sudden eruption of militancy from unskilled workers, starting with a strike of ‘match girls’ in Bryant & May’s factory in east London, followed by many others. The number of workers in trade unions doubled in two years and the whole tone of the union movement changed. The ruling class fought back. They used the police and mass scabbing to defeat long strikes such as those by textile workers at the Manningham Mill in Bradford and dockers in Hull.
By the beginning of the 20th century the mood of many workers was like that of recent years. A Hastings housepainter, Robert Tressell, wrote a classic novel about the British working class, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. It contains brilliant arguments for socialism. But it is pervaded by the terrible pessimism of someone who cannot win his workmates to fight back.
Yet hardly was the book printed when a huge new wave of struggle known as ‘The Great Unrest’ erupted. It began with strikes by railway workers, miners and dockers but spread much wider. In a series of bitter strikes, tens of thousands joined the unions and there was such panic in government circles that warships were sent to the Mersey and troops were used against miners in South Wales.
These struggles then inspired a vast range of other workers to take action on their own behalf and to the spread of trade unionism to whole new industries. There was a lull in the upsurge of struggle in the early years of the First World War. But it revived from 1916 onwards and swept on until the 1920s-then once again the employing class organised to smash the movement against a background of rising unemployment.
In 1926 bosses locked the miners out from May through to the end of the year and cowardly TUC leaders killed off the general strike in support of the miners after just nine days.
In the aftermath, trade union organisation was all but destroyed in many areas. The mood through the great depression of the 1930s was usually one of deep despondency in the face of mass unemployment at home and the spread of fascism abroad. Twenty years later the mass unemployment had gone, but the working class agitation of 1910-26 still seemed a never to be repeated memory.
THE UPS and downs of the struggle flow from the very character of capitalism. The whole wealth of the system comes from the labour of workers. Without that labour nothing would function and no profits would accrue to the capitalists. To get those profits capitalists have always to clamp down tight on what happens in the workplaces, keeping wages as low as they can and trying to ensure that every moment of time is committed 100 percent to work. This creates degrees of bitterness and resentment.
When profits are high, then, under pressure, bosses allow wages to rise and conditions to improve somewhat. But the system is based on competition between firms and states.
And that means the capitalists repeatedly reach a point where protecting their profits involves taking away improvements that workers gained in the past. In times of uncertainty (economic or political) workers can begin to fight for things they have previously taken for granted. The atomised bitterness they had felt before suddenly fuses into a new feeling of solidarity.
There begins a build-up of social tension that eventually culminates in great conflicts, in which the ruling class uses every weapon at its disposal, as in the 1890s, 1922 and 1926, and the 1980s.
The ruling class also uses reorganisation of industry forced on it by global competition to weaken our side. In the 1980s many of the workplaces that had been the centres of militancy a decade earlier disappeared-many of the car plants, most of the mines, the docks in places like Tower Hamlets and Newham in London, much of the Sheffield steel industry.
But the system cannot stand still. The very restructuring of industry that leads to old groups of workers disappearing also leads to new ones emerging and beginning to discover they have strength.
Today, manufacturing industry has declined. But there has been a massive growth in other forms of employment like banking and finance, call centres and computing. Restructuring does not always reduce workers’ social power. The fact that just two print works produce all of England’s national newspapers means that the potential strength of the workers there is enormous.
The folly of the railway privatisers in sacking too many train drivers has given those in that job even greater strength than in the past. And there are still groups like bus drivers, postal workers, refuse workers, teachers and civil servants that remain indispensable to the running of any modern capitalist society.
Finally, both the state and private industry are increasingly imposing harsher conditions on white collar groups that used to consider themselves middle class. Until the 1970s strikes by teachers, civil servants and nurses were virtually unknown in Britain. Today we take them for granted. Even university lecturers are beginning to learn to use words like ‘scab’.
A VERY influential book of the mid-1950s by the prominent Labour politician Anthony Crosland proclaimed that the era of mass strike-and he specifically mentioned the mines-was over for good. A whole academic industry arose debating whether the working class was ‘bourgeoisified’ because car workers had gnomes in their gardens.
Very few people then imagined that we would see confrontations like that of the early 1920s, but on a bigger scale, in the 1970s and the 1980s, with a Tory government falling in 1974 because of a miners’ strike. Yet the miners won-despite having a right wing union leadership.
Some people say that the anti-union laws are now too harsh for workers to fight. But throughout the ‘heroic’ periods of the past workers had no protection under law and could be sacked from day one for going on strike. Then, as now, it was union strength that was the real defence, not laws. Today there have been changes from earlier periods (see section right). But the essential basis of the struggle is unchanged. And there are growing numbers of young workers who are not scarred by the defeats of the past and are inspired by movements like that against the war.
The first signs of a revival in struggle are already present. Workers have voted for ‘awkward squad’ union leaders who talk about militancy even if they do not always practise it. There was huge sympathy for the firefighters during their strikes last year. We saw the unofficial strikes in the post office last year. Now there is the feeling for action among many civil servants and the fighting determination of the Scottish nursery nurses.
It is too early to say for certain whether we are on the verge of a major breakthrough. But many of the conditions that created the great period of heroic struggle in the past are beginning to come together.
If we can fuse the anger and imagination we’ve seen in the opposition to the war with the changing feeling among workers we can prove the pessimists wrong.
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward
We shouldn’t let them hide from the truth