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How can we build struggle in Britain?

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After the NUT teachers’ union retreated from calling strikes against the Tories, Charlie Kimber looks at the state of the government – and the prospects for resistance
Issue 2338
Strikes involving relatively small numbers, such as bus workers in London, can have a big impact  (Pic: Smallman )
Strikes involving relatively small numbers, such as bus workers in London, can have a big impact (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Real resistance could beat the coalition government. But union and Labour Party leaders keep refusing to lead it.

The NUT teachers’ union threw away another chance to take on the Tories last week. Its national executive committee voted narrowly against a motion to strike on 13 March.

This appalling failure to lead will be another blow to everyone who wants to see a fight against the government.

So how should socialists respond?

Firstly, it’s important to understand that the working class in Britain hasn’t been defeated. Union members aren’t to blame for the lack of a fightback—the blame lies with union leaders.

The NUT vote didn’t reflect hesitation and passivity among teachers. Just days before it, some 300 union reps had met in London and demanded strikes.

Of course it’s true that workers can often be unconfident. They are only very rarely ready to fight without some sort of official lead.

But for all the setbacks, when they are asked, workers keep voting for strikes. Yet union leaders failed to build on the momentum after the magnificent 2.5 million-strong strike on 30 November 2011.

This did real damage. Union leaders threw away a chance not only to win over pensions but to set in train a process that could have toppled David Cameron.

They held back the entire resistance against the Tories across the working class.

We need to help build a much stronger rank and file movement in the unions.

Such a movement can challenge union leaders more effectively and lead struggles when they refuse to do so. It can’t simply be wished into existence.

But we should take every opportunity to build at the base. And we should remember that this situation can change fast.

Recognising the setbacks in the struggle shouldn’t lead to pessimism about the potential for new fights.

Britain is not fundamentally different to other countries that currently have a much higher level of strikes and protests.

Look at Greece. Workers there have held several general strikes against austerity and have escalated their action.

But this didn’t come out of nowhere—workers had to fight for it.

They’ve had to argue with people who wanted to limit strikes to certain sectors, or wanted a 24-hour general strike instead of a 48-hour one.

Similar arguments are being thrown up everywhere as the world’s rulers try to force workers to pay for the crisis.

We need to pull together all those who are angry and want to campaign from below. But that doesn’t mean we give up organising to force union leaders to fight.

When unions call national action it has a real impact—and gives workers a glimpse of their own power.

The civil service workers’ PCS union is now the only union presently seeking national strikes. Workers will ballot soon and, if they vote yes, the union says it will call a series of walkouts.

Socialists must fight for the strikes and win solidarity with action. But one union fighting alone isn’t enough to stop the onslaught.


That’s why it was good to see union leaders last year pressured to pass a motion calling for a consideration of a general strike.

Many don’t want one. But pressing for it fits with the mood of many workers.

We have to grab every opportunity to fight for resistance. That’s one reason why the Socialist Workers Party backs Jerry Hicks’ campaign for general secretary of the Unite union.

We want union leaders who fight—not union leaders who only talk about fighting. Jerry’s campaign can mobilise workers and raise arguments about how to fight back.

The Unite the Resistance initiative is central. It can focus pressure on union leaders to lead more action.

It can bring together rank and file workers with union leaders who want to fight.

It can also mobilise more workers into networks of solidarity to support every struggle—however small.

Local strikes can crystallise a wider mood and give confidence to other workers.

This is true of the all-out strike by Tesco drivers before Christmas and of the five-day strike by health workers in Yorkshire this week.

The stakes are enormous. So far the Tories have only implemented just over 20 percent of their planned cuts.

Over three quarters of the deluge has yet to arrive.

Already things are bleak.

The Economist magazine recently reviewed the BBC programme Growing up Poor. It concentrates on the lives of three women aged 16 to 18.

It wrote, “Perhaps the most astonishing thing is how little support these girls get.

“Shelby lives alone in Glasgow. She works 30 hours each week, unpaid, in a convenience store—presumably part of a mandatory job placement—and survives entirely on benefits of £56.50 per week.

“When the programme first encounters her, she has no oven, no decent furniture, few possessions at all.”

Some capitalist ideologues openly call for more misery.

Blockbuster, HMV and Jessops collapsed this month. That destroyed up to 10,000 jobs. Yet the Financial Times newspaper was enthusiastic.

“There are good reasons to welcome the process of creative destruction that is finally taking its toll on UK retailing,” one editorial wrote.

“Like a brush fire that clears the undergrowth choking a healthy forest, unsound businesses have to give way to new, healthier ones.

“The problem in Britain, and large parts of Europe, is that too few unhealthy companies are going bust.”


It isn’t only cuts to jobs, pay, benefits and services or the new “bedroom tax” that we need to worry about.

The Tories will try to divide us with racism to weaken the fight against them. One example is the measures floated to attack potential Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants.

We can expect more racist propaganda from the establishment and more attempts by the Nazis to capitalise on people’s despair.

And as the crisis ratchets up tensions between states and bosses, we can expect more imperialist wars.

Socialists must be at the heart of movements against racism, imperialism and all forms of oppression.

We can be proud of the role we have played in organisations such as Unite Against Fascism (UAF). This has been key to driving back the racist English Defence League and its Scottish and Welsh counterparts.

Building UAF continues to be important.

There will clearly be many more battles to fight

We’ve seen the extraordinary Lewisham march against health cuts and other sizeable demonstrations against privatisation, and to defend services.

There is a new impetus in many local anti-cuts organisations as councils impose horrendous attacks. Socialists must throw themselves into strengthening such fights.

They can spread the idea that our side can win, that we are powerful together and

that bitter austerity is not inevitable.

The Tories aren’t as strong as they like to pretend. New figures show that Britain could be heading for a triple-dip recession.

Even the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, the global policeman of austerity, has warned that austerity isn’t working.

The government’s economic policy lies in tatters.

And politically the coalition partners are increasingly divided.

But again and again union and Labour Party leaders blunt the fightback.

We want to work with Labour voters and members in the fight against the government.

But we also need to point to Labour’s utter failure to confront the Tories or put forward an alternative.

These are volatile times.

But we are part of a movement that draws strength from the strikes and protests across Europe, the heroic strikes in South Africa, the Egyptian Revolution and much more.

We need to build ideologically as well as organising action.

There is deep class hatred towards the rich, the tax-dodging multinationals and the bankers.

Our task is to focus it and turn it into activity.

We need socialists at the centre of every spark of resistance. Socialists make a difference, arguing for a fight, linking issues and putting forward a socialist alternative.

That way we can do more than get rid of the Tories. We can strengthen the force that can transform the world and smash the ruling class for good.

Charlie Kimber is national secretary of the SWP

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