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Can there be a general strike here in Britain?

This article is over 13 years, 4 months old
Socialist Worker last week argued that we need a general strike to fight the Tory cuts.
Issue 2221

Socialist Worker last week argued that we need a general strike to fight the Tory cuts.

We don’t make this call lightly. A general strike—when all workers walk out on the same day—is one of the biggest weapons in the working class movement’s arsenal.

Workers’ labour is the force that drives the whole economy. Shutting down everything from trains, factories, to supermarkets and schools, even for a day, would give millions of people a taste of their own power.

And it would match the scale of the attack we face. The Tories and their Lib Dem lapdogs have launched the biggest onslaught on the welfare state and workers’ livelihoods since the Second World War.

It’s not just one or two sections of workers that are under attack—it’s across the board.

The cuts already announced, and the even worse ones set to be unveiled on 20 October, will have an impact on every working class household in Britain—through destroyed jobs, slashed benefits or cuts to services.

A generalised attack needs a generalised reply—that’s why a call for a general strike fits.


But is there a real prospect of a general strike taking place?

A number of general strikes have happened in France, Greece and across Europe in recent years. One is planned in Spain this week.

Yet some people argue that it isn’t the British way of doing things.

Derek Simpson, joint leader of the Unite union, summed up the argument recently when he said that mass strikes won’t happen here because, “we don’t have the volatile nature of the French or the Greeks”.

This is of course nonsense—and history proves it.

The world’s first general strike took place in Britain 1842 as part of the Chartist movement when around half a million workers took a “grand national holiday” against wage cuts.

In 1926 millions of workers took part in a nine-day general strike.

In 1972 Britain was on the verge of a general strike as millions heeded the call to strike in support of five dockers who had broken anti-trade union laws. The dockers were swiftly freed.

More recently in 1984 when the TUC called, at short notice, a day of action against the Tories’ ban on trade unions at the government GCHQ spy centre, widespread strikes took place across the country in response.

But are the unions too weak to repeat this kind of action today?

It is true that trade union membership has fallen significantly from its post-war high of around 13 million to just under seven million today (largely a result of union members losing their jobs in the recessions of the 1980s and early 1990s).

But the unions remain the biggest voluntary organisations in Britain today. Trade unions in Britain have more members than French unions.

And they retain a vital ability to focus national resistance to the Tory and Lib Dem’s austerity offensive.

Providing that kind of leadership would also be the best way to recruit millions of currently unorganised workers into the unions. Unions grow when they fight back effectively.

The boost to workers’ confidence to take on the government and employers attacks would be the most important immediate gain from a successful general strike.

It would break the hold of the idea that we can’t do anything and have to accept at least some cuts.

A general strike would also deal a powerful blow to attempts by the coalition and the press to scapegoat public sector workers, immigrants and those on benefits for the crisis.

Calls by union leaders at this year’s TUC meeting for a national demonstration and for coordinated strikes between different unions have raised the idea of a united fightback in every workplace.

We need to capitalise on this and the rising anger against the cuts to argue for a general strike.

We need to push hard for the union leaders’ words to be turned into real action.

Of course it isn’t going to happen tomorrow, and there’s no simple blueprint for how we get there.

At the same time as building every campaign and strike, socialists must argue for coordination with other groups of workers—and to intensify the pressure on those at the top of the unions to call a general strike.

We need to use every demonstration and struggle to win more workers to the need for generalised struggle.

As French strikers say, we need to fightback “tous ensemble”—all together.

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