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Celebrate strikes, don’t apologise for them

This article is over 12 years, 8 months old
At times it can seem as if everyone is against strikes. The main political parties typically attack strikers for being "irresponsible". And even trade union leaders who are leading strikes take care to stress that "no one wants to strike".
Issue 2271

At times it can seem as if everyone is against strikes. The main political parties typically attack strikers for being “irresponsible”. And even trade union leaders who are leading strikes take care to stress that “no one wants to strike”.

Labour leader Ed Miliband recently argued that strikes are “always the consequence of failure”. As far as he is concerned, strikes are unpopular so he doesn’t want to be associated with them.

But strikes offer workers the opportunity to exert some control over their lives and give them confidence in their own collective power.

The government and the bosses know this. They hate strikes—not just because strikes hit their profits, but also because they demonstrate that workers can bring the country to a halt.

The hostility of the ruling class is one reason for the reluctance of many workers to openly support strikes. But lack of confidence on our side is another factor.

“Public opinion” is always said to be against strikes—even though this rubs against the experience of solidarity that most strikers receive from fellow workers.

There are also huge economic pressures on people not to strike. Workers are typically not paid for strike days. And the potential for defeat means that strikes can often involve very high stakes.

Socialists have a very different attitude towards strikes than politicians, bosses and even some trade union leaders. We believe they offer an alternative vision of the world and the seeds of a better future.

Strikes necessarily involve workers acting in their own collective interests. And workers can change themselves in the process.

The revolutionary socialist Karl Marx wrote in the 19th century about how people’s ideas change in the course of struggle.

He talked about the process by which working class people become conscious of their own collective ability to found a radically new society free of class division.

Marx argued that strikes and revolutionary struggles are a means by which divided and atomised workers can transform themselves and challenge many of society’s “common sense” ideas.

Work under capitalism is a contradictory experience. On the one hand it creates a mass of workers with a common interest. But on the other it involves workers divided by gender and race, and through competition with workers in other companies or even in the same workplace.

Strikes can begin to cut through this competition and forge a common identity against a common enemy. They break workers from the routine of everyday exploitation and give them a taste of their collective strength.

Of course, none of this is inevitable. Industrial action can sometimes reflect capitalist divisions rather than challenge them.And just as resistance can bring out the best in people, defeat can feed reactionary ideas.

Strikes are not the only form of resistance. Other struggles, campaigns and mass movements can win gains and give people a collective sense of political identity and confidence.

Struggles in general can forge an important sense of “us and them” against our rulers. But strikes go deeper, since by definition they are conflicts in the workplace, at the most direct point of exploitation.

Strikes also have the ability to feed into wider struggles, which in turn can feed back into industrial action. This process brings together political and economic struggles.

When public sector workers struck on 30 June, it was after a ballot over attacks to pensions. But these attacks are being pushed through by a government intent on destroying the public sector as we know it.

That is why they soon became strikes against the government’s agenda as a whole. The upcoming strikes on 30 November can follow this trend, bringing in millions of workers and ramping up the pressure on the government.

But within every strike there is a political battle. Even during short, small strikes different views of how to go forward are reflected in arguments over strategy.

Revolutionaries argue for rank and file control over strikes, for example through democratically controlled strike committees that can make decisions from below on a daily basis. This is often conflicts with those who believe strikes should be left under the control of the trade union leadership.

Nevertheless socialists celebrate and agitate for strikes. They are a vital step towards realising the potential of the working class—and they strengthen the struggle for a better world.

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