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Part 2: A new activist’s guide to strikes and unions

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New people are involved in strikes themselves or building solidarity. Here Sam Ord answers more questions that activists have raised in meetings
Issue 2833
strikes UCU CWU RMT Tories union

Member of the UCU union on strike at Goldsmiths university (Pic: Guy Smallman)

What’s rank and file organisation?

The main divide in every ­workplace is between workers and bosses. That leads to the creation of trade unions, which are important organisations and schools of struggle. But there’s also a crucial division within unions between the ordinary union members and the full time officials, the bureaucracy.

The bureaucracy is a ­mediating force between the union and the bosses. It does deals with the employers rather than seeing a battle through to the end by the most militant methods. That’s because of their social role, not just because they are better paid and removed from the day to day pressures of the workplace.

The failures of the ­bureaucracy mean workers have sometimes organised networks of ordinary union members to pressure the ­officials and sometimes to act ­independently of them. This is what we mean by rank and file organisation. It is not an alternative to union membership, but a vital part of it. It’s not ­creating a new union but fighting inside the existing one.

The Clyde Workers Committee, formed by engineers in Glasgow, expressed the standpoint well during the First World War. “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the ­workers, but we will act ­immediately they misrepresent them.”

It organised strikes even when the bureaucracy refused to call them. And it also supported a rent strike of 25,000 tenants by ­threatening a general strike. Rank and file organisation depends on a network of union activists with real roots in their workplaces, able to pose the question of practical independent action among their members.

It is different from “Broad Lefts” in focusing on collective action, and not just union elections and conference policies.

What are strike ­committees?

The greater the participation by strikers in their own dispute, the better the chances to win. Socialists argue for workers’ democratic control of strikes. One way of organising this is by ­electing a strike committee to coordinate action and guide the fight to victory.

Union officials will claim that they fill this role. But while some of these may earn the right to be on the committee others can be out of touch with the day to day mood and concerns of the workers. The role of a striker should not be reduced to voting for action and then passively watching events unfold until they are told to go back to work.

Picket lines are also a chance for workers to discuss the way forward. They have to be followed up by regular mass meetings, which can vote on proposals about how to win and the ­tactics of the dispute. They can also deal with people’s inevitable worries and hesitations.

An elected committee can allow workers with ideas and experiences to control the strike and battle bosses democratically and efficiently. Recently there have been strike committees in some university strikes and in the North Sea unofficial action.

What is an indefinite strike?

All strikes matter. They point up the difference between ­exploiters and workers—between bosses and the people they exploit. But there is a big difference between a carefully-controlled one‑day strike and one that sets out to continue until victory is achieved.

An indefinite strike is one that isn’t time-limited. It goes on until a deal is agreed by the strikers. There have been some very ­effective examples of these recently among bus workers, and they have generally won better settlements than intermittent strikes.

Often they can secure a win quicker than a series of one-day or two-day strikes. During an indefinite strike it’s much easier for ­workers to organise to win solidarity form others, hold meetings, and take part in marches and rallies. There is also a greater chance of democracy from below.

You will also hear the phrase of “all out” strikes. Sometimes this is just another way of saying indefinite strikes. But it can also be a call for everyone in a ­workplace, industry or union to strike together for a set amount of time.

A radical conclusion of ­uniting workers’ strikes is a “general strike”—a walkout by millions of workers across industries. Workers in Britain are capable of a general strike. The TUC union federation has 5.5 million members and in 2011 it coordinated ballots that saw 2.5 million public sector workers strike together for one day over pension attacks.

It wasn’t a general strike, but it pointed the way towards the potential for one. In the 1926 British general strike, millions of ­workers struck for nine days. They were then sent back without any gains by their union leaders

After 12 weeks on strike ­workers lose some special legal protections. And after six months the anti-union laws demand a new ballot to continue a strike. So when there are intermittent strikes these factors can be used to strangle action.

What are coordinated strikes?

There’s a lot of talk now about coordinating the different strikes so that people strike on the same day across industries and unions. It’s certainly possible to have a very big strike given that over 500,000 workers have beaten the anti-union law threshold and could strike on whatever day their union gives notice for.

Strikes with half a million or more out together would greatly escalate the challenge to the bosses and the government. It would make clear that companies and ministers face a growing movement of the class, not just an individual set of strikers.

Sometimes union leaders and activists say they want to keep the media focus on their dispute by striking on different days. But the reality is that strikes are often ignored by the media.

A day when huge numbers of workers struck would dominate the news agenda. It would lead to everyone discussing strikes.

Another argument is that it’s “more effective” for, say, one rail union to strike one day and the other unions another day because both sets of action close the ­network. It’s important to think about the effectiveness of action. But bosses aren’t moved by “clever tactics”.

Strikes have to create a crisis for the companies and for the Tories. Another important argument is that united action would be a beacon for the whole ­working class. Every local dispute where ­workers have voted to strike could time their action for the same day.

It would be a focus for people not in unions and those not in work. It could win support from ­campaigns over poverty, benefits, climate crisis, racism and more. Major marches and rallies would ram home the message.

But some union leaders use the idea of coordinated action as a barrier to actually calling strikes. They say they will move only if other unions do as well. The ­message should be, “United if we can, on our own if we must.”

Part One of the new activist’s guide to strikes can be found here

What’s the question you would like us to answer? Let us know and we’ll try to do it in a follow up to this article. Email [email protected] or message us on social media

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