The obvious question, given the popular hostility to neoliberalism, is why isn’t there a higher level of fightback especially in the workplace against austerity and an unprecedented assault on working class living standards?
The class struggle in Britain remains shaped by the major defeats imposed on the working class in the 1980s by both the employers and Thatcher’s government. Key groups of workers, in the car and steel industry, the dockers, print workers in Fleet Street and above all the miners after their year-long strike in 1984-85 were taken on and beaten.
And a third of manufacturing industry, a key bastion of the unions, was destroyed in the early 1980s. These victories for the ruling class have left a legacy of a lack of confidence by workers of their collective power in the workplace.
The unwillingness of the union leaders to launch serious resistance has meant this lack of confidence has not been overcome. In turn this fosters a dependence on those same union officials, as workers have rarely been willing to act independently of the support of the officials.
But the resilience of class feeling and bitterness towards the unequal burden of austerity continually create pressure for the unions to act, and the potential for sudden explosions of resistance.
So when official action is called, the response is often very strong – witness the size and mood of the recent regional teachers’ strike demos, the support for the strike in higher education last month, or on a smaller scale the militancy of the strike at the Hovis plant in Wigan in September.
We saw this mood writ large on the 2 million strong public sector strike on 30 November 2011. Yet we also saw the lack of a fight at Grangemouth in the absence of a lead from Unite union chief Len McCluskey as well as the main teaching unions retreating from any further strikes this term.
The obstacle to developing and generalising these sparks of resistance, as well as overcoming the caution of the union leaders, isn’t the acceptance of neoliberal ideology among the mass of workers; it is that workers still have not rediscovered their confidence to fight back.
That means supporting every struggle that does take place, and trying to push it further. It means putting the argument for action inside the unions and seeking to organise the minority of workers who increasingly feel frustrated with what union leaders are offering, even if they don’t feel able to act independently yet.
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