Strike militancy and escalation

Eben Dombay Williams writes about what workers in Britain can learn from the protests in France, and how we can increase trade union militancy
Eben Dombay Williams writes about what workers in Britain can learn from the protests in France, and how we can increase trade union militancy
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France is currently engaged in mass protests. Rolling strikes have been led by the CGT, the second-largest trade union federation in the country with historic affiliations to both the Communist Party of France and the socialist bloc-aligned World Federation of Trade Unions (a privilege shared by the RMT). According to CGT figures, 3.5 million have marched and protested Macron’s attacks on pensions on a single day, power has been cut, roads have been blocked, schools have been closed, flights have been cancelled, and rubbish has piled high in the streets. Tractors have faced off against police water cannons, oil depots have been targeted, leading to major petrol shortages, and Bordeaux city hall has been set ablaze. Firefighters and even some police officers have “downed tools” to side against Macron’s neoliberal assault.

Perhaps out of concern that such militarism could be catching, there has been a very deliberate lack of coverage of these events in the establishment press in Britain, leaving that job to independent and social media, instead. Even the British TUC has been circulating Twitter updates, which is a welcome development from a trade union body that would have been hesitant to call for escalation at home. Workers that are noticing what’s taking place across the Channel will see much larger, more militant, and better organised unions engaging in protests that look like protests and pickets that look like pickets. This level of resistance almost seems like second nature, suggesting a deeply embedded union culture and a well-cultivated class consciousness. Some of this consciousness has progressed to revolutionary level, leading to a larger communist movement with significant influence on the French political landscape. The latest protest wave is defensive rather than a planned revolutionary uprising, but it is certainly militant and represents a firm reliance on class power rather than liberation through the capitalist state.

British workers, too, have once again turned to our own efforts to improve the conditions of our class, with one of the largest strike waves in recent history and a commendable escalation in struggle. The most advanced unions have won significant pay rises which have been no easy victory considering their current levels of power. Alongside this, we have also seen new organisations emerge in the form of community and university-based strike solidarity groups. These new broad-left organisations have been experimenting with new strategies and tactics, organising their bases of community residents and students to build power and class consciousness outside of and in conjunction with the workplace. These groups, as well as other unions, have explored using their positions outside of a dispute to circumnavigate anti-trade union laws and create leverage of their own. All of this contributes to a feeling that, in the words of Mick Lynch, “The working class is back and we refuse to be poor anymore!”

Acorn tenants’ union engaging in escalation tactics

French worker militancy and strike readiness are often passed off by liberals as a cultural oddity, rather than the Marxist analysis of their development from concrete historical and material conditions. These conditions are different in both France and Britain, which has resulted in different levels of potential power and consciousness, but our role as communists is to ensure we are exploiting maximum power to create maximum leverage along with creating the material conditions for more power to be built. Capitalism provides the soil from which the revolution grows, but it is up to us to cultivate and advance the class struggle through deliberate effort. There is certainly nothing “un-British” about militancy, and we would do well to study and remember the history of the struggle of our class here at the heart of empire and the birthplace of capitalism as we chart our path forward. Our theory is our compass, so let us return to our theory to examine a few basic questions, including the nature of a strike, the nature of militancy, and the necessity of the two.

Let’s review the basics. We, the working class, are pitted by economic necessity against our ruling class in a fight for our liberation and survival. The ruling class controls the means of production: the companies, the workplaces, the tools, and expensive machinery, and appropriates the wealth produced by the workers in order to finance its luxury and maintain its rule and our oppression, leaving the minimum possible amount in the pockets of the workers as wages. Workers seek higher wages, which eat into profits, and bosses seek higher profits, which eat into wages, resulting in class conflict and struggle that can only be resolved by the revolutionary transition to a new social and economic order: socialism.

Without resistance, the ruling class will drive down wages to maximise profits and will rely on the state and its monopoly on violence, primarily through the police, the courts, and the media to support this process and manage the inevitable unrest. Despite propaganda to the contrary, “liberal” and “democratic” states are not neutral arbiters of this struggle, but active participants on the side of the ruling class. Our choice of elected representatives is reduced to the ones with enough capital to fund their campaigns, and the winners are usually the ones with the most support from the capitalist-controlled mass media. Once elected, politicians are then subject to further influence from capital via corruption and lobbying.

This forces workers to recognise that we cannot rely on the capitalist state to liberate us, and must instead rely on ourselves, and especially our two greatest advantages against both the ruling class and its state: our role in running society and thus ability to shut it down (strike potential) and the fact that we possess far greater numbers than our rulers (physical superiority). By organising our class to make better and more frequent use of these two weapons, and by developing an understanding of our class position and the necessity to wage not only the defensive war of trade union struggle, but also the offensive war of revolutionary struggle against the state (revolutionary class consciousness), the closer an actual revolution becomes.

In France, class struggle has already developed to a point where the working class is capable of seizing both of these weapons and fearlessly wielding both against Macron’s capitalist state. They may not have developed the revolutionary class consciousness or organisation to wage revolution, with demands limited to a defensive nature against the pension bill, but they’re certainly further ahead than we are. In Britain, not only do we need to build class consciousness and a sufficiently organised revolutionary leadership, but we have also only just returned to the first of our weapons: the strike and mass strike, while fearing and rejecting the other: physical conflict and militancy. Sometimes this fear is certainly justified, considering our current levels of power and organisation and the potential for retaliation from the state, but other times it is not, and either way, building to a point where we can wield it fully should be explicitly and unashamedly the ambition of the entire movement. It should be considered unacceptable that our picket lines are mostly for show and allow scabs through unchallenged, undermining their ability to disrupt and create leverage. It should be considered unacceptable for our protests to be liberal and performative, focusing on creating photo opportunities and friendly atmospheres, rather than a real threat of force. Once we agree that this situation is unacceptable, we can work to change the material conditions and advance, or advance without fear once the conditions have been created. Otherwise, we are fighting with one hand tied behind our back, and this is a mistake for several reasons.

Stand Up to Racism showcasing liberal protest tactics at an anti-fascist rally in Erskine

First, avoiding militancy in order to curry favour from the state is often ineffective. At certain points, it doesn’t matter how peaceful an RMT picket is, the media will still demonise Mick Lynch as disruptive and violent. It doesn’t matter how much a picket complies with the law, trade union reps will still be prosecuted and dismissed for aggressive behaviour. Yes, we live under extremely draconian anti-trade union legislation, and yes, trade unions are threatened with being sued or outlawed, but we cannot wait and hope for this legislation to be improved before escalating. Breathing space will be made from the law by building resistance to the law, and just like the Poll Tax, legal state violence can only be reliably defeated by making those laws unenforceable. This cannot be achieved by dismissing illegal tactics once the power has been built to successfully carry them out and fend off a response.

Secondly, it is disempowering. There is nothing more draining than telling someone who is full of legitimate class fury that this is no time for anger, that the word “scab” is too inflammatory, that pacifism is king, or that the enemy is too strong and we must prostrate ourselves before them for scraps from the table. Anger is an extremely empowering emotion and must be channelled effectively, not diffused. The working class is furious, and if that is not respected and encouraged, if we disempower rather than empower that anger through strange or superficial forms of protest, then workers may either abandon the struggle or seek power from the right.

Thirdly, militancy is something which the working class are crying out for. The desire for escalation is palpable across a wide section of the trade union movement, including both the rank and file and among the leadership. This is something to which both the TUC and STUC have been either reticent or hostile. For example, on a national level, the FBU has called upon the TUC to lead a “mass movement of non-compliance” against the upcoming Minimum Service Levels Bill, a bill which seeks to make it illegal for broad sectors of the workforce to strike, including the fire service. They have pointed out that there is “no obvious route to challenge this attack through the courts”, yet this litigious, liberal tactic has still been favoured by both the former TUC leader, Frances O’Grady and her replacement, Paul Nowak. Here, we have an urgent appeal to the British trade union movement to reject liberation through the capitalist state and instead to rely on its own power. This urgency will only become more acute in response to developments in France, continued escalation from the British state, and the clear limitations of liberal protest as a defence. Currently, there is a dangerous vacuum of leadership for militancy that the TUC and most political parties have failed to fill. It is urgent that communists move to fill this space before the far-right.

Matt Wrack speaking at right to strike London demo

FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack calling for civil disobedience

How can communists support escalation and what traps should we avoid? Let’s look at some examples, focusing on the picket line as a site of class struggle.

  1. Tailism

Example: A timid trade union rep is holding back a large number of experienced workers who are prepared for a more militant approach, diffusing legitimate anger towards scabs and the boss due to fear of reprisal, despite broad awareness of the risks and readiness to confront them. This could be anything from using the word “scab” itself, to shaming the boss, to physically preventing scabs from crossing the picket.

At a time when the appetite for escalation is growing, this will become more and more common, and the workers should be encouraged and empowered to take action where they are ready to do so. If they are not given an outlet for their anger, they may become disillusioned from the union and fall away from activity.

Communists and other leaders must stand firmly on the side of workers with an appetite for escalation if the power is there to enforce it. We should be clear about the risks, but we should also be prepared for them, and learn to face down retaliation when it comes, remembering that there will always be risks for those workers who “stick their heads above the parapet” but there is much greater risk for those who live in constant fear of doing so.

  1. Adventurism

Example: Three workers and a trade union rep are out on the picket line for the first time. Neither their union nor the community would be ready or willing to support them if they were challenged for illegal behaviour, and yet an activist is provoking scabs, physically preventing them from crossing, and shaming the workers for not doing following suit. This may be in an attempt to play the hero or it may be a misguided effort to inspire others to action.

These workers are already risking a great deal and the power has not yet been built to defend themselves from retaliation. A level of escalation must never be carried out before it is collectively supported by the mass of the workers who have the organisational power to carry it through and is prepared for retaliation. In this case, the strike itself is already a welcome step beyond their comfort zone.

Communists should therefore encourage and support the workers for taking important steps in the class struggle and work to create the conditions for building power in the community and workplace before escalating further. The cycle of “organise, escalate, negotiate, repeat” is helpful to remember here, with the aim being to only escalate after sufficient organisation and only slightly above the comfort zone of the collective.

It is extremely important that an escalation in militancy is never carried out by a “courageous” minority detached from the masses. The belief in the power of individual heroes to inspire others to action or “propaganda of the deed” is an adventurist anarchist tactic which, although brave, is highly individualistic and ignores the nature of class power and the power of the collective. The same goes for communist organisations. Power is not built by encouraging the working class to rely on us to carry out their struggle for them. We must carry it out together, guiding towards the correct tactics, either legal or illegal as appropriate. If communists have won passive support of the workers to escalate, then we must aim for active support by involving the masses in collective action.

  1. Appealing to the oppressor

Someone on a picket line with a distaste for conflict has suggested a “love bomb” of an employer’s office, showering them in affectionate messages in order to make them realise their wrongdoing.

This is an extreme example, but there are plenty of situations among more liberal-minded activist circles where a similar suggestion might be made. Not only is this deeply offensive to the legitimate anger of the workers who are in dispute and therefore extremely disempowering, it is also completely ineffective, as the boss has no material incentive to agree.

The communist’s duty here is to isolate the individual who suggested it, support those who oppose them, and guide them towards leverage tactics, instead.

  1. Mobilising, not organising

A strike solidarity group has mobilised fifty people to a picket line for a “show of force” amounting to little more than a photo op. The picket is big and strong enough to escalate its militancy, but is not doing so, and the organisers are letting the crowd drift away without plans for future engagement.

In the age of social media and superficial protest, mobilising instead of organising is very common, with the aim being to “look” powerful rather than “be” powerful. Here, the communist must aim to use maximum power to create maximum leverage, most effectively through prior planning in coordination with other leaders. The large numbers on the picket line must be organised through the collective, collecting phone numbers, etc., to ensure more come the next time, not less. The size of the crowd must also be weaponised to provide more leverage than mere propaganda. Can the crowd blockade the workplace if it is prepared for retaliation? Can it be marched to a company’s headquarters to demand a meeting with the employer? If the crowd is not aware of its own power, how can it be encouraged?

There is substantial scope for escalating militancy in a dispute, but it will depend on a number of factors which may require research, including determining the pre-existing militancy of workers and unions, studying the nature of the dispute in order to identify which tactics are appropriate, building trust and leadership in unions and broad-left groups, establishing contact with other leaders and working together to plan actions beforehand, building the power to support escalation before encouraging it, and always keeping an eye out for opportunity and a finger on the pulse of the movement.

This latest wave of industrial action seems to be in decline, with many unions now reaching settlements, so we are now entering a period of reflection on what went well and what opportunities we may have missed so that we can be ready the next time. The emergence of cross-union support and strike solidarity groups created a great opportunity for both building class consciousness among communities beyond the workplace, and carrying out escalation with fewer barriers from anti-trade union legislation. We have seen this in hard pickets, university occupations, marches, protests, and targeting of bosses, which have all been welcome new tactics to the struggle which should be developed in conjunction with the workers. Unions and communities must learn to work together to escalate and create more leverage than either one of them acting alone.

Despite the usual challenges, contradictions, and conflicts that are present in broad-left organisations and relationships, communists must engage with them fully, strengthen them to the best of our ability, and strive to unite them around a revolutionary programme. If these organisations are entering a period of rest, then the knowledge, relationships, and structures built during this latest wave of action must be preserved and ready to be revived when necessary.

We must also remember to conduct our activities as open communists of a communist party, confident in our knowledge that without a revolutionary organisation guided by proven revolutionary method, trade union power is insufficient to overthrow the capitalist state and resolve the primary contradiction of capitalist society: that of the very relationship between workers and capitalists to the means of production.

Such an organisation is still insufficiently developed in both France and Britain, and so requires redoubled efforts from the most conscious elements of our class to build. Without this, the capitalist class could at any point install a new Thatcher or even a new Hitler, ready to undo our work and reverse our victories. It is therefore necessary to advance the trade union consciousness to a revolutionary socialist consciousness in broad-left groups as much as the unions.

Eben Dombay Williams, is a member of the YCL’s Glasgow branch

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