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(en) UK, Direct Action #28 - Wage Slavery - Workplace Militancy: the Left, the Unions & Anarcho-Syndicalism

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sat, 4 Oct 2003 07:40:51 +0200 (CEST)

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Why has workplace activity in Britain reached such a low point?
Why is it different in France and elsewhere?

Things would be less dismal were it not for union bosses with
their desire for respectability on one hand, and left groups with
their strategy of sidetracking activists away from the workplace
and into centralised party and union structures on the other.

Some would blame declining union membership, but this isn’t
the answer either. In France, for instance, less than 20% of
workers are in unions, in contrast with just under half of the
British workforce. Nevertheless, there is much more militancy and
workplace activism than in Britain. This is based on small
groupings of politicised activists, some working inside of, and
some outside of the official union confederations. Among these
are the anarcho-syndicalist CNT-AIT (SF’s French sister
organisation). Such minorities of activists can successfully
persuade other workers, unionised or not, to join them in
confronting management.

Strike action may not be the be-all and end-all of workplace
activity, but an impression of the level of workplace activity can
be gleaned from official statistics on strikes. Whereas there was
an average of only 274 strikes per year in Britain throughout the
1990s, there was over ten times that figure (2,917) for the period
1970-4, with almost 4,000 in 1970 alone. Imagine – nearly 80
strikes going on around the country in a single week! Many of
these would have been unofficial, organised at the level of the
individual workplace, and often with little or no interference by full
time union officials.

Why has workplace activity in Britain reached such a low point?
Why is it different in France and elsewhere? The answer lies in
the political developments surrounding the strike

Politics and the workplace
Throughout the 1960s, the use and threat of unofficial strike
action brought the working class many gains in terms of wages
and working conditions. So much so that the state, acting in the
bosses’ interests, sought to curtail the strike weapon through
legislation. These attempts were defeated when strike action
ruined first Labour’s 1969 white paper; ‘In Place of Strife:
a Policy for Industrial Relations’, followed by the 1971 Tory
Industrial Relations Act. These events also had an overtly
political dimension in terms of their role in the electoral defeats of
the Wilson government in 1970, and Heath’s in 1974.
However, politics, particularly the politics of workers’ control,
was largely kept away from the level of workplace organisation.

Politicised workers were increasingly attracted to rank and file
groups which were aimed at linking up activists across
workplaces and across industries. These came together in 1973 in
the National Rank and File Movement, which, at its height,
produced a regular paper circulating to 10,000 workers. However,
many Rank and File groups were controlled by the International
Socialists (now the SWP) and other ‘new left’ groups.
Sadly, they never broke their Marxist-Leninist shackles, and this
meant that the Rank and File Movement became little more than a
recruiting ground. In typical Leninist fashion, the left argued that
the party should form the political leadership of the working class,
and that workers should form economic organisations (unions)
under the leadership of the party. They feared that the National
Rank and File Movement would begin to link the economic and the
political, and move towards anarcho-syndicalism. Accordingly,
they worked to strictly limit its role to little more than strike
support with no wider analysis or political content. At the same
time, the most politicised workers tended to move from workplace
activism, to activism higher up the union hierarchy in the service
of the party.

Eventually, the likes of the SWP dropped the Rank and File idea
altogether. Gone was a great opportunity to organise across union
lines, to link together isolated workplace organisations, and to
spread the political ideas of workers’ control of society.
Lacking such a political content and based on day-to-day
economic issues alone, it is no wonder that workplace activity fell
off during the 1980s world recession and the Thatcherite backlash
against the working class.

This is not to say that politicised activists didn’t remain in
some workplaces or that such people didn’t inject class
politics into the workplace during some of the struggles that did
occur. The point is they were just too thinly spread and too
isolated. In the end, the only alternatives offered to most workers
were the dead ends of electing more left wing union leaders and of
waiting for a Labour election victory - all of it a far cry from the

Shocked and stunned
Thatcher’s Tory government dismantled union power through
a three-pronged strategy. Firstly, the government cut the TUC out
of the decision-making social partnership between government,
capitalists (CBI) and unions that had operated since World War
II. Secondly, Parliament passed a raft of ‘anti-union’ laws
clamping down on unofficial strikes and secondary picketing.
Thirdly, the Tories attacked and picked off political targets,
assisted where necessary by the full force of the State as, for
example, during the 1984-5 miners’ strike.

Some sporadic solidarity actions apart, steelworkers and miners,
printworkers and dockers each face their industrial struggles
alone. Completely shocked and stunned at being dumped from the
corridors of power, union leaders are desperate to return to the
good old days of ‘beer and sandwiches at no. 10’. The only
strategy they offer is a headlong dash to the right in tandem with
the Labour Party. Efforts are made to appease ‘middle
England’, suck up to the right-wing tabloid press, and make
Labour appear electable. In the process, workers in struggle are
sacrificed. Virtually the only solidarity on offer takes the shape of
strike support groups which, although representing an important
development, are no replacement for solidarity action in the

Another major consideration for union bureaucrats is the threat to
union funds and court action consequential to flouting anti-union
laws. To this end, increasingly centralised union structures and
procedures act as a restraint, rather than a spur, to any effective
defence of our working conditions. Union branches are
increasingly shut down or amalgamated and forced to operate
beyond the level of the individual workplace. Union officials
increasingly negotiate behind the backs of the members, including
imposing settlements of disputes and signing no-strike,
single-union, ‘sweetheart deals’. Union dues are
increasingly paid directly to the national union in the process
bypassing shop stewards, and diminishing their contact with
ordinary members in the workplace.

In truth, union officialdom got away with its manoeuvres and
machinations precisely because workplace organisation was
already so weakened. It was too late. The damage done by a
constant leeching away of workplace militants into the party and
union machineries could not be reversed. Instead, the left
operated merely as an opposition movement within middle and
upper levels of the unions. They called for right wing union leaders
to organise general strikes; they called on union members to elect
left wing leaders; and they called for workers to mount solidarity
action when the only effective means of doing it –
independent, politicised and coordinated workplace organisation
– had been sabotaged by the left’s own self interest.
These calls echoed uselessly around a limbo almost totally devoid
of any credible workplace-based militancy to back them up.

Working for workers’ control
What might have been, despite the harsh economic climate, had
the level of workplace activity witnessed in the 1970s been
allowed to evolve into the 1980s without the influence of the left
is a guessing game. What defeats might have been avoided, what
gains might have been made, and what forms of workplace
resistance we might now have developed are all pure speculation.
What is safe to say, though, is that workplace activity at the
present time would surely not have been set back so far in the
face of the rabid individualism of the Thatcher-Blair era. It is likely
that we would have something much more akin to the French
situation with handfuls of activists, including a significant
anarcho-syndicalist presence, intervening directly in the
workplace to agitate for confronting management.

This type of set-up is one that has been used by SolFed members
despite the limited opportunities imposed by low levels of
militancy. Certainly it can be built upon.

Clearly, revolutionary (anarcho-syndicalist) unions based on such
concepts as direct democracy to encourage full participation,
workplace assemblies giving an equal say to all, and delegates
that are recallable and accountable, are not immediately around
the corner. Nevertheless, these principles form a part of the
politics of workers’ control that anarcho-syndicalism can
bring to workplace organisation, alongside the equally important
‘consciousness raising’ task of encouraging workers,
through acting together, to begin to wrest back control of their
own daily lives from bosses, union officials, and ultimately, the
State itself.

To join SolFed, or find out about Workplace Networks, make
Answerphone 07984 675 281
Email: solfed@solfed.org.uk.

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