By Anthony Main, Socialist Party
Many workers are asking the question: What is the best way to combat the offensive of the bosses against the rights and conditions of workers? This is a big issue facing the trade union and labour movement today.
Over the past twenty years strike levels have experienced a significant downward trend. At the same time the political parties that used to represent workers have shifted sharply to the right. This has led to a collapse in class-consciousness and is reflected in the ideas of many trade union leaderships.
For far too long the ideas of class struggle unionism and militant industrial action have been forgotten by the workers movement. Apart from a few militant unions the majority of union leaders adhere to the idea of cosying up to the bosses. They mistakenly believe that this is the best way to defend workers wages and conditions.
These ideas are best described as class collaboration as opposed to class struggle. The ideas of class collaboration will be made redundant in the coming period as the more society moves towards economic instability, the more bosses will be compelled to attack the hard won gains made by the workers movement.
Workers will have no choice other than to fight. They will be forced to strike to protect even the most basic rights. During the struggles that will take place the ideas of class struggle unionism will come back to the fore.
Workers will realise that the best way to fight is to unite and the best way to win is through militant action. These ideas are not new and have been used with success in the past. In fact it was militancy and class struggle that won all of our past gains.
A proper understanding of how to win strikes flows from a proper understanding of how capitalist society is divided into classes. In modern capitalism, the two main classes are the bosses who own and control the means of production and the workers. Workers generally own nothing except their labour power. Their key weapon is their ability to withdraw that labour during strikes.
These two powerful classes clearly have interests that are directly opposed to one another. The bosses’ main interest is to increase profits whilst the workers main interest is to increase their standard of living by improving wages and conditions. One can only gain at the expense of the other. This causes bosses and workers to be constantly involved in a struggle over the amount of profit, or unpaid labour, the boss will receive. This is known as the class struggle.
This struggle takes place on many levels, from the workplace to the political arena. However the highest point in this struggle is typified by industrial disputes and in particular, strikes. Under capitalism this struggle is an ongoing process so it is important to view strikes as a heightened part of the class struggle.
Strikes are the most effective form of retaliation for workers in this struggle as workers only real power is that of stopping work. Withdrawing labour and just staying at home however is not usually good enough. The first thing a boss will do is look for other workers to do the work. This is why workers need an organised plan of industrial action.
The most effective form of action is the occupation of the workplace. Unfortunately in recent times occupations have been uncommon. During an occupation workers have the upper hand as the bosses do not have the luxury of walking around the site planning their next move.
In fact everything that they claim as theirs (ie the plant and equipment or the means of production) is beyond their reach. Hopefully in the coming period occupations will become more common as they are the best way of fighting against job losses and plant relocations.
A more common form of action is the setting up of picket lines or blockades outside workplaces. This uses the workers to hinder the boss from conducting business as usual and prevents other workers from doing the work. Attacking the bosses at the point of production and therefore hitting them in the hip pocket is the best way to force them into handing over concessions to workers. This is true both on a small and a large scale.
Strikes and picket line situations cannot be viewed as a fixed or static event. They have their own internal movement and are really only fully understood by those directly involved.
Like other aspects of the class struggle a strike will not flow along evenly. It will move in ebbs and flows. The strike will either be going forward, drawing more workers into the struggle and building wider support or it will be going backwards with the numbers dwindling, the action slowing and morale falling.
The only other state for a strike to be in is a stalemate. If a stalemate sets in the strike needs to be pushed forward otherwise it will quickly ebb. As a rule of thumb if you are not going forwards you are going backwards.
If a stalemate can’t be broken it is better to explain the situation openly and honestly and for the workers to return to work. They will not be victorious but still undefeated. At least the struggle can then be kept going and the strike could continue another day.
Alternatively other forms of action can be used inside the workplace for example go slows or overtime bans. This is not ideal but if handled correctly retreat does not necessarily mean defeat.
Different workplaces and unions operate differently and therefore every strike will be different and unique. This does not mean however that we go into every situation blindly. It is true there is no schema or fully worked out plan that will guarantee a victory in a dispute but there is a basic framework that will better prepare us for what may come up.
This framework flows from the principles of democratic rank and file trade unionism. Rank and file unionism means that any healthy union should be democratic and have a bottom up decision-making processes. Workers rather than union officials should make the decisions.
The reason for this is not abstract but because the approach of actively involving the rank and file is much more effective when our organisations are involved in battle. Workers not trade union bureaucrats should have full control and management of their organisations. If this is enforced it will mean that decisions will more likely be made in the workers best interests.
In democratic unions workers should elect their leaderships. Similarly in an industrial dispute workers should elect the leadership of a strike. This leadership needs to take the form of a strike committee. If the strike is short-lived the existing shop committee or delegates on the job may take on this responsibility. But if the strike is expected to go on for longer than a few days then a strike committee should be established in order to better facilitate the work.
The strike committee will vary in size and composition depending on the size of the workforce, but the role that the committee plays is key in any strike. The two main tasks of the strike committee are operations and agitation.
The committee should be comprised of the most experienced shop stewards and activists on the job. The number of union officials on the committee should be kept to a minimum and they must carry out majority decisions. The members of the committees should be fully accountable to mass meetings who should have the right of immediate recall.
The job of the strike committee is not just to co-ordinate the strike and implement decisions but also to guide the whole process of the strike. The committee should also oversee all the finances associated with the strike.
Some of the key tasks the committee should take responsibility for are formulating the log of claims, negotiating with the boss and determining the appropriate tactics of the strike. But most importantly the committee must keep the workers co-ordinated, active and informed.
The first task of the strike committee should be to set the duration of the strike. This is not a fixed thing but a rough guide so as to more accurately plan the campaign. Some of the things to take into account are the length of time the workers could realistically stay out and the mood of the workforce. Ideally strikes should be kept as short as possible.
Generally speaking time is on the side of the boss. This can vary depending on the industry but if strikes are won quickly it often greatly boosts the confidence of workers. This means they will be more likely to fight again in the future.
It is crucial that the strike be kept continually escalating. The strike committee needs to play a crucial role in this process. One of the functions of the strike committee is to mobilise the workers and to co-ordinate their activities. The strike committee should also be responsible for all of the infrastructure on the picket line.
Some basic jobs in regards to operations include organising the staffing of picket lines, rosters, phone trees, caravans, tents, barricades, first aid, BBQs, food, drinks and firewood. The more comfortable people are on the picket line, the longer they are likely to stay!
The other area of work the strike committee needs to take on is agitation. The committee should strive to be both the voice and the face of the strike. With this in mind the strike committee needs capable writers and good public speakers on it. Some basic jobs in regards to strike agitation include the writing of leaflets, the organising of public meetings, going out to other workplaces canvassing for support (both moral, financial and industrial), the making of placards and banners and dealing with the media.
Often when workers go on strike the boss will refuse to negotiate with the union. They will bide their time hoping that they can outlast the workers and force them back to work. In theory this can work as obviously bosses generally have much more money and resources than workers do. This is where escalating the action comes in.
A boss who refuses to negotiate is hoping to starve the workers back to work. This can be countered by raising enough money to keep the strikers going. During down times on the picket line the strike committee should be going out to other workplaces, to universities and to community groups to meet with as many people as possible.
Their job is to let people know about the dispute, encourage others to attend the picket line and also to ask for financial contributions to the strike. This not only spreads the word about the strike but it also sends a message to the boss that the workers can stay out as long as needed because they are receiving enough support to keep them going.
Sometimes bosses will shift work to other sites or to other companies. This needs to be countered by making an appeal to the workers at the other sites not to do the work or even better to join the strike.
If the situation is explained properly to the workers they will side with their class and offer support. The facts are that they could be next in line for an attack or may need support when they are next fighting their boss. A culture of working class solidarity needs to be built across all sectors, industries and unions.
Discipline during strikes is key. Not only do we need to maintain the policy of sticking together at all times. But we need to remember that when on strike we are doing an important job. We are fighting to either defend or advance the gains of the workers movement. This is often much bigger than just a group of workers or one worksite, we are laying down a marker for all future disputes between workers and bosses.
A serious approach to industrial action is required if we are going to win. The safety of our people on picket lines must be paramount. This means that it is preferable that picket lines are dry. Drunken picketers are of no use to the struggle and can often compromise the safety of others involved in the dispute.
Picketers need to exercise discipline during actions whether it is during stopping a truck from entering the premises or stopping a scab. Picketers should take directions from the democratically elected leadership of the strike and no one else. This eliminates the danger of provocateurs high jacking any actions.
It goes without saying that safety on the picket line extends to the setting up of our own infrastructure. Health and safety representatives should extend their duties to the picket and ensure that all areas are clean and free of hazards. A safe picket line helps encourage others to attend.
One issue that often comes up during disputes is that of scabs. Striking workers should make no apologies for stopping scabs from entering the workplace to do their work. Scabs can seriously undermine a strike. The first point of call should be to discuss with the scab to make sure that they fully understand the situation. They should be encouraged to join their fellow workers on strike. If they decide not to side with the workers and in fact go over to the side of the bosses then they should be treated as such and isolated.
A constant effort needs to be made to explain that the wages and conditions that we currently enjoy were not just handed over to us by friendly bosses. They were all hard won through workers struggle. The only way we will maintain and extend these conditions is to continue that struggle.
This basic framework of how to win strikes can be applied to any workplace or any industry. It will however not happen on its own. It needs to be consciously implemented by activists – particularly by the strike committee.
It is the job of socialists to reintroduce the ideas of class struggle unionism back into the trade union movement. Side by side with that we need to train a new layer of activists who are capable of putting these ideas into action. After almost a generation of class collaboration unionism the time for the reintroduction of the ideas of class struggle, of militancy and of solidarity is now.
Program for militant class struggle unionism
- Trade union democracy: Rank and file groups to be built in every union.
- Form an unemployed workers’ union.
- All union officials and organisers to be regularly elected and subject to recall.
- All union officials to receive the average wage of the workers they represent and only genuine expenses.
- Delegates or shop stewards to be elected by workers in every workplace.
- Hold regular mass delegates’ meetings.
- All major issues to go to mass meetings of union members to be voted on.
- No secret negotiations between union officials and bosses. Union officials to be accompanied by delegates or shop stewards in workplaces and in negotiations with bosses at all times.
- Fight to make the use of scabs by employers illegal.
- Fight all anti-union laws with industrial action.
- Conduct a mass campaign to defend the right of all workers to organise, strike and picket without legal restrictions.
- Campaign for unions to be given immunity from common law action.
- As a general rule unions should resist the paying of any fines relating to industrial disputes whether for the union itself, a union official or an individual worker. If in any particular instance circumstances force the payment of a fine no individual worker or official should be forced to stand-alone and the union will pay the fine for them.
- Internationalism: For unions to form links with and actively support, through solidarity boycotts and industrial action, workers in struggle internationally.
- For active solidarity and joint action between unions worldwide, not just at international union meetings but through solidarity action, material assistance and support. This is the only way we can combat the unity bosses have internationally. We must support those fighting for a rise in workers’ wages and conditions in the so-called ‘third world’ countries and prevent bosses from shifting their plants offshore.
- Unions should break with the ALP and build a new mass workers’ party based on trade unions, progressive community organisations and working class people.