From International Socialism, No.69, May 1974, pp.3-5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
THE GOVERNMENT’S honeymoon with the unions is already facing more than a little disruption. A few sections of the trade union movement, albeit sections traditionally on the margins of the movement, like the local government workers in London, have already taken limited strike action against Labour’s imposition of Phase Three norms. Other groups like the nurses are developing an unaccustomed militancy. And despite the TUC circular advising unions to respect Phase Three, union conference after union conference has gone for wage claims way outside its limits.
The standing ovations given to government representatives at some conferences have not prevented the seamen, the shopworkers, the clerical workers, the teachers, the Welsh miners, the farmworkers, all pushing substantial claims. Whatever the TUC says, people are learning the lesson of how the miners made themselves into a ‘special case’.
The union leaderships will be doing their utmost over the summer to try to dilute the claims out of recognition. They fear the effect of an endless struggle to keep up with inflation on their funds and their apparatus. And so they will use every conceivable bureaucratic manoeuvre to prevent a new wave of militancy.
But they are unlikely to be successful. Indeed, we can already see that the Labour government’s ‘social compact’ has not brought the class struggle to any miraculous end. The level of economic struggle is just as high as it was in the months of Tory government prior to the miners’ strike. It will inevitably rise to even greater heights in the autumn as inflation cuts still more deeply into living standards and unemployment begins to climb.
THE MOST significent event in domestic politics in the last month has, of course, been the engineers’ confrontation with the Industrial Relations Court.
What was particularly interesting was the way the strike call came from the executive and the powerful response it received from the members.
Since the ‘broad left’ took over the majority of key positions in the union some years back, its policy has been to combine a limited verbal militancy with extreme caution when it comes to organising industrial action. On wages, this has meant drawing up grandiose national claims, but failing to campaign for them among the membership and avoiding at all costs all-out industrial action. On the Industrial Relations Act it meant, until this month, taking a principled stand of complete opposition to the Act and refusing to give recognition to the Industrial Relations Court by not appearing before it, but restricting protest at the imposition of fines to covert support for local one day industrial action.
The trouble with this strategy was that it achieved little for the membership and weakened the ability of the broad left to resist criticism from the rival, right wing machine. The right was able to argue that the left’s policies merely caused inconvenience for the membership and a drain on the union’s funds without gaining anything in real terms.
The result, overall, has been a slow, but real, erosion in the strength of the left This has been shown recently by two events.
Firstly, the right made the running over the question of this year’s pay claim at the recent meeting of the union’s National Committee. Secondly, the left has lost out to the right in recent elections for fulltime positions, including the election for district secretary in one of the broad left’s strongest bases, Manchester. None of this could have done much to bolster the prospects of the broad left machine in the election for vacant position of union general secretary (which takes place later this year).
The moment of truth for the broad left came with the decision of the Court to seize union assets to pay the owners of the engineering firm Con Mech for costs incurred in smashing union organisation. If the executive acquiesced passively in the move, then it could expect a triumphant reassertion of the power of the right. It would have no reply to the accusation that defiance of the Court had merely cost the union more money than it was worth.
The call for all-out strike action was the only let-out for the executive majority. But it was more an act of desperation designed to ward off threats from the right than a bowing to pressures from the left. That was shown by the way the strike was called off the moment anonymous donors (presumably engineering employers) paid the compensation for the union. The broad left was not prepared to carry the strike through to achieve the aim which its members would claim individually to support – an immediate end to the functioning of the Court.
Certainly, it would be wrong to believe that the call issued by the executive majority represented any fundamental change in its overall approach to the problems of the union. It followed fast upon Scanlon’s support for an end to the overtime ban over the wage claim, a move which was resisted by other members of the broad left, but not all that vehemently. It is in fact an isolated occurrence punctuating the general drift of the broad left towards the right.
What the strike call does show, however, is that the trade union bureaucracy is capable of sudden lunges to the left, despite its overall trend in the opposite direction. Because it is trying to balance between contradictory forces, it can be.prone to the wildest oscillations. As Tony Cliff argued when writing On Perspectives in this journal some five years ago (in IS 36):
‘The vacillation of the trade union bureaucracy between the state, employers and the workers, with splits in the far-from-homogeneous bureaucracy, will continue and become more accentuated during the coming period. The union bureaucracy is both reformist and cowardly. Hence its ridiculously impotent and wretched position. It dreams of reforms but fears to settle accounts in real earnest with the state (which not only refuses to grant reforms but even withdraws those already granted) and it also fears the rank-and-file struggle which alone can deliver reforms. The union bureaucrats are afraid of losing what popular support they still maintain but are more afraid of losing their own privileges vis-à-vis the rank and file. Their fear of the mass struggle is much greater than their abhorrence of state control of the unions. At all decisive moments the union bureaucracy is bound to side with the state, but in the meantime it vacillates.
‘It is important to see that this attitude actually introduces confusion and disorganisation into state policies themselves.’
Revolutionaries have to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities created by such oscillations, while continuing to point out that the bureaucracy will abandon struggles the moment it gets the chance.
THE EFFECT of the strike has been to weaken the Industrial Relations Court beyond repair and, indirectly, to undermine the prospects for the ‘honeymoon’.
The stoppage hit sections of British industry at a time when the employers could least afford it. They were just recovering from short time working during the miners’ dispute and the effects of the overtime ban. They had to find some way of preventing the strike lasting more than a very short time. We do not know exactly how Donaldson, the President of the Court, was forced to toe the line. What we do know is that when the idea of an anonymous donor paying the £65,000 compensation was first suggested, Donaldson rejected the idea. He was worried, he said, that acceptance of the offer ‘would involve some surrender of the authority of the Court’. Yet within hours he had reversed his position.
The day after the strike the Financial Times summed up the general feeling of wide sections of the ruling class. It recognised that there had been little alternative to giving in to the union, but feared the long term consequences.
‘Those who feel relieved should also feel worried by the news that Mr Hugh Scanlon’s face has been saved with the help of what would seem to the layman a legal conjuring trick.’
A key element in Labour’s social contract strategy consists in union leaders being able to persuade their members that restraint on the wages front is an essential prerequisite for keeping Labour in office and getting rid of the Industrial Relations Act. But the engineers’ action has hammered home the lesson that the Act is being repealed because militant action has made it unworkable, rather than as a favour from the government. Before the strike, the labour editor of the Financial Times was already pointing out that
‘the effectiveness of the TUC’s policy of non-registration and the Engineers’ continuing refusal to have anything to do with the law and its court have been key factors in leading to plans to repeal the law.’
The backing down of the Court in the face of the strike will underline this message for thousands of workers who have never opened the pages of the Financial Times.
There is one other lesson which militants will have to push home in the weeks ahead. The response of the engineering workers to the strike call, like that of the miners before them, shows that however confused many workers may be over political issues, they will follow a clear lead if one is given.
This is particularly important in the engineering industry itself. The broad left majority on the executive has excused its failure to give a militant national lead over the years with talk of the passivity of the members to take action. By successfully calling a national stoppage at a few hours’ notice over an issue that had not even been fully explained to the members, the executive itself has blown that argument sky high.
IN THE SHORT term, the success of the engineers will probably serve to further strengthen the minority Labour government against its parliamentary opponents. The Tories were forced from office because words alone could not get the miners back to work and they were unable to get a new mandate for ‘strong government’.
The ruling class had to turn instead to a policy of trying to cut back on living standards through a deal with the union leaders. The ability of the engineers to beat off the law will further reinforce that tendency within the ruling class. They know that at present the Tories have no better means of keeping the working class in order than Labour. As the Economist complains,
the chastened Conservatives – reading how the country reacted to confrontation – have now little intention of resisting trade union dictation ...’
However, in the long term, the engineers’ success will increase the difficulties Labour faces in trying to solve the problems of British capitalism: The size of the wage claims already submitted for the summer and autumn shows that the protestations of union leaders have not prevented other workers learning the lessons of the miners’ victory. The effect of the engineers’ quick victory will be to make it more difficult for union leaders to scuttle such claims.
Yet for Labour, all the economic pressure points towards a hardening, not a softening of attitudes on the wages front. It knows that the symptoms of international economic instability which hit the Tory government so severely before Christmas still persist. The US economy is still in a fairly deep recession, with total production running at an annual rate of 5.8 per cent down on last year. Inflation at above the 10 percent mark is now a feature of all the western economies, and a number are likely to reach double figures before the year is out. The British economy, as one of the weakest in terms of growth rates and investment, is likely to suffer more than most as the recession develops. More than 60 per cent of companies have told a CBI survey that they expect to cut back production in the coming four months.
‘Investment spending plans have collapsed more in the last six months than at any time in the survey’s history.’
The government wants desperately to find a way through the economic storms for British capitalism. It believes that if only it can hold out for 18 months or two years, there will be a period of calm ahead as North Sea oil comes on tap and the world economy goes into its next boom. But it knows it can only reach that point if it keeps up the pressure on living standards. That is why, in the words of the Financial Times,
‘Mr Foot made it clear that he intended to interpret wage restraint under Stage Three at least as strictly as the Conservatives ... The Labour government is not only maintaining Stage Three for the time being, but is putting a strict interpretation on it.’
Indeed, it might go further than this. The Economist is suggesting that,
‘Wise union leaders know that the real climate for a re-elected Labour governtnent would have to be yet another wage freeze.’
Not that any section of the union bureaucracy is admitting to such a standpoint publicly. They are suggesting instead that the most that is needed to ensure satisfactory behaviour from the government is a little pressure. In this they are helped by those political forces who identify with the union bureaucracy, particularly the Communist Party. Opening a discussion of the Party’s executive committee recently, George Matthews, editor of the Morning Star, went out of his way to attack ‘the ultra-left,’ who saw no difference between the situation in 1964 and 1974, and which wrote off the left advances made during those years. ‘They make no differentiation between the right and the left in the Labour Party and even present the left as the main enemy, and see the role of the mass movement not as compelling change in government policy, but merely as exposing the government and preparing for its ultimate failure.’
Yet clashes between important sections of the working class movement and the government as a whole are inevitable in the months ahead. That is precisely why Wilson gave Foot the job of Minister of Employment, as a deliberate ploy to gain time by creating illusions among militants. But any such illusions are going to be rapidly eroded as inflation escalates and unemployment grows.
THE PRESENT economic crisis is the first since the war to hit all the major economies simultaneously. One result has been a heightening level of class struggle internationally. Inflation and economic stagnation have pushed the question of living standards to the centre of the political stage everywhere.
More dramatic still has been the impact of the global crisis in the third world and among the less developed countries in Europe. It has destroyed the possibility of the ruling class of such countries either satisfying the basic needs of the population or building up their own economic base. The result has been deep political and social crises in countries as diverse as Chile, Greece, Portugal, India and Ethiopia.
Elsewhere in this journal we look at the effect of the international crisis in three different places – Portugal, South Asia and France. But there are more general lessons that can be drawn.
The shattering of fragile political superstructures under the impact of acute economic problems and deep social conflicts is not the same thing as creating new forms of social organisation capable of carrying society forward. Unless a clear and conscious revolutionary alternative develops, the outcome can be the imposition of reactionary regimes which substitute mass repression for a solution to society’s problems.
Ruling classes everywhere are aware of such possibilities. In the third world the only real growth industry is ‘defence’, while in the advanced countries there is a new vogue for ‘counter-insurgency’ and various forms of repressive legislation. For growing sections of the ruling classes, the ideal is now the ‘strong state’, where repression keeps rank and file workers in check and the revolutionary left under police surveillance, even if the traditional reformist organisations are still allowed room to operate.
But for the ruling class to want such a regime is one thing. For it to be able to achieve it is another. The most significant thing about the current political crises is the way that the working class can suddenly move to the centre of political events, as with
the general strike in Ethiopia or the railway strike in India, even if its own independent organisation is rudimentary. Whether the working class is a majority of the population, as in the west, or a small minority as in most third world countries, its concentration at the centre of economic power gives it massive power if it cares to use it
That is why the more conditions of crisis develop, the more the decisive question in both the advanced countries and the third world becomes one of socialist leadership within the working class. The working class can lead other oppressed groups into an onslaught on the system – providing its key sections are organised with a sense of its power and with a programme of social transformation.
Yet the current crisis is in danger of producing defeats rather than victories for the left. In Chile the working class threw up its own organisations, the industrial cordones, and was capable of forcing back the first attacks of the ruling class (in October 1973), yet still succumbed to the military coup of last summer. In each of the countries of South Asia the working class could be the decisive force, yet the prospect looks brighter for the authoritarian right than for the socialist left, as Nigel Harris shows. In Portugal, the Communist Party seems set to repeat all the mistakes of the Chilean left.
The inability of the Communist Parties or the traditional reformist parties to give the lead which is needed should not surprise us. What has to be recognised as well, however, is that the revolutionary left also bears its share of responsibility.
When a new generation of revolutionaries came into being throughout the world in the 1960s, the sort of ideas put across in this journal were decidedly minority ideas. We were often decried as ‘Europo-centric’ or ‘Menshevik’ because of the stress we put on the industrial working class. The most popular revolutionary ideas were those which spoke of the ‘revolutionary role of the peasants’ and of rural guerrilla warfare.
Yet what the present crises show is that precisely what was needed was an integration of the new revolutionary left into the industrial working class – not neglecting the role of other social groups, especially the poor peasants of the third world, but seeing the key to their mobilisation as being in real, working class struggle and leadership.
Last updated on 26.2.2008