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Great Britain. In spite of all the difficulties and obstacles - the brutality of the conservatives, the hostility of the Labour Party, the unions betrayal - the proletarians mobilize to defend their interests
The cradle of capitalism hit hard by the global crisis
The state of tension into which world capitalism has entered in recent years can be explained by its very nature. This economy of anarchy, of competition, of permanent confrontation, having reached a certain stage of evolution of all its contradictions and antagonisms, is dangerously cracking and finally bursting under all these pressures. The Covid crisis as well as the imperialist war in Ukraine have combined to plunge the already suffering capitalism into a crisis of the level of the years 1975, with as a background not the end of the years of expansion called the "thirty glorious" by the bourgeois economists, but the beginning of a much more gloomy period where the armed and imperialist war succeeds the exacerbated economic war of before, a difference which is not insignificant.
Great Britain, with its "pure and hard" liberal capitalism by secular tradition, was already suffering from the Brexit, which would have caused it to lose 3 or 4% of its annual GDP (1) has more than others received the full force of the effects of the crisis leading to a rise in all prices worthy of the greatest capitalist crises in history.
Already on April 1, 2022, "Bleak Friday", gas bills were increasing on average for proletarians by 708 pounds (approx. €800) over the year, a 50% increase. At the same quarterly date, housing taxes were rising by 3.5% and social security charges on salaries were rising by 1.5%. Phone operators also announced 10% increases in their rates. In addition to this, there were of course the first significant increases in food and hygiene products, as well as in electricity and fuel.
But that was just the beginning. The increase in gas prices will rise to 78% in October and will triple by the end of the year (2). From the same source it is even indicated a quadrupling of the price in spring 2023. To give an idea of the increase in food products, let's mention the 26% increase in milk, 21% in butter, 19% in flour and 16% in pasta. It is impossible for the proletarians to go down in product range to compensate for these increases, they are already at the bottom.
In March, the specialists of economic smoke and mirrors were talking about a cost of living increase of at least 7% this year. Today they have to admit that at least 13% would be more accurate. But an American bank, Citi, has predicted an 18% increase in the beginning of 2023. To cope with inflation, it explains that the Bank of England could raise its interest rate to 6 or 7%, whereas today, after having already been raised, it is at 1.75%. This would completely strangle the financial market and send all investors home. You have to go back to the years of the oil crisis to find such inflation. In the United Kingdom, in 1975, it had climbed to 25% (3), only to fall back to 16.9% the following year. The period of high inflation lasted until the early 1980s.
For millions of proletarians there is today only one alternative: to eat or to heat. Poverty has increased significantly. According to various sources, 17.1% of the population lives below the poverty line, i.e. 10.5 million people, or on another statistical basis 1 in 8 workers. UNICEF considers that 20% of this population is food insecure. For children specifically, 4 million of them are below the poverty line and among them 30% are food insecure. Under the blows of an increasingly expensive life, the situation is only getting worse.
The mobilization of workers is contained in the "synchronized" strikes organized by the unions
To counter these violent attacks of capital against the very essence of their survival, the proletarians of Great Britain mobilized from the beginning of the year, but it is especially from July that strike movements began to spread. The axis of demand of the struggles is not debatable: it is the question of wage increases to face inflation. In an ideal situation where there was an experience of class struggle, this would have been a formidable basis for unifying and merging all the strikes into a single workers' bloc. This was by far not the case !
In August, the transport strikes began. Among the railway workers, following the failure of negotiations, there had already been strikes on 21, 23 and 25 June and on 27 July. The RMT and TSSA unions (4) organized the movement according to the tactic of "coordinated strikes" or "synchronized strikes". Following this method to break the strength and the impact of the struggles, the public transport went on strike on 18 and 20 August. 50'000 workers are involved in the movement. But the train drivers of the ASLEF union (5) will not be associated with the strike of RMT and TSSA. They will strike on July 30 and on August 13, 9 out of 13 railway companies will be affected. On August 19, the London Underground will strike, and bus drivers will also be on strike.
On August 3, a spontaneous strike (which the English bourgeoisie call a "wildcat strike") broke out at Amazon in Tilburry. The management was proposing a 3% wage increase, while inflation was already at 9.4% in June. The wage proposed by Amazon was 11.45 pounds per hour, while the workers demanded 15 pounds. Work stoppages will also take place at Amazon's Coventry and Bristol sites.
On 21 August, a "synchronized" strike by the Felixstone dockers began for 8 days (1900 strikers out of 2500 employees). Here too the demands were for higher wages. In Liverpool the dockers have also voted for a strike, but the "synchronized" dates are not yet known at the time of writing (6).
The workers of BT (British Telecom) also went on strike, always in the same form imposed by the trade union leaderships, in this case that of the CWU (7). It will be split throughout the summer, on 29 July, 1 August and other strike days are planned for 30 and 31 August. 40'000 workers are affected by the strike.
97% of the 100'000 postal workers of the Royal Mail voted in favor of the strike. Their movement will also have to be split over 3 days, on August 26, 27 and 30. This is also the work of the CWU union.
There are other sectors that go on strike: in the refineries and power plants, but, it seems, in a more spontaneous way.
Finally, the public service sectors will begin to mobilize: teachers, firefighters, health care workers, garbage collectors, airport workers, and also workers in the industrial sector. But the weight of the official unions is such that their strikes will not escape their "synchronized" and locked organization.
The servile role of the unions
What is striking about all these strikes is their total dispersion in organization and in timing, their watertight compartmentalization from one another, whereas very theoretically the powerful British unions would have the capacity to mobilize everyone in a single movement. But that would be asking them to be something they are absolutely not, and it would be a fatal mistake even to think about it. Yet, but that's another subject, some of the so-called far-left is courting certain unions like the RMT.
In fact, the unions are fulfilling their role of guarantor of social peace and public order in a historical moment when everything could go wrong socially and the bourgeoisie might be faced with a free class adversary, independent of the bureaucratic constraints of the unions, which would not let itself be fooled and would use its own class weapons. Their strategy is to chop up the strikes by controlling their organization, their objectives, by undermining any will of the proletarians to fight directly with their bosses and thus to do the least possible harm to the interests of the national economy, to the political authorities of the country and to the dominant classes comfortably seated on their personal fortune. This strategy of splitting and dividing is skilfully combined with legal constraints and limitations to the organization of strikes. The trade union policy of social control is largely facilitated by the legal arsenal of the state, which imposes an infernal race of procedural obstacles to validate a strike and which, despite the possible cries of orfraying of certain trade union bureaucrats, in reality receives the perfect consent of their apparatus. The legal codification of strikes gives the framework, the tools and the political justification to the trade union leaderships of their anti-worker methods, it strengthens their bureaucratic apparatus.
These procedures have a history that goes back to the great miners' strikes of 1984-1985, which were crushed by the brutal state repression led by the ruthless Margaret Thatcher. After crushing the strikes, the British government imposed a series of laws and legal barriers to prevent proletarians from organizing strikes in the future in both private and public enterprises. The effect of all these restrictions was to strengthen the power of trade union control over the working class. From now on, proletarians cannot so easily escape the unions' control over the direction of their struggles or over the classist organization of solidarity. The union apparatus and its legal specialists appear as the unavoidable means to overcome the procedural pitfalls to make a strike legal. And if there is a union representative who is not comfortable with these laws, he knows that the sword of legal sanctions will fall on his head if he does not follow them to the letter, so he will settle down and eventually get used to them...
What does this legal arsenal consist of?
- To legally call a strike in a company, the proletarians must organize a vote of all their members in the union and obtain at least 40% of favorable votes. This procedure is obviously a brake on the spontaneity and independence of the organization of struggles and starts by devouring useless energy and time, weeks for the big companies. So much time saved for the bosses to organize their response, especially by dividing and demoralizing the workers, by introducing in their ranks the hesitation to undermine their determination.
- Obtaining a majority of members in favor of strike action is necessary, but not sufficient. A minimum quorum of voters must be obtained : a minimum vote of 50% is required.
- Solidarity strikes by a category of proletarians other than the strikers or other companies in the same sector are simply forbidden.
- The law authorizes the intervention of scabs (temporary workers or those subject to the sordid "zero contract" (8)) to replace the strikers and obviously forbids the pickets, on pain of sanctions, to oppose their entry into the company (in practice, the police are always present to ensure this access and to avoid any contact of the scabs with the strikers who could convince them to turn back).
All these anti-labour laws obviously also bear the signature of the Labour Party. It was only too happy with the protection they afforded it when it was at the helm of the state.
In this year's strike movement, the unions have a total control over the decision to initiate, direct and lead the strikes. They organize them like slicing a sausage and then scattering the slices on the table. This method of dispersion under the pretext of "synchronization" and "coordination" forbids the proletarians any continuity in the action and blocks any convergence and unity of their struggles between them.
The bourgeoisie and the bosses in particular cannot fail to think that the brutal attacks on the living conditions of the working class will not make it react. They are ready to fight and their first measure in this war between classes is to weaken the proletarians by confining their struggles in the trade-union strategies of division, limitation and splitting of the duration of the strikes and of course of respect of the laws and regulations restricting under penalty of judicial sanction all possible enlargements and extensions. Employers and unions are thus intimately associated to break any classist movement of proletarians.
The RMT even congratulates itself for having brilliantly and efficiently organized the so-called "synchronized" strikes (9). But what synchronization are we talking about? The word "synchronization" cleverly hides what is only dispersion and isolation. They don't "synchronize" to make the struggles between different categories of workers a compact block, acting simultaneously in the same time of the calendar, but to prevent the workers from uniting in a united and solidary front.
The RMT (and its sister unions) also has a bourgeois political objective: to help obstruct the Conservative government in its prerogatives once the Prime Minister is known. Mick Lynch, the general secretary, said: "If we can get the companies to negotiate freely without being bound by the government, we can negotiate [necessarily on the cheap, ed.] a settlement in this dispute and get the railways running at full speed again ». (10) The RMT, which is doing everything it can not to unify the strikes, is also calling through Lynch for a general strike (sic!) if Liz Truss - the Conservative candidate to replace Boris Johnson and who has already promised blood, tears and sweat to the proletarians - is elected at the beginning of September as head of the government. This is a show of self-serving and mostly ridiculousness, but it reveals that the unions also want to set conditions on their commitment to ensuring social peace by keeping the workers' struggle within the limits permissible for capitalism and its agents of all kinds. "Don't make it difficult for us!" they seem to be saying to the radicals of the conservative party.
The situation of general and deep degradation of the living conditions of the working class has today a common cause for all workers and in all countries, regardless of their nationality, their sex, their age, their color, their trade, etc. inflation. History gives the working class a tremendous opportunity to unify its demands on a single basis, that of the wage struggle and purchasing power. Rarely has the context been so favorable for it to orient and organize its immediate struggle in a single front against its unique enemy, capitalism. The bourgeoisie, the opportunism and political reformism, the class collaborationist unions know it well and are all acting, each one on its own ground and with its own responsibilities, keeping some appearances of disagreement, to avoid this nightmarish risk of the revival of the class struggle.
The Labour Party against the strikes
It is no longer a scoop that the Labour Party, faced with the apparent cracks in the Conservative Party, is preparing to re-govern the country one day. They already announce the color to the working class: their "reformism" will be muscular and intolerant to any hint of struggle of the proletarians.
Keir Starmer, the party's new leader since March 2022 after Jeremy Corbyn, is very clear about this. As soon as he took office as Labour leader, he forbade responsible members of his party, whether MPs or shadow ministers (11), to show up at picket lines and declared that he would punish any indiscipline in this regard, which he did. Starmer, who wants to show his "responsibility" towards the social order and the national economy, is clearly anti-strike and makes this known to the bourgeoisie, to his party members and to the proletarians. We now know how he wants to implement his wishes as the new Labour leader: "It is an honour," he said on his appointment, "and a privilege to be elected leader of the Labour Party. I will lead this great party into a new era, with confidence and hope, so that when the time comes we can serve our country in government." The era he is calling for will not be a rosy one for the proles!
In the "Guardian" one can read an article of 2.08 .2022 by John McTernan, ex-director of political affairs of Tony Blair, addressing Labour. An edifying article indeed: "Strikes are conflicts between workers and management, and they are resolved between them. (...) When the party was founded, it was as an avowedly parliamentary party to deliver the movement’s broader aims – it was created to legislate, not to cheerlead from the sidelines of industrial dispute (...) To be an alternative government-in-waiting, you have to show that you will govern for the nation, not for the fraction." (12)
Such is the subservience of the Labour Party that Labour's elected representatives in Coventry contracted agency workers to break the strike of the 70 garbage collectors fighting for pay rises in March 2022.
Only the Trotskyites in Britain can think of turning Labour into a spearhead of revolution!
Finding the way back to the class struggle
What is happening in Britain is yet another demonstration of how the bourgeois-democratic state distributes functions and roles among the various bourgeois political forces and trade unions, in order to contain the proletariat's reactions of struggle against the capitalist attacks on its living conditions.
It is with this objective that the unions plan, organize and practice totally atomized forms of strikes by dividing the struggles into as many possible particles that repel each other. When they call for a strike: beware! It is only with the aim of using it as a lever to open negotiations company by company and to quickly extinguish the backfire that they have contributed to light.
The proletarians must not let themselves be trapped in this infernal game of dupe, where their will and determination to fight are reduced to nothing by the combined action of the bosses-parliamentarians-union bosses.
The road to independent class struggle may seem long, but it is the only road that will lead the proletarians to victory in their struggle against the bourgeoisie, its state and its unions and social lackeys.
- Down with the simulacrum of "synchronized" strikes!
- For strike without prior notice or limitation of duration!
- For unity, workers' solidarity, the extension of struggles and solidarity strikes!
- For the independent organization of proletarians!
- Down with the anti-strike laws! Only the class struggle will break the stranglehold of these laws!
(1) See Le Temps, 4/01/2022
(4) RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport) is the public transport union. Its general secretary is Mick Lynch. TSSA (Transport Salaried Staffs' Association) is a transport and travel industry union. Its general secretary is Manuel Cortes.
(5) ASLEF (Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen). Union of train drivers and public transport. Mike Whelan is the General Secretary.
(6) Note that the German ports of Hamburg, Bremerhaven and Wilhelmshaven also went on strike in August
(7) CWU (Communication Workers Union) is the union for communication workers. Dave Ward is the General Secretary
(8) "Zero hours" contracts are the ultimate in labor flexibility. They were developed at the beginning of the 1980s, in a period of deep capitalist crisis, in order to pressurize proletarians to the maximum imaginable extent by reducing them to the status of disposable worker or worker-kleenex. They mean that the bosses do not guarantee any working time. On the other hand, the worker has to remain permanently at their disposal. In Great Britain, this contract is also used against the unemployed. Since 2004, the unemployed are obliged to accept this type of contract or their benefits will be suspended. In many cases, the parties quickly terminate these contracts, as they are only interested in the £1,500 bonus paid by the unemployment fund (Job Center) for hiring a long-term unemployed person.
(9) In this article we refer to "synchronized" strikes to use the terminology of RMT. This type of strike is similar to that of the railway workers in France in the spring of 2018, which was called "dotted strike" or "intermittent strike". The demoralizing effect of this type of strike is therefore no longer to be demonstrated.
(11) A "shadow minister" belongs to the very official "Shadow Cabinet" of the parliamentary opposition, whose "shadow" ministries are a mirror image of those of the government in power in the Kingdom. Each opposition "shadow minister" is responsible for following the policies and files of his or her counterpart in power.
International Communist Party
August, 29th 2022
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