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Proletarian issue 31 (August 2009)
Industry matters: A "whiff of the 70s”?
Spontaneous resistance

Rob Williams, the Unite convenor sacked for leading resistance to planned job cuts and eroding conditions of employment at the Linamar car parts plant in Swansea, has been reinstated after threatened strike action and a campaign of pickets and mass meetings, which drew huge support from broad sections of the labour movement.

Linamar, a spin-off from Visteon – itself a spin-off from Ford – was relied upon by a Ford plant in Kansas to keep up the supply of car parts. It is thought that this consideration weighed heavily in the decision to give Williams back his job.

Hot on the heels of the Linamar result came the spectacular caving in of Total in the Lindsey Oil Refinery dispute.

After the February dispute at the same plant had put Total’s nose out of joint, management came back for a second go, announcing that 51 workers were to be made compulsorily redundant. When this challenge was met by some 650 of their fellow workers coming out in sympathy, they in turn found themselves sacked.

The response to this was a wave of unofficial strikes amongst construction workers all over the country, initiated at grass-roots level without (and often against) official union leadership.

Faced with this storm, Total pulled in its horns and promised (a) to reinstate the 650 sympathy strikers and (b) to withdraw the original 51 redundancy notices that started all the trouble in the first place.

NSSN conference

Delegates at the recent conference of the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) were justifiably cock-a-hoop over these victories, which furnish yet further proof that, despite the most demoralising social-democratic leadership, the fighting spirit of the proletariat cannot long be subdued. So long as capitalism continues, it will continue to produce its own gravediggers.

This production of its own gravediggers, however, is something that capitalism is able to effect quite satisfactorily without the assistance of Trotskyite left reformism. Whilst there could be no argument in principle with the long string of (predominantly) Socialist Party members asserting the importance of not relying upon official union leaders, of mistrusting Labour, of mobilising the grass roots, of promoting solidarity in struggle, and (like Amen at the end of every prayer) of building “a new workers’ party”, they can provide neither (a) an explanation of the links that bind workers to social democracy and social democracy to imperialism, nor (b) an analysis of how opportunism is materially founded upon imperialist superprofits, nor (c) how this double bondage, economic and ideological, under which workers labour, is to be overcome.

Bereft of such an analysis, the only possible outcome is to tail-end the spontaneity of the working class, for better or for worse. The downside of this becomes at once apparent when the result is a wilful refusal to acknowledge and analyse backward aspects of the spontaneous activity of the class.

So it was that Lindsey leader Keith Gibson refused to countenance the idea that there was any difference between the politics of the February and the June disputes. In both instances there obtained “a pure and simple class issue”.

From this perspective, the racist taunts flung at Portuguese and Italian workers back in February simply couldn’t have happened, the rash of Union Jacks simply betokened harmless euphoria and all the ‘British jobs for British workers’ malarkey was just a cheeky tactic “to make Gordon Brown eat his own words”.

Yet, so far from strengthening the working class, such partial blindness robs workers of the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes. After all, it should surprise nobody that the first spontaneous revolts to break through against the imperialist crisis should bring with them all the prejudices to which so many years of Labour imperialism has exposed workers.

The Lindsey workers deserved support no less in February than they did in June. That support is of more use, however, when it does not refuse assistance to workers in overcoming their own political backwardness. Hiding such political backwardness does the working class no favours at all.

The NSSN itself deserves exactly this kind of support. Its goal of linking up trade-union activists in the common fight to resist the imposition of slump burdens on the working class deserves the spirited support of every communist, regardless of the current political disposition of the leadership. This support will be of the greatest service to the working class, however, when it does not arrive shorn of Marxism Leninism.

“A whiff of the 70s”?

More than one delegate at the conference, justifiably enthused by the developments at Linamar and Lindsey, evoked memories of the militant days of the 1970s. Stirred by the sight of workers putting two fingers up to the bosses and the union leaders and walking off the jobs, one delegate declared that he was catching “a real whiff of the 70s”.

This militant rhetoric about “catching a whiff of the 70s” misses the mark, however. The pre-Thatcher era, when the historic relative decline of Britain’s industrial base had yet to accelerate into the wholesale destruction of the mining, steel, volume car and shipbuilding industries, saw large sections of the proletariat still under the discipline of well-organised trade unions. Even where unofficial class struggle took paths divergent from official union policy, the practice of confident collective action was itself a habit learned in the school of trade unionism.

This was good and bad. Unity and the closed shop could be powerful weapons against exploiting bosses. But where ‘unity’ meant unity with Labour imperialism, or where the closed shop was enlisted to preserve the sectional interests of a labour aristocracy, unions functioned less as schools for socialism, more as schools for opportunism.

The “whiff of the 70s” recalls the spirited strike struggles, official and unofficial, with which the working class signalled its discontent with capitalism. But a less savoury “whiff” was given off by the politics of social democracy, which so heavily contaminated the very structures upon which workers relied for defence of their class interests. Indeed, one of the more inspiring proletarian achievements of that period was the 1978/79 ‘winter of discontent’ revolt of low-paid workers from the public sector, which put paid to the unlamented ‘old’ Labour government of James Callaghan.

The acute crisis now seizing capitalism finds the working class in a very different situation from that of 30 years ago. The accelerated hollowing out of Britain’s industrial base has been matched by a trade-union movement depleted in numbers and thrown onto the back foot.

More workers than ever before belong to no union at all. The struggle for official union recognition (especially amongst groups of workers whom capitalism seeks to isolate and manipulate, like migrant workers) may play a crucial role in raising class consciousness. And the fight within the CWU, the GMB and other unions to break the link with Labour has enormous potential for developing into an ideological struggle against social democracy itself.

But no less attention should be given to other forms of resistance to the imperialist crisis that start getting driven to the surface, whether industrial strikes driven into unofficial channels by official inertia, movements of non-cooperation with the imperialist war effort, or direct action of the type carried out by the EDO ‘decommissioners’ in Brighton.

Whatever form resistance assumes, what will crucially determine its usefulness or otherwise for the advancement of the class interest of workers is not how far it successfully recovers the ‘lost world’ of the 1970s, but with what success it breaks with social democracy.

Breaking the link: CWU, Unison

Faced with spirited resistance from postal workers and some understandable cold feet from potential private bidders (fearful of losing their stake money) and from Labour MPs (fearful of losing their seats), the government has faltered in its campaign to privatise Royal Mail by the back door.

For Labour loyalists fighting their corner within the Communication Workers Union (CWU), Business Secretary Mandelson’s temporary retreat has come as apparent vindication of the union’s continued link with Labour. Why break with Labour, runs the argument, when progress of a sort can be made by applying fraternal pressure from within?

Yet whilst Mandelson has conceded that the passage of a law to sanction the sell-off of 25 percent of Royal Mail may be delayed for a while, he also made it clear that privatisation remains the goal, if only this stricken Labour regime can get a little puff behind its sails.

The reality is that only a determined and united fight can drive back the capitalist offensive – an offensive of which privatising the post is but a single feature, and an offensive that is set to continue regardless of whether a Labour or a Tory administration holds sway.

It has been the failure to break the link with Labour that has kept trade unions to a large degree divided and weakened in their resistance to attacks upon the working class. There are hopeful signs in the labour movement that this could change – not least the crisis of confidence being suffered right now by the Labour party in government. Now is the time to press forward with the campaign to break the link with Labour.

Yet perversely, now is the very time that ‘Labour loyalists’ urge us all to throw Labour a lifeline! The CWU gives hundreds of thousands of pounds to Labour every year. It handed over some £6m in just the last eight years. A quarter of a million of that gushed out in the first quarter of 2009. Meanwhile, the Labour government continues to ride roughshod over workers’ interests, backing Royal Mail boss Crozier in his determination to drive down the terms and conditions of postal workers.

Sadly, Billy Hayes’s threats to ditch the Labour link remain just that: threats. At the recent CWU annual conference, motions from Coventry (to break the link) and Bradford (to limit support to those politicians defending Royal Mail’s public status) were elbowed off the agenda.

By way of avoiding an awkward decision about what the union should do nationally about its relationship with Labour, Brian Kenny argued that individual union branches were best positioned to decide whether to support local MPs, telling Labour for the umpteenth time that the “best way for Labour to win back hearts and minds is to withdraw its privatisation plans”.

However, at the National Shop Stewards Network conference, London divisional rep Mark Palfrey insisted that if privatisation goes ahead, members will be balloted on the Labour link, however “embarrassing” this would prove to some “Labour loyalists”.

Following on from the 9,000-strong postal strike on 19 June in London, he promised a summer of “rolling strikes”, noting that whilst these strikes would begin as official strikes, they might not remain so. Clearly, the mood for resistance at grass-roots level is running counter to social-democratic influence.

Similar pressures from below are prompting some grudging moves from Unison’s leadership to weaken the link with Labour. At the union’s conference, general secretary Dave Prentis said that there would be no more “blank cheques” for Labour and that the union’s payments to constituencies should be suspended, adding that Unison will support only prospective Labour candidates willing to stand up for its values of public service.

This move, which leaves other kinds of funding intact and focuses attention on the posture of individual MPs rather than the whole imperialist Labour party, suggests that Prentis, like Hayes, is still trying to palm his members off with a half a loaf – rather than the bakery for which many are now clamouring.

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