I can’t speak for anyone else, but I found that today was a pretty emotionally affecting day, and not in a good way. The pensions dispute’s probably been effectively over for a while, ever since the union tops killed it off back in December, but like so many things in the news, hearing the union leaderships had signed up to some deal felt distant, abstract, not like something taking place in the real world; but today, I got to see the slow death of the pensions struggle first-hand.
There’s nothing surprising about the dispute playing out like this – after all, it fits exactly with the predictions Adam Ford made last September. But it still hurts – when the last strike took place way back in November, I allowed myself to get swept up in the mood a bit. Even though I knew deep down that this kind of one-day top-down strike was never going to have any real impact, it was impossible not be moved by the mood of hope and anger on the day. And this is what the unions have done with this spirit: a near-instant surrender by some of the unions, and months of inaction by the others, the utter clusterfuck that saw the PCS abandon its strike plans in March, and now this: a day of action by the PCS, Unite healthworkers, and some sections of the UCU, with the picket lines staffed by anyone who can still muster enthusiasm for the unions’ actions. I can’t speak for anywhere other than my own area, but what I saw was depleted picket lines and a tiny strike rally. People may not have been crossing in great numbers, but they certainly didn’t seem to be rushing to actively participate in the strike either – I got out of bed a bit later than I meant to because I was having difficulty motivating myself, and quite a few people I spoke to on the picket lines mentioned the same feeling. November 30th felt great because I saw and spoke to so many people beyond just the usual suspects, whereas this time round, turnout was poor even among the usual suspects.
Of course, this lack of enthusiasm never showed in the official speeches, which were, as ever, full of the leftist equivalent of “wow, what a terrific audience”. The local lefty bureaucrats seem to have relaxed their attitude to criticism of the union leadership somewhat, since the NUT leadership’s behaviour has now become completely indefensible, but the pleasant surprise of hearing some open criticism of the union leaders was balanced out by what felt like endless positive references to the police and the prison officers, as if the people who enforce the state’s violence are somehow on the same side as the rest of us. Memorable moments include a speaker telling us that today “had to be the beginning”, as if this half-arsed campaign of one-day strikes hadn’t been dragged on for almost a year now, a union official telling us that we shouldn’t allow any dissent or division, and a prominent local lefty saying we could criticise the leadership when they call action off, but not when they endorse strikes – a suggestion which, if actually followed, would lead us unable to think a single step ahead, or to learn any lessons from the past.
It wasn’t all bad – ASLEF drivers on East Midlands Trains routes were also out today, and any potential link-up between public and private sector workers is a good thing, and I had some decent conversations with people. But overall, it seemed clear that the potential this dispute offered has largely been lost. I feel angry about this, but it’s hard to say who I should aim my anger at – blaming the union bosses for acting like union bosses would be as pointless as getting angry at the Tories for not being nice. It’s true that the local lefties within the trade council had been fighting hard to prevent any open discussion or criticism of the union leaderships being raised in the run-up to the last two strikes, and it’s tempting to speculate on what might have happened if they’d used their influence to open and promote spaces for discussion among rank-and-file workers. But again, this is just wishful thinking, we shouldn’t hope for miracles from local union bureaucrats any more than from national ones. So that means I can’t really feel disappointed in anyone but myself – given all the obstacles, I think I did an okay job of trying to support the strikes while being very critical of the bureaucracies running them, but I think I still had a bit of a tendency to bite my tongue for the sake of unity. In retrospect, that was stupid and naive – looking at where they’ve taken us, there’s nothing helpful about being polite to bureaucrats.
So, what now? As I‘ve said, the collapse of the pensions campaign will almost certainly lead to a decline in confidence among many union members, and it’s our job to try and explain the union’s defeat using radical arguments that point to the possibility of effective action outside the union, because the obvious conclusion is to just give up on any hope of collective action changing anything. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth to say that the only thing left to do is to try and win people over to our perspectives – even if I’m not talking about building a specific organisation, it still feels a bit too much like Trot party-building behaviour. But what else is there to do? We should never put building our own organisations ahead of the class struggle, but what’s going on in the public sector right now is not just a straightforward expression of the class struggle, but a group of workers being led to defeat by the union bureaucracy. It’s not a question of whether we should prioritise winning people over to anarchist/communist positions or whether we should focus on winning the dispute – if we can’t develop a significant, unruly rank-and-file network, all we can do is serve as footsoldiers for the union bureaucrats choking the life out of this struggle. Fuck that.