A slow, quiet death – reflections on the May 10th strikes.

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.

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About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
This entry was posted in Protests, Strikes, Stuff that I don't think is very useful, The left and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to A slow, quiet death – reflections on the May 10th strikes.

  1. Whatever Color Flag says:

    This is a bad feeling. It is not only a feeling of anger, but I wonder if it is also a deep recognition of a new phase of history. In New York last week, there was a lot of truly interesting and useful action, but your line about “the usual suspects” very much captures a lurking dread that most people don’t want to acknowledge, even to themselves. What exactly does (and did) it mean when the most logically persuasive tactic was that of mere persuasion, of ethics, of party building? This restive attitude is most always an impulse that’s been led into utter institutionalism, as I’m sure you know. I don’t know if the way is going to be rallies and pickets. I can’t say that for sure, but it seems like the tension between the “left” and the radicals has reached its breaking point. In spite of everything, it is perhaps the time to start naming names.

    • Interesting to hear a perspective from New York – I was pretty excited about the May 1st stuff before it happened, but going from what I’d heard, it doesn’t sound like it was that much of a step beyond anything that’d happened before – big impressive events in NY/Oakland/Seattle/Portland, where big impressive events happen quite regularly, but I have no idea how it played out in the hundreds of American cities that aren’t those four. On the other hand, I do think it’s pretty great that the movement’s managed to stay functioning and visible for this long without being either squashed by repression on one hand or being co-opted by the Democrats on the other. Anyway, good to hear from you, and good luck with whatever happens next.

  2. wishface says:

    I think that I agree. There is nowhere near enough nationwide coordinated joint union effort. A strike here, and a strike here, is a waste of time. It makes it easier for the scum in government to defend against when what we need is a relentless general strike movement. The power is ours, not theirs, yet we fritter it away here and there. The death of a thousand cuts.

  3. Adam Ford says:

    I think there’s no division between winning people over to our perspectives and winning disputes. If you have to be ‘that guy’, you have to be ‘that guy’. This is our lives we’re talking about here. We can’t apologise for having the correct analysis.

    • Yeah, that’s what I was trying to say, in a slightly confused way – I think we all have a healthy fear of ideologues killing movements off by trying to turn them into recruiting grounds, so certainly among anarchists there’s a tendency to promote doing practical support work over trying to push our politics, and I think in a lot of ways that’s a good thing, but in a struggle that’s being led to defeat there’s no way around having the hard arguments. I suppose one of the difficulties in this is that it’s based around slightly abstract principles, and leaves out all the complexities that can make this stuff tricky in practice – it’s easy to say we should be doing everything we can to make the bureaucrats’ lives hell, but that gets a bit harder if you’re a bit shy or not great at public speaking and you’re up against an official who’s very good at talking over people, or if you’re an external supporter of a dispute and you’re arguing against a union leader who’s got roots in the workplace and knows a lot more of the people in the room, and you don’t want to come across as a politico coming in from outside telling everyone else how they should run their struggle.
      By the way, I really hope that when you wrote that set of predictions last year, you then went down to Ladbroke’s and put an accumulator on them, because that way at least some good will have come out of this mess.

  4. Adam Ford says:

    How we do this in practice is very much the problem. Unless any of us were involved in the Sparks stuff from the inside – and I don’t think we were – we’ve never done this before. But when it does come, I think it will look something like this: http://ow.ly/aQSLC

    Haha! Maybe I will for the next one!

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