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It is obvious to everyone with eyes to see that the strike wave of public sector unions is facing defeat. Mick Lynch, widely hailed by the left as the “hero” of the strike wave, has pushed a below-inflation pay deal on the RMT Network Rail membership. The CWU’s Dave Ward, another darling of the left not long ago, is crawling to Royal Mail, endorsing a deal which would mean a massive pay cut and attacks on posties’ working conditions. The RCN, PCS, UCU and NEU are still without an agreement and have been offered crumbs, while their leaders have no strategy to go forward. They have rejected insulting offers, but without a fundamental change in strategy and leadership, or a fundamental change in the situation of the country, these strikes will face defeat.

On the other side, the Tory government has gathered strength and credibility. Early in the strike wave, the Tories were at their weakest, but the trade union leaders did nothing to capitalise on the situation. They gave Rishi Sunak the necessary breathing room to reposition himself and neutralise factions in the Tory party with the new EU deal over Northern Ireland and the reactionary anti-migrant bill, letting him restore government stability. The Tories have since taken back the initiative. The cost-of-living crisis and the collapse of public services are still raging, but it is law and order and anti-immigrant poison which dominate public debate.

The trade unions have lost round one. On one side of the ring, the government started weak, unstable and discredited, and while it has not yet delivered any serious blow to the unions, it finished the round strong. It is going back to its corner in control and emboldened for what’s next. On our side, trade union leaders spent their time dancing around and throwing timid punches in the form of one-day strikes every month which did not even bruise their frail adversary. As a result, we go back to our corner tired and in a weakened position. The time now must be spent to understand what went wrong. If something fundamental does not change in the unions’ strategy and leadership, round two will be a catastrophe.

How did we get here?

The entire problem boils down to a question of leadership. The strike wave was fuelled by the destruction of workers’ standard of living, propelling broad layers in the trade unions to action, often for the first time in their lives. It is this powerful force at the base which lifted the trade union leaders to the top of the wave. But what leaders? These were no working-class veterans steeled in the class struggle but a part of the union bureaucracy which has led the labour movement to defeat after defeat over the last decades. At every step, they have acted as a brake on the class struggle.

Union leaders launched the battle unprepared, often without strike funds. Throughout the conflicts, they have refused to build real picket lines that shut down workplaces, rendering strikes ineffective and easy to scab on. This is not out of ignorance of militant tactics but because of their utter respect for the rules set by the capitalist class and their opposition to a real confrontation with the government. They have refused to co-ordinate strikes and go beyond one-day actions not because they don’t know how to do this but because they are opposed to causing a crisis for the capitalist class.

The cancelling of strikes when the Queen died was not a mere tactical mistake, as many on the left claimed, but indisputable proof that the trade union leaders had not the slightest intention of stepping on the establishment’s toes. They have refused to kick the Tories out not because the Tories were too strong — quite the opposite, in fact. For months the government was barely hanging on and a little kick was all it needed to fall. But union leaders were dead set against doing this because of their reverence for the ruling-class Parliament and their view that the working class has no business imposing its will on it. And now they are accepting rotten deals, because rotten deals are what you get when you play by the bosses’ rules.

This whole bankrupt strategy is now coming to fruition. Those union leaders who have not yet surrendered are continuing to play the same losing game, dragging out conflicts that they themselves do not want. As a result, broad layers of the union membership which had been drawn into struggle, pushing the union tops into action, are increasingly becoming apathetic and demoralised.

As union leaders killed the strikes’ momentum, and with growing fatigue and declining participation in strike actions, the bosses smell weakness and are going for blood. The CWU has seen hundreds of its best militants suspended or sacked by Royal Mail, which has recruited an army of scabs and put the union up against the wall. This happened because Royal Mail took advantage of the CWU’s weakness. The union leadership constantly bent over backwards to accommodate the company, cancelling strikes and undermining the union’s strength and credibility. Against RCN nurses, the government recently used anti-union laws to stop one of their strike days. UCU members at multiple universities are being targeted by management, their pay massively docked for taking part in union actions. The leadership’s losing strategy has opened these and other unions to devastating attacks.

The trade union leaders certainly lack militancy and constantly make poor tactical choices. But these are just symptoms of their fundamental problem, which is their unwavering support to the capitalist system. That is why they have been sabotaging the strikes at every turn, restraining workers’ anger and channelling it into a losing strategy based on making the strikes compatible with the stability of British capitalism. The overriding lesson of the strike wave is that the trade unions are crippled by leaders who support capitalism, and no amount of “pressure from below” will make them change their stripes.

The laws of boxing are strikingly similar to the laws of the class struggle. To win a match, a boxer must be well prepared physically and mentally, know his adversary and adapt his technique accordingly. But above all, in the ring the boxer must aim for a knockout! The fight might not always end that way, but victory is possible only if that’s what you want. Precisely because the union leaders support the whole system, they enter the ring determined not to inflict a KO. They fight to lose!

The left’s criminal role

The British labour movement crawls with people claiming to be against capitalism and for socialism. Groups like the Communist Party of Britain/Young Communist League, the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Appeal, the Socialist Party and others have a small yet non-negligible influence in the trade unions. So what have they been doing?

For nine months, they have refused to oppose the union bureaucrats. Instead, they have offered them their services, hailing them in their newspapers, praising Mick Lynch alongside Marx and Engels and shielding them from the criticisms of revolutionaries. Insofar as they were critical, it was to raise tactical disagreements — when to strike, how to organise this or that demonstration etc. Their whole orientation has been a repudiation of socialism, leaving leadership of the working class in the hands of treacherous bureaucrats who are opposed to socialism (see graphic on page 3).

Now that it is becoming as clear as day that the union leaders are sinking the strikes, the honest thing these groups should do is to admit that they were wrong, that they built the authority of traitors and that unity with Sharon Graham, Mick Lynch & Co must be broken. But we have yet to see such a display of revolutionary honesty. Instead, they are doubling down on their course, performing a careful balancing act between appearing more critical of the union tops while still refusing to break with them. This routine takes the form of seeking to escalate the strikes through “pressure” on the bureaucracy:

  • “Even the most conservative leaders can be forced to go further than they want to” (The Socialist, 19 April).

  • “We need strike committees to build the pickets, widen participation and to act as a focus for resistance to the union leaders when they fail” (Socialist Worker, 25 April).

  • “If NHS union leaders prove unwilling to continue and unite these disputes from the top — or worse, to make dodgy backroom deals with the Tories — then members must respond with unity, mobilisation, and coordination from below” (Socialist Appeal, 14 April).

All this leaves in place the same treacherous leaders who are cooking up the rotten deals and whose whole strategy is the reason the strike wave faces defeat. Even when the bureaucrats are pressured to go further than they want, they do everything in their power to restrain and sabotage these struggles.

A strategy based on “keeping the leaders in check” rests on pure faith in the bureaucracy. It relies on the unlikely possibility that, for a minute maybe, they could be persuaded to stop betraying. But they work for the other side! Pressuring them without exposing their fundamentally reactionary role, without stressing the need to break with them and without putting forward a programme for a new, revolutionary leadership only lends the authority of socialists to these traitors — whatever “criticisms” they might have. Now the working class is reaping the results of this disastrous course.

Where do these left groups think rotten deals come from? Nothing in the way the strikes were organised has forced the Tories to offer anything more than crumbs. And the union leaders take the crumbs because their strategy is precisely not to defeat the Tories. To say that the problem is a matter of “deals that fall short”, and that what’s needed is to vote them down and demand an escalation of the same strategy by the same leadership which has misled the strikes from the get-go, is to deceive workers and cover for the bureaucrats.

The left cannot bring themselves to admit this because that would mean repudiating their course of the last year. This is why they can only conceive of escalating the losing strategy which led us here in the first place. Einstein supposedly said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Well, this sounds a lot like what the left is doing right now.

Of course, rotten deals need to be rejected. But the way to fight for better deals is to halt the current course, regroup and prepare the next battle. With the strikes defeated or in deadlock, with momentum lost and with the government stronger, to push for an escalation is both criminal and a capitulation to the union bureaucracy. It can only deepen the defeat and further weaken the trade unions.

Indeed, this course of action has a suicidal quality to it. To call for an escalation when the mass of union members is becoming more disillusioned and pulling away from the struggle means that strikes rely on the small minority of the most militant and committed workers to keep going. This would serve to increase their isolation from the rest of the union membership and set them up for repression. In turn, it would sabotage the possibility of a fightback in the near future and open up the trade unions to retaliation.

This is essentially what has happened in the CWU. The Socialist Party calls for the sell-out CWU leaders to be “preparing again for a major campaign of serious escalating strike action” (The Socialist, 26 April). The CWU is being choked by Royal Mail and its members demoralised precisely because of the strategy of its leadership. Now, the SP is demanding that these proven traitors prepare a “major campaign” of strikes “again”. As the CWU’s car is heading for a wall, the SP proposes to press the accelerator.

Leftists who think that the working class should always be on the offensive are not Marxists but juvenile adventurists. Revolutionaries do not play with the class struggle. Our task is to guide the working class, in periods of both ebb and flow, with the goal of socialist revolution. Only revolutionary Marxists have such a compass because we approach each individual battle between workers and bosses as part of the general class war between labour and capital. We understand that the two sides have irreconcilable interests and that one side — the workers — must decisively crush the other —t he capitalists. When the enemy is weak, workers should strike as hard as possible. But when the enemy is strong and workers are weak, it’s time to retreat to safeguard our forces.

This is not how the British “socialists” view the class struggle. For them, it is an incremental process which can only go up. This is the view behind the widely shared illusion that a few more strike days will necessarily translate into a few more percentage points on pay offers.

This is the British form of reformism, called “gradualism”, which is in fact totally utopian. British capitalism is sinking. The only way for the ruling class to remain afloat — that is, to merely slow its terminal decline — is to further squeeze the workers at home and the neocolonies abroad. It is pure fantasy to think that isolated and partial struggles can provide a significant increase in the standard of living for working people. In what we call the age of imperialist decay, gradualism is impossible.

The only path to substantially increasing workers’ standard of living lies in the expropriation of the entire capitalist class and the establishment of a socialist planned economy. And it is only by marching on that path that the working class can wrest significant concessions from the ruling class, as reforms are always the by-product of revolutionary struggle. The “socialist” left’s view of the strike wave as an incremental line of success and its advocacy of constant escalation through means of pressure on rotten bureaucrats is simply an expression of their gradualist and reformist attitude towards the class struggle.

The tasks of revolutionaries

With the strike wave receding, two interconnected tasks fall upon revolutionaries in the trade unions. The first speaks to the main pressure acting on militant workers today, which is the growing mood of demoralisation and apathy. This often comes out in the form of union members saying they can’t afford to go on strike anymore. Usually this reflects a deeper distrust in the strategy of the union leadership. The first duty of class-conscious militants is to fight so that no union members abandon their posts. The treacherous strategy of the current union leadership is not an excuse to abandon picket lines, or worse, to cross them!

Most of the left seeks to combat demoralisation by writing countless articles about how great the strikes are and how militant the mood is on picket lines. Telling lies and painting rosy pictures does not combat demoralisation but in fact deepens it while covering for the bureaucracy. The truth is that the strike wave is receding, the situation is tough, and it will get tougher. But if picket lines become sparse and union members scab, that would send a strong signal to the bosses. Without a doubt, they would exploit this weakness to come down on the union involved, diminishing its fighting capacity, making the bosses more powerful in the workplace, driving down everyone’s conditions and further weakening the position of the working class. Elementary defence of the trade unions is what’s posed now.

The second task is to combat the strategy of the trade union tops, as well as their lawyers on the left, by fighting for an orderly and limited retreat. The aim must be to regroup the forces of the vanguard, rebuilding the power of the unions and preparing the next battle.

To do this, revolutionaries must build socialist caucuses in the trade unions in opposition to the bureaucracy and all its lawyers, with the purpose of ousting the bureaucrats and taking over the leadership. The platform of such caucuses must guide militants in rebuilding trade union strength and laying the basis for an offensive against the Tories later this year. Here is what’s needed:

Build strike funds! Many union leaders launched strikes without strike funds. This is criminal. Trade unions will never go on a winning offensive if their members can’t eat. Some unions have set up “hardship funds”, often in a hurry, but these are too meagre and are run like means-tested benefits. A strike fund should be simple: if you are on strike, that is, if you join the picket line (not if you stay home), you receive your share.

The central purpose of union dues is supposed to be for amassing strike and defence funds. We need aggressive fund-raising campaigns involving as many union members as possible. No more six-figure salaries for bureaucrats and millions in donations to the Labour Party, which denounces strikes anyway and stands against the interests of the working class.

One workplace, one union! In unionised workplaces, various trade unions compete against each other, steal each other’s members, negotiate separately, go on strike on different days and scab on each other’s strikes. This is entirely due to rivalry between cliques of bureaucrats, it only helps the bosses, and it must stop. The bosses stand as one; the workers must, too.

Bosses out of the unions! This should be basic. There is no place for management and its running dogs in the trade unions. Many unions, like the NEU, allow bosses to attend union meetings and accept their diktats on how unions should function, while also seeing bosses’ unions as allies. These policies only weaken the unions. Trade unions are there to fight the bosses, not to collaborate with them.

Recruit! The current trade union leaders do barely anything to recruit new members. If some unions got an influx of new members recently, it usually had nothing to do with the leadership’s efforts. Massive recruitment drives must be launched in non-union as well as organised workplaces. The best way to recruit is for the unions to fight to win!

An injury to one is an injury to all! Unions must defend all workers victimised by the bosses. A worker being victimised is an attack not just on your workmate but on the whole labour movement. This task is particularly urgent in the CWU, where defence of the hundreds of sacked and suspended workers is a vital duty for all workers. Solidarity is not sending a few quid and a valentine. It means action. “One in the dock! All out the docks!” This was the rallying cry dock workers raised in 1972 to free their Pentonville Five shop stewards. And that’s the spirit we need in the unions today.

Build support for the class struggle! There is much debate about how to gather support from the public for strikes. The union tops believe that the less disruptive a strike, the more support it will gain. No! People do not respect weak unions that get bullied. The more determined the unions are, the bolder their fight, the more support they will generate. What will mobilise parents behind the NEU is not hesitation, bowing and scraping but an all-out fight for quality public education. What will gather support for nurses is not crawling to the Tories but a determined struggle to save the NHS.

Picket lines mean don’t cross! One of the central problems of the strike wave has been the union leaders’ refusal to build real picket lines and their tolerance and sometimes open encouragement of scabbing (see article on page 4). As a result, scabbing has been normalised and strikers often feel ashamed to even confront scabs. To win the coming battles, we must turn the tide! The British labour movement must return to its age-old traditions. Scabs break strikes, spit on everyone else’s sacrifices and help the bosses and government. Scabbing must be stopped! Enough of unions condoning scabbing on each other!

All the above measures are basic but vital to rebuilding union power and winning the next round. We have not invented them. They have been in the tradition of the international workers movement, and in the experience of the British trade union movement going back some 200 years. But the strike wave has revealed that every single one of them is betrayed by the existing leaders, and self-styled “socialist” groups in this country simply cover for them. Thus, any step towards rebuilding union power must be made in total opposition to these forces. Oust the rotten bureaucrats! For class-struggle leadership of the unions!

The British workers movement has only just awakened from a long sleep. Now, union militants must take up their brooms and do some spring cleaning. Let’s put our house in order!