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Unions: be ruthless, seize the right to rule

Enough is Enough demonstration, London, 1 October. But beware the idea that all action must be “coordinated”. Photo Workers.

The working class and their trade unions know that capitalism isn’t working. At least not for us. But it seems to be doing a grand job for the capitalists…

On the streets, the response of some people to the headline on the cover of the September/October edition of Workers – “Capitalism isn’t working” – was disagreement. Oh yes, it is working, they said… for the employers!

And there’s no possibility this time that employers and their governments can even whisper that workers are responsible for the crisis: it’s clear that the current inflation was initiated by the Bank of England and is being fuelled by the energy companies, and the war from which they are also profiting. And as for the propaganda war, the RMT and other unions have won that hands down with their careful and measured reasoning.  

The media may use the anodyne expression “cost of living crisis”, but the unions know it is war on workers. As usual, wealth is being transferred from the workers to the employers. Workers know they are faced with raw capitalism. For example, we are experiencing pure speculation in energy production. Does it cost more to produce gas and electricity now than, say, three months ago? Has the cost of the raw resource increased? No.

Winners and losers

Let’s have a quick reminder of what that speculation consists of, who’s winning and who’s losing. The following snippets from a much longer list comes not from a trade union leaflet or communist journal but from Facebook. It had been shared many times, with the request: “Please keep it going so more get to see it”:

British Gas made a profit of £1.3 billion between January and June. BP announced profits of £6.95 billion between April and June alone. Shell , meanwhile, has profited by £9.4 billion in a year

Meanwhile there are people who haven’t had breakfast and/or lunch today, because they can’t afford it. People using food banks because food is becoming more of a luxury than a necessity. And children celebrating a birthday without presents.

The post continues with: “Something needs to change. Why is customers’ money being used to make life more comfortable for those who are making life more intolerable for the rest of us?”

It’s hardly surprising that with this fury in the population at large, trade unions have seen a surge in membership enquiries of some 700 per cent. Workers across the country are seeing how collective action can win higher pay and save at-risk jobs, according to TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady. And the research is clear: the main reason why people don’t join a union is that no-one has spoken to them about it. So that’s an easy fix.

Who is striking?

It’s heartening to read the long list of industrial action even on the BBC website, and without the usual underlying condemnation against workers taking action because the company knows workers are supporting workers. Again, here’s just a snippet from the list:

Around 40,000 RMT members at 14 train companies and Network Rail walked out in a series of strikes over the summer - the biggest to hit the rail network in 30 years. The union has threatened to strike repeatedly until the end of the year if its demands are not met.

More than 40,000 workers at telecoms giant BT struck for several days in August.   

Doctors in the British Medical Association are calling for a 30 per cent pay rise, raising the likelihood of action.

The Royal College of Nursing is calling for a pay rise of 5 per cent above inflation, and has upped its strike benefit to £50 a day, as public support for action grows.

The University and College Union has won a huge mandate for UK-wide strikes over pensions, pay and conditions under the banner of “UCU rising”.

To help grasp the importance of this action by workers, it’s worth remembering a bit of wisdom from the Communist Manifesto: “The real fruit of [workers’] battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.”

No place there for the divisiveness of identity politics! Though we will always deal with homophobic and racist elements – their poison weakens and undermines our class.  Similarly, we must stand united throughout the regions of Britain to fight against the destructiveness of separatism being peddled by a minority.

‘We need to look forward, not stay locked in the past with tactics that worked then…’

How will we show our strength as workers going forward? The new umbrella organisation Enough is Enough is an important part of the fight and in this respect is to be welcomed and embraced. It’s been founded by trade unions and community organisations.

The organisation says it’s “determined to push back against the misery forced on millions by rising bills, low wages, food poverty, shoddy housing – and a society run only for a wealthy elite”. It continues: “We can’t rely on the establishment to solve our problems. It’s up to us in every workplace and every community.”

It has five demands including: A Real Pay Rise, Slash Energy Bills and Tax the Rich. A rush to sign up in the opening hours of the Enough is Enough campaign saw the website crash, with organisers urging people to wait for traffic to die down before trying again.


That said, Enough is Enough is calling for “coordinated action”, and we saw this also in the TUC’s published agenda, which was peppered with motions for coordinated action – trying to marshal everyone together. That’s a bad idea. And it isn’t as effective as guerrilla struggle where unions work according to how far their own members are prepared to go.

It’s good to have days – a demonstration perhaps – where we show collective strength and solidarity, but so-called united action can mean holding back for the lowest common denominator.

As an example of that, in a UCU branch in Scotland a vote to support the branch committee in negotiations for a pay increase was later overthrown in favour of a “fairer” offer which apparently all the campus unions could support. It’s a madness which has the employer laughing all the way to the bank.

Guerrilla struggle means working for maximum damage to the enemy; minimum damage to ourselves. The strongest unions know they need to be pragmatic not idealistic. Perhaps the most famous British example of action coordinated by the TUC was the General Strike of 1926. It failed. We need to know our trade union history.

But we also need to look forward, not stay locked in the past. Some tactics that worked then and to some extent, depending on the sector, may still work now, may be far less effective than others. We need to be inventive and alert to the need for changes in industrial action that play to our strengths as we adapt to new working conditions.

For example, what about withdrawing our labour for say two to three hours on specified days, not necessarily at the same times on those days. Union members would be at their workplace, not locked out, dismissed and rehired on worse terms than they had before. It minimises any loss of pay.

Action along these lines would make it difficult for an employer to put in place contingency plans for such a short time. Any labour used to cover jobs whether temporary, casual or existing internal labour would have to be competent to undertake that work, and in many cases also certified by recognised industry bodies.

In short, we are wise to take our cue from the capitalist class:  be ruthless, cleave to the interests of our class; articulate those interests and fight for them; move with the times. Take the right to rule for ourselves.

As a woman from the CWU explained at the TUC rally in London in June, the main point is there are hundreds and thousands of us and few of them.  


This article is based on the introduction to a CPBML discussion meeting held online on 6 September.