There are moments when a particular group of workers can become the political focus for the wider working class. They can act as a pole of attraction, they can become a conduit for a wider program and new forms of struggle.
The current wave of strikes in Britain shows that significant sections of the working class feel both the need and ability to defend their own interests. It has come at a point in the deepening crisis where the mainstream political establishment is unable to present meaningful state-driven solutions.
In desperation, the controlling Tory party has ditched Johnson and created several months of vacuum where they don’t even pretend to generate plans to ease hardships. That convulsion in the governing party is not unique to Britain. Unable to respond to crisis and pacify the population, governments elsewhere in Western Europe have also dissolved. In France, Macron’s party have lost control of the National Assembly and, in Italy, Draghi’s coalition government has collapsed.
Meanwhile, the leadership of the British Labour Party has been intent on showing themselves as the next Government to prop up the capitalist status quo in Britain. They are so keen to prove that point that, week in, week out, they have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from struggling workers.
While the absence of a plan is lamented by the reformists, we think it opens up an opportunity to strengthen the chance for workers’ struggles to progress from singular defensive battles to a wider political program for the working class.
Things are churning
We can see that things are churning and that the two elements of such a working class program are floating around.
Firstly (and primarily), this is the will and ability of workers to lead their own struggles. Recent wildcat strikes and canteen sit-downs at various Amazon warehouses and unofficial street blockades by refinery construction workers are the first indicators that it’s not only the ruling class that is unable to rule, but that the ruled are also unwilling to remain passive.
Secondly, we see a relatively widespread response to campaigns such as ‘Don’t Pay’, which in other times would not have managed to reach beyond the small lefty bubble. However, what is lacking is a collective working class subject that takes on the responsibility to spread and enforce such a refusal to pay for their crisis. This vacuum on the side of the working class is then filled by the traditional trade union organisations in the form of the ‘Enough is Enough’-campaign, which currently has little substantively new to offer, other than the usual protest rallies and speeches by their leading figures.
The role of collectives of workers
When workers begin to struggle there is invariably an unevenness in the levels of combativity, self organisation and clarity around objectives. In these moments it has often been the case that a group of workers has become a catalyst for the wider class. So, for example, in Argentina in the early 2000s, factory workers at Brukman and Zanon were able to play such a role, forming bridges between a collective workforce, the unemployed and the wider movement. During a period of large-scale job cuts and factory closures, Bosch-Siemens workers in Germany created an autonomous collective that tried to coordinate resistance against restructuring beyond company and sectoral boundaries. During the Arab Spring, textile factory workers in Mahalla in Egypt were a central pole of orientation, while in Iran it was workers at the Haft Tappeh sugar factory. In the USA, teachers in Chicago formed ties between striking workers and local working class families suffering under austerity. In Genoa the autonomous dock workers collective CALP engages in practical working class internationalism and refuses to process ships carrying military equipment (please watch this new video interview with one of the militants of CALP). Historically, it was workers’ committees such as at Magneti Marelli in Italy that organised both factory struggles, rent strikes, occupations or reduction of transport and energy prices together.
It is not easy to determine the necessary ingredients for the formation of such workers’ vanguards. The fact that workers have worked together for years, often as part of an industrial form of cooperation, seems important to form mutual trust, accountability and self-confidence. Your position in the wider social fabric, for example as transport workers or teachers, is significant when it comes to your struggle having a wider impact on the daily lives of others and the ability to enforce a public proletarian debate. There is a difference between formal and more instantaneous ‘horizontalism’ a la ‘Occupy’, which often creates unaccountable spokespersons, and the organic rank-and-file structures of longer-term shop-floor relationships. There is also a close relation between the collective and creative experience of changing the material world in a manufacturing or engineering process and the capacity to imagine wider social change. But, as we could see during the Lucas struggle in the UK in the 1970s, this is not primarily a question of technical know-how, but of both collective intelligence and combativeness. It is the experience of an offensive struggle that sets a specific group of workers apart from the wider class, the ability and will to break the deadlock of bourgeois status quo and rules. These are preconditions for the emergence of a more organised political debate amongst workers and the decision to reach out to the wider class. They take on the responsibility to fight not only for their own conditions, but to act as a point of reference for other, often more dispersed or defensive struggles.
The inspirational struggle of GKN workers in Italy
Recently the GKN workers in Italy have taken on this role. As an industrial workforce, they had obtained a certain internal cohesion, which helped to create factory assemblies and a struggle collective when the closure of the plant was announced in summer 2021. They took hold of the factory and, at the same time, organised multiple demonstrations with other local workers, addressing the issue of precarious working conditions that they themselves had never had to put up with. Instead of defending ‘individual jobs’, they saw their collective workforce and the industrial installation as part of a regional social and creative fabric. Together with scientists and researchers, they have tried to develop an alternative productive and environmentally beneficial plan for the factory, e.g. a transition from manufacturing parts for fossil-fuelled individual passenger vehicles to greener public transport. We highly recommend watching this new video documentary about their struggle!
In the meantime, GKN workers in Birmingham in the UK were also threatened with massive job cuts. Unfortunately they were not able to generate a similar response, perhaps partly because too much hope was placed in ‘the politicians who would help to save quality made in Britain’. Instead of putting pressure on workmates in other GKN factories in the UK to come out in support, the focus was on convincing the political parties and ‘the public’. We have seen similar dead-ends during the initial trade union reaction when British Airways announced to ‘fire and rehire’ in 2020.
In the UK during the last two years, we have seen an increased number of strikes. Initially about ‘fire and rehire’, now predominantly for higher wages. The situation is complex, some workers face job cuts, while workers in other areas can use the labour shortage in their favour. As a class, we should use the structural power that we have in some jobs or sectors to defend colleagues in weaker positions. The trade unions have to comply with laws aimed at restricting workers’ struggles and are therefore unable to overcome sectorial and professional divisions – and the competing interests between different unions. The question is, will workers themselves feel strong enough to challenge this? At Heathrow airport for example, cargo workers were doing heavy overtime during the lockdown period, while workers in the passenger departments were in a weak position due to lack of work. The union could have used the clout of the cargo workers to defend conditions of the passenger workers, but they didn’t. Hopefully local strike solidarity networks can become more than just cheerleaders, but support the formation of independent workers’ collectives that combine hard struggle with a wider outreach.
What with the prospect of 15 – 20% inflation and a looming recession, times are tough. In this moment we should support any workforce that is willing to defy the legal straightjacket and enter into an offensive struggle. We need to draw a clear line between our needs as workers and the needs of the employers, who will try to disguise their own needs as the ‘needs of the economy’. We have to support any workforce that takes the responsibility to fight not only for themselves, but for a wider working class program: “No job cuts, no wage cuts! We all work, we all work less! As workers we prioritise work that is useful for society and limit work that is mainly for profits! We organise our own struggle!”