The nature of the capitalist system is such that workers and bosses will always be at odds. The profit motive is key for capital, but wages, the length of the working day and working conditions are the most important things for workers. This inevitably leads to conflict.
Despite the working class making up the vast majority of the population, we’re always on the back foot. We’re rooted to our geography where capital can offshore. We don’t have the resources to relocate, to retrain or to start our own companies. So what do we have at our disposal? What can the working class do in a system that is inherently weighted against it? It can withhold its labour.
When this happens on a global scale, the whole weight of the system will be brought to bear against the working class. The police, the security services, and even the armed forces will be used to suppress us. States may change the law to make strikes illegal, leading to the active persecution of union leaders. That’s how much capital fears the power of a united working class. They believe, as Lenin did, that ‘behind every strike there looms the hydra of socialist revolution’.
But since 1979, this fear has dwindled as working-class power has been sapped. We’ve seen a huge decline in the number of days lost to strike action, and as a consequence, wage growth has stagnated to a level not seen since the Napoleonic wars. Precarious work has begun to predominate, and unions have calcified into organisations that ‘survived’ the onslaught of neoliberal reforms, their power curtailed, and their effectiveness limited. We must ask ourselves why this is the case, and what can be done.
The government has now identified who must pay for the cost of the pandemic, and they’ve chosen the workers who kept our country going: those same workers they said we should stand on our doorsteps and clap for. Those same workers who ensured that the modern-day lives we take for granted could continue. The virus has taught us their true value, but they are the individuals the government has targeted for Austerity 2.0 with pay freezes and cuts. As the homemade banners hanging in our windows yellow and fade, it seems that love and fondness is fading too.
But it’s in light of the pandemic that organised labour is stirring again. The outbreak has led to the growth of both the profile of trade unions and the unions themselves, and reminded us that they are as relevant as ever to working lives. Membership has increased by thousands and rep density is on the rise in many workplaces. The National Education Union, already the biggest education union in Europe, has reported 50,000 new members this year.
And strikes have been taking place, globally and locally. In India, 250 million workers striked in November as unions demanded rice, money, and an end to privatisation. Closer to home, the ‘Battle for Barnoldswick’ has been raging since 6 November as Unite the Union members strike to secure the future of a historic factory, and the jobs and community that rely on it.
The global economy, matched with global supply chains, is facing a growing movement of disruption. Some of the most impressive industrial action is taking place by self-organised workers, sometimes with the backing of recognised trade unions and often without. These self-organised workers are using tactics like walkouts, sickouts, and workplace occupations, as Tronti notes, to ‘block the economic mechanism and, at the decisive moment, render it incapable of functioning.’ You’d be forgiven for not knowing about these actions, though: most in the country don’t. Labour organising isn’t the subject of choice for a mainstream media who have vilified trade unions for the past forty years.
In the UK, new forms of organising through courier and delivery services have shown real innovation in capturing the imagination of workers and organising the non-organised in ways established labour unions sometimes have not. The worker is developing their ‘tools’ to utilise in the battle against capital, and the digital age has provided more opportunities than ever before. Zoom calls, Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups are now de rigueur, and in combining both the innovative forms of worker organising with the technology available to us all, we have built Strike Map UK.
Currently, there are no coordinated records kept of the strike action happening across the UK. Our online map is an attempt to start to catalogue the action taking place, and we hope this will be useful to other workers. The site is ‘worker-powered’ and relies purely on the information supplied via our submission form. (As a result, we do not claim to be an official account of all action across the country, or represent all the collective action and different tactics of disruption that people are engaged in.)
The map seems to have struck a chord with the labour movement. On the day of launch we received messages of support from workers and staffers around the country: we were endorsed by Len McCluskey of Unite; Dave Ward of the Communication Workers Union; Ian Hodson from the Bakers’ Union; John McDonnell, the former Shadow Chancellor; and more importantly, from hundreds of trade union members. We hope that our map will enable others to see the levels of action taking place, in order to pass on messages of solidarity and encourage other workers in their struggles.
The strike is just one part of the struggle, but it’s an important one. In her work on mass strikes, Rosa Luxemburg wrote that ‘the proletariat requires a high degree of political education, of class-consciousness and organisation. All these conditions cannot be fulfilled by pamphlets and leaflets, but only by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of the revolution.’
We must remind the working class of the power they hold, and we must remind the bosses who they should fear. As Lenin wrote, ‘Every strike reminds the capitalists that it is the workers and not they who are the real masters . . . Every strike reminds the workers that their position is not hopeless, that they are not alone.’