Friday, May 24, 2013

Meeting Report, Wednesday 8th May, 2013

Radical History Network of North East London

‘EVERYWHERE AND NOWHERE’: General Strikes, Solidarity Strikes and Industrial Solidarity
“The general strike is a revolution which is everywhere and nowhere”  (Fernand Pelloutier)

The 1926 General Strike in the UK  [By Alex - Full report of presentation available]

In May 1926 2 million workers joined the only General Strike Britain has ever seen. It lasted nine days, before being called off by the people who had called it – the General Council of the Trades Union Congress. The TUC leadership had unwillingly called the Strike, in support of a million miners who had been locked out of the pits until they accepted drastic wage cuts. The General Council had been forced into action by the overwhelming class feeling of the members of the unions, who both strongly supported the miners and believed a General Strike to be in their own interests in the face of an economic assault from the bosses and the government.

The Strike was in most cases rock solid: increasing numbers of workers were walking out, and towards its end it was spreading into other industries not officially on strike. But the government was very well prepared, having planned in advance - ensuring the amassing of coal stocks to make sure the miners could be defeated and industry could keep going, recruiting volunteer strike-breakers ahead of time, and setting up networks to organise nationally and locally.

But, afraid of the possibilities of workers escaping their control, and class warfare overflowing their very limited aims, the TUC bureaucrats tried hard to avoid the Strike, attempted to hamstring strikers on the ground from any autonomous action, negotiated throughout with the government and finally called the strike off, claiming they’d gained concessions, even though none had been won. Although 100,000 more workers came out on the day following the ending of the Strike than had previously been called out, very quickly most workers returned to work, facing worsening pay and conditions from employers made bold by the defeat – and leaving the miners to fight alone for six months until they were forced to give in and accept wage reductions. This sellout did leave a powerful legacy of bitterness. At the time, and ever since, the TUC leadership has been blamed for betraying the General Strike, and the miners.

Many on the left, including ourselves, obsess on the myth of May 1926 as some kind of potential revolutionary situation, thwarted by union leaders holding back class struggle. But maybe it wasn’t: few at the TIME saw it as more than an (admittedly huge) industrial dispute, limited to support for the miners. It’s possible that it was doomed to failure, given the conditions prevalent at the time. Although the situation may have contained a lot of ‘revolutionary potential’, this depended on the willingness, confidence and numbers of working class people prepared to go beyond the trade union structures when it became necessary. Whatever bitterness and anger at the selling out of the miners may have existed (and it was widespread), there was no critical mass of people able to translate it into maintaining or extending the Strike.


Recent General Strikes in Spain (and generally) [By Millie - Full report of presentation available]

Historically there have been two main ways general strikes have come about: They have been national events, pre-announced, or they have erupted, usually on a regional or city-wide basis… The latter type of general strike often starts in one industry, and spreads; it is more often spontaneous or organized from below while the first is more likely to be more top down. Quite often the second kind is provoked by some act of brutality, oppression or repression by the authorities or employers… Most of the city-wide or regional general strikes did have in common that they occurred at a time of general class struggle, upsurge of strikes, etc, they didn’t spring up out of nowhere…

In Spain, you often get small general strikes in various regions or cities; for example in Puerto Real, a strike in a car factory grew into a general strike in the whole region. More recently the Asturias miners’ strike sparked a one-day general strike. Spain really loves its General Strikes… There have been 3 there since the start of the current financial crisis in 2008, but before that, just in the post-Franco era, they’ve taken place in 1981, 1985, 1988, 1992, 1994, 2002, 2003, 2010.

Most of these have been called in response to labour laws, pension ‘reform’ or dole ‘reform’… Interestingly there have been two main exceptions, having more political than economic aims: the first was called against the attempted military coup in 1981, the second against Spain’s involvement in the Iraq war in 2003. [NB, remembering that the first echoes the general strike and popular mobilisation against the fascist coup of 1936 that launched the Spanish Civil War]. The latter strike saw a lot of civil disobedience, mass opposition – the strike was very much centred in community organising.

More specifically, the one day general strikes of the last three years have all been called ‘from the top’ by the two large union confederations, the UGT and the CCOO. But on the day, they feature a lot of mass grassroots activity.


OPEN DISCUSSION   These are points that came up in the discussion.

• It’s true that post-World War 1 there was a near-revolutionary situation, across Europe there were revolutions and uprisings, and a crisis in Britain. Does today suggest a re-run of 1926? Capitalism has changed a lot structurally, the industrial landscape has altered. There have also been huge changes in class composition, sociological changes, especially increasing atomization; people’s relationship to work and hence the focus on workplace struggles is v. different.

• Is there a way at approaching a pan-European General Strike? The European TUC structure poses some problems…

• What about a General Strike in the future? What factors will cause it?

• The General strike is a means to an end – we need also to think about strikes as occupations, sit ins, there is a long tradition of this in some places. How can we help to bring it about?

• Interesting that the first speaker linked William Benbow and Rosa Luxemburg. Benbow was part of the movement for reform that was betrayed by the 1832 Reform Act. Remember that at this time trade unionism was still illegal, trade unionists could be transported to the penal colonies. [Typist’s note: I think that the Combination Acts that banned trade unions or workplace organising had in fact been repealed a few years before in 1825, though it’s true that many aspects of organising could get you arrested, the Tolpuddle Martyrs for instance were specifically transported for swearing oaths when joining the union]. Benbow’s Grand National Holiday: in discussions around this idea, the question of ‘how will we eat?’ came up, and Benbow said “There’s sheep on a thousand hills”, i.e. let’s take everything from the ruling class. But recognizing that this meant civil war.  Rosa Luxemburg also saw things clearly – she made a point that a general strike has to involve unorganized workers – in fact she went further and stated that the struggles of previously unorganized workers would be a factor giving a mass strike real force and potential to transcend trade unionism.

• Has there ever been an organic general strike that has grown out of struggles at the grassroots? Yes, as an example, 1877 was given, a nationwide US strike wave sparked by one train strike. This movement arose in a period of intense social change following the US Civil War, in the 1870s many advances and opportunities were in the process of being closed down and restricted, and there was a large collective response. City-wide strikes (as mentioned earlier) were often sparked by dispute in one industry and spread outward. Even a shop assistants’ strike launched a General Strike in 1905. The 1905 Russian revolution to some extent was made up of an organic general strike, growing out of city strikes arising from immediate demands or grievances. For instance the sacking of two workers in the Putilov works in St Petersburg spiraled into a general strike in that city, and so on…

• Now, though, conditions are much less favourable. We’ve seen changes in work, i.e. most people being in temporary or insecure jobs, the [worse than] decimation of many staple industries, the huge decline in union membership, and a reduction in community, solidarity, the possibility of people standing together. These changes haven’t come about coincidentally, they have been imposed partly because of previous waves of militancy. It is important to recognize the changes we face now, but also useful to discuss and remember these struggles from the past, and learn as much as we can. It was suggested we can’t just build solidarity around workplaces any more, people don’t work in the same way, big factories etc .with a community around where most people work, are a thing mostly of the past for the UK and western Europe at least… Struggles outside work have risen in importance for many.

• It’s also true that many people aren’t happy to join in strikes that aren’t sanctioned by official structures.

• But expansion of strikes often takes place outside work now. People who aren’t necessarily on strike can participate in other ways. “Anything where people feel they can connect.” E.g. in Spain, Occupy have launched a campaign of local organising, “Occupy to the barrios”, rather than focusing on central points. [Typist: interestingly we had the same discussion in Reclaim the Streets in 1998-9, though those of us who argued that RTS should be concentrating on local struggles rather than building for big spectacular one-offs lost the argument then. Though that did lead to June 18th 1999, which some people rate highly. Hey ho.]

• How does industrial action spread? During the 1984-5 miners’ strike, there was massive support and solidarity but no other strike action in support.

• Neighbourhood level is the key to organising, local groups and so on, focusing on immediate action. The poll tax showed it was possible… There’s a need for groups of workers getting together locally.

• There really is no point in whingeing about the TUC, unions etc, we should just be organising for ourselves.

Here the discussion on the night ended… obviously we should be continuing to debate these issues as part of our movements etc…

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