There is an argument that has become common sense in mainstream society over the last thirty years, that has also been taken up by much of the left. It is that working class power, so visible in the great upsurge of working class militancy during the early 1970s, has been fundamentally, perhaps fatally, eroded with the decline of manufacturing and the rise of globalisation. As a result it has been accepted that the unions too are in a largely irreversible spiral of decline, ever more marginal to British political life. Alongside this is the belief that the battle of ideas in society has largely been lost by the left. So, for example, Tony Blair's hold over the Labour Party was based on the widespread acceptance that Labour could no longer win elections on a programme of redistributing wealth and control over market forces.
However, since the huge trade union-organised anti-cuts demonstration of 26 March, class is still the clear dividing line in British society. The protest was the second biggest demonstration in British history, after the February 2003 anti-war march. But more importanly it was visibly the organised working class on the move. It was the unions that called the demonstration, organised it and marched together in vast contingents of Unison, PCS, UCU, GMB, Unite members and the whole range of the union movement.
Yet despite the real defeats the working class movement suffered at the hands of the Thatcher government in the 1980s the reality is that workers still have immense power, their basic organisation remains intact and the dominant set of ideas inside workers' heads is still shaped by the post-war social democratic settlement established by the Labour government of 1945. It is certainly true that manufacturing has been in relative decline as a percentage of the economy over the last four decades, but overall output has risen. In 2007 British manufacturing output reached an all-time high, and Britain is the world's sixth largest manufacturer. This means that, though the manufacturing workforce is considerably smaller today, each worker in manufacturing is producing much more and is potentially more powerful than 40 years ago.
We have also witnessed a transformation of white collar work over the same period. Jobs like teaching, civil service and local government have been subject to the same routinisation and control that governs a factory production line. Where once these were relatively privileged jobs, they have now been "proletarianised". This reality underlies the unionisation of these sectors - a fact reflected in their huge presence on the TUC march. This process is continuing. University academics were not part of the labour movement en masse 30 years ago. Now visiting the picket lines of striking higher education lecturers in the UCU the week before the TUC march was no different from visiting a PCS or Unison picket line.
Trade union membership stands at around 6.5 million, or just over one in four workers. This is of course sharply down from a peak of over 13 million in the late 1970s, a fall largely explained by the loss of unionised jobs in manufacturing, rather than workers leaving unions. The unions remain overwhelmingly the biggest voluntary organisations in Britain (though there is, of course, little place for them in Cameron's "Big Society"). And their potential reach is greater than the overall membership figure suggests, with nearly half of all workers in a workplace where a union is present.
Private sector union membership is much lower than in the public sector. Trade union density (the proportion of workers in a union) is around 15 percent in the private sector compared to 56 percent in the public sector. The unions are present in nine out of ten public sector workplaces but only three out of ten private sector ones. But the picture in the private sector is more complicated and contains some important strengths that point to the potential for a fightback. The low overall level of private sector unionisation masks some very significant concentrations of union implantation in key industries. So union density reaches 40 to 60 percent, even as high as 75 percent, in electricity, gas, water supply, transport, storage and communications. And key manufacturing sectors like engineering, the car industry and food production retain significant levels of union membership.
In launching an onslaught on the public sector the government is attacking the biggest concentration of union membership, but unlike Thatcher's attacks on the working class (until the introduction of the poll tax provoked opposition on such a scale that it drove her from office), the current Tory-led attack is across the whole working class at once. The potential for a generalised fightback is real, and if it turns into reality it is likely to win widespread sympathy from workers in the private sector. A serious strike movement can both directly draw in the private sector and inspire workers there to start raising their own demands.
Since at least the late 1990s a rising level of political anger and ideological generalisation has thrown up a series of mass movements: over anti-capitalism, climate change and most significantly in opposition to the war in Iraq. But these have not been matched by the level of economic struggle, with strike figures for the decade 2000-2009 averaging just 692,000 days of strikes per year, slightly up from the 1990s but a fraction of the levels of the 1980s, let alone the 1970s. The government's attempt to significantly accelerate the assault on the post-war settlement that has been taking place over the last three decades is now producing a serious clash with the prevailing levels of working class consciousness and organisation. This raises the possibility of driving the generalised political anger in society into the economic struggle.
Since the autumn there has been a rising arc of protests against the cuts. It is a bridge that can take the political and ideological radicalisation into the economic struggle. The sense of confidence it gave workers who felt they were no longer isolated in the face of the Tories' assaults has shifted the balance of forces inside the unions, at least for now, in favour of those who want to fight. Mark Serwotka of the PCS, echoed by Len McCluskey of Unite have argued for coordinated strikes by unions against the cuts as the next step in the campaign.
We have to argue for national action, coordinated wherever possible, inside our unions while also delivering local action whenever we can. Alongside this socialists need to be fighting to develop resistance to every cutback in local services and attack on the NHS. We need to develop a "culture of resistance" that feeds into the workplace and can create networks of solidarity with any groups of workers that fight back. Mass strikes can break the coalition's austerity drive, destroy their political will and raise the spectre of a revival of working class militancy. Their nightmare must be our ambition.
This post is based on an article by Mark L. Thomas. See here for the full article.