Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Where next after 30 June strikes? Can we get a general strike in Britain?

750,000 public sector workers went on strike on 30 June in the biggest mass strike in Britain for a generation. But what comes next? What is the next step? Is a general strike like has been seen in Greece and Spain possible in Britain? And if so, how do we get there?

Dave Prentis, general-secretary of the Unison union and Len McCluskey, general-secretary of Unite, the two biggest trade unions in Britain are talking about the biggest wave of strikes for eighty years (the last general strike in Britain was in 1926). But the question remains, is this just rhetoric? The fact is, many members of those unions wanted to be on strike on 30 June and definitely want to be involved in the next wave of strikes. The leaders of those unions cannot talk about mass action and then not be seen to make it happen. Of course it is important that the rank-and-file members of the unions put pressure on their leaders too.

So far an unprecedented six unions have passed motions calling for a general strike at their national conferences. The 30 June proves that the Tories are losing the argument that strikes are unnecessary or premature. Everyone in the trade union movement is now talking about striking together.

It is important to remember that every strike builds later co-ordinated strikes. We should support every strike no matter how local. The 26 March demonstration raised the idea of "we marched together, now we must strike together" and the slogan that was used was "call a general strike". The slogan may have seemed abstract or unachievable at the time but just three months later it seems more than likely. Now we must demand that the unions 'name the day' of the next co-ordinated strikes so we can get in behind them as quickly as possible. If they call a day (and some Unison activists have mentioned 4 October as a possibility), our slogan should be "all out, stay out".

Some people will say this is overly ambitious but we must understand that things are very different in Britain now than they have been for years. Despite what we are told Britain has a long and radical tradition of strikes. The first general strike anywhere in the world took place in Britain in 1842 involving nearly half a million workers.Then there was the Chartists, the Great Unrest and the General Strike of 1926. This may have failed but that is because despite making very left-wing speeches, the trade union leaders did not prepare for the coming battle. Despite this the strikes were fantastically solid, there were action committees and the defence groups actually beat the police off the streets! But ultimately the bureaucrats, even very left-wing ones, could not break with reformism. Also the Communist Party failed to put the argument for rank-and-file action if the leaders let the movement down. In the 1970s, strikes were known as the 'British disease'.

It is also important to remember that the movements in France and Greece also took a long time to get to where they are now. At first the protests were not very good and the left and the rank-and-file had to argue hard for co-ordinated strike action.

In Britain, the idea of class organisation is back. So we must use both official channels and unofficial ones to push union leaders to 'name the day'. We must put pressure on those unions that are stalling, especially Unison and Unite. We must also argue for big mobilisations for the protests at the Lib Dem and Tory Party Conferences in Birmingham and Manchester at the end of September and the beginning of October. Activists must take the initiative and call demonstrations when the trade union leaders do not. We must raise the slogan "all out together, stay out together".

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