If this is not the best of times it is also not the worst of times. On the one hand there is the defeat at Grangemouth, on the other there is continuing evidence that people are prepared to protest austerity, and to come in large numbers to hear the radical case for a Yes vote in next September’s Scottish independence referendum.
But to assess what working people and the left are up against we have to start with the realities of the situation.
The fiasco at the Grangemouth refinery highlighted that the trade union leadership, as all too often, cannot be relied when push comes to shove. If follows the abandonment of public sector strike action in defence of pensions in late 2011. Yet the other side of the coin is that those strikes that do take place are officially called and there’s little evidence of workers being prepared to take unofficial action. Furthermore, the biggest mobilisations against austerity over the last two years have been called by the same trade union leaders.
But many on the left have passed over something else; the mood among the workforce at Grangemouth was not one in favour of fighting. There were voices from the union and elsewhere suggesting a UCS style work in (in 1971 Clydeside workers took over shipyards threatened with closure) but there was no significant support for that.
In part that reflects the fact that among manual private sector workers the defeats of the 1980s still cast a long shadow, and that there have been no victories of sufficient weight since to disperse that shadow.
But it also reflects the effect of the recession which means workers are fearful about losing their jobs (that’s reinforced by the onslaught on benefits), they are sceptical industrial action can win and that the continuing neoliberal assault on working conditions and the very make-up of the working class has its effect. If a significant proportion of your fellow workers are precarious – part time, on zero hours or rolling contracts, contractors or agency workers – or even worse unpaid (interns or those on job experience), then that acts to undermine collective confidence and adds to fears that your position is under threat. That of course can be overcome but that usually requires a collective fight back and that’s in short supply (though Hovis workers in Wigan show what can be done).
It is wishful thinking in this situation to emphasise building a rank and file movement, because rank and file organisation does not exist to a sufficient extent. Grangemouth has a recent tradition of taking unofficial action and has a cadre of shop stewards, but that was not sufficient because the confidence to fight management’s blackmail was not there. This is not to blame the workforce; they are being asked to fight what they were being told was the logic of the market at a time of economic instability. To do so requires not simply confidence but rejection of that logic, something that is not on offer from any political force of sufficient weight to overcome the common sense pumped out by Labour, Tory and SNP politicians, the media and big business.
This recession is different from its predecessors in one important way. In Britain and in most of the developed world it follows three decades when the working class has been under relentless attack. In the Great Depression of the 1930s the recession certainly followed defeats, like that of the 1926 General Strike in Britain, but that was only four years prior to the Wall Street crash and the subversive tradition of the post-war years resurfaced by 1934, helped by the extent of the radicalisation which followed the 1914-1918 war and the 1917 Russian Revolution. The left also had sufficient social weight to matter. On Clydeside the Communist Party had several hundred members and real leaders like Harry McShane and Helen Crawfurd. The Independent Labour Party was bigger and its MPs like Jimmy Maxton were powerful voices in championing the working class.
More importantly, the strikes and occupations of the mid 1930s followed an upsurge in political opposition to unemployment and fascism.
Today, the three decades of defeats and sell outs, peppered with some victories, leave their mark, as do the changes in work and the workforce. Work is harder than in the 1970s and 1980s, with a proliferation of managers. The obstacles to organising a union are greater, and where union organisation exists, shop stewards and union reps are immersed in individual case work. The subversive traditions of the 1970s have faded, and few have experience of going on strike let alone occupying a workforce or taking solidarity strike action or boycotting work affected by a strike elsewhere (let alone boycotting parts for the Chilean navy and airforce, which is what Yarrows shipyard workers and Rolls Royce engineers did in 1974 following the 11 September 1973 coup which overthrew the Allende government).
Let’s not go back to then, however, let’s contrast Grangemouth with the occupation to stop the closure of the Caterpillar plant in Uddingston in 1987. Within 10 days of the workers taking over the factory, over 100 shop stewards from engineering plants across Lanarkshire gathered in Motherwell to organise support. There were shop stewards from Hoover, UKC Lairds, Rolls Royce and Anderson Strathclyde. Yet even in 1987, just over a decade after powerful shop stewards organisation had spearheaded defeats on the government of Edward Heath, problems were evident, and despite powerful solidarity ultimately the plant shut, although the workers took pride in having fought.
In their history of the Caterpillar occupation John Foster and Charles Woolfson contrast it with the UCS sit-in a decade and a half before. The main difference they identified that in 1971 “there existed a mass shop steward’s movement” which had been blooded in struggle and alongside left wing organization within the workplace. By 1987 they argued:
“… There was only a residual remnant of Broad Left stewards. There had been some experience of large-scale industrial battles, but there was no organized left to ensure cohesion within the workforce. The shop stewards movement outside the factory had been decimated by factory closure and the forces of the Left were divided and in disarray.”
(Charles Woolfson and John Foster, Track Record: The Story of the Caterpillar Occupation, Verso, 1988, P264)
Fast forward to 2013 there is nothing like the shop stewards organisation which still existed in 1987. Let alone in the early 70s when shop stewards, virtually entirely from private sector workplaces, from across Clydeside would fill the Glasgow Film Theatre to organise strikes and solidarity.
If we are to turn to the state of the far left the story is just as depressing. With few exceptions it has failed to prosper, and has seen its influence shrink, during the biggest capitalist crisis since the 1930s. I would be hard pushed to think of a party of the revolutionary left which is not having an internal debate or crisis as a consequence.
I could go on, but let’s stop the negatives.
If this was the entire picture then it would indeed be the worst of times, but as has frequently been pointed out on this web site, it’s not.