Talk of a one-day general strike against ConDem policies is being floated, led by the Unite union. While any action against this most reactionary of governments is to be supported, we need to separate the rhetoric from reality.
Last September, the TUC Congress voted to investigate the legality of a general strike. Most legal opinion indicates that, given the scope of anti-union laws, all-out action would be deemed unlawful and challenged in the courts.
So a general strike would have to be in defiance of the draconian legislation introduced by the Thatcher government and upheld by New Labour. For over 30 years, the trade union bureaucracy has run absolutely scared of the laws that prohibit spontaneous strikes, solidarity action and mass picketing.
Any defiance wouldn’t, naturally, have the support of Labour, which is heavily dependent on Unite’s money. A Labour spokesman said: “There is no consensus for a general strike across the trade union movement. Strikes should be a last resort, and we are not in favour of a general strike.”
The record of actual resistance to the ConDems’ austerity drive by trade union leaders is poor to non-existent. Apart from the civil servants’ PCS union, whose members are on strike again today, there has been no sustained challenge.
Unite and Unison have constantly thwarted strike plans against cuts in jobs and services at local council level. When the ConDems announced plans to reduce public service pensions, Unison general secretary said he had a “war chest” of £20 million to back strike action. In the end, the government went ahead with its plans with minimal opposition.
In a submission to the TUC, which meets later this month to discuss the issue, Unite says it believes a 24-hour general strike "would be a landmark in our movement's recovery of its morale, strength and capacity to play a leading part in a society crying out for credible and honourable leadership".
But any general strike – even a one-day protest - is much more than that. It is a challenge to the state and its power, its authority and legitimacy.
You can be sure that the ConDem coalition will meet any challenge in the spirit of Stanley Baldwin, the Tory prime minister at the time of the historic 1926 general strike. He famously declared: “Constitutional government is being attacked… the General Strike is a challenge to Parliament and is the road to anarchy and ruin.”
The TUC had threatened a General Strike as a negotiating tactic to try and prevent a cut in miners’ pay and a lengthening of their working day. But their bluff was called and the strike got under way without any serious preparation.The army and the police were mobilised and strike-breakers recruited.
TUC leaders quickly entered into secret negotiations and the indefinite general strike was called off after nine days, with the miners abandoned to their fate.
In 1926, between 400 and 500 Councils of Action emerged in the course of the general strike. Made up of strikers and their supporters, they took responsibility for co-ordinating the strike, propaganda, communications, transport, entertainment, picketing and the delivery of food. They represented, in effect, the emergence of potentially alternative sites of power to the state at local level.
A showdown is coming with the ConDem government and the state as justified grievances over a pay freeze, spending cuts, the break-up of the NHS and the attack on the welfare state, come together.
Instead of waiting for union leaders to get serious, trade unionists and their supporters ought to prepare for confrontation now. They should create People’s Assemblies in each area, bringing together trade unionists, the unemployed, private sector workers, older people, campaign groups, small businesses, students, black and ethnic minority communities and everyone in the firing line.
Assemblies can do what the union leaders won’t – take seriously the implications of a general strike and the question of who rules
They can plan for a transfer of political and economic power away from a
ruinous capitalist elite and their lapdog politicians into the hands of
ordinary people. In other words, going beyond resistance.