June 30th marks a very considerable mobilisation of industrial action in Britain, in the shape of a large public sector strike. The Trades Unions are making their first tentative steps towards politically motivated action for a generation, with a massive withdrawal of workers labour in response to government plans for pensions reform; whilst the pensions dispute is the legal justification for industrial action (under Britain’s strict, Thatcherite anti-strike legislation), in reality the issue is the tip of the iceberg. The consensus behind the strikes is that of a political fight against the cuts in general. The range of action we will see on June 30th will stretch far beyond those “directly” affected by pensions plans, with a cross-section of those worst hit by the cuts expected to engage with the day of action– the disabled, those who face massive reductions to vital welfare benefits, students, schools pupils and parents and other public-service users.
The participation of these groups raises old questions about how people not traditionally represented by and outside of trade-union structures and activities can appropriately take direct action if they cannot withdraw their labour. But it also raises other issues that need to be addressed; notably, how changing conditions of production and employment in a 21st century, late-capitalist economy have affected the viability of the mass strike alone as an effective tool of social struggle.
There is no doubt that the withdrawal of labour is still the primary tactic working people have in defence of their interests, and as a process that broadens understanding of the dynamics of a class society through praxis; that is, in the very act of striking we can begin to understand our position and our potential for re-imagining social relations outside of the wage relation. But society today isn’t encapsulated by the unionised mass worker, but rather by the short term contract, the service industry worker, the temp and those whose labour isn’t rewarded at all. How are those most badly affected by cuts- the single-mother and the unpaid carer- supposed to withdraw their labour? It’s simply not possible. The difficulties faced by those in precarious jobs, with short term contracts, alienated and disconnected from their workmates and threatened by aggressive management, are similar. Simply calling on them to “unionise! don’t work!” is rhetoric, not a tactic. Continue reading