Tony Cliff

In fighting mood

(March 1988)

Interview in Socialist Worker Review, No.107, March 1988, pp.17-20.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

SWR:WHAT IS the balance of class forces at the moment?

CLIFF: WE ARE involved in a war of attrition between workers and employers. This war has been taking place over a long period of time.

Working class organisations are still intact. Today 48 percent of employed workers are in the unions. This compares with 49 percent in 1974, the period when the class struggle was at its very highest.

The number of workplaces in which a union is recognised has increased from 66 percent in 1980 to 68 percent in 1984. The proportion of workplaces where pay is negotiated through collective bargaining rose from 55 percent to 62 percent between 1980 and 1984.

The number of shop stewards, office and school representatives in 1984 was 335,000 – quite significantly higher than when Thatcher came to office. The density of shop stewards (i.e. the percentage per union members) has increased even more significantly.

But this doesn’t give the complete picture. New realism assumes that the working class has withered away not only in its muscles but intellectually, that Thatcherite values dominate. The survey in British Social Attitudes 1987 gives us quite a different picture.

On the question of whether taxes should be reduced even if that gives less spending on health, education and social benefit – in 1986 only 5 percent thought taxes should be given top priority. Even more interestingly, when people were asked, do you think that the nation’s wealth is shared fairly, 76 percent said unfairly. As well as this, 71 percent said there was one law for the rich and another for the poor, while 65 percent said management and workers are on opposite sides.

These are not revolutionary answers, because they take for granted the profit system while shifting it towards workers’ interests. But this is not the victory for Thatcherism on the intellectual level – it is reformism par excellence.

All this is to say that the working class is resilient. But this resilience is overlaid with a massive number of defeats over a long period of time which has made an enormous impact on their consciousness.

Workers do not connect the fact that real wages have risen over the last few years with the strength of their organisations. For example, the bask wage is rising by 5 to 6 percent and take home pay by 8 percent. There’s no question that in 1988 the workers expect 8 percent because they got it in 1987 and 8 percent in 1988 is an extra 2 or 3 percent in real terms because of the changes in taxation and declining rate of inflation. But workers do not connect that with their own struggles or strength.

The radical change over the last ten years is that while shop stewards as individuals exist, shop stewards as a collective don’t. I remember in the 50s and 60s going to quarterly meetings of the north London AUEW. There would be 300 to 400 delegates. In the last ten to fifteen years there have been 20 to 25 of them meeting.

In the 50s and 60s and early 70s the stewards felt they were fighting as a collective – at the meeting they would compare bonus rates between different factories. You had the feeling of them pushing together; the struggle could be sectional but it was moving forward by and large, and it was confident.

Politically they were cemented together by the Communist Party which was the leading force among shop stewards both in engineering and the docks. Only perhaps 5,000 out of the 300,000 or so shop stewards were CPers, but they would be the key ones.

The Social Contract of the 1974 to 1979 Labour government disarmed them. Hugh Scanlon, the leading man in the broad left in the AUEW, and Jack Jones, the leading left winger in the TGWU-the terrible twins as the Tory press used to call them at the time – both supported the government.

When these two sold the Social Contract the stewards found themselves in an impossible situation. They had to sell the idea of pay limitation, they even had to sell scabbing. They organised the scabbing against the toolroom workers in Leyland in 1977, they organised the scabbing against engineers at Heathrow. There were so many acts of scabbing that the shop stewards as a movement withered away.

That has created a vacuum on the left. Over the last few years the situation has become even worse. Because of the disintegration and bankruptcy of the Labour left (what with the massive cuts in the councils where the Labour left has its main strength) there is a feel- big of demoralisation among the activists. The fact that they put such a lot of effort into the electoral system inside the Labour Party means they have put Kinnock in an impregnable position.

What does the vacuum on the left mean as far as the union leadership is concerned?

The trade union bureaucracy is always vacillating between the two main forces, workers and the employers. If they completely supported the employers they would lose their base. They sometimes support the workers against the employers for fear of losing everything.

The degree of independence of the rank and file from the bureaucracy is in proportion to the level of confidence of the rank and file towards the employers. If the workers are very confident they can turn to the bureaucracy and say although you exist we don’t care too much about you.

In the 50s and 60s Lord Canon was the leader of the engineers – he was a real right winger. But that hardly affected the industrial baffle because the shop stewards were confident they could go on strike and win before the district officer got to them.

Today the relation of forces is different. Although real wages have improved, workers’ conditions have deteriorated massively over the last few years. Workers get more money – but productivity is up and flexibility has increased.

Because of that there is fantastic bitterness and at the same time a feeling that no one is giving a lead. The bureaucracy moves to the right because of the new realism – it assumes that organisation is weak, that the law is strong, that ideologically Thatcherism has won. But sometimes it miscalculates. It moves further to the right than its members are prepared to go.

The new realism isn’t only a phenomenon at the top of the pyramid accepted by the union leaders and the Labour Party leaders. It is also accepted at the bottom of the pyramid. It is not true that the average shop steward thinks that new realism is a load of nonsense.

When both the leadership and the rank and file accept the new realism and they move together then no chink opens up between them. But when the leaders move quicker than the rank and file, the rank and file may accept the new realism in principle but not when it comes to specifics. The three years in the Ford deal was too much. But two years they accepted. Screwing the workers a little bit more, that’s alright, but not skilled men doing unskilled men’s jobs.

These chinks that open up give an opportunity for shop steward rank and file activity to get through. It manages to get through but doesn’t manage to generalise the moment the bureaucracy says no.

The Frickley miners’ dispute in July 1987 provides an example of this. They went on strike over the suspension of three miners. They picketed out some 15 or 16 pits. It worked well until the South Yorkshire NUM panel said no to the strike because they wanted a ballot.

Another example is the hospitals. A small number of hospital workers could get 40 hospitals on strike on 3 February. When the same bunch of workers decided to try to make budget day, 15 March, a day of strike, they couldn’t get support when the union officials opposed action on that date.

Why? Because in the first case the militants carry the backward ones, and in the second case the trade union bureaucracy together with the backward ones pressurise the militants.

There are two mistaken attitudes to the union bureaucracy. The first assumes that the union bureaucracy serves the interests of the rank and file – you ask for action to be called by the union and you take it for granted that if there’s enough pressure they’ll do it.

The other attitude assumes the bureaucracy will never do anything at all under pressure and therefore the only thing we have to do is to act as if the union bureaucracy doesn’t exist.

We can fall into the trap of believing that either the bureaucracy is omnipotent or that it doesn’t count. In fact it’s neither the one or the other. If it’s omnipotent then we might as well forget about rank and file action. If it doesn’t count then we just do everything from below without putting any demands on the union machine. Therefore in Frickley, SWP miners didn’t go to the panel and simply put a resolution demanding an all-out strike in Yorkshire. Nor did we say, to hell with the panel, pretending it didn’t exist. We had to both spread the action to other pits and demand support from the panel.

The unevenness between different unions means that it is too bland just to talk about the bureaucracy. Some workers have greater strength in respect of their employers than other workers and so have a different relationship to the bureaucracy. The hospital workers, for instance, are extremely weak in terms of industrial muscle, unlike the miners, so their dependence on the union bureaucracy is greater.

The impact of strike action is much less serious in the hospitals and civil service. It doesn’t shatter management if DHSS offices are closed for weeks on end. Consequently both management and the bureaucracy can delay intervention. It’s different if chinks open up between rank and file miners and the bureaucracy. The rank and file can fight much harder and Jack Taylor, the NUM Yorkshire president, cannot leave them for a month. He has to act after a few days.

Also some trade union bureaucrats are much more permanent than others. Bill Jordan is president of the engineering union and probably will be for a long time to come. But there can be a massive turnover in the bureaucracy where the workers are in a very weak position.

Take the CPSA. Forty-six percent of the workforce is below the age of 26. In London the turnover in the DHSS is 100 percent plus a year. After the recent Passport Office dispute 56 out of the 68 on strike left straight after the defeat. This is reflected in the massive turnover in the union leadership: one day there is a right wing president, the next a left winger, one year a right wing executive, the next a left wing one. In such unions there is correspondingly a much greater illusion of control over the bureaucracy.

What about the bunch of strikes in the last couple of months – the health service, the seafarers, Ford, Austin Rover etc?

There are two elements that coincide in terms of timing. The first is people saying that enough is enough. There is no question that the nurses are a symbol of enough is enough. That was also an important argument among Ford workers and seafarers. The second is that there is a labour scarcity among skilled men in specific areas, so that with the economy booming the feeling is that we demand our share in the profits. The two elements are connected. The economic boom is linked to the fantastic pressure on workers.

The combination of confidence (from scarcity of labour) and bitterness (enough is enough) give you this little wave of strikes at present. The mood of enough is enough can spread and if things were on a much bigger scale (if, for example, the Dover seafarers had told McCluskie to go to hell) there could be a massive blow-up.

But because things are volatile there are sections that are on a hiding to nothing in the immediate future-local government workers, civil servants, teachers. When it came to the teachers’ no-cover policy the local initiative was brilliant and the teachers in London did a very good job. But when management threatened to sack anyone resuming no-cover the ability of the rank and file to generalise was put to the test and it couldn’t deliver.

What kind of strikes are occurring at the moment?

Let’s be clear about their nature. The hospital workers’ strike is even more bureaucratically controlled than in 1982. The fact that they can have different days in London, in the north west and in Scotland shows to what extent the union bureaucracy is in charge. The number of people involved up till now is much lower and it is more passive than in 1982.

At the same time the depth of feeling is much greater than in 1982 – for one main reason. In 1982 the fight was about wages and conditions; in 1988 it is a fight for the National Health Service as well as for wages and conditions. The things are related, so the appeal is much wider. People think, if they’re fighting perhaps we can also fight.

In terms of workers’ perception (and we have to deal with workers’ consciousness) the NHS is much more important than Fords. The majority of workers don’t give a damn about Fords. Workers care about the NHS, they have a stake in it. Fords was not a case where workers won bands down. It will give a little more confidence to workers in the factories, who’ll say it’s good that we won. But others will say, so what? Ford had a profit of £350 million, not every company has profits like that.

If the basic structure of the working class was damaged, if the employers broke through our ranks, there would not be volatility, there would simply be retreat. If workers were fighting with a generalised shop stewards’ organisation there would not be volatility either, workers would simply win.

So you find this phenomenon: you can be watching television and your heart’s beating with joy seeing hundreds of lorries queuing to get to Dover and lorry drivers being told to come back in a week’s time. You can hear Sam McCluskie saying he’ll go to prison rather than give way.

If there were workers’ collective pressure he would go to prison because he said so, and that reflects a collective demand. Then there would be a long war of attrition and at the end of the day either he would be saved and the NUS would win, or he’d lose.

But it’s not like that at all. One day he declares he’ll go to prison, the next day he tells them to go back to work, with the court saying he didn’t instruct his members sharply enough.

Therefore what you get is strikes starting brilliantly but then collapsing almost immediately.

The second example is a very simple one: Frickley was a success for miners, Bentley was a catastrophe. This appears difficult to understand since in both there was discipline and picketing. The difference lies in the local leadership. The Frickley leadership involved everybody in the pit in the picketing, so there was a feeling of collective power and management knew it couldn’t pick on individuals. (This was also why the Frickley pit came out in support of the nurses.)

Wit Bentley there was hardly any involvement; it was done on the telephone with people being told to do things, so that when the strike ended miners got letters from British Coal saying you were on the picket line, next time you’ll be sacked.

This volatility means that strikes, if they lose, do not have the same outcome. It can be worse in some cases than in others. You cannot know how things will shape up, although we do know that action cannot be generalised from the narrow base on which shop stewards exist, that there is no way of generalising as in 1972.

The bask position remains one of trench warfare in which the initiative over skirmishes is terribly important. It’s no good being mechanical and saying there’s no role for initiative. An initiative may only shift things a bit here and there. The more skirmishes you win the more you prepare the ground to break through the trenches at the end of the day.


Last updated on 9.11.2003