Tony Cliff

First stirrings

(June 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.121, June 1989, pp.16-18.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A recent national meeting of the Socialist Workers Party took place against a background of rising class struggle. Tony Cliff, a leading member of the SWP, outlined the change in the industrial and political situation. We reproduce his speech below.

THE INDUSTRIAL situation today is like a kaleidoscope. Everything is shifting very quickly and with tremendous unevenness.

There are two basic reasons for the increased level of industrial struggle today. The rate of inflation is rising and the labour market is tight.

In the last few months the rate of inflation has increased substantially. Workers take it for granted that standards of living should improve, because they have unproved over the last eight years. For the first time they find that improvement is not guaranteed – they have to fight for it.

And because of the shortages and tightness in the labour market they find the possibility of fighting for it. Workers compare their conditions to other workers.

Ford workers were a catalyst. Once they got 7.9 percent Nissan workers got 15 percent. In most localities the local Ford factory or a part of industry associated with Ford are the key to encouraging other workers.

In the north east it was the Ford and Nissan deals which raised the level of wage demands elsewhere. Fords workers at Bridgend who got 9 percent pushed up the wage levels in south Wales and other places. In Southampton the Ford factory that got 7.9 percent rushed the demands in the aircraft industry, Vosper Thorneycroft and Esso Fawley.

In Coventry, Jaguar and Peugeot workers compared their conditions with other parts of the car industry like Ford and Nissan.

The comparison effect also applies in the public sector. The clearest case is the BBC. They want equality with ITV workers. It is not always as clear cut as that.

All the wage offers made at present are around 7 percent. Supposedly there is no incomes policy, yet the bus, underground, BBC and power workers have all been offered 7 percent.

In private industry the leapfrogging process – of workers catching up with each other – takes place through comparison. It is molecular, with 200 or 300 workers in small factories measuring their demands alongside the demands of other groups of workers.

In public sector industries like the BBC there are 25,000 workers. The bus workers number 13,000, the underground 12,000. These are large sections of workers. How does the comparability affect work in these groups?

When we speak of a 6 percent increase for workers in the private sector really we are talking of a 6 percent basic increase with an increase in earnings of another 3 percent on top – an increase pushing towards 10 percent. In the public sector this difference between basic pay and real earnings is not as big.

So when Ford get 7.9 percent in reality it means 11 percent, but if BBC workers accept 7 percent it really means only 7 percent. So the impetus is for increases above 7 percent. That is how comparability works through into the public sector.

The wage push started from private industry and will move into the public sector. The cumulative effect of various experiences acts as a demonstration to other workers.

There is a division between public and private industry but they are not totally separate.

There is also a north south divide, but not in the sense that many on the left talk of. In fact it works in precisely the opposite sense.

The current wave of disputes have touched Scotland much less than London.

In Glasgow in 1979 the ratio between workers employed in manufacturing industry and those employed in service industry was one to two. Today there is one worker in manufacturing for every four in services. Unemployment in Strathclyde in 1988 was 14.2 percent. If you include people on various government schemes this rises to 24 percent. In Slough and surrounding areas unemployment is 3 percent. Below a line between London to Bristol unemployment on average is 4-5 percent. That increases pressure on wages.

Inflation is higher in London and surrounding areas. The turnover in the labour force compared to other places confirms the pressure that workers in the south are under. There are many more job opportunities and there is greater pressure for more money. There is a line of division, although we should not exaggerate it. The current industrial situation means socialists cannot apply a general solution to all situations. Socialists need to look carefully at the strengths and weaknesses of each.

The current spate of industrial disputes is different from those of two months ago. Today the situation is bubbling. But it is important to look carefully at each dispute.

It is vital to consider the nature of the strikes. Are they defensive or offensive? It is impossible to put them in either category. They are not defensive in terms of the method of struggle: the workers initiate the fight. But they are defending their standard of living. It is a combination of defensive and offensive struggle at the same time but in terms of the workers’ consciousness it is offensive struggle. That is extremely important.

The bus workers who have been on strike in Scotland for nine and ten weeks, after having been locked out, still put two fingers up to management – and still only four out of hundreds on strike have gone back to work. The Jaguar strike recently reminded me of strikes of 20 or 30 years ago. One hundred and fifty workers in the storeroom came out after one of their stewards was poked in the chest by a manager. Thousands of workers in Jaguar supported the storeroom workers. This was an offensive strike.

When we consider the union bureaucracy there is a danger of holding one of two opinions. Either the union leaders get put in the same bracket as the employer, or they are considered to be simply the same as the workers. The truth is the union leaders are neither workers or capitalists.

Because of that, in terms of ideas, the trade union bureaucracy vacillates between the classes. There is not a fundamental difference between what workers think and what trade union leaders think. But what the two think is not exactly the same.

For example, the union officials were very happy with the Labour Party’s victory in the Vale of Glamorgan. The result gives them hope that in 1991 there will be a Labour government. Workers were also very happy about the victory, because they want a Labour government too. But there is a difference.

Ron Todd says, don’t rock the boat, let’s devote everything to a Labour victory. The rank and file agree but the victory also gives them confidence to demand wage increases.

The union leaders believe they cannot break the anti-union law. The overwhelming majority of workers agree that the law cannot be beaten. But while the union leaders collaborate the rank and file looks for ways of going round the law.

When the bureaucracy is sectional the rank and file will be sectional. But it is important not to generalise about sectionalism. There is a danger in regarding a particular situation as either wholly sectional or not at all sectional. The reality is usually more complex.

Sectionalism is not all bad. It can also be a sign of strength. You can at least fight in the section and, of course, sections influence one another.

The attitude of the union bureaucracy is very important for socialists. They are collaborating with the government in reality through blind compliance with the law. They have moved so far to the right that there is an opening for rank and file action.

The danger is that we draw extreme conclusions from this and say, who cares about the union machines? The rank and file can do it on their own as the underground workers have proved! That can be very dangerous.

In recent years socialists have spoken about the rank and file in the past or future tense. Today we can speak of it tentatively in the present tense, as small shoots, with hopes of it becoming bigger in the future tense.

Therefore our attitude towards the union bureaucracy is central. If we simply say the union bureaucracy is irrelevant then we don’t put demands on them. If we think they are simply part of the employing class we don’t put demands on them. In the present situation we need more than ever to follow what Trotsky said about the bureaucracy – with the employers never, with the workers always, with the bureaucracy sometimes.

There is not a complete separation between unofficial and official action. We want unofficial action to support official action, we want unofficial action independent from official action. Workers should always seek to be independent but we should always guard against being ultra left and dismissing the trade union leaders.

How do politics enter into the industrial struggle? The majority of workers go on strike to get money. Politically they want a Labour government. So socialists must be very clear about the Labour Party.

The Vale of Glamorgan victory will have had a very complicated effect on the consciousness of workers. It wasn’t a move to the right, thousands of ex-Tory supporters voted for Labour. That’s a move to the left.

The fact that only a few days later the NEC of the Labour party was able to push through its policy proposals with only four – Benn, Livingstone, Skinner and the Young Socialists representative – voting against was obviously a move to the right.

There must be hundreds of thousands of Labour supporters who are sick of Kinnock’s position on unilateralism. That is a move to the left for them.

Therefore socialists cannot say we don’t care about the Glamorgan election result or about whether Tony Benn or Ron Todd opposes unilateralism, we do care. But we must insist on bringing the class struggle into the picture.

The danger for socialists is switching from abstract politics to mindless militancy – simply supporting workers’ struggles without worrying about their ideas. Their ideas are Labourite ideas and we have to participate in the struggle of those ideas.

Some workers at present want to fight but don’t believe they can, some believe they can fight a little bit but not very much. This combination of ideas manifests itself in different ways according to the relationship of class forces, according to the relative strengths between classes. The relationship between what some socialists have described as the new mood amongst workers and the new realism of the ideas of abiding by the law and looking to the Labour party to solve problems is a complex and uneven one.

The most extreme example of where the power of delivery of workers action is extremely weak is the poll tax campaign. Millions of people reject the tax but fighting against the tax depends on a few groups of NALGO workers in the council in the finance department, or in the DSS in the CPSA. Because of this we get massive vacillation.

The struggle rises then crashes down again. If we don’t understand that the struggle will go up and down we will be in trouble. In Scotland for months the campaign against the poll tax went down, and then suddenly there was a demonstration of 20,000 people.

The Birds Eye factory in Kirby, Liverpool, was closed without workers fighting. But then out of nowhere 3,000 held a demonstration to protest, a good figure for Kirby. This shows that we must be prepared to change very quickly to adapt to the rapid changes taking place in the class.

The danger of new realism causing abstention from the current struggles is very serious, even for socialists. Many of the strikes are very small and can seem insignificant unless we have a total picture.

The other danger is to exaggerate the possibilities of a dispute and throw ourselves into manic activity. The only thing this will achieve will be to delay the demoralisation.

But the greater of the two is by far the danger of abstention.


Last updated on 31.12.2004