General strike - Protest or process?


On Merrion square, an evacuation is in progress. Thousands of people scatter in all directions; panic is etched across their faces. To the casual observer, this is a life or death situation. There is however, no crazed gunman, no volcano, no earthquake nor alien invasion. They are fleeing the catastrophe that is the Irish Congress of Unions (ICTU) bank debt protest.

Now, the streets are all but empty, the air is filled with the sound of inoffensive entertainment and the tarmac is littered with discarded leaflets and socialist newspapers. Amidst this scene, activists attempt to corral the stragglers into signing petitions calling for a general strike.

The call for a general strike has loomed large in the left narrative around the crisis and austerity. Since the opening guns of this latest battle in the class war, it has been presented as the solution to all our woes. Various hues of Leninists have been calling for union leaders to act, to name the day when workers would down tools in a show of strength. At the ICTU demonstration in February however, despite impressive numbers, it didn’t feel like there was any strength in the movement, it didn’t feel like we were marching to battle; it felt like the approach of entropy. One participant described the feeling as “like attending your own funeral”.

What is missing from this plea to the trade union leadership is agency. At various protests the ICTU bureaucracy has been heckled by sections of the crowd, but this resembles the cry of a frustrated football fan as their team’s €30 million striker misses the goal from close range. The socialists are able to tell us what the unions are doing wrong, but they are unable to change it. We are at once treated to the perspective of the spectator and the commentator, never the participant.

Not with a bang but a whimper
The absence of memory is a fatal flaw in the current left discourse. While calling for a one day general strike, it is seldom mentioned that we very recently experienced something that closely resembled that type of event. In November 2009, 250,000 public sector workers took to the picket lines in an attempt to stop cuts in jobs, services and pay. At that point, the average public sector worker had lost the equivalent of fourteen days pay and the feeling was, enough was enough.

When the placards were stacked and stored away however, the feeling was that another days pay had been lost. Workers returned to the office to catch up on work that was left and the pay cuts happened regardless. In some areas, work to rule actions were carried out for the next few months but their nature and duration was dictated from union head offices. The outcome, rather than heralding a reverse of the cuts, was the meek waving of the white flag of surrender, with the signing of the Croke Park Agreement. 28,000 jobs were lost, meaning extra pressure to do more work on those who remained. On top of that, there was a commitment not to take any further industrial action for the duration of the agreement. This was billed by the trade union bureaucracy as some kind of victory.

At that time, and in the present as we are being told that the “extension” to Croke Park is the best deal on offer, we are prone to accusing the union leaders of being sell outs and traitors. If being a traitor is to betray your own, then, they are nothing of the sort. When they negotiate with the government, and then turn to negotiate with us, they are at all times representing their own interests. The Croke Park agreement was a victory for the bureaucracy. They successfully kept a lid on the anger that was emerging from below, and at the same time appeased the state and the employers. The public sector strike of 2009, was a means of strengthening their hand in negotiations with the government, while in turn, the threat of strike, of further days pay lost was used to strengthen their hand in negotiations with us.

To demand the leaders of the unions name the day for a strike, is to demand our own defeat. A one day general strike of that kind would only be an event, a singular moment of protest that would pose no threat to the establishment. In fact, the government may see it as another saving from the public sector pay bill. Without workers being in control of any industrial action, it reduces, rather than increases their sense of their own power, and diminishes the idea of the general strike in the popular consciousness.

We might do something for the Island. Hellenise it
Elsewhere along the periphery of Europe, in the countries where mass workers movements are re-emerging, the general strike is commonplace. In Greece and Spain, there is a real tradition of worker militancy, so memory of events of the recent past informs the action of today. Even there, where there have been multiple general strikes, with a strong element of grassroots activity, austerity has not been defeated. In Greece and Spain however, these strikes are not singular events, they are part of a process of resistance that entails many other elements, they are the generalised expression of a wave of strikes that have gripped those countries.

The most recent general strike in Greece took place on the 20th of February. The country was paralysed. Public transport ground to a halt, ferry services and flights were cancelled, schools were closed and even farmers markets shut down. Hundreds of thousands turned out to protest and there were clashes with the police. This is set against the backdrop of ongoing local strikes and factory occupations.

On February 12th, workers at the Vio Me building supplies firm restarted production under workers control. The website, Libcom, reported that “The mobilization kicked off with a big assembly of the workers and solidarity organizations and individuals in a central downtown theater the previous Sunday. Here the course of action of the solidarity movement was discussed, and everyone had the chance to take the microphone and to express their opinion on the workers' struggle”[i].

This is a positive step, yet, despite this militancy and despite the fact that there have been over twenty general strikes in Greece since the beginning of the crisis, the government continues undeterred with its austerity agenda and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, continues to recruit members in a country that seems without hope. The labour movement in Greece is far in advance of the movement here, yet there is clearly a long way to go. If there was a general strike that was completely under the control of autonomous workplace committees, that could restart production in the way that the workers at Vio Me have, we would be looking at the beginning of a revolutionary process. This would be a true manifestation of the general strike, or mass strike that has been held up by the left as the greatest weapon the working class has in its armoury.

Over nine waves to the Milesians
The situation in Spain is of particular interest to anarchists. There is no other country in Europe where the ideas of anarchism and syndicalism have such influence in the working class. Despite a low level of unionisation, due to the representative system of industrial committees[ii], over 70.000 people are organised in the two main anarcho-syndicalist unions.[iii] These unions operate in a participatory manner, advocating direct democracy, direct action, solidarity and autonomy. Last year, the Confederation Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and the Confederacion General del Trabajo (CGT) along with the smaller Solidaridad Obrera, participated alongside the other unions in two twenty four hour general strikes.

José Luis Carretero, an organiser in the Madrid metro, describes the purpose of these strikes as to “pull together the different struggles that are taking place in the whole of Spanish society in a major show of force that can make the government feel that it is alone in its attempt to impose austerity measures dictated by the Troika. The strikes were officially convened against the latest reform of the labor law passed by the government in February 2012, which imposes much greater flexibility in labour relations, layoffs and facilitating changes in schedules, duties and salary, as well as disrupting the Spanish system of collective bargaining.”

Results have been mixed. “The austerity measures have continued as have layoffs and wage cuts. But the general consciousness of people is changing rapidly, and it is customary to speak about things like social change or the end of the monarchy that would not be heard of before. Many things are changing and the regime is mired in an increasingly acute crisis without end. It opens spaces for many voices that were previously marginal.”[iv]

In Spain, the one day general strike is part of a series of tactics that is used by the Spanish workers’ movement. There are ongoing strikes against privatization in the health sector, street cleaning and against mass redundancies in private com- panies. In the communities, neighborhood committees of indignados organise ongoing protests. The general strikes were a combination of these processes, with participation from those who are organised in the combative trade unions and the indignados. In this sense the general strike is not a singular event, but the process of forming a new social movement.

Waiting for Godot
Here, in Ireland, it seems like we’re on a different planet to Greece and Spain. Despite being subjected to five years of austerity budgets, there has been little fight back from the unions. In 2012, there were almost 8,500 days lost to industrial disputes, which was an increase on 2011. There were however, only five strikes and two disputes accounted for 72% of days lost, while there were no days lost in the fourth quarter. [v] It seems ridiculous to argue for the generalisation of struggle when there is virtually no struggle to generalise.

The only mass expression of resistance has been the boycott of the household tax. Hundreds of thousands of people have still refused to pay and the government has been forced to implement legislation giving the revenue commissioners draconian powers to collect the new property tax. The problem for the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes (CAHWT) is that while passive resistance has been successful to date, these new powers mean that the property tax can only be defeated if mass mobilisations accompany the boycott and in particular, if workers in the revenue commissioners refuse to process the tax. Here, it has become clear that unlike in Greece and Spain, there is a huge gap between the most militant sections of the working class and the majority. The task we face is to bridge that gap.

One of the key areas where struggle could emerge is, once again in the public sector. There is discontent over the terms of the extension to the Croke Park agreement. At the time of writing, no ballot has taken place but the leadership of the largest unions in the sector will support it. Despite this, several of the smaller unions have come out against the agreement and a campaign is underway to bring about a no vote. If this succeeds, the only option will be strike action. This, linked to the fight against the property tax, would lend a political edge to the movement; but what kind of strike action?

A singular one day strike like that of 2009 would achieve nothing, if not followed up with a sustained campaign of industrial action. We would be relying on the union bureaucracies to convince workers that more was necessary. The most likely scenario would see them going back to the negotiating table and in all probability sign the agreement. This is almost inevitable if we leave our struggle in the hands of the same union leaders, those who have their own interests to preserve and who are not facing the deterioration of their working conditions. The type of generalised strike movement we want to see will not fall from the sky. We need to rebuild our movement from below.

This machine kills militancy
There is no doubt that the majority of our union leaders are a cynical bunch. The fact that they use strike action as a threat against workers rather than employers testifies to this. They present a hopeless situation where a general strike would inevitably lead to defeat. This of course is a self-fulfilling prophecy as a general strike under their stewardship would be a defeat. They have no wish to rock the boat; their aim is to solidify their position as a group with its own distinct interests, at the negotiating table with the government and IBEC (The employer’s federation). They yearn for the return of social partnership, where the union bureaucracy was essentially part of the state apparatus.

The idea that we need to rebuild the movement from below, is one that everyone on the left would agree to on paper, but in practice, most of the left are moving to try to rebuild it from above, via the shortcut of winning positions on union executives. This tactic can only serve to perpetuate the clientelist model that currently exists, where the rank and file plays almost no role other than as pawn under the control of the player on the left, rather than the player on the right. A general strike called by left union leaders would still entail a process that the majority of union members played no role in, other than to cast their vote.

The left union bureaucrats, though sincere, are still separated from the majority of workers by their status as leaders and it is they who would give the order to go on strike or to return to work. The picket lines would be organised by branch officials, for the ordinary union member it would be a matter of taking a placard in hand, doing your shift on the line and going home. For a general strike to be meaningful, it is important for it not to be that singular event we have come to expect, a form of militant protest. It must be a process that elevates class consciousness and transforms the way we organise our workplaces.

To get to a point where our unions are organisations controlled by the rank and file, there are two tactics available. One is to try and use the existing structures to bring about change. This would entail being active at branch level and bringing motions to democratise trade union structures to branches and annual conferences. This is the only option available in times of industrial peace and it has some major drawbacks. One problem lies in the fact that the debate would only be carried out among existing union activists. At every step of the way, the bureaucracy and the junket chasers who support them would throw obstacles in our way. The other problem is that even if you win, the rank and file who has not been part of this process may not care and may not feel the need to implement a union structure that is based on grassroots democracy .Taking back the power in our unions seems a lot more important, when our unions are engaged in struggle. Times of industrial unrest then, present us with another option.

Solidarity, autonomy, direct democracy and direct action
While it is clear that industrial struggle is at a low level, it should also be clear that there is a high level of unrest in society. Workers are faced with increasing insecurity. Politically, we can see from polls that confidence in the government is low.
A Milward Brown poll, recently published in the Sunday Independent, showed that three quarters of those polled were dissatisfied with the government. People do not have these thoughts in isolation. Their opinions on politics are forged in conversation with others, very often in the workplace. When people talk about their dissatisfaction with their conditions with work, it is often with their work colleagues. Slowing down what you are doing at work to have one of these conversations is the most natural thing in the world and it is a form of resistance. You are taking back the time you sell to your employer, you are empowering yourself.

These conversations, in office sections, on factory floors and in staff canteens are the basis for workplace committees and workplace autonomy. Organisers can help to increase the frequency of these conversations, to discuss industrial action, to talk about what that would entail and how it would be organised, so that those ideas become part of the consciousness of the workplace. They can win support for industrial action, even informal actions like refusing to carry out unpopular tasks. Though the number of left organisers is small at the moment, these ideas can be rapidly popularised through social media. Workers in HMV and La Senza who occupied their workplaces won widespread support via this method, and the idea of workplace occupation became part of the popular consciousness.

If we popularise the idea of industrial direct action on a small scale, using real examples and modern communication technology, we can begin to talk about a general strike, about generalising the struggle that exists in society. Organising solidarity funds for strikes that are in progress, solidarity pickets and spreading information can be a process that rapidly transforms the situation. A few successful small scale strikes could become contagious.

The biggest and most famous general strikes of the past were not called by union leaders. The French general strike of 1968 began as a student protest. When the state used force against protesters, workers downed tools in solidarity. Grievances that were bubbling under the surface boiled over. Workplace committees were formed and France moved to the brink of revolution. This process can be seen in Russia in 1905, Barcelona in 1919, Italy in 1969 among others and in all these cases it was official labour organisations that reigned them in, took control and organised the return to work. A strike movement that became generalised in this way, would need to prevent this from happening, it would be the basis for new organisations of the working class that would be living extensions of the lives of working people. Beyond that, it would soon become clear that this form of organisations based on the principles of solidarity, direct action, autonomy, mutual aid and direct democracy was the basis for a radical transformation of society from below.

WORDS: Mark Hoskins

[i] resumes-production-under-worke...
[ii] A system of industrial representation where all workers get to vote for union representatives to bargain on their behalf.
[iii] Based on 2010 figure, reports suggest rapid growth since then but no figures were available at the time of writing.
[iv] Interview with the José Luis Carretero, Febru- ary 2013
[v] disputes-764790-Jan2013/
[vi] From Trans Global Express by The Jam (Lyrics – Paul Weller)

This article is from Irish Anarchist Review no7 - Spring 2013