Friday, 20 August 2010

The Lessons Of UCS - Part 3

The Positive Lessons Of UCS

Having set out what was limited in the UCS struggle, however, let me now turn to what really was positive in the struggle. It is particularly significant given the current conditions, and potential struggles over the Cuts and privatisation.

The first thing that can be said is that UCS demonstrated what real Trade Union struggle is about. In recent years, the Trade Union bureaucracy have been able to exert a stifling control over their members. They have been able to do that for a number of connected reasons. Firstly, the kind of rank and file militancy that developed, particularly from the late 1950's, and into the 1960's, signified by the development of the Shop Steward as a significant force, was itself a function of the Long Wave Boom that began in 1949. That Boom meant that, even in a decrepit Capitalist economy like Britain, the rapid accumulation of Capital soon meant that the reserve army of labour started to become exhausted. Capital responded by encouraging more women into the Labour Market, and by encouraging immigration from the Commonwealth, particularly to do those jobs that British workers could now choose not to do, because of the availability of more pleasant, and better paid jobs. The rapid accumulation of Capital was itself a function of the rising rate, and volume of profit. Once workers began to recognise that they could move from one job to another, with relative ease, in order to seek out better wages, they became more confident about their position, more prepared to make demands on their existing employers, in the knowledge that if they refused, then as an individual they could move elsewhere, and increasingly, as a group, they could threaten to strike, and the boss would quickly give in, because the cost of lost production was greater than the cost of conceding. Under these conditions, workers could recognise their own collective strength, and the most effective means of exerting it, was the lightning strike, the wildcat action that was over, even before the full-time officials could be mobilised to try to persuade the workers to go back to work whilst negotiations took place.

As that boom ended in 1974, the militancy that had been built up, and that rank and file organisation remained in place. It formed the basis of the struggles like UCS, and of the Miners in 1974, and of the strikes even during the 1979 Winter of Discontent. It was certainly the basis of the repeated disputes in the car industry, and of the action of Ford Workers, which bust the Social Contract, and opened the floodgates to other workers. But, constrained within that Trade Union consciousness, without any kind of political strategy that could have taken the working-class beyond such repeated industrial actions, faced now with bosses more prepared to fight, because easy profits were no longer to be had, and the relative costs of a strike were not so great, workers found themselves increasingly involved in ever more bitter, ever longer disputes, and with increasingly greater losses from them. The longer the disputes lasted, the less the power of the rank and file organisation relative to the role of the full-time officials, and the central TU bureaucratic machine, often backed up by the TUC, ever ready to propose some kind of compromise.

Moreover, the bosses had not remained passive either. In response to the development of the rank and file organisation, they had proposed new structures, which acted to draw sections of that rank and file leadership into the TU bureaucracy, as another tier, which the workers would have to contend with in future. A whole series of Consultative Committees, were established which gave former rank and file leaders a permanent role as negotiators, and acted to separate them from the shop floor. As the Tories consolidated their victory over the working-class, that was backed up by legislation to undermine the mainstay of the rank and file movement, spontaneity. By introducing complex rules over balloting etc. the Tories made it almost impossible to organise the kind of immediate response to the bosses that had been so successful for workers in the 1960's. The delay, the requirement for secret ballots, meant that control was taken out of the hands of the members and placed directly in the hands of the full-time bureaucrats, who then had every opportunity to sell-out.

Moreover, the repeated defeats of the 1980's and 90's, also had its effect on workers consciousness, making them less inclined to lose wages during a strike, and more likely to place their faith in the professional negotiating skills of “the union”, which was increasingly seen not as anything other than themselves, but was seen as something separate from them, something they paid money into in the expectation of getting some service back in return, rather like paying into an insurance scheme. Indeed, increasingly, the union bureaucrats were happy to sell “the union” on the basis of such an approach, and with a plethora of “commodities” that members could consume from, cheap insurance, to holidays, legal cover and so on. UCS is important, because it represents the complete antithesis to that view of what a Trade Union is, what the purpose of belonging to a Trade Union is, and demonstrates the kind of response that workers have to be able to organise for themselves at a rank and file level of the current attacks of the Liberal-Tories are to be thrown back.

But, UCS also demonstrated the importance of that rank and file organisation in another way. Reid, and his comrades insisted on a disciplined approach, he famously addressed the workers and told them that

“We are not going to strike. We are not even having a sit-in strike. Nobody and nothing will come in and nothing will go out without our permission. And there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying because the world is watching us, and it is our responsibility to conduct ourselves with responsibility, and with dignity, and with maturity.”

That discipline is important not just for the reason Reid describes here, of preventing the bosses from using it to attack the workers as irresponsible, but that without it, there is a tendency for other workers to drift away, and thereby to undermine the solidarity of the action.

The second thing that is positive out of UCS, and which flows from that rank and file organisation, is that faced with an immediate situation, the workers reacted with an equally immediate response. Although, the last couple of years have seen the re-emergence of the occupation as a tactic by workers, it is today much more difficult to organise, because that kind of rank and file organisation is missing, and because the tradition of immediate action based on working-class self-activity has largely been lost over the last couple of decades. Today, it would be more likely that workers would already have been sent home, whilst a full-time official negotiates the terms of the closure than that workers would respond to the first intimation of closure by organising an instant mass meeting, grabbing the keys, and locking the plant down. But, such action in itself is more like a well-disciplined military action than what today passes for Trades Unionism, and for such actions again a well-organised, well-disciplined rank and file organisation is needed, with competent NCO's, in the form of shop stewards. More importantly, that response was to refuse to accept the sanctity of Capitalist property. One of the fundamental aspects of Marx's analysis of Capital as a social relation is that unlike previous modes of production, where the producer employed the means of production, under capitalism it is the other way around, it is Capital – dead labour – which employs living labour. Labour is allowed to work, only at the discretion of Capital, despite the fact that in its physical form as factories, machines, tools etc. this Capital is itself the product of Labour, of workers.

A fundamental aspect then of challenging Capitalist society is to break that social relationship, to break the domination of Labour by Capital. By seizing control of the shipyards that is what the UCS workers did. They asserted the right of living labour over dead labour, of Labour over Capital. They basically said, these yards, these cranes, this welding equipment and so on have been made by us the workers as a class, we refuse to accept that we can only work at the discretion of the needs of that Capital, whose function should, on the contrary, be to serve our needs. And, that message was further amplified by their decision to do just that – to continue to work, to employ those pieces of equipment – rather than to strike. In so doing they stopped that equipment being Capital, ended its dominance over them, and reduced it to its proper place, as simply means of production, to be used by the workers.

The third positive aspect of UCS then flowed from that. The workers demonstrated, if further demonstration were needed, that the modern working-class, is educated, trained and disciplined enough to run the economy without the need for highly paid bosses, those same highly paid bosses, who the bosses themselves, and their lackeys in Government and the media, tell us have to be paid millions of pounds a year, or else the economy will collapse. These are, of course, the same millionaire bosses who actually did cause the economy to collapse as a result of their reckless speculation. Yet, despite that, and possibly for the same reasons, just as the French Communist Party failed to take the workers forward in 1968, when the workers there had taken control of the factories, and were beginning to conduct production under their own Workers Control, Reid and his comrades failed to take the UCS workers forward having shown that they could run the shipyards themselves. In fact, they did not even use their position to demand that the yards be run under workers control, after the Government had agreed to rescue them. They simply went back to business as usual. Once again that demonstrates the limitations of that Economistic, Trades Union, reformist consciousness, as opposed to that revolutionary consciousness that Marx describes of the Lancashire textile workers who took over their factories and ran them as Co-operatives, thereby breaking for good that domination of Capital over Labour within them.

It was as if Spartacus having led the slaves out of their captivity, and having seized land of their own, had waged a war not to defend that territory, and to free the rest of the slaves, but had instead waged a war, with the promise to hand over the land they had seized, if only the slave owners would take them back as slaves under better conditions! At the present time, workers are facing a fight over cuts, and privatisation by the Liberal-Tories, and a fight over the rising unemployment that will inevitably result from those policies. The lesson of UCS, is that, as I suggested recently, Fighting The Cuts our response to proposals to close schools, or libraries, or hospitals, or any other Public Building, should be to organise to occupy them, and to organise their continued operation under workers ownership and control. But, unlike UCS, having demonstrated that we can do that more efficiently than either State or private Capital, we should demand that our ownership and control of it, be legalised, just as the Argentinian workers ownership of their Co-operatives, seized from the capitalists when they sought to close them down, has been legalised. We should begin to join up such Co-operatives, through a National Co-operative federation that links every Co-operative enterprise to all the others, that centralises the surpluses of all Co-ops in order that it can be mobilised to defend and extend the Co-op sector, and within each community, where such Public Services have been taken over by the workers, we should begin to develop our own forms of democratic structures, so that the necessary decisions of how these services should be run in our interests can be made.

The real lesson of UCS is that Trade Union struggle is inadequate, and when that Trade Union struggle is forced to go beyond its immediate limits, to defy the notions of Capitalist property, we should not allow that Pandora's Box to be closed again, but should pick out the Hope that resides within it, the Hope that resides in the idea that our future lies in Workers Ownership and control of the means of production, in the establishment of Co-operative production, in short – in Socialism.

Back To Part 2

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