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Why do strikes matter and how do they win?


Resistance to the Tories’ war on ordinary people is springing up everywhere. It’s there in the huge marches, such as the one organised by the TUC in March, and in smaller protests, such as those targeting businesses or councils.

Socialists welcome and are part of action that brings ordinary people together to resist cuts. But we must also ask what more we need to do to stop the government.

For Marxists, workers are the key force both in winning reforms within capitalism and in transforming the world. The strength of the working class lies in the way it is concentrated into workplaces.

It is in the factories, offices and other workplaces that people labour together, creating the profits and delivering the services the system depends on.

Capitalism is based on competition for profits. Bosses make profit on the back of workers’ labour, by paying employees less than the value of the goods they produce.

When workers take action together they can stop profits and bring capitalism to a halt. In the public sector, where the coming strikes will be primarily focused, workers carry out tasks essential to ensuring that the system runs properly.

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Those planning to strike on 30 June will close down schools, colleges, universities, job centres, tax offices and many other workplaces.

This doesn’t mean that other forms of action are irrelevant. Protest movements, such as the US civil rights movement, and anti-war and student movements, can win changes and inspire other struggles.

And there isn’t a divide between strikes and other action. Some of the most successful strikes mobilise other campaigners—such as strikes to save college places or against NHS cuts.

But strikes are a direct challenge the authority of the bosses and the running of capitalism. They can expose the class divide and show the power of the working class.

If strikes have such potential, however, why don’t they always win?

Some say the working class isn’t a force anymore or that unions are too weak. But while the working class is always changing, the vast majority of people still have to work to get by.

Union membership in Britain is down significantly from its post-war high, yet unions remain the biggest voluntary organisations in the country. When they lead a fight they see their membership go up.

Yet size of membership isn’t the key factor in whether strikes happen or win. In France, union membership is lower than in Britain. That hasn’t stopped strikes.

Whether strikes win or not depends on many things. In Britain, defeats inflicted on workers during the 1980s hit peoples’ confidence.

This can encourage workers to rely on union leaders—a big problem when they clamp down on militancy or look to make compromises.

The presence of organised socialists can transform the nature and outcome of strikes.

The political situation also matters. If a government seems vulnerable, that can encourage resistance. If many groups are fighting, others can become confident to join them.

The strength and length of strikes is also crucial to victory, especially when facing a powerful enemy, such as a government or multinational.

In France in 1995, for instance, general strikes, and continuous strikes by groups of workers, were vital in beating back an attack on pensions.

In Britain, strikes often win partial victories. The indefinite strike by refuse workers in Leeds against wage cuts in 2009 is a good example.

The solid strike lasted for 11 weeks. But strikers didn’t really try to stop scabs, which could have stopped all refuse collection and forced the council to back down straight away.

The action stopped some of the major attacks—but it didn’t win everything. Some workers still faced attacks, although less savage.

The strike had a wider impact with those involved saying they felt confident because they had shown their power. This is important.

Strikes can transform ideas. Workers who previously accepted their “place” in society find that things can be very different. The dominant ideas of society—that only “experts” can run things—can be rejected.

These ideas include things that divide workers—nationalism, racism, sexism and so on. During strikes workers can see that they have a common interest against their real enemy, the boss.

They also show workers’ potential to overthrow our rulers and run society in a different way—one that is based on co-operation and human need.


Article information

What Socialists Say
Tue 24 May 2011, 17:59 BST
Issue No. 2253
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