The strange absence of Industrial radicalism

A vibrant new force is being launch on the left.

No, not Ken Loach’s “Left Unity” vehicle. That’s a mere flapdoodle got up by the decayed remnants of Post-Benn Gallowite rejectionism, there mostly to taunt those who’ve put their faith in the Labour party as radical agent of reform.1

Instead, cast your eyes a smidge to the right and behold the People’s Assembly Against Austerity. This is the real thing, the Unite-PCS-Unison backed broad front of left opposition to Austerity, coming soon to a Corn Exchange near you. Mark Steel is involved. That’s how you know it’s proper.

I feel a bit sorry for the left sometimes. Every time they try to organise a broad front strategy, they have to find a new name in order to avoid drawing attention to the failures of the previous three dozen incarnations of the strategy.

I like to imagine some left greybeard, perhaps Keith Flett, is ceremonially given the solemn responsibility of stopping the new broad front of resistance having the same name as any previous incarnation. “Left Front?” he intones. “Did that in ’36.United Front? That was ’33. Popular Front? Are you having a bloody laugh, sunshine?”.

Anyway, once you’ve deleted past failures and current socialist, left, action and sundry factions (“Hah”, says Ken Loach, “you can’t have Left Unity, I bagsied it months ago!”) there’s very few left words for the next generation of activists to choose from. This time they’ve ended up with “People’s Assembly”, which sounds pretty anodyne, even to me.

Anyway, my point isn’t to poke fun. Well, not much.

I’m sure in its own terms, the People’s Assembly will be a huge success. Articles will be written, demos will be held, fiery speeches will be given and the Labour party will rhetorically tilt a little more to the left than it meant to.

Mind you, given the constitutional position of the Labour party I don’t know why the unions will bother with the last bit, as all they have to do is hold their nerve through the policy forum process and they’ll force concessions from the leadership anyway, without publicly saying a word or lifting a finger.

So it goes.

No the reason I’m interested in the People’s Assembly is because it represents the latest development in an increasingly unusual political situation in British Trade Unionism. It is a sharp divide between radical political rhetoric and relative industrial quietism.

Take last year, for example. According to the Office of National Statistics,  2012 saw a grand total of 249,000 days lost to industrial action, and 181 stoppages. Trust me, that’s Nowt.

Is this low just compared to the Seventies and Eighties? A weakness driven by Thatcherite industrial policy? No, Because in terms of days lost to industrial action, 2012 saw industrial action levels lower than all but two years of the last twenty.

Even when we compare last year to the neo-liberal paradigm era, it represents an industrial strategy about as radical as a soggy biscuit.

To put is another way, even in the Public Sector, where the cuts are biting and the unions are strong, there were fewer days lost to strikes in 2012 than there were in every year of the new millennium, bar the election year of 2005.

((We are seeing a slightly different stirring. Industrial action now tends to involve a publicity focused “Co-ordinated Day of Action” type of protest, designed to grab News Editors attentions as much as managers. The November 2011 protest alone seems to be responsible for over half of the days lost to strike action since the Coalition was formed.))

So what we’re seeing among the unions, and especially in the private sector, is an absence of war.

In this light, the current political radicalism of the Union leadership is best seen as a type of displacement activity for their industrial moderation.

The industrial approach of the unions is pragmatic, flexible, willing to deal, driven by a combination of a firm grasp of the value of negotiation, an awareness of the futility of much strike action and that the membership is generally unenthusiastic about striking, beyond symbolic one day protests2.

((I don’t know whether this represents some quiet deal inside unions between the organisers and the union leadership. It sometimes seems like the offices of the General Secretaries can be allowed to get on with yelling fire and brimstone about national politics, as long as they don’t interfere with the actual day to day unionism of practicality. Instinctively, that sort of makes sense as a strategy, although I think the inconsistency reveals a hollowness to the rhetoric. ))

Can this last? I think it will. There just doesn’t seem to be a hunger for industrial action out there.

That said, the gap is glaring, and some in the Union movement do seek a greater level of industrial confrontation. However, those making this argument, like the leadership of Unite and PCS, seek a big strike as an explicitly political move rather than an industrial or negotiating strategy.

However, even inside Unite and on the left, there’s a sense this is a losing battle. There’s a notable lack of enthusiasm for such an action: The main public sector union, Unison is opposed because they say their members don’t want it. Aslef are against, and even Unite worry they wouldn’t be able to deliver anything honoured more in the observance than the breach. Even Jon Lansman is very doubtful. (strike that- was actually Andy Newman. I misread authorship over at left futures, see comments for Andy’s correction.)3

The whole thing seems destined to be fudged, and I expect it’d end up with an attempt to organise another November 2011 type event, which will be largely politically symbolic, rather than industrial, thus keeping everyone’s honour intact without actually doing much.

On the other hand, the political strategy will be significantly more strident, aiming to use Union institutional weight to shift political debate in a way the union membership themselves are unwilling to do in the workplace.

In other words, the Union approach will be a vanguard political initiative, rather than a popular front based in workplaces. It’ll be a revolt of the corn exchanges and Methodist halls, not factory floors and offices.

It’ll be designed to leverage power over the media and the Labour party, not industry and government.

Perhaps Labour should tell the Union leadership to demonstrate a little more industrial radicalism to the Tories before demanding political submission from Labour?


  1. The name is teasingly ironic. []
  2. Low turnouts on strike ballots being indicative of a lack of enthusiasm, it’s notable the frontline PCS got only 28% turnout in their recent ballot with 61% in favour of strikes. this perhaps explains why a) Many people didn’t notice the PCS strike on Budget day b) The next action will be a “half day” []
  3. If you need to raise confidence that such an action is plausible, that means it is currently implausible! []

7 Responses to “The strange absence of Industrial radicalism”

  1. DonGately

    I’m sure there was a “left unity” in the early 90’s – small, scale entryist organisation that only seemed to really to be able to infiltrate the student unions of smaller colleges.

    May have only existed in manchester though

    anyway – I think the problem for many unions in terms of activism may be the internet. Mark Easton at the BBC recently put together an interesting report looking at why young people are better behaved (and they are – crime by young people is falling at a fairly high rate).

    One of his theories is because young people are better connected they can find it easier to express themselves and find people who agree with them and that makes them happier, feel less alienated and thus become less likely to rebel.

    I think that carries over to work. It’s easier now through social media to find people just as angry and hurt as you might be and share that feeling. The thing is that when you are creating a communal understanding with people many miles apart you might feel more included and a sense of community but the ability to organise yourselves to actually do anything just isn’t there. Twitter, blogs and various forums are playing a role in shaping debate and linking people that has left traditional forms of organising behind.

    From this I can only think digital solidarity is reducing the need/capacity for actual action – which tends to now be left to a small number of adrenaline junkie direct action types

    on the other hand, it might simply be that whatever social change has occured which is resulting in crime falling across the developed world is also resulting in a less rebellious, self centered populace more generally.

    or both

  2. William

    Its noticeable how rare strikes are in manufacturing & energy, even though they are quite well unionized in the old style. A bit more common in transport perhaps. The logic in the car industry would once have been ‘you’re raking in the profits from the new Mini – give us a pay rise.’ I wonder when the last strike at Cowley was?

    These sectors have smaller plants, smaller better-skilled workforce compared to the 70s, and the logic of the productivity deal makes sense. And as right-wing papers pointed out about oil-tanker drivers, these are often well paid jobs, but hard to get into as an outsider. In a way, it is the return of the artisan and the guild. Why rock the boat, unless it is about something big like shutting down the pension scheme?

    • Andreas Paterson

      Got a few insights from people I know who worked at JLR in Ellesmere Port and Mini in Oxford. The general impression I’ve got was that it was hard work but the pay was good, overtime was often available and someone willing to put in the hours could do very well for themselves.

      The acquaintance who worked JLR was working through an agency and was let go just before Christmas last year. The attitude of a lot of the permanent staff was that in time’s past they’d have manned the barricades but these days they were more concerned about their own jobs.

  3. Laban

    “an awareness of the futility of much strike action and that the membership is generally unenthusiastic about striking … just doesn’t seem to be a hunger for industrial action out there”

    Isn’t that simply market forces at work, in the sense of “if you don’t fancy the money and the hours, there are plenty of bright people from Cracow who do?”.

    When Costa in Nottingham advertised three full-time and five part time posts in Nottingham recently, they had 1,700 applicants. The jobs pay between £6.10 and £10 an hour.

    “The main purpose of the bourgeois in relation to the worker is, of course, to have the commodity labour as cheaply as possible, which is only possible when the supply of this commodity is as large as possible in relation to the demand for it”

    • hopisen

      Ah, my pologies. The left futures website doesn’t make it entirely clear who wrote the article and I assumed it was one of Jon’s as they often are. I shall correct.


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