Tag Archives: dock strike

When trade unionism changed: 1888-1891


The total number of trade union members in Britain has fallen by very roughly half in 30 years, from around 13 million in 1979 to just over 7 million people today. Superficially, if we see trade unions primarily as large structures, with buildings, employees, funds, etc, this decline has had surprisingly little effect. Some unions have shrunk from significant bastions to mere shells (notably the miners’ union NUM, and Community, which was previously the steel workers’ ISTC and the textile union KFAT). But these are very much the exceptions. If we look beyond then, what is really striking is the mixture of continuity (at least in terms of membership base), and merger (i.e. unions have fused their structures to manage their decline).

Forty years ago, like today, there were private sector unions with a base in manufacturing (AEEU, MSF, EEPTU, now merged to form UNITE), transport (TGWU, now part of UNITE, and RMT) and sales (USDAW), and public sector unions with a base in the civil service (CPSA, now PCS), teaching (NUT, NASUWT, and the NATFHE and AUT further and higher education unions now merged as UCU), the utilities (FBU, and UCW now CWU), and local government and health (NALGO, NUPE and COHSE, now UNISON), as well as some “general” unions which straddled the public-private divide (notably GMB).

Overall trade union membership has fallen, and what unions do has subtly altered, but at the level of organisation this broad pattern has not significantly changed. Were the trade unions to grow rapidly, of course, we should expect these structures to change very quickly; as has always been the case during past strike waves.

Two weeks ago, I posted an article discussing the weaknesses of trade unions in Britain, their poor implantation in the private sector especially, and the problems of the ageing and isolation of trade union reps. In the same article, I also tried to sketch out what a renewal of trade unionism might look like. “The next economic upturn may look quite a lot like New Unionism, when the “old”, skilled unions which had dominated the TUC for 20 years (eg the engineers) played little part, while the newest and most militant part was played by workers in industries which were previously considered un-organisable because of their economic precariousness (ie dockers, gas workers). New Unionism took place after a period of five or six years in which Britain’s first socialist party the SDF had organised, sustainedly, among the unemployed. And a disproportionate part was played by socialists who had recently been recruited to the SDF and were influenced by it. For the dockers and the gas-workers, imagine call centre workers, the drivers who deliver online purchases, workers in the huge out-of-town retail factories; they are our generation’s potential equivalents.” (https://livesrunning.wordpress.com/2013/05/19/back-to-class/)

The purpose of this piece is to fill in a little of the historical detail, to show what the upturn of 1888-1891 meant, and in particular how socialists were involved in it.

Britain’s first recognisably socialist party, the Democratic Federation was founded in 1883, taking the full name Social Democratic Federation (or SDF) a year later. When asked what their party was about SDF members would come up with various familiar answers, the collective ownership of the means of production, internationalism, and above all the idea that the working class could change society through class struggle. Belfort Bax put the idea like this: “The doctrine of the class war as the general historical method of realising the new form of society” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/bax/1900/01/toleration.htm). Class struggle was a recurring theme of socialist propaganda; and can be found routinely in the writings of such SDF “celebrities” as H. M. Hyndman, Harry Quelch and others. But what qualified as “class struggle” for the SDF was mysterious.

To properly grasp the Federation’s history, you have to bear in mind two things. First, the SDF was the pioneer. If it had a model it was the Chartist campaign of the 1840s. Former Chartists were a definite presence within the SDF; they attended its meetings, and argued in support of different factional positions taken before by long-dead Chartist leaders. But Chartism was a campaign rather than a party. It, unlike the SDF, was neither socialist nor Marxist. It left very few practical lessons as to how to organise. And there had been no parties in the intervening years which offered any other sort of model either. Second, the SDF long preceded the “Leninist turn” which all the Communist Parties, starting with the Russian one, were expected to implement after Lenin’s death. It was expressly a multi-tendency party, soon working in collaboration with other forces on the left, several of which (trade unions, secular societies, the Fabians) shared an overlapping membership with it. Inevitably, the Federation’s politics were chaotic; one week’s campaign might contradict that week’s headline in Justice. In an earlier period, historians tended to see the organisation as sharing all the foibles of its dominant personality, the former Tory stockbroker H. M. Hyndman. The more we know about the SDF the less true that seems.

The first campaign in which the SDF took part to give the idea of “class struggle” any specific meaning concerned the rights of unemployed workers. This began with a demonstration in Trafalgar Square in February 1886 over the right to work which ended with windows smashed and Mayfair shops looted. The campaign then revived in November 1887 with further marches which were attacked by the police, and at which hundreds of people injured, and one demonstrator Alfred Linnell killed. Some 120,000 people are said to have attended his funeral on 27 November 1887. The campaign, despite its flaws, brought the SDF’s name into the public domain, and earning it a respect (and notoriety) out of all proportions to its numbers.

In 1884, the SDF split over the autocratic internal habits of its leader H. M. Hyndman, and various rebels including William Morris and Marx’s daughter Eleanor, founded a new organisation the Socialist League. Understandably, given his immense stature within the international workers’ movement, historians have tended to followed Frederick Engels’ verdict on the 1886 riots and on the SDF without always acknowledging the extent to which Engels was both correct and factionally-minded in his criticisms. This is how he described the riots to Laura Lafargue:

“Of course you know what a meeting at 3pm in Trafalgar Square consists of: masses of the poor devils of the East End who vegetate in the borderland between working class and Lumpenproletariat, and a sufficient admixture of roughs and ‘Arrys to leaven the whole into a mass ready for any “lark” up to a wild riot [about nothing]…”

“To make a revolution – and that [about nothing] when and where [Hyndman and Co] liked – they thought nothing else was required but the paltry tricks sufficient to ‘boss’ an agitation for any vile fad, packed meetings, lying in the press, and then, with five and twenty men secured to back them up, appealing to the masses to ‘rise’ somehow, as best they might, against nobody in particular and everything in general, and trust to luck for the result” (http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/pages/back/wnext19/Engels.html).

Subtly, the focus of socialist agitation was to change over the next three years from the East End unemployed to groups of workers in the same districts who were at the border of secure and insecure employment. The three best known incidents which illustrate the change were the Match Girls strike of summer 1888, the recruitment of 3,000 workers at Beckton Gas Works to a new general union in spring 1889, and the London dock strike of summer 1889. The latter especially involved tens of thousands of workers, and brought, as the historian John Charlton has shown, around 50 other workplaces out in a movement which came close to becoming a London-wide general strike (J. Charlton, It just went like Tinder (London: Redwords, 1999), pp. 98-9). Engels’ enthusiastic account of the dock strike shows how much had changed:

“Hitherto the East End was bogged down in passive poverty. Lack of resistance on the part of those broken by starvation, of those who had given up all hope was its salient feature. Anyone who got into it was physically and morally lost. Then last year came the successful strike of the match girls. And now this gigantic strike of the lowest of the outcasts, the dock labourers … This host of utterly despondent men, who every morning when the dock gates open fight a regular battle among themselves to get the closest to the fellow who does the hiring, literally a battle waged in the competitive struggle among the much too numerous workers — this motley crowd thrown together by chance and changing daily in composition has managed to unite 40,000 strong, to maintain discipline and to strike fear into the hearts of the mighty dock companies. How glad I am to have lived to see this day!” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1889/letters/89_08_22.htm)

Prior to 1889, there were already unions. The most important was the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (the distant ancestor to today’s UNITE), while others included the Operative Bricklayers’ Society, the Amalgamated Society of Iron Founders, and the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners. The “Old Unionism” had given birth to the TUC in 1868; its typical forms were unions which sought to represent a single profession, generally skilled workers. The various Amalgamated Societies offered a multiplicity of workplace benefits (insurance against death, sickness, or unemployment); their strike funds however were deliberately modest. In The History of Trade Unionism (1894) and Industrial Democracy (1897), Beatrice and Sidney Webb praised their leaders as a “class of permanent salaried officers expressly chosen from out of the rank and file of trade unionists for their superior business capacity”. Yet the workers who signed up to the “New Unionism” of 1888-1891 were not working in the industries which had previously been organised.

New Unionism broke from Old Unionism in many important respects. It was a movement of the unskilled, rather than skilled workers. They were “general unions”, their intention was to recruit all the workers in a particular workplace or industry. Socialists played a prominent part in the leadership of the strikes and of the new unions. The New Unions, at least initially, prioritised strike pay over other benefits. In consequence, they tended to be dismissive of both the politics and even the social base of the Old Unionism. At the TUC, according to John Burns, “the ‘old’ unionists looked like respectable city gentlemen; wore very good coats, large watch chains, and high hats… Among the new delegates not a single one wore a tall hat. They looked workmen; they were workmen. They were not such sticklers for formality or court procedure, but were guided more by common sense.”

Eleanor Marx, who was delegated by the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers [NUGW] to attend the International Socialist Workers’ Congress of 1891, explained the differences between the Old and New Unions as follows:

“It is an indisputable fact that for many years the old Unions have ceased to be an active and militant body, and that the vast mass of the army of labour has been left absolutely outside all organisation by them. Nay, it was to a large extent the aim and object of these old Unions to limit the number of their members and it is only recently that they have begun to recognise the suicidal character of such a policy…”

“The first successful attempt of the so-called “unskilled” workers to do for themselves that which — to their own greatest harm — the “skilled” Unions had never seriously tried to do for them, was in the March of 1889 when the Gas Workers of London determined to organise and to demand what no other body of men had yet, as a body, demanded — an eight hours working day…”

“In spite of many a bitter struggle; in spite of some defeats, [the NUGW] is today the best organised Union of unskilled workers: it counts within its ranks men and women belonging to over seventy different kinds of labour: it has obtained for thousands of men an eight hours day; for thousands upon thousands of others an increase of wages, ranging from five to as much as 50 per cent per week…” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/eleanor-marx/1891/brussels-report.htm)

The transformation from “Old” to “New Unionism” was significantly assisted by the changing industrial perspectives of a generation of young socialist activists, who either were or had been members of the Social Democratic Federation. Most however were in the process of breaking with Hyndman’s leadership. A few biographies give a sense of how important the SDF was to New Unionism:

Annie Besant, the socialist journalist who publicised the struggles of the Bryant and May match-girls, was a member of the SDF having been converted to socialism in late 1885 and had acted as a pall-bearer at Linnell’s funeral in 1887. Following the split between the SDF and the Socialist League she had been suggested as a compromise figure who might edit a joint paper of both the factions (E. P. Thompson, William Morris (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976), pp. 395, 524, 761). In 1888, her interest in the Bryant and May factory was sparked by another SDFer, henry Hyde Champion, who had spotted the company’s huge profits. Besant had recently founded a campaigning newspaper, The Link, publishing her account of their working conditions under the headline “White slavery in London”. Encouraged by Beasant the women workers went on strike for 3 weeks. Bryant conceded union recognition. Besant broke with the SDF in 1889, ultimately becoming a Theosophist.

John Burns began speaking on SDF platforms in 1884. In 1886 and 1887 he, even more than Hyndman, was the public face of the party. Jailed for his part in the 1887 riots, Burns’ speech in his defence was published as a pamphlet, “Socialism is a theory of society which advocates a more just, orderly, and harmonious arrangements of the social relationd of mankind than that which prevails now…” Burns became dissatisfied with the leadership of the SDF in 1888-9, writing in his diary that he had dedicated his life to the wrong man [i.e. Hyndman]. An engineer, he was invited into the organising group of the 1889 dock strike, raising money for the strikes, and arguing for action by other groups of workers. He, along with Tom Mann, was used by the strike leader Ben Tillett as a sort of mobile strike news, and picketing service. Burns was needed to call out dockers, and in particular to break up the employer’s attempts to bring in strike-breakers, some from as far away as Belgium. Burns became a left-wing councillor on the LCC (the fore-runner to the GLC) and was elected to Parliament in 1892, becoming in effect a left-wing Liberal.

Will Thorne had joined the SDF in 1884. He did not play a prominent part in the unemployed agitation, but when challenged about it in the Beckton gas works, quoted back at his critics John Burns’ trial speech. At Beckton, the principal issue was the introduction of the “iron man”, a technology for drawing off the coke and increasing the intensity of labour. Thorne began to campaign for an eight hour day (a longstanding piece of Socialist propaganda). He launched the NUGW at a huge meeting in Canning Town Hall, speaking alongside Ben Tillett of the dockers union and Harry Hobart, also of the SDF. Thorne later described New Unionism as “the culmination of long years of Socialist propaganda” (D. Torr, Tom Mann and His Times (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1957), pp. 163-4, 279). Unusually, he remained loyal to Hyndman’s leadership for many years to come. He became an SDF MP and was, like Hyndman, a jingo in 1914-1918.

Eleanor Marx had been a member of the SDF before departing at the time of the Socialist League split. In 1889, she dedicated her spare time to supporting Will Thorne’s activism, including teaching him to read and write. She spoke at the founding meeting of the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers and helped to draw up the union’s provisional constitution and served on its executive, including for a time as its President. Under her influence, the union adopted a policy of equal pay for men’s and women’s work as early as 1890.

Another SDF member Ben Tillett had first founded a dock union, the Tea Operatives and General Labourers Union, at Tilbury in 1887. The 1889 strike began when dockers unloading a ship called The Lady Armstrong became dissatisfied with their pay and the deductions operated by sub-contractors. They turned to Tillett for help, and by turning to other dockers for support, he was able to turn a union of a few hundred members into one tens of thousands strong. Tillett was later a socialist on the LCC from 1892 and an candidate for the Independent Labour Party (the fore-runner of today’s Labour Party) at several general elections.

Tom Mann, another leader of the dock strike, had been sent by the SDF in 1888 to recruit miners in the Northumberland coal field. He founded 18 such branches, including one at Ashington with 100 members out of the SDF’s total national membership of just 783 (Charlton, p. 74). During 1889, he served with Burns as a public speaker for the dockers. Mann remained an activist for the longest of his generation. He was in the 1890s the Secretary of the ILP, in 1910-1914, a proponent of revolutionary trade unionism, in 1920, a founder of the Communist Party, and in the 1930s again a supporter of the campaigns of the unemployed.

This generation of SDF or ex-SDF activists was at odds with the dominant policy of their party, which even at the height of the dock strike tended to see the unemployed agitation, rather than the strike, as the appropriate form of socialist propaganda among the poor. The SDF newspaper Justice for example, responded scornfully to the dockers’ victory, with an article in September 1889 “congratulat[ing] on the v ery little modicum of success that has been achieved at so great a cost.” Another article in 1890 looked back on the dock strike as “a lowering of the flag, a departure from active propaganda, and a waste of energy”. And similar language could be found even in William Morris’ Socialist League. But the paradox remains that had it not been for the SDF the activists would not have met, would not have worked together, and would not have been in the position they were to lead the strikes.

This is perhaps not the only occasion in the history of the left where people’s sympathies have seen them right, despite their parties’ formal politics.

The break with Old Unionism meanwhile was not a complete break. The New Unions affiliated to the TUC, and grew in the upturn of 1889-1891 before declining as the number of strikes fell especially after 1893. In the fullness of time, the dockers’ and gas workers’ union would become the TGWU and GMB; no longer revolutionary exponents of mass strikes, but significant players within the union movement.

The activists of the 1880s would not have used such terms as “the privilege of backwardness” (i.e. to refer to the way in which newly organised industries are often the most strike-prone). But what they did understand was that trade unionism was a minority working-class experience. In 1892 (i.e. even after the breakthrough of New Unionism), there were just 1.6 million trade union members in Britain, representing about 10% all workers, compared to today when the 7.2 million people in unions include just 16% of all private sector workers (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/204169/bis-13-p77-trade-union-membership-2012.pdf). Then, like today, most workers were outside the unions. From this reality, previous generations of activists drew the conclusion that if their priority was the interests of the whole working class, then they needed to look beyond the ranks of the already organised. Had they not had the courage to do so, today’s trade unions would be a much depleted force.

If there is, in conclusion, a coherent theme to this history is it simply this. No previous generation of revolutionaries, worthy of the name, has ever contented itself with simply seeking to implant itself in the “bastions” of trade union strength, whatever those bastions were at any time. The people whose names are recorded as pioneers in socialist and labour histories had in mind a quite different vision, of organising the workers who were likely to be most combative in future, and therefore best placed to pass on an experience of struggle to others. Their socialism and their trade unionism was never based merely on what already existed but on what could be.

Back to class


This article will argue for a different way of doing industrial politics, based on acknowledging three key problems facing the whole working class, namely: (i) the decreasing proportion of the workforce with union membership; (ii) the growth of what used to be called “atypical” working but is now usually termed “precariousness”; and (iii) the reduction in the number of trade union reps and their increasing age.

Through this piece, I switch between three different ways of talking about class: class experience, class feeling, and class consciousness. Class experience is the totality of experiences which causes people to feel that they have interests in common with others. Something which many Marxists have been too slow to grasp is that, while experience in the workplace may be necessary to the formation of working-class consciousness, it can never be sufficient. For when people are united only by their experiences of work, the forms of consciousness they adopt are likely to be sectional (as in the many unofficial, sectional strikes of the 1950s and 1960s) or occupational. The latter can be extremely militant (as in the slogan of 1984-1985: “the Miners united will never be defeated”) but it is not quite the same thing as class consciousness, which is about seeing all workers as your brothers and sisters. It follows that if you are looking to find the people who are going to be the most militant champions of workplace self-activity in future, perhaps paradoxically, you just as likely to find them in other forms of working-class protest, whether against benefit cuts or hospital closures, as you are within the present ranks of the public sector unions. Class consciousness is formed by experiences of housing and education, etc., not only work.

Class feeling describes the sense of shared interests that people acquire on the basis of these shared experiences: a feeling which of course can be partial, incomplete or contradictory. Periods of high unemployment are often characterised by a bitter, sullen anger which lacks a means of expression. The Great Depression which began in 1929 led to an enormous reserve of anger, which shaped British politics for the next 16 years, right up to and including Labour’s election victory in 1945. But the increase in unemployment reduced workers’ confidence to strike – in each of 1934, 1935 and 1936 there were fewer than 2 million strike days, down from 160 million in 1926. There was class feeling, of course, during the Depression but it lacked a practical effect. There was class feeling without class consciousness

Class consciousness is what happens when experience acts on workers’ feelings to produce a practical result. This might be a workplace strike, or a rent strike, or protests against evictions. Class consciousness only exists where it expresses itself through activity. Marx described class consciousness in The Poverty of Philosophy as an outcome of “economic conditions [which] had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests” [i.e. class experience]. “This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself” [i.e. there was class feeling but no consciousness]. “In the struggle”, he continued, “this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/poverty-philosophy/ch02e.htm).

The common sense of our time is that not merely that there is no class consciousness but even that class experience is a historical phenomenon. Nine years ago, one of the International Socialism Journal’s former editors, Nigel Harris, wrote an obituary for Duncan Hallas, a former leader of the SWP, in which Harris suggested that the entire left had failed to grasp that there was no longer a working class, and that the shared experiences which used to make class a reality had all since been consigned to the past.

“Duncan was born in 1925”, Harris wrote, “perhaps of Irish mining stock. It was a different world in which the material reality of the nineteenth-century working class and its localities – the great working-class districts and slums of Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, East London – still existed: Welsh mining villages, back-to-backs in northern mill towns, steel mills, giant factories and docklands … The wireless was brand new and still rare. There were no fridges, no television, no computers or credit cards, few telephones or bathrooms, outside lavatories were still the norm. It had become a world of seemingly perpetual war between countries and classes. Above all, the working class was a massive and palpable reality; its armies, organised in giant unions, seemed a force so great and growing, they could never be defeated. Their sheer massiveness was mirrored in giant places of work, and the institutions of the state – they seemed solid, immovable, eternal.” (http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/harris/2004/xx/hallas.html)

As a piece of literature, this was beautiful, evocative writing. But as a piece of contemporary analysis, it rested on a series of juxtapositions which do not stand up to close scrutiny. Workers in 1925, it is suggested, were united by their experience of insecure and unsanitary (“slum”) housing as if poor housing is no longer a feature of our lives. Yet insecurity of tenure and high rents are just as much of an issue now as they were eighty years ago.

Workers lacked fridges and televisions in 1925, just as fifty years before wrist-watches had been a luxury. This is true, but even as long ago as 1939 most homes had radio, most working-class children could get to see the cinema which was if anything relatively cheaper (at less than a shilling a ticket) than it is now. Class experience didn’t stop of a sudden in 1966, when millions of homes in Britain acquired a television set. The numbers of workers employed in the industries Harris portrays as central to the “massiveness” of working-class experience, i.e. textile, steel, dock work, were not huge: at 300,000, 30,000, and 270,000 people respectively in the 1931 census. Compare the 2.3 million people in Britain who worked in manufacturing in 2011, the 1.3 million in transport, or the one million or so who work just in call centres.

Workers’ experiences in the workplace and outside remain sufficiently similar to explain why it is that (as many articles in the ISJ have pointed out over the years) the number of people describing themselves in surveys as working class is no less than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Class experience and feeling have not diminished; the problem is rather a lack of class consciousness.

To understand why there is a problem of consciousness, it not enough to talk about the political strategies of capital. Ever since capitalism took root there have people who were determined to break what they saw as the power of labour, and politicians ready to ally with them. What is more important to ask why these strategies worked, when countless previous strategies with a similar purpose (eg in Britain, the plans of the Heath government) failed.

Comrades in the IS tradition have ascribes the very low level of strikes in Britain in recent years to a combination of lack of confidence and restraint by trade union leaders. We have tended to treat any objective weaknesses of the working class (eg precariousness) as the product rather than a cause of defeat. But the greatest of the set-piece defeats in recent British industrial history (the sequestration of the miners’ funds in 1985) happened 28 years ago, more than half the average working lifetime. If the problems were only ones of consciousness, we would have got over them by now.

A more useful answer might go something like the following: at each moment in the history of capitalism, there have been waves of technological innovation which have reshaped the entire labour market, by changing the lives of key groups of workers, whose industrial situation capitalism has since generalised. Frederick Engels’ 1844 book The Condition of the Working Class in England, defines the working class, by its relationship to technology. It “was called into existence through the introduction of machinery … The first proletarians belonged to manufacture and were begotten directly through it.” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/condition-working-class/). For Engels, the most important kinds of technology were those in the then-dominant factory system (especially cotton manufacture). The point was not necessarily that there were huge numbers of people in Britain working in factories in 1844 (in absolute terms, there were significantly fewer factory workers in Britain than there are today), but that the labour supervision made possible by the factory system was going to be generalised. Chartism (a political campaign, whose primary form was mass meetings rather than strikes) was the clearest expression of their growing class consciousness.

In the 1880s, this generation of workers had ceased to be at the forefront of industrial developments. More important were the huge numbers of unskilled workers (miners, dock workers, etc) who dug or transported the coal which powered the “carboniferous capitalist” industrial economy. These workers first come to the fore during the New Unionism of 1889-90.

The transition from “factory capitalism” to capital accumulation through the intense exploitation of semi-skilled or unskilled labour was but the first of several transitions: from the heavy industry of the 1880s to the light industry (engineering and car manufacture) which dominated the economy of the 1950s and 1960s and to the service-based economy of the present day.

Described like this, what is important about neo-liberalism is not so much that the Thatcher government closed the mines, the steel plants, the docks, etc. but what happened next. Part of the answer is that new employment opportunities eventually came, but they did so at first in areas of the country with relatively low levels of unionisation, and in the circumstances of organised labour’s recent defeat. Job opportunities were at their best in towns like Reading or Swindon with relatively weak union traditions, and their least in Liverpool and Glasgow, etc. Then, there were conscious policies of excluding trade unionists, and of recruiting new entrants to the labour market (eg the young, married women). Plus of course, whole new generations of companies and technologies have been the fastest recruiters; and they have generally been anti- or at least non-union from the outset.

The subsequent period of neo-liberalism’s political hegemony has disrupted an entire cycle by which you would otherwise have expected groups of workers (such as nurses, call-centre workers, drivers delivering consumer goods on behalf on supermarkets and online retailers) to have become by now the new faces of industrial militancy in Britain.

Various workplace dynamics have accompanied the neo-liberal hegemony. From the perspective of the working class a whole, these are simultaneously “problems” (they are some of our side’s key weaknesses); conversely, if we are going to confront them and change the narrative of working class defeat, at some point we will have to start seeing them as organising “opportunities”. What is being proposed here in effect is a strategic orientation which takes into account where the most important battles are going to take place, not necessarily the easiest to win, but the ones that will make the most difference.

  1. Target workplaces, and maintain a relationship with them

A first weakness facing the working class is the demise of trade union density (i.e. the number of trade union members, absolutely, and their numbers relative to the size of the workforce as a whole) and coverage (i.e. the incidence of trade union recognition, especially in workplaces where only a minority of workers are members of a union). Both the number of trade union members and of course the number of strikes are falling. Trade union membership is becoming rarer, only one in six private sector workers in Britain are trade union members, and around half of all workers in the British economy have never been a union member.

Of course, at least theoretically it would be possible for trade unions to overcome low density by (as they have, as in France or Germany) making the best of a favourable legislative climate, in which the general right to vote for representation is extended beyond the number of union members into the workplace, so that even non-members can elect militant union reps.

New Labour’s introduction of a statutory process to obtain union recognition in 2000 was half-hearted, and has been largely ineffective, with only around 50 union branches a year obtaining recognition through the statutory process. The result is that only a third of all workers have their pay and conditions are determined by collective agreement. A half of all UK employees are in a workplace where no union is active in any way at all.

If socialists are going to be part of changing that experience, then we should be thinking about the sorts of workplaces where it would be possible for unions to recruit large numbers of workers relatively quickly.

One obvious determinant would be size: one of the largest workforces in London is Heathrow, for example, with 75,000 workers directly employed, and another 40,000 at least working on jobs dependent on them. If you look at workplaces in terms of their capacity to dominate a local area, it is just obvious that a lengthy strike involving groups of workers at Heathrow would be likely to have a greater effect in terms of winning support among other workers and creating an mood of class consciousness than any strike, no matter how militant, involving but a single primary school.

In France, the Trotskyist party Lutte Ouvrière, with whom the SWP briefly had in the early 1970s cordial relations, established itself through a series of practical activities including standing in parliamentary elections, holding a large, annual festival which has been popular well outside their ranks, and by each branch selling their publications weekly outside the largest workplace in their area, the sales backed up by a weekly newsletter, often well-informed, describing the latest twist and turns of union-management battles in the workplace. Part of what defined this practice was its routine nature; to get the information to make the newsletters work, LO needed to have many contacts in the workplace, and to get them, it had to maintain the sales over many years. This is a method the SWP copied, for just about 12 months, in 1995-6, before moving on to other, more exciting campaigns.

This was one of those occasions in the party’s history where Cliff’s abiding legacy (our capacity to move, quickly, in the direction of whatever we think will be the next exciting campaign) may not have done us too many favours. If the party is ever again going to have industrial roots, above all in the private sector workplaces where unions are presently weak, we may well find that we need to revisit this same approach of more patient, targeted, industrial work.

  1. Set out to win class consciousness in the “border” between secure and precarious employment

Another part of what has enabled neo-liberalism to succeed has been its attrition of the employment form. Out of a total workforce of just under 30 million people, 1.6 million people are now on temporary contracts, 8.0 million work part-time, and 4.2 million people are self-employed. These figures have all gone up during the recession (by around 13%, 6%, and 10% respectively); but not only recently, all have been rising consistently over the past 30 years. This experience is far from unique to Britain; where if anything the class has been able to defend more of the 1950s-era model of secure full-time employment than has been protected in Egypt or South Africa or elsewhere.

If a worker is employed on a part-time contact, they do not cease to be a worker. Many of the contractual forms of the old occupations of a century or so ago were highly precarious: dockers, chosen daily by their employer, miners, on year-long contracts (“the bond”) which were far more about establishing their duties to the employer than any entitlement to work.

But workers on zero hours contracts or in self-employment can find it much harder to organise. A good example of an industry where the hollowing out of employment impacts on workers’ organising opportunities is construction, where UCATT estimates that around half of all workers (c400,000 people) are falsely designated as self-employed. Self-employment makes it harder to organise because it divides up even very large construction projects into multiple discrete units each having formally a separate employer and pits isolated groups of workers against very small employers with no capital savings. Construction has one of the most impressive rank and file networks to be found anywhere in private industry just now, but some of the best-known battles of recent years have been about winning recognition for groups of 20 or 30 union members at a time. These are far from the “solid, immovable, eternal” masses which Nigel Harris found in labour’s distant past.

Set-piece strikes by public sector workers against government cuts are unlikely to halt the spread of precarious working. The experiences of the workers involved in these strikes (usually university graduates, predominantly on full-time, permanent contracts, with final salary pension schemes and a high level of union density) separate them from precarious workers. Even in the parts of the public sector which are both characterised by regular strikes and high levels of precarious working (eg universities, where over half of all teaching staff in many institutions are on hourly-paid contracts), what tends to happen is that strikes are conducted by the full-time workers, and the casual staff (not least because they are mostly not union members) play little or no part. If university strikes generally fail to result in the unionisation of casual teaching staff, there is no reason to think that they will result in the greater recruitment to unions of other workers outside the campus gates, casual security guards, or drivers, etc. And the difficulties are still sharper once you start thinking of the working class as essentially just a collection of journalists, civil servants and primary school teachers. These are the most left-wing unions; they are not the class itself. Neither are they the types of workers who are likely to win the attention or support of (say) call centre workers.

If socialists were serious about tackling precariousness, we probably would not start with the lowest-paid and least secure workers (who by definition, are going to be among the hardest to organise and to keep organised), but nor would we begin with workers in the most secure, public sector jobs. Surely, what we would be looking for is groups of workers who share the right mix of experiences with precarious workers, so that their strikes could engender a dynamics of class feeling, and then of class consciousness. For example, if you wanted to get strikes by private sector cleaners, not a bad place to begin would be groups of workers like London Underground cleaners, who although precarious, work in proximity to other, secure and highly-unionised workers. If you wanted to get strikes among call centre workers in the private sector, you might look for call centre workers employed by government departments, who have the advantage of proximity, this time, with well-organised PCS grades.

I am certainly not suggesting that members of the SWP have kept aloof from these two groups, the campaigns of each of which have been covered by Socialist Worker; and there was a Call Centre Worker magazine which was published intermittently for a couple of years until 2010. But we have tended to focus the efforts of our full-time apparatus rather on the most secure public sector workers. A mere numerical assessment of the number of leaflets we produce each month would show that we are consistent only about different kinds of workers, chiefly in the unions where we have greatest “influence” with the leadership (i.e. NUT, PCS, UCU). For decades, we have not had a plan for contributing to the organising of precarious workers.

  1. Develop the next generation of union activists

A third weakness of the working class in general and the trade unions in particular has been the tendency for the number of trade union reps to shrink, in tandem with the declining number of trade union members, and for the age of trade union representatives to rise.

There are presently a little under 200,000 trade union reps in Britain. Union representatives tend to be male (56 per cent are male), surprisingly old (78 per cent are 40 or over, and the average age is 46) and employed on secure contracts (92 per cent are full time employees). In addition, black workers are under-represented: 4% are black compared to the overall black and minority ethnic population of around 16% (this is especially troubling when you recall that black people are statistically more likely to be trade union members).

Any Marxist party worthy of the name should be asking itself anxiously whether it merely reflects these dynamics of segregation, or whether it is challenging them, in particular by training a new generation of reps.

Certainly, at every stage when the left has grown noticeably, this has tended to be reflected in a recruitment of new generations of shop stewards and workplace activists. This happened with the rise of syndicalism in 1910-1914 and 1916-1919, with the wartime growth of the Communist Party of Great Britain (with the CP actively encouraging its members to become union reps in post-war industry) and again for the IS and others after 1970.

All these parties held specific training events aimed at new reps; often they were livelier than anything which the unions could match.

The regrowth of the left should result in greater numbers of working-class activists, including union activists (if not, why do we recruit people to left-wing parties?). But this least likely to happen in a party which flatters and always pushes forward long-standing trade union reps in their fifties over the future reps who are now in their twenties; or one which seems capable of imagining working class protest only in terms of victories by the existing trade unions which young workers have fewer and fewer opportunities to join; or one which increasingly limits its analysis of trade unionism to the “left” public sector unions which are less and less typical of the union movement as a whole.

What might an upturn look like?

At some point there will again be a rapid revival of trade unionism in Britain. When it comes, it will certainly not look like the industrial protests of the early 1970s (as these took place in industries which had behind them the immediate memory of 15 years of repeated, local, sectional, strike activity); nor, in all likelihood, will it resemble the postwar, quasi-insurrectionary strikes of 1919 (in which a significant role was played by groups of workers who had been made almost un-dismissable by their importance to the war economy); or the Great Unrest of 1910-1914 (which saw the rejuvenation of networks of trade union activists, shaped by a previous wave of mass strikes, followed by relative quiet for just a bit less than two decades). The next economic upturn may look quite a lot like New Unionism, when the “old”, skilled unions which had dominated the TUC for 20 years (eg the engineers) played little part, while the newest and most militant part was played by workers in industries which were previously considered un-organisable because of their economic precariousness (ie dockers, gas workers). New Unionism took place after a period of five or six years in which Britain’s first socialist party the SDF had organised, sustainedly, among the unemployed. And a disproportionate part was played by socialists who had recently been recruited to the SDF and were influenced by it. For the dockers and the gas-workers, imagine call centre workers, the drivers who deliver online purchases, workers in the huge out-of-town retail factories; they are our generation’s potential equivalents.

But if that sort of upturn is going to happen, the best preparation for it would be a wholescale junking of the present industrial perspectives of the left; a move away from the public sector towards the private, the targeting of workplaces, and a deliberate searching for groups of workers who are located at the crucial boundary between security and precariousness. In a society where four-fifths of adults did not go to university, you cannot base a strategy for working-class self-emancipation simply on recruiting students and hoping they go into the graduate unions. Where you do this, it leads to a serious misunderstanding both of the main currents of trade unionism, and of the main dynamics of working class life itself. Changing this deeply-ingrained habit will take time, and can only happen by a subtle reallocation of priorities, by the identification of opportunities, and the patient cultivation of key workplaces and working-class activists.

If any readers are serious about helping the British left get back to what was once assumed to be its defining purpose, it is worth recognising that any serious trade union work just takes lots and lots of time. It is all about identifying the space which is right for you, and then working there consistently, whether that is as a rep, or as someone standing outside the workplace with some leaflets and a collecting tin. There are no short cuts.

[first published here: https://www.facebook.com/davidkrenton/posts/10151377129876269; much influenced by the contributions to a discussion here: https://www.facebook.com/davidkrenton/posts/10151371488086269%5D