N30 strike: a new chapter in Britain's history of collective action

Today's strike, November 30, will mark a new chapter in Britain's historic struggles for workers and ordinary people to have their lives determined by their collective will.
Kwadkwo Kari-Kari
30 November 2011

Today is momentous and the mark of a new chapter in the history of British Industrial Relations. Never before has Britain been faced with over 2 million workers collectively going on strike on the same day. Though the numbers are impressive, the cause listed as public sector pensions is a very narrow one, when compared to previous historic national struggles. This is a direct result of the legacy of anti-union laws passed first in 1927 and then under progressive employment acts from 1980 to 1996. All by Conservative governments.

Britain's first and only General Strike in 1926 involved approximately 1.5 million workers and went on for 9 days. Trains stayed in their depots, schools were empty, shops did not open, chauffeurs refused to drive their masters' cars, printers (bar the government's and the British Worker newspapers) refused to publish, workers in all industries put down their tools. Their cause was resisting the continued cutting of miners' wages and attempts to increase their working week, forcing hundreds of thousands of those "hard working families" politicians today talk about, into absolute poverty. British workers were so disgusted at the idea that rich, fat mine owners were willing to starve working class families to "normalise" (read maintain) their profit levels in a recession, that as a national collective, the workers protested by taking solidarity strike action.

As industry stopped, food and basic amenities were still required. So out of necessity, communities very quickly developed ways of looking after one another without relying on big industry or big government. Winston Churchill, then the Chancellor, wanted the army to be sent in with guns, to force people back to work. Despite his position his suggestions were ignored. The British Trade Union Congress, then closely controlled by Labour Party social democrats, were worried that ordinary workers were becoming used to the idea of not needing money, or political parties, but instead relying on themselves. After negotiations between the Conservatives and the TUC, they agreed that the workers had "made their point" but it was in Britain's national interest that they got back to work despite the fact that no agreement was made by the mine owners to increase the miners' pay (apparently there was a recession on, they guffed, as they chomped through their cigars).

Solidarity strikes or "secondary action" - the idea, say, that rail workers could go on strike in solidarity with another section of the work force that was being unfairly treated - was a principal that was made illegal by Thatcher with the Employment Act of 1980. Thatcher learnt from the bitter end of Edward Heath, her predecessor's government: the power of industrial action could render governments impotent and a country ungovernable. Therefore in order to push through her neoliberal agenda, it was necessary to curb workers' freedom to withdraw their labour.

These laws were tested in 1984, when another recession with another Conservative Government led to another miners' led strike. This time the miners were resisting pit closures that they argued would only increase unemployment to unprecedented levels. Mistakes were made by union leaders, not least being afraid of the ballot box in case it was boycotted by militant leftists. However, during this time of struggle, communities once again out of necessity showed solidarity by providing food and assistance to the working families that received no pay for up to a year. Groups such as Women Against Pit Closures did more than just organise community kitchens and collections outside supermarkets; they brought new and empowering ideas to mining villages that were unfamiliar feminist principles. 

Eventually starvation and poverty won. Sons defied their fathers and took up scab labour, parents who could not face seeing their children go hungry any more relented and betrayed the pledge to fight. The power of Capital and the reality of impoverishment all orchestrated by Thatcher's government, tore asunder lives, families and communities. In the media, a narrative was cultivated, led by The Sun, where the miners were depicted as wanting “special privilege” in the context of high unemployment. Public hostility towards their fight for jobs grew and grew. By 1985, with their heads lowered, the miners slowly went back to work - if only to be made redundant a short while later. Without solidarity action, the miners were isolated, unemployment rose to 3 million and Thatcher was re-elected. Neoliberalism had triumphed.

Today, 26 years later, the shining future that was promised has brought us casualisation of skilled labour, greater job insecurity and wage stagnation. We have returned to Victorian levels of inequality. This strike is not just about pensions, though this is an important issue, it is the continued struggle for workers and ordinary people to have their lives determined by their collective will and not the Market.

Strikes, whether a day or longer, are often portrayed as a serious inconvenience which can disrupt many people's lives. However when Capital, the power of the 1%, destroys millions of jobs and consigns untold numbers of lives to the social scraphead, this serious infringement on human development is readily accepted in the media as inevitable. This is far from the truth, but history has shown us that successive governments of both Left and Right have been more concerned with broadening the power of Capital whilst also shackling the collective power of the 99%. 

The collective power of the ordinary workers was voluntarily given up by bureaucrats who had different interests to those who were on strike (despite an admission by Baldwin's government that it had "no power to compel employers to take back every man who had been on strike"). The premature end led to the defeat not only of the miners but arguably the halting of human liberty in Britain, only to resumed in 1945 with Attlee's government founding the Welfare State.

So today, with the NHS undergoing intense privatisation, the Welfare State eroding and changing its pledge regarding all public servants' pensions except MPs, workers once again must assert their democratic right to not only protest but demand their will is followed and not the will of faceless Market forces. The god of Neoliberalism has failed 99% of the population. History has shown that solidarity is their only weapon to overcome it.

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