Readers may find the discussion about the betrayal by union leaderships of the movement towards general strike useful for today as a new movement against austerity faces the same challenge – how to overcome the right -wing leadership that will try everyway to avoid calling a general strike.
The extract from the book also shows another thing that the strength of Thatcher was not inherent in her or the system she defended but her strength was drawn from the weakness of union and revolutionary leadership in the working class. Thatcher could have been defeated in 1980 by a general strike.
The Betrayal of the Anti-Tory Struggles
It becomes clear that, after 1972, every struggle on the docks was a rearguard action, because without a thought-out economic and political strategy among official and unofficial leaders, plans of capitalist modernisation and capitalist “decasualisation” by the big employers and the capitalist state were advancing.
From the time it assumed power, in 1979, the Thatcher Government began to consciously drive forward to what it hoped would be the final destruction of working-class strength. There was an economic recession at the beginning of the 1980s. Unemployment grew rapidly; closures took place on an unheard of scale. The interests of steel workers, car workers, miners, railway workers, dockers and other workers who were losing jobs were clearly linked. All were threatened by the Tory legislation which took away trade union rights won in struggles over many years. The burning task of leadership was to ensure a united struggle.
Trade union leaders found themselves compelled to talk of joint alliances to defeat Government attacks. However, the “triple alliance” of coal, steel and rail unions which was set up never organized anything, and in the miners’ strike of 1984-1985 it ignominiously collapsed.
There was no lack of opposition to the Government’s plans among trade union activists. In the first years of the Tory Government, hundreds of thousands marched against it. The 1980s are a sorry tale of destruction by Labour leaders of what could have been a mighty movement that could have shattered the Government.
No trade unionist who seriously studies the political and industrial scene at the beginning of the 1980s and compares it with today can fail to draw the conclusion that strength of the Thatcher Government and its capitalist policies has been solely due to the abysmal capitulations of the leadership of the trade unions and Labour Party.
In January 1980 a national steel strike began which lasted solidly for 13 weeks. It was the longest national strike, up till then, since the end of the Second World War. The steelworkers were demanding a 20 per cent wage increase. They were further incensed by the estimate at the beginning of 1980 that a quarter of a million jobs would be lost in the first three months of that year. The British Steel Corporation was planning for an initial loss of 52,000 jobs, with more to follow as productivity was increased. The Tory Government was beginning to push forward its main aim which was to destroy the strength of workers’ organisations. It was prepared to see the destruction of British manufacturing industry, the foundation of the British economy, in order to destroy the organisations of the working class with militant traditions and strength. The ranks of the trade union movement knew this and it was their feelings which were reflected in their leaders statements that they would be prepared to go to jail, rather than see their unions undermined and destroyed by anti-trade union laws. The next few years were to show how empty were those boasts. And yet we shall see in this brief chapter how the united struggle of dockers and miners alone, even after the TUC held back a unity of struggle in all sections, put the Government into desperate positions.
When the working class began to develop a unity in struggle, trade union leaders were to show that their opposition to any united class movement equalled that of the Tories. In 1980 they prevented a general strike when there was a powerful solidarity movement developing from South Wales against the sackings in the mines and in steel. In face of the reaction of workers facing closures, the Welsh TUC declared support for an alliance in strike action of miners, dockers, railway workers and other transport workers unless steel and pit closures were halted. There was a united action of Welsh workers in a one-day strike at the end of the month that shook politicians and press by the depth of feeling it showed. As the following editorials show there was the breath of revolution in the air as politicians, businessmen and press faced the stark possibility of a general strike. The Industrial Editor of the Daily Mirror commented on 29 January “The unions fear, not without cause, that the explosion of fury which occurred in South Wales yesterday could spread throughout the country … That is why a powerful team of TUC leaders will see Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe later this week. Suddenly the scene has become more explosive and dangerous than anyone thought likely a few weeks ago.”
The central desire of the TUC was to avoid sharp class confrontation. The Times of 30 January commented on the anxieties of the trade union leaders as a general strike became a realistic possibility. “A general strike [said its main leader] is essentially a revolutionary gesture and the leaders of the trade unions today are for the most part as far from being revolutionary as any group in Britain. The target of such an action would not be any ordinary employer, but the government, which holds the purse strings of the three industries most immediately involved. It would be direct political challenge to the government’s ability to give effect to its policies in a major area of Britain. It is no wonder that the leaders of the TUC are frightened of losing control.”
The trade union leaders succeeded at that time once again in blocking the movement towards a general Strike and then worked assiduously during the steel strike to undermine any unity in action.
In the same chapter Bill Hunter says, “During the miners’ strike of 1984-1985, other powerful sections of workers were in conflict with the Tory Government, railway workers, bus workers and dockers. The Labour Council of Liverpool was also in sharp struggle with the government. The Thatcher Government defeated the miners because, with the aid of Labour and trade union leaders, it isolated these sections from the miners, making small concessions on all these other fronts to forestall united action.”