Why strikes are important to anarchists

Why strikes are important to anarchists

01_cabecera-enteraIn the context of the recent mass one day protest strike on July 10th and the upcoming protest against strike breaking Ritzy workers this Sunday, Rob Ray examines the power of the strike, and the anarchist method of organising one.

The anarchist movement, particularly its class struggle element, tends to hold up strike action as a symbol of the working classes’ potential collective strength – and not without reason.

Work is where we’ve historically had the most leverage, the greatest ability to increase our freedoms and power as a class. The ruling class says it owns our homes, our factories, our utilities and offices, but we are needed to make these things work and when we refuse to, mortar crumbles out of capitalist palaces.

The London matchgirls in 1888, the general strike of 1926, Saltley Gate in 1972, Grunwick in 1976, the miners’ strike of 1984 – there’s endless romance and grandeur to be found in these stories of working people who gave everything for their class in the face of greedy tormentors. Elation in victory. Heroism in defeat.

And for many there’s a sense of living solidarity in striking which is absent from direct actions such as sabotage, boycott calls, or events which revolve around what is sometimes termed “professional activism” – relying on small groups of dedicated long-term activists rather than the mass of people acting collectively in their own interests.

The picket line is one of the few places where solidarity can be offered practically and publicly, both by people within the workplace, and by groups and individuals outside who normally wouldn’t get the chance.

The disciplines demanded by striking – collective activity, supporting your workmates, standing up to managers, knowingly sacrificing now for the sake of the future – and the potential revelatory moment of victory are also key parts of what has become one of the defining perspectives in anarchist literature:

“Meaningful action, for revolutionaries, is whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self-activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification.” ~ Solidarity, As We See It, 1967

At their best, strikes can force bosses to do our bidding and create the conditions needed for what anarchists truly want – the resurrection of a combative working class able to stand in solidarity against capitalism, and eventually, overthrow it.

Limitations

But there is debate within the anarchist movement over the use of the strike, which is merely one of many possibilities for fighting the elite. Workers and communities can and do try other methods, from go-slows, occupations, boss-nappings, concerted sick days, public shaming and indeed boycotts and sabotage, all the way up to riots and insurrections.

Striking is a tactic, not something to be fetishised, and key in any understanding of a tactic is to know how it does and doesn’t work.

As endless one-day strikes have shown over the last few years, not least on July 10th when upwards of two million people had their day in the rain, a walkout can often have very little impact.

A strike when the bosses have a month to prepare featuring 100 ways to rule it out of order (pdf), where almost no-one shows up to the picket line and half the staff breeze past saying “oh I support what you’re doing” is merely a protest where workers lose a bit of money – counterproductive rather than transformative. These sorts of strikes not only fail to threaten the elite in any palpable way, they are symptomatic of the successful demobilisation of workplace resistance and reinforce the idea that we can’t win collectively.

TUC reps may get to say they did their bit, and anarchists will be all over the picket lines trying to bolster the action, but these are not collective expressions of power, they are corralled, tamed and whipped expressions of protest.

Strikes – named for the original sailor’s practice of “striking” the sails of ships until their demands were met – are designed to disrupt, to harry and pressure bosses through directly threatening their profits and authority. They have little value as protests, and less when they are directed from above, taking away their prime revolutionary function of normalising worker autonomy and self-activity.

The anarchist way

Learning from these shortcomings of the standard modern TUC-style strike, anarchists tend to argue for walkouts that are:

  • As unexpected and comprehensive as possible
  • Designed to do economic damage/disrupt contract fulfillment
  • Broadened as quickly as possible (drawing in solidarity from other communities and workplaces who can then share in the victory and ask solidarity in their turn)
  • Aimed at encouraging parallel actions elsewhere
  • Run from below (through measures such as mass meetings, local control of strike funds etc)

Of those points, only the last marks anarchists out from the socialist left or from militant trade unionists generally, but it is also the most crucial point of all.

Running struggles from below, removing the hurdle of a paid union leadership trying to protect its solvency and its assets against seizure, making each union member directly responsible to their fellows for what happens, is the best and possibly only remedy for the legal and bureaucratic pressures which have combined in recent years to force a retreat from sustained and wildcat action other than in a few remaining pockets of skilled labour such as railway workers.

In a world where trade union leaders are legally barred from supporting “unofficial” walkouts and solidarity strikes face crippling costs, only self-organised and collectively solid groups can break from the current spiral of managed defeat.

And doing so has never been so important. As a class we face a formidable challenge today. We have gone through 30 years of defeat since Thatcher faced the miners and there are children in 2014 whose parents have never known a time when the unions were strong or experienced any form of social normality beyond the rise of all-pervasive individualist capitalism.

In workplaces up and down the country, even where unions exist, we need to teach and relearn forms of solidarity. Strikes are one of the best lessons available – but we have to do them right.

By Rob Ray

Support the Ritzy strike this Sunday.

Love you see, is the one force that cannot be explained, cannot be broken down into a chemical process. It is the beacon that guides us back home when no one is there and the light that illuminates our loss, Its absence robs us of all pleasure, of our capacity for joy, it makes our nights darker and our days gloomier.  But when we find love, no matter how wrong, how sad, or how terrible, we cling to it. It gives us our strength it holds us upright.  It feeds on us, we feed on it. Love is our grace. Love is our downfall.