A new period of class struggle

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Unofficial strikes, occupations and rank and file action - we need to learn from the new struggles by trade unionists and non-unionised workers alike, argues Charlie Kimber.

The occupation at the Vestas wind turbine plant, the support it has generated, and the global publicity it gained confirm that we are in a new period of class struggle. The initial effect of soaring unemployment was to panic most union leaders into abject surrender and to make many workers doubt their ability to fight.

But now a series of high-profile disputes, each ending with workers better off than when they began, has given everyone concrete examples to follow and build upon. The experiences of Waterford Glass and Prisme and Visteon and Linamar and Lindsey Oil Refinery and Vestas have changed the atmosphere of the class struggle. They have defied the anti-union laws, challenged the hesitations of union leaders - and won.

The BBC's employment correspondent Martin Shankleman has repeatedly been more perceptive than many on the left. After the construction dispute in June he noted, "The wider significance of the strike cannot be ignored. This was a dispute which ran outside the law and still succeeded. The strikers did not wait for a ballot to walk out, nor did they observe the legal obligation to notify the employers of their withdrawal of labour. Instead they just downed tools and left, to be rapidly followed by colleagues at other sites around Britain who also went on strike in sympathy, taking secondary action, which may well have been outside the law as well. There's certainly no doubt also that wildcat strikes are back on the agenda."

After Vestas he said, "So, given the continuing impotence of trades unions around the world when faced with challenging the plans of large corporations, it is hardly surprising that a growing number of workers see sit-ins as the most direct and effective way of registering their protests. It is likely we should expect more."

None of this means everything is going swimmingly. But it does mean there has been a qualitative shift that must be recognised and developed much further.

The central task is to support every fightback that takes place, spread solidarity, seek to accelerate the process, and shape the form that the resistance takes. But we should also draw some lessons.

The first is that successful revolt can be contagious. For years we were served up example after example of defeat, or of struggles snuffed out by union leaders. Now rank and file initiative has delivered success and begun a process, not a series of unconnected events. The year 2009 began with student occupations over the Israeli assault on Gaza. Then in February came the Waterford Glass occupation. This was one of the reasons why the Belfast Visteon workers occupied when they were sacked in April.

The Belfast occupation inspired the same at Enfield. Visteon was a model for Vestas. The model of occupation travelled to Thomas Cook workers in Dublin, and London bus workers' decision to occupy the foyer of Transport for London for a while as part of their pay campaign. One led to another. As "Boys on the Balcony", the song generated by the Vestas occupation, puts it, "We may not win but we sure can try/ Learn from Visteon and...occupy!"

And the effect is not limited to occupations or mass strikes. Pension cuts that have been meekly waved through in the past are now being contested. Staff at Barclays are moving towards a strike vote after threats to end the final salary scheme. Workers at IBM are flocking into the union after a similar attack, with the Unite union announcing that the first set of union meetings had been "packed to overflowing". Workers at Fujitsu are also considering strikes over pensions.

The second lesson is that none of this happens automatically. There is no such thing as pure spontaneity.

Socialists, determined union activists and other radicals kicked off the Waterford and Belfast occupations. A handful of union reps detonated the Enfield resistance, and it might have died within 24 hours if socialists had not delivered instant solidarity. The victory at Linamar in Swansea, where the union convenor was reinstated after an unofficial walkout and an official strike vote, would not have been won without the leadership of socialist activist Rob Williams.

The strikes at the Lindsey Oil Refinery would not have spread to over 20 other sites without the conscious organisation by people on the ground. And the strikes would not have generated the unity needed to win had socialists and others not contested and largely sidelined the "British jobs for British workers" slogans which were prominent in the first round of construction disputes.

Vestas is an even sharper example. There would have been no occupation without the painstaking planning and discussion over a period of weeks among a small group of Vestas workers - and the work of socialists and environmental activists in boosting the group.

The third lesson is that these occupations and strikes have all raised very sharp political questions. They have all been rooted in the refusal of workers to accept that they should pay the price for an economic crisis they did not create. But they have gone beyond that to target the way politicians bail out bankers and cosset multinationals but punish workers

The Visteon occupations began as the G20 leaders met in London. As Gordon Brown and the rest droned on about protecting ordinary people from the effects of the recession, a few miles away hundreds of workers were sacked at six minutes notice - with all their guaranteed rights as Ford workers stripped away.

The occupation highlighted the realities of the situation - and the possibility of revolt.

Vestas has had the broadest political effect of all. It has underlined both the emptiness of the government's commitment to combat unemployment and the fact that all the talk of "green jobs" and combating climate change means nothing. Capitalism comes first.

During a meeting with supporters of the Vestas occupation at her constituency surgery, the climate change minister Joan Ruddock said, "We are not going to nationalise Vestas because we are sticking to our principles. We live in a market economy; all the advanced economies think the same. The only economy that does not have a market is North Korea." The last two years have paraded capitalism's failures across the world. But Ruddock thinks the only alternative to the market is the regime in Pyongyang.

The fourth lesson is that leadership matters, and that a minority must often take the initiative. It is not always possible to have full-scale mass meetings to decide strategy and vote democratically on an occupation. Sometimes a smaller group has to act. Sometimes it is only by a minority taking action that the majority can be won to seeing the potential for resistance.

But this has it own dangers. Occupations and unofficial, illegal strikes can work only if they do get the active support of the majority and quickly create many new activists in the course of the fightback. Visteon, which involved hundreds of people, is the model.

The fifth lesson is that no occupation wins just by holding the plant itself. Solidarity is essential, and workers have to fight for it from day one. Even an occupation like Ssangyong in Korea, involving thousands of workers in a high-profile workplace and lasting 77 days, cannot guarantee success. The state was able to employ thousands of riot police, helicopters and company thugs because it knew that other unions were not going to offer real solidarity.

On the other hand, the crucial moment at Visteon was when the rank and file took the decision to picket out the Ford plant at Bridgend. When an occupation begins, a clock starts ticking. You never know for sure how long you have got before legal threats, the manoeuvres of union leaders, weariness and isolation may bite. Only going out and spreading the message of resistance and winning solidarity can combat this - and also inspire other groups of workers to fight.

Overall the lesson is that we cannot fight the battles of 2009 and 2010 with the methods employed in 2007 and 2008. We are emerging from a period where the most visible disputes were set-piece one-day strikes, mainly in the public sector, following a long period of consultation and balloting. Such methods were limited but represented a step forward from years of very low struggle.

Today, as unemployment continues to grow and employers (public and private) announce cuts and closures, such methods will be too slow and too anaemic.

In 2008 a proposed library closure might have sparked a propaganda campaign backed by a request from the workers involved for a strike ballot. The union officials would demand a consultative ballot and then a full-scale postal ballot - if they did not crush the resistance altogether.

Today the changed situation makes it much easier to win the argument to dispense with the rigmarole and to try to win a quick occupation of the library by users and workers. This does not, of course, mean that every ballot should be denounced. It does mean that every activist should begin by pitching the possibilities higher and looking for the militant, audacious and defiant response.

The old and the new are both embedded in the present. On the one hand there are the fresh lessons from the occupations and illegal strikes. On the other is the unions' slowness to translate the obvious mood to fight at plants such as Corus in Redcar and Johnnie Walker in Kilmarnock into effective resistance.

These two trends are not sealed off from one another. They mix and contest.

In the recent postal strikes there is a magnificent willingness to fight, and bureaucratic foot-dragging; there is the potential for unofficial action and the fear of going it alone. The outcome is not pre-ordained. Everywhere there is a political battle taking place, and its outcome will determine whether the working class pays for this crisis.

That's why we need a much bigger rank and file network of activists, and initiatives to focus the sense of revolt. That's why the demonstration on 27 September at the Labour Party conference in Brighton is so important.