THE CO-ORDINATED strikes on June 30th have put strike action back on the agenda. Business Secretary Vince Cable recently threatened to tighten the law if big strikes take place, while media commentators have been falling over themselves to label strike action a relic from a bygone age. So what are strikes, and why are they important now?
Put simply, a strike is a co-ordinated stoppage at work. In response to a grievance workers act collectively, refusing to work and attempting to prevent others from working. This can take the form of persuasion or, in instances where more is at stake, physically preventing those who seek to continue to work (“scabs”) from doing so. A picket line is a group of strikers (“pickets”) who congregate at the entrance of the workplace and attempt to enforce the strike. Usually, strikes are organised and led by trade unions – however, many of the most important and militant actions have either started out or later spread beyond union control. These unofficial actions are known as “wildcat” strikes.
Historically, the strike has been one of the most powerful weapons available to workers (see timeline below). The idea behind strike action is simple and powerful: if the terms and conditions of work are not acceptable to workers then no work shall be done.
Strikes have been recorded as long as there have been class societies. The earliest recorded strike was documented in Egyptian scrolls from 1152 BC, when artisans on Royal tombs demanded wage increases and won. Strikes have been important in winning significant reforms such as the eight-hour day and in toppling dictators (like recently in Egypt).
Much of Europe is currently seeing vigorous strike action in response to austerity measures. The rhetoric from politicians, mainstream media and captains of industry make one thing clear: bosses are terrified of strikes. Few topics muster the same hysterical, blustering condemnation than the threat of strike action. Even nominally left wing newspapers such as the Guardian are only supportive of strikes once they’re safely in the past. This fear is well founded. Their wealth and power derives from our labour. This is never more clearly illustrated than when we withdraw it, disrupting the economy and shaking the foundations they rely on.
A strike is a direct challenge to capitalist society – a society where we sell our lives hour by hour to a boss who will profit off of us. Denying them this and their control over our day to day lives is a challenge to their domination of society, and is an expression of our collective power as workers. Where normally we feel powerless and out of control of our own lives, collective action such as strikes show us the potential for change.
Most strikes begin under union control, and some union controlled disputes win significant victories. However, they also impose limits upon just how far strikes can go. Trade unions need to preserve their positions as ‘respectable’ representatives of the workforce. They are forced to act within a strict legal framework, which prevents them from escalating to more militant tactics such as occupations, or spreading the dispute to sympathetic workplaces. Often, union leaderships will only call strikes in the face of mass pressure from the membership, and these strikes often take on ineffective forms, such as the tokenistic one day strikes that most modern industrial action consists of (see chart to the right). Short strikes have limited power as they put little pressure on employers. Work can be ‘caught up’ when people return to their jobs and the status quo maintained.
When bosses or the government see a strike spreading ‘out of control’ - like the Lindsey Oil Refinery wildcats in 2009 – they rush to offer concessions. For strikes to be truly effective, they need to be controlled directly by those involved, and spread as widely and as quickly as possible. Workers can’t rely on anyone, even their own union leaders, to win for them.