Control is the power of directing what happens in a country, or an industry. We say workers must take control, but that has quite a different meaning for workers than for capitalists…
Control of events is important in determining what goes on in Britain and in the lives of individual workers. Capitalism runs the economy and capitalists form the ruling class. But that does not mean workers are without power and influence.
The working class can exert control by what it says and does. Huge picket lines outside a London hospital, full of young smiling nurses with union banners and invented homemade banners, shouting for more pay. In Manchester, striking teachers marching in support of their pay claim, again with homemade banners. In Glasgow, striking civil servants with a sea of union banners saying “Enough is enough”.
The homemade banners declare what’s driving action: “The NHS will last as long as we fight for it”; “Teachers strike now – for the teachers of tomorrow”; “Stop calling us heroes. I’m surrounded by incredible professionals who deserve better”.
The mass of trade union banners held on picket lines of workers in dispute adhere to their trade union organisation and use hand-written slogans expressing their understanding of what they are fighting for. And workers are carrying them, not in their free time at the weekend, but as strikers during the working day.
All this asserts that the government has given up on the people. That only workers are prepared to fight for a future for Britain. That’s taking control of events as workers.
We don’t yet know the full significance of these events, but there’s definitely something in the air. For the most part young workers are behind the banners – a shift that should not be underestimated.
For example, the National Education Union seemed moribund. Young teachers felt ground down by overwork, poor conditions and effective pay cuts and unable to change anything. Teachers left the profession after just a few years, older colleagues too often burnt out and cynical.
Few people wanted to take on union posts and many schools were without a rep. Union structures and activities were more and more about divisions in the class and not what united them – the place of work and the profession.
Such problems won’t quickly go away, but these current actions are signs of a resurgence. A new generation is pushing through. They do not look back to past glories, but are gathering the energy and courage to organise in their schools – working out how to organise in their own workplaces, taking responsibility.
This visible development, workers full of spirit and humour, builds collective strength. Two weeks after announcing the NEU ballot in favour of strike action, the union’s 300,000 membership had grown by 40,000. Teachers want to fight.
In a fight with the employer, collective action by workers is our best and only tool on the route to taking control. Involvement, responsibility, acting together are the key. Empty slogans from the sidelines won’t cut it.
Action is a statement – we won’t be told what to do. But that only works if we are prepared to act collectively. Passive dissatisfaction is rejecting control; giving control to the employer or the government.
A qualitative change happens when we as organised workers decide enough is enough and do something to defend ourselves, and claim a right to more pay. And that’s what’s going on now.
This process is how trade unions were built in Britain: from the bottom up, by workers in the workplace. This began long ago, in the Middle Ages, and has been evident every time workers have rebuilt and refreshed their organisations.
There is always a political element at the heart of workers’ actions every time we combine against an employer or a landlord or a landowner to assert our interests. And it need not be in a trade union, but might be a campaign group fighting to preserve agricultural land for food production or open spaces for recreation.
Where there is conflict between the two classes the state, in the form of the government of the day, shows its real nature. It seeks control only for profit-making and nothing for the wellbeing of the people.
On the other hand workers seek control for the wellbeing of the vast majority of the people, and of the country itself. And the experience of struggle teaches the nature of class conflict.
Fighting is dangerous. At present the capitalist class (employer, government and state) has lost control of the story of what’s happening – there’s wide support for those who fight for pay, because nearly all workers are affected by the same problems. So they don’t buy the capitalist lie that wage rises cause inflation.
The capitalist class will try to regain control of the story. In the NHS struggle, the government wants deaths to pin on striking workers. They’ll scour the hospitals to find examples of tragic scandals for media exposure and will ignore their own role in shortages of staff and equipment.
‘Calls for a general strike or a Labour government are a blind alley, the opposite of control…’
But they have a problem. Senior managers are working hard with ambulance union members, for instance, to prevent those cases happening. And people oppose the government’s hard stance because they know from experience that any minimum service levels imposed will show that the ambulance service before the strike were way below any possible minimums. The same goes for other areas in dispute.
Our enemy works hard to restrict our opportunities to assert or gain control. Legal limits on the ability of trade unions to wage battles are already making it hard. Ballots for action must be postal and renewed every six months.
And any balloting errors mean the whole exercise will be ruled illegal, as the postal workers found. The government is planning further obstacles, like legal minimum service requirements which could see workers sacked or even taken to court for striking. Employers would get the power to decide which individual workers are essential and prevented from striking.
Keeping control of the action is essential. Decisions to advance the fight need to be coupled with decisions about when to retreat, how to preserve your organisation to fight another day, what you will define as a win, realising that today’s win is temporary.
Building your forces is the real gain: you’ll meet the same issues again next year, and the gain is that you’ll be ready. Fighting is wearying – regroup to fight again.
Calls for a general strike or for a Labour government to unseat the evil Tories are blind alleys. They are an illusion, the opposite of taking control. Workers are nowhere near ready to seize power from government – a general strike would lead to defeat and demoralisation.
Why should we vote for a political party that promises to make things better for us? And our experience of Labour governments is that they can’t be relied on and will back the employer. We should devote our energy to develop our own organisations. We must rely on our own strengths to take control.
What about Brexit? Wasn’t that about control – asserting Britain’s sovereign right to decide its laws, control its borders, its currency, and shrug off the European Union’s ever-tightening dictatorship? Yes, but having won the vote, we then foolishly relied on our capitalist government to implement what we had fought for.
Control in practice is not just about the big fights in the headlines. It’s as much about the way those fights are conducted and what happens next – and all the other ways that workers act together.
This article is based on a speech at a CPBML public meeting in London last March.