Rhetoric or opportunity? A grassroots response to TUC congress


After four years of economic drought, unemployment and increasing poverty, and over two years of savage spending cuts, the TUC has finally voted to look into the “practicalities” of a “general strike”, after a motion from the Prison Officers Association passed overwhelmingly at congress.

Talk of a general strike has been brought to the congress floor numerous times in previous years by both the RMT transport union as well as the POA. But this year, whilst the motion lacked any commitment to go ahead with such a strike, it received backing from Britain’s largest general unions – including Unison and the GMB. Rhetoric even from those on the right of the union movement, such as Dave Prentis, was certainly militant. He said ministers had “declared war” on union members.

The fact that a general strike is even being mentioned with any seriousness marks a step forward for the TUC. It undermines the claim long made by sections of the radical left that calling for a general strike is wrong given the poor levels of workplace organisation, and low levels of industrial militancy that still characterise a union movement reeling from Thatcherism. Given the unprecedented attacks on our jobs and services, the labour movement should be launching mass political strikes against government cuts, and it is inevitable, indeed, that the possibility of this is now widely discussed.

Of course, for activists the critical issue will be whether the TUC leaders will go from words to deeds. And here a healthy degree of skepticism of the TUC congress decision, backed up by a focus on rejuvenating rank and file networks, and pushing for militant action at every level – the workplace, the sector, and a mass political strike – is necessary.

Only a couple of days before this year’s congress, TUC leader Brendan Barber, who was replaced by Frances O’Grady (a ‘more of the same’ candidate) during the congress told the BBC’s Today programme that “I’m certainly not talking about a general strike, but strikes in particular areas.”

Whilst some leftists such as Lindsey German of Counterfire have said that “the TUC has shown a marked willingness to fight”, the words of BBC correspondent Chris Mason are probably more on the money:

“Talk of a general strike is probably just that. But the talk matters because it frames the political debate on the issue.”

The debate on austerity is definitely taking an angry turn. There is a growing public consciousness of the double standards of political rhetoric directed against the poor, meanwhile, the corruption of the rich, the politicians and the media continues. This has fueled the kind of quiet anger we saw when Tory ministers were booed by thousands at the Paralympics.

It was also reflected in the TUC’s policy statements calling for a state-owned banking system, more council housing and support for sectional and coordinated strike action. The booing and heckles at Ed Ball’s speech, which demagogically called for a prioritising jobs over pay, dismissed railway nationalisation and emphasised the need for austerity to clear the debt has widened the policy gulf between the Labour Party and the trade union movement.

These features of the TUC congress show a political landscape in Britain that is rapidly changing in interesting and new ways. However, the likelihood of the TUC organising even a 24 hour general strike remains very small, even though they have now been provided with a legal defence for such an action by the radical barrister, John Hendy QC.

Many of the union leaders who supported militant-sounding TUC motions this year sold out when it has came to acting upon strike ballots voted for by their members, or often even providing members with ballots in the first place.

For example, the promises of NUT leaders to take coordinated strike action with other unions fizzling out into a work-to-rule protest, despite a strong “yes” vote for strikes in the last few days, shows yet more evidence of the continued problem of the gap between rhetoric and action in Britain’s trade union movement. Likewise, the TUC’s policy statements will have sounded good to many who heard them, but what are they actually going to do to win them?

If, under pressure, the TUC do take the unlikely step of organising a one-day general strike, it would be a step forward in energising the movement and the anti-cuts struggle, but only if followed with further action. It would still be a far-cry from what we need to stop the cuts, and remove a government that is hell-bent on the destruction of the welfare state. And as it currently stands, the Labour Party would offer little improvement if it replaced them.

If the trade unions are to mount a real and effective challenge to austerity, and to restore the credibility they lost from the failure of the pensions dispute, they need a sustained and concrete campaign of action that has the potential to draw in youth, communities and the wider public as well as the trade union membership base. Not just for one-off and disconnected days of action months apart, but a plan to build an escalating mass movement against austerity that can inspire an angered public with the confidence that the government can be beaten. Indeed, in the history of the radical movement, general strikes have always emerged as the end point to a cumulative process of radicalisation. In Britain today this will require rejuventated workplace organisation and dynamic grassroots campaigning, that build solid roots in working class communities.

In other words, if the union leaders can’t do it, it will be up to us, the left, to reorganise and step up to this challenge.



  1. James D
    September 15, 2012 at 7:54 pm · Reply

    Regarding the NUT, the gap between rhetoric and action is all the more significant because it is one union in which the left formally has a majority on the National Executive. At the National Conference in April delegates voted for strike action before the summer (I know because I was there and voted for it). What did this ‘left’ leadership do? Well, ignoring binding conference decisions, they didn’t organise a strike, instead they negotiated a deal to take joint strike action with the NASUWT this autumn. This is not what delegates voted for. Even worse, the NASUWT spoke AGAINST the motion to examine the practicalities of a general strike at the TUC. If the NASUWT slows down its pace there might not even be an autumn teachers’ strike, and the NUT ‘left’ will have well and truly sold its members down the river. The lesson from this is clear – don’t trust the ‘left’ bureaucrats, even if they call themselves socialists. To get a general strike, rank-and-file pressure will be key.

  2. John Grimshaw
    September 21, 2012 at 10:04 am · Reply

    Last Friday’s TES has it that both the NUT and NASUWT voted against the “examine” the general strike motion, although I suspect that was a wicked mis-print: for NUT read ATL (the other classroom teachers union) although you never know? I wasn’t there. As an NUT activist (well sometimes) I agree with what James above has said. And on the surface it is all very puzzling. A left Labour-ish General Sec. and a DGS who is an ex-member of the SWP (he left because he found them too left) and a narrow executive left majority littered with well known SWP/AWL/SP members and independent lefties. The truth of the matter is that when votes on the exec. to take further strike action after Nov. 30th were taken as far as I know the SWP/AWL/SP comrades voted for action, however they were outnumbered by an alliance of the right of the union with the softer left. This alliance was supported by the GS and DGS. In essence those lefts in the union who have no home to go to other than the union reverted to a kind of default setting. Their argument was that they were not confident the unions members wanted more action and that there needed to be more time to ascertain, hence the last work load action ballot. They argued that as the big rightwing led unions had pulled out of pensions action the NUT was not big enough to go it alone. An alliance was needed with the other more moderate (usually) NASUWT. All of this is classic bureacratic demobilising stuff. The “work to rule” protest is interesting if you read the samll print of the stuff sent out by NUT. It is little more than a re-hash of the 25 things teachers are not supposed to agreed with the last government. It is not new. It is a con. Of course there are some things not to be done that teachers will like but it also includes such gems as “refusing to set up wall displays”. Where a school union group is strong these things will happen, where it is not they won’t. The problem is unlike national strike action this is not collective action. Finally teachers are not stupid the turn out for the NOv.30th strike was 40%, which is not bad. The NUT leadership has been trumpeting the 82% vote in favour for the “work to rule” what they don’t tell ios that turn out had slumped to 28%.

  3. peterb
    September 24, 2012 at 8:49 am · Reply

    i think we need to consider if and how we can contribute to the initiative to put preasure on the tuc to call a general strike. the agreed co-ordinated action of public sector needs to set a date then every left influenced branch will rain in resolutions calling on tuc to make it a general strike.
    as revolutionary marxists we understand that a 24 hr strike led by the bureaucrats would be a day of protest and not an insurrectionary call by the tuc. it will be inadequate to challenge the bosses rule or in itself to force the coalition government to resign.
    as part of an escalating campaign of industrial action against austerity and public sector cuts it would be astep forward from the nov 30th national strike day last year.
    to forward these goals should the left unify around the nssn actions to demand a general strike? whilst the redirection of the nssn from being an independant network was unfortunate its work in calling for general strike has been productive. the tuc lobby of 1000 workers was impressive.
    where possible i think we should try to initiate general strike preparatory committees.

  4. John Grimshaw
    September 27, 2012 at 9:48 am · Reply

    If there had been no previous action of any sort in the recent period then the TUC Oct. 20th demo might have made reasonable sense. However there has been action superior to a national demo. recently. November 30th was to all intents and purposes a “General Strike” of unionised workers. Therefore it is difficult to avoid the assumption that the 20th Oct. demo. is in fact a standard attempt by the Trades Union bureaucrats to make workers think they’re doing something when in fact they’re not. Obviously activists have no option but to attend this demo. and build for it but we should also be doing something else. The NSSN (SP) have a formulation which is a propaganda call for a “General Strike”. And I see no reason not to support this subject to the fact that we understand that it comes out of the usual knee jerk reaction of the sectarian left. If we could get meetings of workers to call for strike action prior to the demo. I think that would be good. Also an organised group of activists/workers openly calling for strike action at the demo. would be good. Any ideas?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *