Editorial from the December 1970 issue of the Socialist Standard
Is the government trying to provoke a general strike in which the unions would be defeated and weakened for years to come? Have they decided that in the long run this might be the best way to hold wages in check?
For most of the time since the war unemployment has been relatively low and has not exerted its normal restraining influence on wages. The bargaining position of workers, in other words, and particularly of those organised in trade unions, has been strengthened. Employers, and hence governments, have had to face the problem of finding an alternative way to prevent wages eating into profits, the lifeblood of capitalism.
On paper governments have had a wide choice of policies. They could impose a wage freeze. .They could encourage employers to resist workers’ demands. They could try, by persuasion or threats, to get union leaders to restrain wage claims. They could pass or enforce anti-union laws. They could undermine real wages by depreciating the currency. This last has been the easiest, at least in the short run, and governments have been especially tempted to adopt it in elections years. But it only postpones the problem.
There are signs that the Conservative government may have calculated that the time has now come to stand up to the unions. Heath’s repeated rejection, both before and after the election, of any government-imposed wage freeze leaves him no alternative but to use the law against the unions if profits are to be protected. He has already openly declared that his government is ready to face even a general strike to make its Industrial Relations Bill law. This Bill, as we show elsewhere in this issue, is designed to weaken the bargaining position of workers and so to strengthen that of their employers.
This puts the TUC and the other unions in a difficult position. There is really nothing they can do to prevent the Bill becoming law if Heath is determined to do this, since the government has the necessary parliamentary majority. All they can do is to protest and perhaps call a one-day token strike to demonstrate their opposition. A prolonged political strike, given the level of political consciousness amongst workers generally, would be a, very risky enterprise. Even though nearly all the workers in the key industries are in unions, more than half of all workers in Britain are still unorganised and few even of those who are would be willing to take part in a strike over an issue which did not directly affect their wages or immediate working conditions. Many workers in fact mistakenly believe that trade unions are to blame for rising prices and would support a law to curb their power.
An attempted political strike against the Bill might play into Heath’s hands: he could cry “anti-democratic”, go to the polls and perhaps be returned with a bigger majority in an election fought specifically over the anti-union issue.
As for those who dream of using a general strike to overthrow the government and the whole capitalist system, they ought to ask themselves what it is that is going to make workers who have supported capitalism on the political field suddenly become ready to challenge it on the industrial field. The idea is absurd.
Let it not be forgotten that the 1926 General Strike was a failure. It led to the betrayal and defeat of the locked-out miners—even now the underground miner has to work longer hours than he did before 1926—and to the passing of the 1927 Trades Disputes Act, which severely hampered trade union activity.
In the end, this is a question of working class understanding. Capitalism is a class society where the means of production belong to a privileged few and where the rest have to work for them as factory and office workers. Built into capitalism is an irreconcilable conflict between these two classes over the ownership of society’s wealth, a conflict which can only be ended by the triumph of the working class and the establishment of Socialism. Strikes, wage freezes and anti-union laws are all aspects of this struggle.
Very few trade unionists are fully conscious of this. They are against low wages, but not the wages system. They condemn profiteering, hut not production for profit. They criticise governments, but do not realise that governments have to run capitalism in the interests of the capitalist class. Even the most militant of them are not free from sectionalism. In short they accept capitalism and try to work within it to better conditions.
This is the great weakness of trade unionism. Its role can only be defensive and its effectiveness even in this is limited not only by the advantages possessed by the employers and governments but also by the lack of understanding of its members.
As the Socialist Party of Great Britain has always pointed out, even to wage effectively the industrial struggle under capitalism a degree of Socialist understanding is required. Helping the growth of this understanding will be our contribution, as a party.