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Of 'match girls' and general strikes

125 years ago this July the Matchwomen's gallant struggle and victory against all the odds led to the new union movement. Less than 100 years ago a massive strive wave swept Britain. Today many on the far left call for a general strike as the necessary response to austerity. Mike Davis investigates.

In July 1888, several hundred women walked out of an East London match factory - and changed the world. The strike was a reaction to management bullying and terrible conditions, and it should have failed. Bryant & May were powerful and prosperous, with friends in government.

The women were mere ‘factory girls', and even worse, mostly Irish. But their courage, solidarity and refusal to back down impressed all who saw it. What they revealed about conditions inside the factory, including the horrors of the industrial disease ‘phossy jaw', shamed Bryant & May, and their shareholders, many of whom were MPs and clergymen. In just two weeks, the women won better rates of pay and conditions, and the right to form the largest union of women in the country.

Their victory was remarkable, but until now, rarely acknowledged as the beginning of the modern trade union movement. Following the Matchwomen's victory a wave of strikes, including the 1889 Great London Dock Strike, swept the nation. Multitudes of the most exploited workers formed new unions, sowing the seeds of the modern labour movement and Labour Party. In the throes of the Dock Strike, leader John Burns urged a mass meeting of tens of thousands to ‘stand shoulder to shoulder. Remember the Matchwomen, who won their fight and formed a union.'

In 1911 through to 1913--100 years ago, British cities were in the grip of huge strike waves: railway workers, dockers, miners and other workers downed tools. Hundreds of thousands had been striking as part of an effort to protect living standards and jobs. The mood is described well in George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England. Strike days lost ran to many millions. The Liberal government of Lloyd George made some concessions.

By 1910 the Labour Party was having more success at winning seats in parliament. However the suffragettes were becoming more militant in the votes for women campaign. Tom Mann, a leader of the great dock strike returned to Britain from a long sojourn in Australia and South Africa, heavily influenced by the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies). At the time syndicalism was being actively preached among the trade union ranks in Britain. The idea was for one big union. Mann and many of the union militants advocated strikes to make industries unprofitable to capitalism so that workers could ultimately take control of each industry. Rank and file workers were motivated by the need to gain higher wages. But the strike epidemic in Britain and Ireland involved millions. The miner's strike of 1912 brought out more workers than any previous strike with almost one million striking. The preceding year a national rail strike had seen nearly 150,000 railwaymen stop work. In the Autumn of 1913 the city of Dublin was almost totally shut-down in strikes led by Jim Larkin and James Connolly. There had been violent clashes with police throughout this period.

Today sections of the left constantly reiterate the call for a general strike in response to the problems resulting from the Coalition government's austerity measures. But is this either a realistic or effective strategy for the trade union and Labour movement? At a rally last November in solidarity with Greek workers on their 20th general strike since recession five years ago, and facing massive cuts in jobs, incomes and pension resulting from the bailout terms, hecklers tried to drown out Frances O'Grady speaking at the rally with calls for a general strike.

It is TUC policy to support a one day general strike but as the now TUC general secretary pointed out informally after finishing her speech, she had recently returned from Southampton where Ford workers had faced a 450 jobs cut. The main unions had decided not to take strike action. What the story underlines is that many workers in the private sector have not yet reached a level of confidence and consciousness where the idea of a strike against job cuts seems an appropriate response. So to move from this situation to a general strike seems like a cloud cuckoo land approach.

Furthermore, there is confusion about whether the far left are calling for a 24 hour General Strike or an indefinite General Strike. On either option there is little discussion of what needs to be done to prepare for these eventualities. An indefinite General Strike presents a challenge to the state power…what groundwork is being proposed, what preparation for alternative supply to working class communities? What would be the alternative to state led strike breaking as happened in 1926? What work has been done in the military or amongst the police to back strikers? Simply to ask these questions is to expose the fatuousness behind the slogan.

But mostly Socialist Worker, The Socialist and umbrella groups like Unite the Resistance are talking of a 24 hour general strike. But this then is rather a Grand Old Duke of York scenario where workers are marched up the hill only to be brought down again. If there were a number of other strikes planned, then a 24 hour protest could be part of extending the action. However, currently only the civil servants union CPS and the teachers NUT are planning strike action, and on different issues.

Calling for the extension of such a protest could easily demoralize the hundreds of thousands/millions who might join when nothing changes or when a day's pay is lost or when victimizations kick in. Charlie Kimber writing in Socialist Review (the SWP magazine) about the People's Assembly on 22nd June acknowledges ‘union members are not a seething mass of discontent held back by a bunch of bureaucrats'. However, he spends much of the article castigating ‘the bureaucracy' for failing to mount co-ordinated strike action, tantamount to a general strike, in the face of austerity.

The infatuation of many on the Leninist/Trotskyist left with the General Strike is strange. It has an interesting political lineage more akin to revolutionary syndicalism than either Marxism or Leninism.

Within the Marxist and anarchist tradition the idea has enjoyed mixed support. Essentially there are two kinds of general strike: the total cessation of work within a given national-state to achieve purely economic and political ends—higher wages, new labour laws and to end a war. This is a protest or reformist strike. The other type is a general strike as a prelude to social and economic revolution: The revolutionary mass strike. Champions of the latter include Rosa Luxemburg and George Sorel (who was also a supporter of Mussolini).

Frederick Engels found the general strike irrelevant to revolution and a prime example of ‘false consciousness.' He wrote precipitously against the idea of a general strike to extend the 1889 dock strike viewing it as a ‘mindless gesture of despair'. Lenin and Trotsky argued that without a deep rooted revolutionary party to lead the masses beyond the general strike the danger was of defeat and demoralization. Britain has never seen anything resembling a revolutionary party with deep roots in the labour movement. The high point of the Stalinist Communist Party in its 1930s was the nearest Britain came, when membership topped 10,000. Although it talked revolution, this was not a serious proposition. Interestingly the CP dominated Minority Movement and the National Unemployed Worker's Movement of the 1930s mobilized many thousands for jobs or full pay but has only pale reflections on the left today.

The fixation of much of the left on the issue of a general strike is a sign of weakness. The TUC has adopted the position of support for a 24 four hour general strike at its Congress, but without widespread industrial action at the grass roots, nor with individual unions calling for such action ,this is simply hot air. The concept of a general strike has had a chequered history on the left. The famous 9-day British General Strike of 1926 was defeated and led to demoralization, widespread victimization and pay cuts throughout the labour movement. Of course, that is not a reason in itself to argue against a general strike. But it must give the left pause for thought.

In the British context the likely result of a 24 hour stoppage would be many workers asking: ‘so what?' The Duke of York syndrome is ever-present. The government would face the action down. The media would rant against ‘mindless militants' or point out the limited number who participated compared to the rest who continued to work.

Unite the Union are calling for action on 29th September to coincide with the Tory conference in Manchester. If newly re-elected general secretary Len Mcluskey and co are capable of pulling out significant numbers on that day then it is realistic to call on other unions to take action. But there must be a specific focus: to withdraw the Bedroom Tax or for work or full pay for the unemployed or halting Royal Mail privatisation. If the focus is on a general ‘no to austerity' there will be no obvious victory to gain.

But the general point is that the British left must begin to think more creatively about different forms of action: occupations, short-time working and walk-outs, working to rule, co-ordinated actions with service users. It must also pay more attention to issues of workplace democracy.

Today much of the leading action would be taken by public service unions who do not have the bargaining power (in terms of hitting profits) and leverage of traditional industrial unions. There is also the issue of gaining support from service users dependent on the schools, health, cleaning, benefit or other services. In addition are the legal requirements of notice and winning majorities in ballots. Post Office workers seeking to halt privatization of Royal Mail are candidates to take the lead here. The preparatory process needs to start now. That would be the best way of remembering and celebrating the heroic action of the match girls in--- securing trade union rights.