Should we call for a general strike?

One theme of the anti-austerity demonstration in Dublin was the call for a 24 hour general strike by a number of left groups.  The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) said that “one march is not enough – we need a 24 hour general strike”.  The United Left Alliance (ULA) called for a “boycott of the Property Tax” and “for a 24 hour general strike – on 31 March next year”.  The leaflet from the Socialist Party did not mention a general strike but said that the “mass campaign against Property Tax can be key to defeating austerity agenda . . challenge the sell-out of the trade union leaders – organise from below to strike against austerity.”

Repeatedly reference was made to the experience of workers in Spain, Portugal and Greece and sometimes unflattering comparisons with Ireland.  General strikes against austerity have taken place in these countries but not in Ireland.  Under the headline “How austerity can be defeated” an article in the Socialist Party paper says that “all that is needed is some leadership and direction.  The union leaders should follow the example of workers in Spain, Portugal and Greece – a one day strike in Ireland of public and private sector workers against the cuts and austerity taxes would be a body blow against this weak government.”

Two questions immediately arise from such a call.  What is the purpose of a general strike and how would one be brought about?

It is not stated explicitly by any of the groups demanding one but it must be assumed by the criticism of the failure of demonstrations and previous action, that the purpose a general strike is to stop austerity.  Unfortunately reference to Spain, Portugal and Greece does not support such a claim.  In all countries austerity has continued, if not intensified, despite general strikes.  In fact, as we have noted here and in an earlier post Greece has had a huge number of general strikes but austerity there is the worst.  So at the very least supporters of a general strike owe it to everyone to explain in what way it will work to achieve a specific purpose.

An argument can be made that a general strike will prevent austerity getting worse but again this is not the Greek experience.  It can be argued that the situation would be worse if there was no resistance and as socialists we could all agree with this but this is not the argument being made, in so far as there is one.  This argument appears to be that a general strike will not just prevent austerity from being worse than it might otherwise be but that it would stop austerity, or at least prevent it deepening.

The Socialist Party article claims that a general strike might destroy the Government.  This is doubtful but even if it were true the experience of Greece bears witness to falling governments and continuing austerity.

So if the purpose of a general strike is not apparent the means by which one could be brought about seems even less clear.

Two problems are posed.  What is the role of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and the trade union leadership generally and what is the role of the Left and rank and file activists inside and outside the trade unions?

Two criticisms of the approach of some on the Left have been levelled here.  It is argued that while the call for a general strike is a good one it is a mistake to pose it as a demand on the rotten ICTU leadership.  This is because such a demand would confuse those working people looking to the ULA through implying ICTU would carry through on such a call.  Even if forced to give nominal support their role would be to minimise its impact and undermine its success.  Any mention of ICTU should be to expose their role not imply that they could be on our side.

There are various formulations relating to how we should approach the question of the ICTU leadership.  The Socialist Party proposes to “challenge the sell out of the trade union leaders – organise from below to strike against austerity.”  “There is a rotten trade union leadership – we need a revolt from below which either pushes them into action or else has the power to push them aside.”

The Socialist Workers Party says that “trade union members and activists should unite and campaign within all unions to demand that the union leaders organise a fight back – organising demonstrations is not enough – real action including strike action against austerity is needed now.”   It argues that “resistance (has been) held back because most union leaders are in the Labour Party.  Break all links with this Party and remove people who support them from the leadership of our organisations.”

It is clear, from the size of the anti-austerity demonstration compared to that of earlier ICTU organised events, that there is currently not a large enough unofficial or rank and file movement either within or outside the trade unions calling for, never mind in a position to organise, a general strike.   It is not on this basis a realistic short term possibility.  At the moment the only body with the authority, credibility and organisation to call a general strike is ICTU.  It is the unchallenged leadership of the trade union movement and of the vast majority of its members.  However much we might regret that fact it is nevertheless the case.

Unrivalled in its position of leadership it certainly has the authority no other grouping has.  It is the only body currently, which if it issued a call, would be seen as credibly being able to threaten the Government with such an action.  There is no other organisation with the capacity to mobilise the trade union membership and organise a general strike.

However much we also reject their claim to be against austerity the majority of Irish workers have not consciously rejected their leadership.  The vast majority of workers not totally cynical either accept that all that can be done is being done or that austerity is inevitable or that they wish, hope or believe that something more could be done but don’t know what that something is or how it could be made to come about.  Irish workers are angry but they have no clear idea about what to do about it and have no clear and united vision of what the alternative might be.  The general election that voted in a Fine Gael dominated Government and the passing of the Austerity Treaty referendum are confirmation of this.

This means that ICTU cannot be ignored and that the problem is not that of creating illusions in ICTU that are not there but destroying the vast illusions or acquiescence in their role that is there.

So if we should agree that on their own ICTU will not call a general strike, and would attempt to neuter it of its potential if it did, we are left with a recognition that we are not in a position to make a general strike anything more than a propaganda demand that lays the foundations for possible realisation of it in the less immediatefuture.

This is in effect acknowledged by the various Left currents.  The ULA leaflet says we must “start the campaign now with trade union and community meetings to oppose Croke Park II and demand a 24 hour stoppage.”  The SWP also talks about the “start of mass resistance”,  that “we need to start taking real protest action” and calls for, as yet non-existent, “assemblies to allow people to put forward their own vision.”

All the Left argues we need a campaign against austerity but it would be putting its money where its mouth is if it were able to debate openly and come to an agreed decision on how such a campaign should be built.  At the moment there is no agreed position on this.  The ULA has unfortunately signally failed to unite the Left in an anti-austerity campaign with an agreed policy and perspective.  If it cannot unite itself it has to explain how the working class will be united in a general strike against the Government.

A first step in such a task would be to determine the role of a general strike in the struggle against austerity.  A 24 hour general strike would be clear evidence of the potential power and organisation of the working class.  To even achieve the level of organisation beforehand that would be required to make it a success would indicate a jump in political consciousness and capacity to independently organise.  Success in carrying it off would add to this class consciousness and capacity.  It would demonstrate to the Government the opposition to it that exists and the potential for it to be toppled.  But after 24 hours everyone would have to go back to work and the question would have to be what next?  Everyone, including the Government, would know this.

In Greece some socialists are speaking of an indefinite general strike but such a call really is a challenge for political power in one form or another and who believes the Irish working class is remotely in a position to issue such a challenge?

A general strike therefore can only be the product of a prior campaign that was able to extend enormously the consciousness and organisational capacity of the working class.  From where we are now it is clear that a campaign for a general strike would have to argue that this should be the demand of the whole trade union movement and wider forces.  This means fighting for it to be the demand of ICTU.  Such a campaign would have the aim not of passing resolutions calling on the current leadership to call a strike, although this would be one necessary approach, but would fundamentally be about building a movement within (and outside) the trade unions to win support for it from ordinary workers and making them capable of carrying out a general strike with or without and probably against the leadership of ICTU.

We are a long way from that at the moment.

The call for a general strike however is only one rallying point for a campaign against austerity.  Workers not only suffer from austerity they also implement it.  In order to impose the property tax workers must process the bills.  In order to close services workers must accept that they close.  In such cases campaigns must be built that boycott processing of new taxes, wage cuts and redundancies etc and which occupy services threatened with cutbacks or closure, or related workplaces that have been spared.  Taking over the workplace is often a more effective form of action than walking out of it.  Such actions have begun in Greece.

All of this means that workers must have effective control over their own organisations.  This is either through fighting to democratise existing organisations that have been bureaucratised such as the trade unions or creating real democratic organisations from the new campaigns against austerity, the property tax etc that have been or will be created.

Within such a perspective the culminating point, the objective, is not a general strike but the advancing organisation, consciousness and power of the working class movement.  The question of a general strike is one (important) one of many.  Any significant advance along this road would raise the question of a working class political party.

Such a perspective allows us to start from where we are without seeming to pose currently unrealistic objectives.  It is designed to build solid foundations and to go as far as it can without thereby suffering failure because it has not achieved everything.  It is not saddled with a perspective based on one determining clash of forces that it will fail, until that is it might be capable of offering such a battle with some confidence of success.  It is built on the workers themselves and not concessions from the State that are under the State’s control and can be pulled back later.  It is a movement of opposition that teaches workers to rely on themselves and not on the State and not on Left TDs passing legislation that will supposedly make the rich pay for the crisis.

In other words the debate on a general strike cannot be divorced from the problems thrown up by austerity and the resistance to it more generally.  Other questions and issues around this have been put forward by the Left.  Is the Socialist Party correct that the Campaign against Household and Water Taxes is key?  Is it true that “the property tax issue can become a vital issue to defeat not just the Government’s agenda for more home taxes but to undermine the entire austerity agenda itself”. What is the role of the Labour Party and its links with the trade union leadership in betraying any fight against austerity?

A debate on what the purpose of a general strike is – what it is expected to achieve – and how such a call can be put forward as a practical objective, if at all, is necessary.

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