Getting to grips with the levels of strikes

Simon Joyce recently published an article arguing that ‘lack of confidence’ is an inadequate explanation for the sustained low level of strikes in the UK. He suggests that the strike weapon being taken out of the hands of stewards is the key factor. Hazel C and Ian A discussed with Simon some of the issues raised. This is a longer version of an interview in issue 4 of rs21 magazine.


Hazel: What motivated you to address the issue of why strike levels are so low?

Simon: The question of why strike levels are low has been on my mind for years, from when I was a union rep in the newspaper printing industry. Trying to find better answers was the reason I turned to studying industrial relations in 2009 while working as a union tutor. The article, Why are there so few strikes?, pulled together things I’d been thinking about for a long time.

I wanted to understand what happened during the 1980s and why things were so different since. The period of big defeats in the 1980s did end and recovery did start but workers have continued to suffer. Of course confidence matters, but there is never just one dimension. It is implausible that confidence has remained low for so long, more than 20 years, without some other underlying factors causing that stability – which is unlike anything ever seen before.

My article was not attempting to discuss the state of workers’ organisation or the state of consciousness. It’s complicated enough trying to understand the level of strikes. And I wasn’t saying this was the final answer, but the start of a discussion.

Hazel: You pinpoint three main factors – economic restructuring, anti-strike laws, and the impact of the big defeats in the 1980s.

Simon: There are lots of simple explanations out there for why there are so few strikes. Workers are too poor. Workers are too rich. Workers are too miserable. There are no workers.

In the late 1980s you see the start of a recovery from the big defeats. In 1988 the SWP started talking about the ‘new mood’. There were Manchester nurses’ strikes, engineering strikes, unofficial strikes on London Underground. But it didn’t turn into a generalised recovery in strike levels. We’ve seen the pattern continue, but nobody asked why the recovery in mood wasn’t translating into more strikes. The default analysis has been that the level of strikes goes up or down with confidence, with the mood of workers – so, if the level of strikes is low, we need more ‘mood’. But it’s more complicated than that.

Ian: I liked your description of John Kelly’s argument that it was wrong to assume that collectivist ideas and collective grievances automatically lead to collective action. You explained that several important processes lie between a sense of grievance and any industrial action. You described the need for organisation to make action a reality and the often crucial role of workplace leaders – such as socialist militants.

Simon: I prefer to think about ‘combativity’ rather than ‘confidence’. Workers need to be willing to have a go. Richard Hyman described strikes as a “calculative act”[i] by workers, who weigh up possible benefits and costs. Being willing to have a go could result from anger, desperation, a range of reasons, not just confidence. I was involved in a big dispute where nobody was confident. Younger workers were willing to “hold their nerve” and gradually overcame the doubts of older workers. Real confidence comes from the experience of winning. The low level of strikes and the rank and file not controlling the strike weapon mean that the improving mood, the willingness to have a go, doesn’t translate to more strikes. And because there aren’t more strikes, workers don’t regain confidence through achieving victories. Low strike levels hold confidence low.

Ian: You see the strike weapon being taken out of the hands of workers as ‘key’. You refer to Dave Lyddon’s 1998 article that describes how the pattern of one-day demonstrative strikes, common in national strikes in the post-war period, became the norm in smaller strikes too. You say the reason is that the strike weapon is out of hands of stewards. I can see that in some instances, such as the recent strikes in the NHS. But if stewards had access to the strike weapon would you expect strikes to shoot up? This doesn’t fit my experience in Unite, where London and Eastern region stewards are encouraged to strike, unless it’s a large or politically important workplace. There has been some increase in strikes, but it hasn’t felt like the brakes have come off. It feels like you sometimes hit other barriers, such as what is in members’ heads, long before officials obstruct action.

Simon: I’m not saying that there are these fetters on stewards’ access to strikes, and that if these were removed one by one, then the level of strikes would go up accordingly. I’m saying that the effect of changes in the 1980s was to take the strike out of the hands of stewards. Since then, we’ve had 20 years during which other habits have developed and become established. Because stewards don’t have the ability to down tools and immediately walk out, they have learned other methods. The idea that when there’s a problem you walk out and you stay out until you win has gone. Members don’t expect to be called out on strike. Stewards don’t think of striking.

The industrial relations regime changed after the 1980s – in terms of institutions, economic context, legal framework and habits among union members.

Unofficial strikes now are rare, except in niche industries like construction engineering. Official strikes are now under centralised control by national union leaderships.

I think we will see higher strike levels and more militant strikes in the future. Not the 1970s again, but something else. It won’t happen because unions alter their policies, though that can help people look for more strikes.

Something needs to happen to put the strike weapon back in the hands of the rank and file. It will take more than changes in the policies of a few unions to do that in a significant way. Union policies really matter. If the Unite London and Eastern strategy was pursued more widely it could lead to more strikes, stiffer resistance, employers forced to deal with unions differently. But even what you described in Unite is very limited compared to stewards really having the weapon in their hands – this is just one union, it’s not in big or politically sensitive workplaces, and members still have to comply with balloting restrictions etc. I’m not arguing that there would be all out strikes but for the union machine. Habits among members and stewards are a big factor.

Shop stewards leading unofficial strikes used to be the classic way the rank and file put pressure on the bureaucracy. Leaders were forced to lead because strikes were taking place anyway. The barriers to stewards leading strikes mean that putting pressure on the bureaucracy often means passing motions, getting majorities on NEC’s etc. It’s almost like left-wing “pester power”. Motions etc. are important but limited. You sometimes hear it said that you can’t deal with your bosses unless you can deal with the officials – but that’s the wrong way round. You can’t deal with the bureaucracy unless you can deal with your employer. So, stewards’ lack of access to the strike weapon changes the dynamics inside the unions.

Craft unions were generally much more open and democratic. Everyone got into the craft the same way and often bargained their own wages with their own employer. The official wasn’t above them. By contrast, the general unions have been described as “popular bossdoms” – they relied on popular support, but who was at the top made much more difference. With union mergers, nearly all unions are now like that, controlled from the top, and with much less opportunity for independent strike action by the rank and file. .

The barriers to the rank and file using the strike means that political debate inside the union is both much more important and much more protracted and difficult to resolve. The traditional resolution method, of independent action, is much harder and not available most of the time to most reps. You have to figure out how you live with that – how to have a serious difference with people you won’t win the argument with.

Ian: I was surprised reading Dave’s article that such high strike pay (75%, 100%) was common in official strikes during the post-war era of successful action. He also talks about the importance of levies during longer strikes. I’ve only known minimal strike pay. Competitive poaching between unions, “credit card unionism” and low value trade unionism have left unions financially weak and feeling they often lack the capacity to offer that level of support today. Do you see fighting for proper strike pay and levies being important?

Simon: It’s hard to collect levies when organisation is in disrepair, with lower union membership density, fewer stewards, more workplaces without stewards, and stewards with larger constituencies to cover. Both TGWU and the print unions (both now part of Unite) got round this by branches voting to have higher subs with the extra going into local funds. Our chapel (the term for workplace organisation in print) had £50,000 in the bank, mostly going back to Fleet Street days.

It’s not just that unions don’t have the money so can’t fund action. They didn’t pursue a strategy of industrial action. They stopped seeing a need to collect the dues. Britain has some of the lowest union subs in Europe. In the 19th century, craft unions had high subs, so they could withdraw members from working anywhere that didn’t pay the union rate, taking on one employer at a time, paying benefits to anyone out of work. In the very successful “Drive for 35” campaign for a 35 hour week in engineering in 1989, the unions balloted some big plants and put levies on the rest of the members. People who struck were getting almost full pay.

Ian: In your conclusion you argue that socialists should engage more with the legal issues and the ways reps work around the various obstacles put in their way.

Simon: Yes, and socialists have to push every opportunity as far as you can. But the overall analysis is the most important thing. Roger Cox was a young Trot in a workplace dominated by Communists. I remember him saying you didn’t win people from the Communist Party by being the best activists. The wedge you put in is political, and you knock it in by being the best activists. This is another way of saying you prove you are worth listening to by being amongst the best activists but win people with the politics. The idea that you win them through activity is back to front.

Ian: How do you think the general economic situation affects the willingness to fight or the chances that battles will generalise? Has the shift in the last 30 years, from investing to raise productivity and profits, towards raising the rate of exploitation had an impact?

Simon: it is easier to fight any trade union battle when capitalism is expanding rather than contracting. Bosses are more willing to make concessions. During the long post war boom, you could have high profits and rising wages – even in unorganised workplaces. There was job hopping. Employers needed to attract workers so pay rose, pushed by militancy and also labour shortages.

Neoliberalism has hardened employer attitudes to unions. For much of the 20th century, and certainly in the post-war boom, it was generally seen as a good thing for workers to get a share of rising prosperity. States generally had a strategy of cultivating collective bargaining to some extent, from the New Deal in the USA, to the post-war settlement here. A mistake many commentators make is to think these policies caused the boom. I don’t think so.

Profit rates since the start of neoliberalism have been lower. Even when they are OK, it’s been bumpy rather than long sustained. Union strategies have gone to shit and at the same time employers have become much more hostile. That’s a reason the 1980s were so important. As well as Thatcher’s plan and economic changes, there were political changes and defeats for workers. Martin Upchurch describes the “safe spaces” for unions being closed down. Some people argue the bureaucratisation of shop stewards was the key factor in the downturn, as more became full-time. I’m not convinced it’s the main problem. The original description of the downturn included many other factors which seem to have been overlooked since. Worse still, nobody has gone back and looked properly whether the analysis fitted subsequent events.

Hazel: You criticise Neil Davidson’s argument that factors outside the workplace affect workers’ ideas and therefore willingness to fight. Do you just disagree with him over whether privatisation of housing and mortgages is a factor or is there a bigger disagreement about the influence of factors outside the workplace?

Simon: I handled that rather clumsily. Neil makes two specific points about strikes in his article, which are the ones I took up. Because of the way I worded it, people took it as a general reference to Neil’s argument, but my footnote referred to specific points in his article. I was having tunnel vision about strikes. There are other things in the article I don’t agree with, but I’m not an expert and didn’t want to open up a lot of wider arguments – but I certainly didn’t intend to be dismissive. Of course factors outside of the workplace have an influence.

There are various types of explanations for the low level of strikes. One very common argument is that something must have happened to the working class that means workers are not striking any more. There are many versions. But this approach sees strikes as an expression of some essential working-class-ness  – that to be working class is to take strike action against capital. Therefore if there aren’t strikes, then something must have changed about the essential nature of the working class – that there must be less working-class-ness. Workers have become embourgeoisified, corrupted, or whatever. The argument that workers don’t strike because they’ve got mortgages is a version of the argument that the working class is now too poor to go on strike or indefinite strike. To me, thinking about strikes in terms of ‘the working class’ is not helpful.

I don’t think the impact of housing privatisation was that massive. There was a shift, but there were lots of militant industries where people always owned homes. Printers and engineers didn’t generally live in council houses. Miners I knew during the strike didn’t. The increase in house prices from the 1980s meant families needed two wages to cover a mortgage. Though the increase of women in the workforce was before that, the 1980s cemented that.

Hazel: You talk about non-strike forms of struggle, casework, legal claims etc. as a continuation of class struggle by other means rather than a retreat from class struggle. Surely it’s a bit of both?

Simon: Other forms of action are generally less effective than strikes. Something you wrote, Ian[ii], saying “some of the trenches are undefended” – that got me thinking. In one way this is true. Another way to think about it is like an old Western film, with Native Americans against the US cavalry, bows and arrows against repeating rifles. The side that wins has nothing to with its bravery, determination, tenacity, confidence. The side with bows and arrows nearly always loses. A lot of trade unionists today are good activists, who aren’t all that different from their 1970s equivalents. But they can no longer use the strike weapon. So, the difference is, they used to wield a big stick, but now they don’t. Instead, shop stewards have looked around, and they’ve picked up small rocks to throw from a safe distance.

The hundreds of reps I met through trade union education were overwhelmingly doing their best to tackle employers who were treating people badly. The weapons at their disposal could hamper the employer, but couldn’t stop them in their tracks. Of course, if you put up a fight for a number of years and keep coming off second best, this is bound to have an impact on whether you carry on, make the same effort again, or your readiness to make concessions. Generally, though, I don’t think the willingness of stewards to have a go is the biggest issue – but they are fighting with bows and arrows against artillery.

Ian: It feels as if we are bombarded with attacks, but can’t organise people round most of them. If you manage to organise a fight, the other side often backs off, but meanwhile they have got away with other things.

Simon: There are trenches which are undefended. Union membership has fallen; there aren’t enough reps. Many areas are not unionised at all, which is a serious issue. Reps are not being well trained on how to use their limited opportunities. I think this is because unions haven’t had an industrial strategy, a strategy of really taking on employers in the workplace. We need industrial trade unionism. We already have political trade unionism – not our politics, but unions have adopted a political strategy – to ginger up the Labour Party and hope for the best.

When I taught reps, the TUC course materials didn’t mention industrial action at all. When my workplace had a strike ballot around 2006, it was hard to find out how ballots worked. None of the unions published information about how to strike. In 2009 the Labour Research Department published a guide and there is now a good Unite one.

Academics often argue that stewards no longer deal with collective issues, only individual ones. There is some truth in this, but it assumes there is a sharp separation between collective and individual issues. John Kelly talks about “semi-collective” issues – individual issues dealt with collectively. I’ve been looking at stewards doing the opposite – taking up collective issues by individual means. A classic example is campaigns of grievances against a manager. This was a regular tactic even in the 1960s heyday of workplace trade unionism.

Ian: You talk about the need for socialists to prioritise the need for industrial unionism, as both practical activity and a political rallying point – the task of rebuilding the unions. There are various things that have changed in workplaces that some people see as important for rebuilding. What’s your view?

Simon: There are always two main issues in workplace industrial relations – the “wage-effort bargain” (also known as the effort bargain) and the “frontier of control”.

Changes in unions’ approach to the wage-effort bargain are important. With payment by results (piece-work), bargaining was mostly over pay, not effort. Bargaining was complex and extremely frequent – sometimes several times a day as machines were reset. The frontier of control was about who had the right to engage in that argument. The shift to Measured Day Work[iii] meant a focus on the effort side of the bargain. Instead of pay fluctuating with effort, pay was set. Employers thought getting rid of shop-floor bargaining over piecework would stop all the strikes. There was a brief window when shop stewards shifted activity from the wage side to the effort side – about staffing levels and the pace of work. This was derailed by the attacks under Thatcher.


 Ian: Now there’s lots of pressure on workers and unpaid overtime. Phil Taylor’s work on performance and absence management and ‘Lean‘ is good on this. Are these factors in the low level of strikes or how that might change?

Simon: I think these are more often symptoms of the low level of strikes rather than causes. Workers can’t withdraw labour to restrain their manager, so the manager wins on the ‘perishable issues’. Perishable issues are where management can achieve a fait accompli unless workers win quickly[iv]. Managers reorganise work to be done by fewer people, or change contracts for new starters. It’s difficult to have a lawful trade dispute over those things. If you do get a ballot, it takes weeks and the change has already been implemented. In the absence of effective weapons, management will encroach, even if stewards can restrain them and win bits.

Unions and left activists haven’t got their heads round how to fight on these issues. Good public sector trade unionists often don’t know how to deal with performance related pay, and say that it’s ‘just subjective’. People think that if you’re in a factory making widgets, then that’s more objective. But payment systems are always subjective. It’s easy to count widgets, but how the number of widgets translates into pay is always subjective, and can always be bargained. As Kim Moody and Beverly Silver argue, when there are big changes in how work is organised, it takes workers and unions time to work out where the pressure points are. One example is the disorientation for about 20 years after a new generation of machines replaced many skilled workers in late 19th century engineering – until union activists worked out how to organise semi-skilled workers. It’s not just about, you’ve either got to have formal bargaining arrangements or else it’s just individualised workers kicking back. Groups of workers find informal ways of doing it. In my research I found examples where management come out with some stupid idea and issue an instruction, and workers get together and make a judgement. They sometimes decide to “body swerve” – ignore it in the hope it will be forgotten – whereas if they kick up a fuss some manager will dig their heels in and enforce it.

Before I did research in a car factory, I read about lean, and I expected an iron heel of dictatorship by management. It wasn’t like that. Now, it was a unionised workplace, where lean came in after the union was already quite strong. It wasn’t the same as a green field site. But people figured out how to apply pressure and were delaying and blocking things without strikes.

Ian: Workplaces with strong organisation can choose from a range of responses to lean, from trying to co-opt, capture and control it, through to outright opposition.

Simon: Phil Taylor made his name with work on call centres in response to a ‘panopticon’ analysis, based on Foucault, which said that new organisation and technology meant that management could have complete observation and control of workers, so resistance was futile. Phil showed that wasn’t the reality. Workers found ways to resist.

In contrast, Phil’s material on performance management material is all about management getting their way. One report is subtitled “the new workplace tyranny”. It’s very pessimistic. But reps are figuring out ways of taking this on. We shouldn’t underestimate stuff going on below the radar.

Ian: I liked that Phil’s work put people’s experiences in a political context. We’ve used it within the union and workplace and it provoked all kinds of discussions.

Simon: Yes, these management methods need an exposé about how bad they are. But it’s not enough to just condemn them – we have to learn to bargain them, too. These management methods have been in place for years in much of the economy.

Ian: Do you think that unions have not adapted to changes in the production process and the types of power this means workers have? For example, checkout workers have huge potential power, due to handling millions of pounds of perishable goods. But to turn that potential into reality workers need to be conscious of their power and have the organisation to wield it. Beverly Silver looked at the different sorts of power in different production processes. It feels as if unions thinks they’re still in an economy dominated by engineering and auto manufacture.

Simon: Silver uses Erik Olin Wright‘s distinction between structural power and associational power. Some workers have a great deal of power due to their position in the production process – that’s structural power. Others don’t have as much, so any power depends more on their association, their organisation with other workers. It will vary between industries at the same time – it’s not that the whole class used to have structural power and now it’s associational. There is a realisation of the position of logistics workers in globalised production chains, with ‘Just In Time’ production. That’s structural power. There are other groups who are potentially similarly powerful.

Ian: Most workers don’t of have that extreme structural workplace power. How central is exploring the idea of power with workers?

Simon: It really matters to look at power. For example, if you have a group of workers in one part of a massive multinational, an all-out strike just by that group may not be the best tactic. If it’s one small part of the business, the company may have the resources to sit it out. Wider action can be more important than an indefinite strike in some cases.

The ideological effect of getting workers to think about what power they have is important. What would happen if we stopped work? Even if all it means is a realisation that they need to get together with other groups. Thinking in class terms is important. The decline of socialist and communist ideas in the labour movement had an ideological impact. We need to rebuild a socialist current in the unions.

Hazel: The conclusion of your article, Why are there so few strikes?, talks about activists winning a set of political ideas, creating a political current. Could you expand on what you mean by this?

Simon: I think it’s vital to build a political current inside the unions, and beyond, if you want to build a revolutionary party. That isn’t built by people just organising their own workplace. Revolutionary socialists need to understand their actions won’t turn the situation around. That can destroy activists.

Calls to break the law are a long way from where most people are. You need to be a step in front of the class, to be useful to the best fighters. While a perspective that says “with one leap we will be free” may be true, you don’t know when that will come. I don’t think it will be from the next national one-day public sector strike. That’s almost the definition of a short-cut – when this happens it will solve all our problems. Even if it does, you need something to say to the best activists in the meantime, to give them a political understanding so they don’t feel so lost and desperate and depressed.

Though the Minority Movement didn’t end well, the kinds of issues they raised were good. They put forward ideas like rebuilding union membership and steward organisation, raising the issue of strikes as a political issue. They put together a programme of those kind of things.

What puts a political current together is a body of ideas which can explain the period, how we got here, what it’s like, what is likely to happen in a big dispute or campaign, the nature of period, and so on – a broad ideological account. The most important thing is to have an analysis of where we are. It gives people a map and a compass for assessing their own situation and deciding what to do. What do you argue in union elections? What kind of propaganda do you put out? What is your approach to criticising the existing union leadership? What are the key issues facing a union? Answering those questions, really answering those questions – and others – needs theory. It’s an urgent matter.

[i] Strikes (4th edition)

[ii] SWP internal bulletin 1, 2013

[iii] Much of British engineering moved from piecework (where workers were paid per unit of production) to Measured Day Work (where workers were paid per shift) in the 1970s. See for example Lyddon.

[iv] E.g. the Tory reduction in redundancy consultation periods makes it impossible for many workplaces to strike lawfully before workers are dismissed.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here