Working-class strategy #HM2018

In the superb final session at the 2018 Historical Materialism Conference, Katy Fox-Hodess and Amanda Armstrong discussed how the left should relate to workers with different sorts of potential power and strengthen connections with struggles against oppression and imperialism: the structural power of workers such as dockers does not exist in isolation from the wider working class.

Here we publish Ian Allinson’s extended reflection on the discussion, following on from his earlier reports on strategies for labour in the US and the Notes from Below stream at HM2018.

Strikes by airport taxi drivers strengthened mass pickets at airports against Trump’s Muslim ban. Photo: Alexandra Bradbury

For some time I have been frustrated that different individuals and organisations in the labour movement were pursuing strategies that prioritised different sections of the working class – those with most structural power, most potential for connecting with others, the most precarious, or those who happen to be in open struggle at any time – without articulating the pros and cons or possible connections between these approaches. Two of the speakers in this excellent session directly addressed this question.

Why focus on workplaces and strikes?

Katy Fox-Hodess began by giving three reasons why the workplace and strikes are important areas of focus, despite the fact that unions aren’t always conducive to more radical change:

  1. Trade unionism is a form of class struggle in itself. Successful strikes reduce the surplus value extracted from workers by capital, assert worker control, extend social protections for workers to reproduce themselves. They immediately and tangibly improve workers lives, providing more time and security to engage in political work.
  2. Trade unionism can prefigure the end goal of socialism, as strikes give workers practice in worker self-organisation and control over the means of production. Strikes lift the veil on how things are and suggest how different they could be. By collectively withholding their labour, workers temporarily withhold their consent to capitalism and affirm that labour is the source of all value. While things may return to normal after a strike, the experience remains, sustaining the possibility of a different world.
  3. Trade unionism is often a gateway to political activity beyond the workplace. Taking on the boss gives workers the confidence to challenge capital more broadly. They learn that their own immediate struggles are shaped by forces beyond the workplace that must ultimately be confronted. Unions can act as agents of political change stretching beyond the workplace when workers strike in support of wider political struggles, over workplace issues with broader political resonances, or force the state to extend itself in favour of the working class generally.

In my view it would be possible to suggest other reasons why the workplace is an important site of struggle, including arguments about power and the way capital concentrates workers and forces them into cooperation in production. The argument could also concentrate specifically on workplaces and collective action, rather than on trade unionism, which is a more contradictory phenomenon.

The focus of Fox-Hodess’s argument was on the third point – the potential of workplace struggle to advance the interests of the class as a whole, and in particular on the role of struggles in “strategic” sectors – those with the ability to disrupt the core functions of capitalism.

“Strategic sectors” and the class as a whole

The orthodox view focused on the economic functions of capitalism – the production and realisation of surplus value. This has led to a focus on industries such as mining, manufacturing and transport, which had often been key to working class struggle in the past. This orthodoxy has come under criticism from Marxist feminists for its focus on industries with largely male workforces, and more theoretically for its failure to consider the social dimension of the potential for disruption. For example, public sector school teachers and health workers may not produce surplus value for a capitalist, but they could be considered as strategic because of their role in the social reproduction of the workforce and thus of capitalism. In addition, their role in social reproduction may make it easier to make common cause with the wider working class, and avoiding being portrayed as selfish labour aristocrats. She noted that these sectors have recently been at the forefront of union organising in the US and Britain (though this is not the case for the strike wave in China).

Fox-Hodess pointed out that many others argue that the most precarious workers are the most strategically important today because of their large numbers, impoverished and insecure conditions, and their “un-tethered-ness” to institutions which constrain radicalism and militant action – despite their relative lack of economic power. This perspective also takes into account social and political dimensions alongside economic ones. Personally, I have heard people arguing that action by the most precarious workers is particularly inspiring to others (“if McDonald’s workers can strike…”). Others argue that moral outrage at the treatment of precarious workers can help them win media coverage and sympathy from those often hostile to unions, and that this in turn can help popularise the idea of striking more generally.

I would add that there are large numbers of workers with insecure employment (e.g. agency workers, those without guaranteed hours) in both the economically strategic industries such as logistics, and in social reproductive work such as health, social care and education. However, such workers still only constitute a smaller proportion of the working class as a whole in countries such as the US and UK compared to those in longer-term direct employment with reasonably regular hours.

Dockworkers’ struggles compared

“The dockers.” Monument to Labour, Brussels (Constantin Meunier)

Fox-Hodess has completed a major piece of research looking at dockers, a group of workers considered strategic in the orthodox model. This included five detailed case studies covering Greece, Portugal, England, Chile and Columbia looking at union power and strategy. Though she found dockworkers do have strategic power from an economic perspective, the picture was much more complex than the orthodox model would suggest. Dockworkers benefit from work that is central to global capitalism and international trade. They benefit from the fact that this is obvious to capital, and from the fact that capital needs skilled workers to operate advanced technology within concentrated workplaces. However, dockers’ ability to use that economically determined (potential) power has varied enormously.

Globally, despite their efforts, most dockers are either not unionised or are in weak and ineffective unions as a result of their national political context, which trumps the economic factors. Economically powerful workers are not exempt from threatened or actual state sanctioned or state sponsored violence and repression. It is important not to generalise from the position of dockers in Europe and North America. Globally, the vast majority of all workers are in countries that the International Trade Union Confederation classes as having no guarantee of labour rights.

In countries where dockers do have strong unions, it is hard for employers to confront them directly through workplace disputes. However, employers can often win indirectly, via the capitalist state. In the early 2000s, a successful and militant international campaign saw off a proposed European Directive to deregulate ports, which would have undermined some of the strongest groups of dockers. Capital adapted by pursuing its objectives country by country. Austerity programmes driven by the troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) across southern Europe included privatisation of ports in Greece and Cyprus, while Portuguese dockers have seen severe worsening of working conditions. In Spain and Belgium some of the strongest European dockers have seen union control over hiring, a key component of power, threatened by decisions of the European Court. The independent stevedore union in Sweden, which organises most workers in Gothenburg (northern Europe’s largest harbour) and is known for its radicalism, faces a threat from national anti-strike legislation promoted by the government, the employers’ association, and a competing bureaucratic union federation (Swedish Trade Union Confederation) that would eventually make the union all but disappear. Looking ahead, employers are looking to automate ports (a “technological fix”), despite this not yet being as productive, in order to sidestep dockers’ power.

Fox-Hodess highlighted Portugal and Chile as examples where unions, in very different contexts, had adopted similar strategies and were managing not only to win, but to advance the broader class struggle. They use industrial action in their ports carefully targeted to maximise their bargaining leverage with their employer and to achieve longer term organising goals. Workers took industrial action at a port in dispute in coordination with international solidarity – threats to blockade ships and cargo. Activists in both cases saw external labour and social movement alliances as critical to their success. This wasn’t just a question of practical and material support. Social and political pressure enabled the dockers to present themselves as advancing the working class movement as a whole, rather than pursuing narrow sectional interests. Far from intervening on behalf of employers, in this case the state was forced to tip the scales in favour of the workers. Their victories are reference points for the wider movement, and the dockers continue to play important parts in coalitions pursuing broader working class political goals.

Building alliances

The general lessons Fox-Hodess drew were that strikes by economically strategic workers can contribute significantly to the broader reconstruction of worker power, but only if economic power is used in combination with social and political power from labour and social movement allies. In Portugal, the key alliance was with the unemployed workers’ movement. In Chile, the key ally was the powerful student movement, as well as teachers’ and miners’ unions. These alliances were crucial because of the likelihood of the capitalist state intervening on capital’s behalf in disputes involving economically strategic workers. The state has played a central role in dockers’ struggles, so it is unhelpful to define strategic centres in purely economic terms.

All workers struggle on terrain shaped by economy, state and society. This creates multiple potential domains of power for workers to draw on, and workers in different industries are differentially able to draw on them. Fox-Hodess argues that we should picture multiple nodes of strategic power in relation to economy, state and society – recognising that capitalism is not simply an economic system but a social totality. So socialist strategy should not be simply radiating worker power out from an industrial core, because power does not only take economic forms. There is no unique entry-point for labour strategy – instead the capitalist house of cards is best demolished by coordinated action by workers in multiple dispersed sites of power. Instead of trying to predict single sectors where the next upsurge will occur, socialists should examine how to connect key nodes of workers’ economic, political and social power. Building connections can help strikes serve the wider ends that socialists wish to advance.

Pickets and looters: learning from history

Amanda Armstrong argued that the orthodox understanding of the power of economic strategic workers rested on a misunderstanding of their past successes. One example of the orthodox view is Beverley Silver’s account on the “workplace structural power” of automotive workers in the twentieth century, where small groups of workers performing specialist tasks on a production line could stage sit-down strikes and stop production involving thousands of workers.[i] Another comes from Timothy Mitchell’s account of the power of coal-based workers, whose capital intensive and spatially constrained work was particularly vulnerable to sabotage.[ii]

Armstrong described incidents from the strike wave before WWI. During the Rhondda miners’ strike of 1910, a police attack on a mass picket led to rioting and looting, in events known as the Tonypandy Riots. There was also looting in response to soldiers shooting two pickets at Llanelli during a national rail strike in 1911. In both cases, a sizeable proportion of those involved in picketing, demonstrating, rioting and looting were not workers directly involved in the dispute – these were broad mobilisations of the working class. Pickets were much larger than the workforce in dispute, and included women and the unemployed as well as workers from other industries. Neither of the pickets who were shot were rail workers. Looters weren’t a furtive or shameful minority. In one clothes shop, looting went on for three hours as men and women tried on clothes for size, and people outside asked each other how they looked.

Police block a street during the Tonypandy riots (1910-11).

The rail example challenges the usual image of picketing in another way that Armstrong didn’t mention: the mass pickets weren’t trying to stop people going to work, but were directly stopping production by blockading the railway line, which included disabling a train. Early twentieth century pickets were often motley affairs involving the broad working class, not just workers in the industry in dispute. Armstrong argues that part of the reason we have a false impression is that union officials who speak for strikes as they happen often focus exclusively on the members they represent, or even a relatively privileged layer of them. They will also be under pressure when talking to the media to stay within a narrowing and depoliticising legal framework and seek respectability.

What happened to this early twentieth century working class militancy? Beverly Silver explains the weakening of labour movements in developed countries in terms of a need to adapt through coalitions to investment in services and the relocation of manufacturing to lower wage economies; Timothy Mitchell focuses on the shift to less linear distribution systems for oil rather than coal. Armstrong argues that these views rely on accounts of early twentieth century strike waves that put too much emphasis on workers with structural workplace power and not enough on their relationship with the rest of the working class. Municipal socialist, syndicalist and Communist influences in the early twentieth century had encouraged collective action on a class-wide basis. By contrast, the subsequent focus on labour law reform, defeats for workers, changes in union political orientation, lower numbers of strikes and a limited understanding of earlier successful strikes contributed to an over-emphasis on the strategic position of particular workers and a decline in effective mass picketing.

Structural power and local support

Armstrong is drawing our attention to an important point that mirrors that made by Fox-Hodess. Groups of workers with structural power do not wield it in a vacuum, and their ability to withstand the repressive force of the state depends crucially on their relationships with the rest of the working class. However, this shouldn’t lead us to jettison Silver’s insight about how differences in production and distribution processes give groups of workers different potential structural capacities which shape the forms of struggle they need to win. Silver herself describes how textile workers, with much lower workplace structural power than automotive workers, built much stronger associational power and became the leading force in the labour movement in the nineteenth century. Similarly, we shouldn’t see changes in legislation as decisive – as both the recent wave of illegal education strikes in the USA and the history of the British labour movement indicates.

There are important strategic implications that the left can draw from these arguments. Armstrong argues we should try build cross-sectoral organs of struggle that can stage mass pickets at strategic locations. Such actions are more effective if the workers employed at those strategic locations are involved. Strikes by airport taxi drivers strengthened mass pickets at airports against Trump’s Muslim ban, but would have been stronger still if airport workers had struck. Strikers have worked with broader community mass pickets during Palestine solidarity actions at the Oakland port in 2014, as well as during the Lisbon port strikes discussed by Fox-Hodess. Recent mass pickets and blockades have often been internationalist and anti-racist: such as the blockades against border violence, the Black Lives Matter highway shutdowns, and indigenous-led oil pipeline blockades at Standing Rock.

#BlocktheBoat for Gaza. Oakland, August 2014. Photo: Daniel Auraz (via flickr)

Armstrong suggests that the labour side of such a strategy would need to include rank-and-file-ism, building strike funds independent of the bureaucracy, anti-racist and anti-sexist trade unionism, and an orientation towards mass or community pickets. Such an approach was characteristic of many of the highpoints of past struggles. When workers in a position of structural subordination, defined by hierarchies based on race, gender and citizenship, use a rank and file strategy, this can lead to radicalisation in the workplace and union structures. It can simultaneously link workplace struggles to broader movements over questions of social reproduction and state violence, helping mobilise mass pickets at strategic locations.

Breaking the law

In the discussion speakers emphasised that willingness to break the law was essential for successful struggle. Armstrong argued that this is a reason why the union bureaucracy, who are generally unwilling to risk their unions’ assets, cannot be relied on to rebuild working class power – even where unions are left-led. She gave an example where an anti-oppression caucus had ended up during a contract campaign being the grouping with the most rank and file participation, did most to build links with wider social movements, and pressured the bureaucracy generally, rather than only pushing the union to prioritise demands about challenging oppression.

At the same time, we need to be aware of the very different implications for different groups of workers – for example those who risk deportation if they take action. It’s also important not to exaggerate solidarity in the past. There have been many disputes in the past, particularly those involving women and ethnic minority workers, that did not get the solidarity they deserved. I would add that there is a risk that solidarity develops between the most powerful groups of workers, who give in the hope of receiving, but might be less motivated to do the same for weaker groups.

Economic nationalism

Fox-Hodess said she had been in the UK five years and had been shocked to find that Labour and the unions here are so much worse than their US counterparts on questions of immigration. Prevailing labour movement attitudes in the UK are dominated by economic nationalism, and implicit prioritisation of native workers. This had changed in the USA in the 2000s when the unions linked up with the movement of undocumented migrants. Latinos are now often in the forefront of union organising. There is a link between the economic nationalism of past union involvement in “Buy American” campaigns and the stereotype of white men in industry voting Trump. This really struck a chord with me. While we have come some way since Labour’s Gordon Brown and the Unite union’s Derek Simpson used the “British Jobs for British Workers” slogan, economic nationalism is still rife in British unions.

Though Fox-Hodess thinks the concept of “labour aristocracy” isn’t useful, the underlying question it seeks to address – the relationship of workers and unions to imperialist states and their impact on workers in the rest of the world – is vital. It is the union bureaucracy that sells out workers in the rest of the world, and socialists need to educate workers about the impact of their state’s actions on workers globally. During and after struggles it is important to think of supporting social reproduction, not just disrupting production, to avoid women being sidelined.

State repression and working class power

The state can deploy greater physical force at a particular location than the workers’ movement can. This is why working class movements often respond to repression at one point by spreading struggle to multiple points so that our numbers can be decisive. Powerful solidarity doesn’t always take the form of mass pickets, though. In the 1970s the refusal of rail workers to transport coal was at least as important as mass picketing during the successful miners’ strikes. Solidarity strikes in 1984-5 could have won the strike despite mass police violence against pickets. Had postal workers sustained and spread the refusal to handle Grunwick’s mail despite legal threats against their union then mass picketing wouldn’t have been as necessary. Fox-Hodess’s point about the social and political context is vital here. In dealing with the successful 1972 Saltley Gate mass picket the Home Secretary justified not using troops saying, “If they had been sent in, should they have gone in with their rifles loaded or unloaded? Either course could have been disastrous”[iii]. If the working class faces a state prepared to use repression on a scale that could defeat widespread solidarity action, they are confronted with the question of splitting the armed forces on class lines and insurrection, not mass picketing.

Strikes also test the limits of working class power. A strike can be understood as a race between workers, trying to cause a crisis of capital accumulation, and capital, trying to cause a crisis of workers’ social reproduction (in the extreme, starving, evicting and beating us back to work). At the same time, strikes themselves disrupt social reproduction, albeit more immediately and directly in some sectors than others. This forces powerful strike movements to confront the question of resuming production necessary for workers’ social reproduction, but under workers’ control. Can striking workers ensure that food, water and power are available in working class areas, that care is provided, or that education resumes – perhaps with a radically different syllabus?

This return to a consideration of building working class power for working class objectives, replacing a sectional approach, with all the problems that entails, is a big step in the right direction.


[i] Beverly J Silver, Forces of Labor, Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870 (Cambridge: CUP, 2003).
[ii] Timothy Mitchell, Carbon democracy: Political power in the age of oil (London, Verso: 2011).
[iii] Ralph Darlington & Dave Lyddon, Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain 1972 (London, Bookmarks: 2001).


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