Serious discussions are now taking place in Britain about the possibility of a general strike. In the light of Britain’s historical experience – and legal restrictions – is this a viable demand?
Britain has only had one General Strike. In 1926, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called workers out in support of the miners’ struggle in defence of their wages and hours. After nine days of government-organised strike breaking, the TUC called it off. The miners fought on alone for months, many facing starvation. The failure of that strike has had a profound impact on the lAabour movement in Britain, always hesitant about any repetition, and the anti-union laws of Margaret Thatcher compounded that by making secondary strike action illegal.
The call for a general strike in recent decades has been associated with the ultra-left so it is a sign of the severity of the economic crisis and the savage onslaught on working people in Britain today, that the question of general strike has been raised again, within the TUC itself and on the lips of major trade union leaders. At the TUC Congress in September last year, a resolution was overwhelmingly agreed: for the TUC to look into the "practicalities" of organising a general strike, in protest at government spending cuts.
This call was further endorsed by trade union leaders, such as Len McCluskey of Unite and Mark Serwotka of PCS, at the 150,000 strong TUC anti-cuts demonstration in October of last year.
Now Unite looks set to make proposals for a general strike against austerity at the forthcoming TUC General Council meeting. The discussion will have to address the legal implications – this would be interpreted as a ‘political’ rather than ‘industrial’ strike and face legal challenge. The extent of it would also be under discussion – sector and length. It would likely also have to address opposition in some trade union quarters, as well as from the Labour Party leadership which does not have an anti-austerity policy and failed in government to reverse Thatcher’s anti-trade union legislation. Notwithstanding these problems, the increased militancy of Unite and other trade unions is much welcomed as people struggle to defend their jobs, benefits and public services and look for clear anti-cuts leadership in the fight against austerity.
The strong role of Unite and other unions in the anti-austerity movement is therefore very welcome. They are playing a major role in the People’s Assembly against Austerity in London on 22 June, followed on 23 June by a European Assembly against Austerity. These events have been initiated by the Coalition of Resistance with the intention of strengthening and developing the anti-austerity movement in Britain and in cooperation with the movement across Europe. We hope to welcome many comrades from across Europe to join us in discussing these significant developments.