David Jamieson

David Jamieson

When the Boss Joins the Picket

Reading Time: 5 minutes

From the US to Scotland, leading politicians have started joining picket lines. But their appropriation of working class causes speaks to malaise in a disorganised left, argues David Jamieson.

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It was frankly bizarre to see unions, and particularly the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC), congratulate Sturgeon on her appearance at a picket line for a strike against her own government policies earlier this week. Odder still, The STUC general secretary followed up the next day by paying homage to Sturgeon, endorsing the former first minister’s self-image as a warrior against social polarisation.

Meanwhile in the US, Joe Biden is the first US President ever to attend a strike picket. He too was praised for his act of solidarity by a range of figures on the left. Yet he joins the fray at a time when the United Auto Workers (UAW) have never been weaker – never less positioned to put the frighteners on him. Perhaps these facts are not unconnected.

A tempting theory in recent years has suggested that ‘capacity building’ – the reconstruction of defensive union type infrastructure in workplaces and communities – is the task of the hour, and the only ultimate hope for the re-animation of a working class politics. After all, how can you have socialist objectives without a healthy labour movement that makes them feasible, and from which politics can draw strategic lessons and numerical clout?

What if the inverse is also true – without a mass socialist politics it becomes harder to rebuild a viable labour movement, because immediate demands must conform to market and state logics, and the anti-working class institutions that predominate – like the governing political parties – seem inevitable. At least we don’t need to argue chickens and eggs, as the socialist cause long predates modern unions, which have existed at scale for a fraction of the history of capitalism. At its most powerful, the labour movement was staffed by militants who believed what they were doing was building a grand systemic alternative – not just fighting for immediate needs. The condescension of history means we’ve forgotten that the 19th and 20th century proletariat was just as addicted to the quest for power, and even to utopia, as were the soft-handed intellectuals.

Today, collective organisation is strongest among better paid, better educated workers who are more closely integrated with public institutions. The big battalions are educators in schools, colleges, and universities. Some of the reasons might be structural – these are some of the largest, best networked workplaces in the country (along with hospitals and parts of the civil service – other relatively well organised sectors).

But surely intangible factors also play a role: self-confidence and social capital – the continued status that accrues (for now, and decreasingly) to the professions but which has been robbed from the mass of wage labourers. Here, an ephemeral stake in the system might take the place of some larger vision of social re-organisation. Professionals have always resisted the degradation of their status, and a slide into the anonymity and squalid conditions below.

Where blue-collar and private sector workers do wield real power – including in the recent strike movement, where they achieved some of the only inflation-busting wage rises – lorry drivers and dockers exercise a natural chokehold on the circulation of commodities. But elsewhere, a sense of the hopelessness of politics hangs over industrial activity like a damp fog. This is all just to say that there is no easy separation between a ‘real’ struggle of economic demands and a total vision of society, which every worker carries in their head (and is not reducible either to the ‘whole worker’ – expressed by modern syndicalists as economic needs that exist outside the workplace; rent, inflation, services etc).

The strike movement of 2022-3 re-iterated these divisions in the workforce – it was dominated by traditionally unionised industries, mostly in the public sector. The good news is that where workers are organised, they respond to inflation with collective action – gravity is still in effect. And we can assume that were it not for that action, wages would have sunk lower. There is no knowing today what lessons this has planted for the future.

But the balance sheet for now is grim. University and hospital staff are facing a massive 7% real terms pay cut overall. Teachers aren’t fairing a great deal better. In fact, the prevailing conditions of public sector austerity mean that private sector wages have outstripped union pay deals. In Royal Mail, pay and conditions are being hammered, and CWU activists hounded.

For many union leaders, eyes are now turning to a Starmer government. No matter how craven he is, the hope will be that the lashings of recent years will end, with less active hostility to unions and more public spending. Without permanent, anti-systemic, political organisation, energies are feeding back into the core institutions of the system.

This is a permanent feature of modern politics. Consider some social movements, large and small, of recent years. Black Lives Matter in the US was a gigantic street level mobilisation, stretched in two great waves over several years and two presidencies (people often conveniently forget it began under Obama). It has left behind next to no legacy organisation – the official BLM outfit, in receipt of enormous capitalist funds, collapsed amid a torrid corruption scandal. The afterlife of the movement was steered into Biden’s election campaign and parked in the orbit of the Democratic party.

This is also where the Bernie Sanders movement retired. Sanders himself has taken loyal posts in the centrist Democratic order (for example, as chair of the Senate’s budget committee). Biden’s appearance on the picket line was organised by Faiz Shakir, the Bernie campaign manager for 2020. Across the board, former left populists are joining “a top-down committee focused on influencing legislators”, as Oliver Eagleton has described perceptively.

On a smaller scale, Scotland got a hint of this phenomenon from Kenmure Street. The action that saved two men from deportation has been eulogised in the name of the very institutions seeking their deportation, and which structure the European migration regime that discriminates against migrants from outside the continent. Police Scotland (answerable to the government through the Scottish Police Authority) provided much of the manpower for the eviction effort, and it is of course the EU which sets preferential treatment for EU citizens (the men were of Indian origin). Yet Lorna Slater for the Scottish Government claimed the victory in the name of the EU.

It is the destiny of people without political organisation to lose every battle, even the ones they win. Political energies need to find a home. Especially once a social movement is defeated or merely contained, it is wide open to manipulation and re-incorporation into the establishment edifice. I can’t shake the feeling that this is what politicians on picket lines means – less that unions are shifting the frame of official politics in their favour, more that politicians are turning up to supper.

Every generation of socialists before our own has built independent political organisation – namely, a party. It’s a curious and troubling thought that, at least in the west, we are the first generation in around 150 years to neglect this very basic prerequisite for political action. In the interregnum, we’ve gotten used to the radical right eating the left’s lunch. Now the establishment centre wants a bite as well.

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