By John Millngton
“Are you prepared for a general strike?” bellowed Unite leader Len McCluskey during his speech to thousands of workers who flooded into Hyde Park after a noisy anti austerity march on October 20th.
The leader of Britain’s biggest union got the deafening roar of approval he was expecting and a “show of hands” vote from the crowd indicating overwhelming support for his suggestion.
But was McCluskey’s classic piece of 70’s trade union theatre designed purely to get the blood pumping or was it as he claimed a genuine attempt to “begin the consultation” on the practicalities of a general strike?
Are workers in Britain really prepared to walk out on mass against austerity?
The term “general” or “generalised” strike action has been bandied around the trade union movement for decades particularly during spikes of industrial unrest.
Britain has only ever had one general strike in 1926 which ended in defeat for the trade union movement.
However the re-emergence of the concept and momentum behind such a call during austerity has its roots in frustration at the cuts, Labour’s timid opposition to the status quo and workers drawing inspiration from mass strike actions across Europe.
With the TUC opening the door to look at the possibility of such action at their recent congress, militant union leaders have the sanction of officialdom to “ask the question” at every opportunity.
The idea has also been given legal sanction, with employment experts John Hendy QC and Professor Keith Ewing arguing that the government may not be able to rule such action illegal.
With that in mind, what did those on the TUC “For a Future that works” demo, make of McCluskey’s strike call?
“Let’s have a 24 hour general strike. Bring on the revolution,” says Ivan Monckton, Unite executive member for Agriculture.
His industry has been decimated by government policies particularly in the so-called “bonfire of the quangos” which saw the Agricultural Wages Board abolished.
The board was responsible for regulating minimum standards of pay and conditions and allowed unions to play a full role.
Unite has warned not only will it lead the loss of the AWB lead to huge reductions in pay and grinding poverty in the countryside.
Monckton added that with more people likely to die as a result of industrial accidents, agricultural workers would be up for “anything” that was part of fighting back.
Another marcher and blacklisted construction worker Dave Smith has seen similar devastation wreaked upon his industry.
Declining construction output, cheap labour from abroad and ruthless employers hell bent on deriving quick profits from staggering 35 per cent pay cuts have convinced Smith that a general strike is not only possible but a necessity if his and other industries are to be saved.
“The construction industry has been slaughtered by the recession – there are loads of construction workers out of work and not enough houses for people. They should be put back to work building those houses.”
He also cites Greece and Spain where general strikes have become part of the norm in battling austerity, adding that the TUC here needs to “get on with it.”
“I genuinely think that if you talk to people – they say if we do it we need to do it together,” he said.
“People don’t want to be left on their own. IF the TUC calls it (a general strike) and senior general secretaries support it, people will follow.”
Smith’s sentiments on the need for action have found some unlikely supporters.
With Labour leader Ed Miliband failing to support strike action over pensions or promising to end the cuts if elected, it was left to new Green Party leader Natalie Bennett to give party political support.
“We are not calling for a general strike but if the union movement collectively decides that it wants a general strike, we would certainly support it,” she said during the march.
Others however are far more sceptical about such an event taking place anytime soon.
Retired firefighter John Drake insisted the focus should be on beating specific government policies with localised campaigns rather than a mass walkout.
An experienced union campaigner, Drake is totally opposed to the government and wants local anti-cuts groups to mobilise against specific government austerity measures in their localities.
But he is also opposed to a general strike, pointing out that, it would be unfair to ask low paid shop workers in moderate unions such as Usdaw to lose a day’s pay over an event that would primarily be about public sector cuts.
“Are we really expecting part time Tesco workers to come out on strike for people in the public sector?” he said.
“Yes the private sector is hurting just as much but it is a predominately public sector strike issue.”
Others question the willingness of workers to take such a giant step forward despite unprecedented austerity.
Industrial relations professor Roger Seifert instead suggests: “The best way forward continues to be the combination of pressure on labour for a more progressive set of planned policies; pressure on employers to start increasing wages and taking on and training new staff; pressure on union leaders to adopt more pro-active policies and practices on the economy; and the further development of alternative policies that meet both short-term and medium-term issues facing the British working-class.”
There are around 2.5m private sector employees in unions out of a total union membership of just under 6 million across all industries.
That represents only a fraction of the total workforce which stands at just under 30 million.
But if millions of workers across key industries such as transport, construction, off-shore oil workers and the public sector took strike action at the same time, the impact would be more significant than at any time recent history.
Professor Prem Sikka agrees that low union density is not a barrier to successful coordinated action in “crucial industries.”
“An effective general strike will be difficult because the trade union density in the UK is low is now less that 6 million workers, the lowest proportion of workers since the 1940s,” he says.
“In addition, the oppressive trade union laws will make it harder to the unions to organise action.”
“This then leaves the possibility of action in crucial industries such as transport to vent anger and the likelihood that the state will respond with some oppressive measures.”
November 14th will see what some are calling the first “European wide general strike” which is expected to see millions of workers walk out in four European countries.
Workers in Britain may not be among them but anger frustration and desperation is building.
And militant trade union leaders know that they don’t need a majority of workers to strike. They just need an organised minority to shut the country down for a day.