November 30th Strike: A New Winter of Discontent?

by Nina Power


November 30th saw two million UK public sector workers take strike action up and down the country. Schools and universities closed, hospitals cancelled non-urgent operations, 146,000 civil servants walked out and marches took place up and down the country. Picket lines formed outside public sector buildings everywhere and many people refused to cross picket lines in solidarity. A breakaway group from the main march organized by the Occupy group stormed Panton House (home of the FTSE mining group Xstrata and of the top-paid CEO, Mick Davies) and managed to get a banner to fly off the building, which read ‘All Power to the 99%’. The police responded quickly, perhaps to flex their muscles as part of their new ‘total policing’ strategy and arrested around twenty protesters; earlier in the day police had arrested around 35 people in outside a library in Hackney, for reasons that remain mysterious.

What did the strike and the policing mean? The numbers are massive, despite predictable attempts by the government and most media to play them down. Picket-lines are incomparable as places to foment militant sentiment and to synthesise grievances, and at one institution, Birkbeck University, police were called in by management to escort strike-breakers through the line (someone remarked that in Denmark strike-breakers being escorted through by police at least had the decency to wear balaclavas to hide their shame). In the 1980s, the miners’ strike lasted a year: some today are skeptical that one-day strikes can achieve much beyond a temporary feeling of solidarity, a reminder of whose side the police are really on and a glimpse of the potential widespread power of the withdrawal of labour – the November 30th strike may be the beginning of a series of industrial actions, as some union leaders have promised, but we’ll have to see what the new year brings: the anti-strike laws and the limiting of union powers, not to mention the persistent and deep erosion of working-class subjectivity at the hands of Thatcher and those that continued her work (that is to say every government that came after) have done serious damage. Thankfully, it is damage that is reversible, and at rapid speeds: there is nothing like the feeling of marching with anger for a common cause.

One question raised by the strike – an old question in some ways – is the relation of those without work, or those studying, or those in precarious work to the fight of those in employment. However, things look promising in this regard. Despite – or perhaps because of – massive youth unemployment (which has now reached 1 million), almost 4 in 5 of those aged 18-24 supported the strike, the highest percentage of any age-group surveyed. The “division” between those in work and those without seems to be disappearing, at least at the subjective level, as precarity becomes a generalized feature and the pressing desire to fight against “austerity measures” becomes a cross-class, cross-age action. Unions themselves have begun to recognize the need to address more seriously the line between un- and employed, with Unite (the largest trade union in the UK) recently offering community memberships of 50p a week to students and those not in work.

On an earlier student protest on the 9th November, police kettled a group of striking electricians (“Sparks”, who have been highly active in recent weeks) in order to prevent them marching alongside students: the narrative that claims that workers and students have little in common (despite the constant imperative that students must prepare themselves at all time for a brutal and competitive work environment) could have been seriously undermined – and the police, the media and the government knew it. This has got to be the way forward – where students, the unemployed, workers come together in recognition of a common (or really, common enough) situation. “We are the 99%” is of course a slogan with flaws – ignoring as it does the divisions and contradictions among the 99% themselves, but in many ways it usefully reminds us that to see the world in terms of exploiters and exploited is a vision that was as true when Marx critiqued the capitalist mode of production in the 19th century as it is now. How we address, and fight, the things that have changed since then – the dominance of precarity, (the birth and) demolition of the welfare state and the privatization of more or less everything – is up to us.

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