November 30th Public Sector strike: the St Andrew’s Day mass strike in Scotland

Photo by Aoife McKenna

“An old communist conceives an embryo of longing. One day his modern prince will come.” So wrote the leftist doctor David Widgery in a reflection on the place of revolutionaries shortly after Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 election. Does the UK public sector general strike, nearly thirty-three years on, signify the coming of ‘the proletarian kiss’?  Too soon to tell, by more than half. What can be said is that this is the first mass strike since the offensive mounted by Thatcher started winning for her side: the first national collective action of a working class reconstituted by the neo-liberal decades: the first since Widgery called for ‘a politics that can move with astonishing ease from the details of a strike to the problems of childrearing…which is seeking not Euro-Reforms but a new way of life, love and government.’
What has happened and what does it mean?

The Events

The day began, of course, with pickets. At my own picket line, one of eight at Edinburgh university, the strike was not completely solid.  At least ten cars and thirty pedestrians entered, without accounting for the other entrances. However, this was a several-fold decrease in traffic from the last time we held a strike. This is an important sign of progress because part of the meaning of this strike, particularly in higher education, is re-constituting a tradition of collective action embodied in not crossing picket lines. An increased stay-away rate is a good indicator of this understanding. The postman refused to cross our picket. The main library picket line, when I visited it, was a quite superb mixture of staff and students, segueing into a feminist-inspired ‘teach-out’ at the end. Law lectures and several workshops and seminars in the Politics department were cancelled, although definitive information is not yet available. Chambers Street was, in the words of one UCU official, ‘one giant picket line’ and the National Museum of Scotland was closed. A ‘battle bus’ arranged by Occupy Edinburgh and the Coalition of Resistance toured the picket lines, to great acclaim. When the derelict Forest Café (a former anarchist collective) was occupied, the cops turned up in a taxi. Had they run out of vans?

Across Scotland the strike can only be judged a resounding success. Almost every school was shut (although certain SNP councils make St Andrew’s day a holiday anyway). The Glasgow underground was closed. Councils almost everywhere stopped. Ferry services were stopped in the Western isles and all classes at Strathclyde university cancelled. According to the Guardian, 300,000 workers participated in the strike in Scotland. So nearly one-in-ten: if you add in their families then we almost certainly can speak of one tenth of the population involved in some way. The multiplier effect of having schools on strike must have increased the effective impact as workers stayed home: a salutary reminder to those who regard teachers, amongst other public service workers, as a bloated waste of money. What would you actually do without them? When was the last time so many people took in Scotland took the same act⎯a political act⎯at the same time?

The rallies confirm the breadth and scope of strike action. 30,000, or thereabouts participated in Glasgow, 10,00 in Dundee, 20,000 in Edinburgh. The crowd in Edinburgh was shockingly beautiful in its size and composition. The Unison section alone filled the assigned meeting place in front of the parliament. The march filled the Royal Mile for the best part of an hour: for the most part cheered on by onlookers.

Photo by Aoife McKenna

Some points about the composition of the strike, visible on the rally, are worth noting. It seemed mostly to be people who had never struck before, as confirmed at least by some anecdotal sampling. It was mainly female. It had young children⎯the schools of course being shut by the strike itself, but what an excellent ‘early years intervention’ this must have made. The strike and rally were, in short, representative of the working class. That class as it is, and not as it exists in the fantasies either of the Clarksonoid right or parts of the left (who will especially have to buck up some gender-related ideas if they intend to retain contact with the 21st century proletariat).

This was more than a march. Just as the Occupy movement represents an act of reconstituting space under the control of a collective subject, so this mass strike represents a (so far temporary) taking of control over the central relationship that structures most of our lives- and in this sense is even more radical than the retaking of privatized space.  It was the physical expression of a reversal of the normal order of things. You usually have to work and you usually take what’s coming to you, because you’re on your own. In Edinburgh and everywhere else in the strike, that was no longer true. We were together, and we were powerful. That, I think, is why when I looked around half-way down the walk I noticed that everyone was smiling.

Politics before and after

There is little need to re-hash the reasons and the context for the strike: Tory arguments that either public sector workers are going to be fine once their pensions are cut, or that they have it coming to them, are transparently piffle. We encountered a few such outbursts on the picket today (including an indignant ‘I have school fees to pay!’) but not many. The day was very well chosen indeed: Osborne’s pledge of another decade of sado-monetarism and European commissioner Olli Rehn’s insistence that the Euro would not survive another bout of inaction further proof of its pertinence. The ruling class are in disarray. Their prescription that everyone must pay for the crisis except for its authors is failing even in its own terms.

What about Scotland? One of Alex Salmond’s great advantages has been the low quality of his opposition. Faced with opponents of the calibre of Iain Gray, few could fail to shine. The SNP have been able to gain electoral support through nods to a broadly social-democratic consciousness, expressed in the retention or introduction of moderately humane policies such as those on tuition fees or prescription charges. Serious class struggle, however, is likely to confuse, disperse and discombobulate. The pensions policy belongs to the Tories but the  sectors on strike are under devolved control. Witness Salmond’s performance today. First, and this should be eternally recalled, he crossed a picket line. Since there was a PCS picket line outside of his official residence he would have had to cross in order to get a pint of milk. While Miliband flustered in London, Scottish Labour (and the Greens) at least respected the pickets at Holyrood. The SNP, with one exception, walked straight in to hold a debate they themselves had tabled. The topic of the debate was public sector pensions, which, the SNP tweeted, were subject of a ‘cash grab’ by Westminster. It’s terrible that you’re having your cash grabbed but you’re not allowed to stop the grabbers.

Seven months into his super-majority administration, Salmond seems a silly hypocrite and a scab. This is not because of Labour, still less the ConDem fractions in Scotland. It is because of class-based resistance to the economic crisis that now defines politics everywhere. That resistance has morphed, re-grouped, strengthened and re-appeared in new places and new forms (which sublate rather than supplant the old) on almost monthly basis throughout 2011. Its most recent phase has been the Occupy movement. Might this strike mark a new metamorphosis? Unions, after all, have leaders and they tend not to be keen on things changing too much. But, Edinburgh is beginning to experience something that feels like victories for the good guys. Not only was the (SNP led) council pressurized into supporting the Occupy camp, the council’s plans to privatise services were dropped in part because of a Unison-led campaign reflecting the sway of the city’s left in that union. Being with 19,999 other strikers on the streets makes one feel like there could be more to come.

Is there a chance for more than votes, for that different way of life, love and governance with which I started? The left of the left is not in much of a state to answer that question. However, the strike offers some way to begin. The two slogans that have defined 2011, “the people demand” and “we are the 99%”, interpellate a popular subject. Yet there has always been a tension and ambiguity present within them. Who really are the 99%? Who does not belong to the people? The strike may present some resolution, or centre of gravity for that popular subject: amongst those simultaneously attacked and rendered powerful by capitalism.

The Italian intellectual Lucio Magri, editor of Il Manifesto, died the day before the UK strike. In his last book , he resorted to Brecht’s parable ‘the Tailor of Ulm’ to capture the experience of the twentieth century. The tailor thought he could fly. He built ‘things that looked like wings’ and jumped from a church roof. Of course he died. The bishop, who had mocked the tailor, said to the people: ‘It was a wicked foolish lie. Mankind will never fly.’

Maybe. Maybe.

Photo by Aoife McKenna
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