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Summer of ‘22: Strike!
Image by Liam Edwards
By Mike Hembury
There’s a wave of energy sweeping around the world right now, a wave of defiance in the face of overwhelming odds. And I’m not just talking about the Ukrainian people’s heroic resistance against Russian invasion, or the response of American women and their allies to the Supreme Court’s abolition of the right to abortion. Rather, I’m talking about the way that throughout the United States, the UK, and around the world, some of the most exploited workers – cycle couriers, delivery workers, service industry workers – are banding together to take on some of the world’s richest corporations by demanding a living wage, fairer working conditions, and something other than the soul-destroying profit-maximizing exploitation dished up as “work” by the commanding heights of contemporary capitalism.
As someone who was politicized during the Miners’ Strike in 1980s Britain, it is so heartening not only to see the British rail workers union RMT fighting for a living wage, but also communicating effectively and winning the argument on national TV time and again. The RMT’s president, Mick Lynch, has become something of a hero to working people throughout the country for his straight talking and no-nonsense defence of the right to a living wage, the right to strike, and the right to picket.
“What the rest of the country suffers from is the lack of power, the lack of the ability to organise, & the lack of wherewithal to take on employers that are continually driving down wages & making the working class poorer year on year“.
Britain’s labour movement is relearning old lessons: that there is strength in workers’ solidarity, that we learn through struggle, and that the majority of “left” parliamentarians cannot be relied on to stand with striking workers.
The general secretary of Britain’s second largest union Unite, Sharon Graham, summed it up: “It is now down to the trade unions to defend working people. We are their only voice.”
But it’s not just in Britain that there is a newly found sense of militancy among workers. In the States, workers in service industries such as Amazon and Starbucks have been self-organizing, forming their own unions, and fighting back against exploitative conditions and disgraceful management harassment and union-busting tactics. The example set by Chris Smalls, who was initially unfairly dismissed from his job at a Staten Island Amazon “fulfilment center” for standing up to management, and who went on not only to form a union – the Amazon Labor Union – but also to become its president, has been inspirational to workers throughout the country, and indeed, the world.
The message that Chris and his co-workers are sending out is a simple one: the union is you. Traditionally, unions in the States have had a negative image, with connotations of bureaucracy, hierarchy, sell-out politics and even mobsterism. What Chris and the ALU are telling people is that they are the ones who will make a difference. It is their own activity, their own self-organisation, and their own mutual solidarity that count. The union is not some distant bureaucracy. Instead, the union is you and your co-workers, experiencing the same conditions. The union is you.
It’s hard to overstate the amount of energy that this form of self-activity can generate. And of course, this mode of organising represents a direct challenge to the bureaucratic, corporate-friendly proponents of “service unionism”. In that world, a union is little better than an insurance agency, and the main thing is not to rock the boat. But in the model that the ALU is proposing, the union is what you make it. And for the ALU members, it’s a shield of mutual solidarity forged in the toughest of working conditions.
And for those of us who see the need for a future free of disaster capitalism, the self-activity and self-organisation of working people is a seed germ, a necessary precondition for a democratic economy free of exploitation and hierarchy.
At the same time, this new form of activist unionism is also opening up a whole new conversation about the composition of the working class in rich, neo-liberal countries. Many of the people at the forefront of the Starbucks unionisation drive for example, are college-educated young people shouldering a mountain of educational debt with minimal prospects. Their class position might not be set in stone, yet they are doing the right thing and helping to organise mutual self-defence in the face of predatory and ruthless management practices. They see their future laid out before them as an order-taker in a meaningless hierarchy, and are responding to a fundamentally exploitative situation by getting organised and sticking together. This demands our respect, our support and our solidarity.
And of course, talking of the future, it’s hard to ignore the way that disaster capitalism seems hell-bent on trashing the planet in the name of profit. Politicians preach austerity to society at large whilst helping the super-rich to get even richer. Meanwhile the planet burns as we head ever further into the uncharted territory of climate catastrophe and the Sixth Extinction.
Is it any wonder then that people cheer on such efforts of mutual self-defence?
One of the great myths of disaster capitalism is the idea that we are powerless. Powerless to do anything about our working conditions, powerless in the face of undemocratic hierarchy and management abuse, powerless to fight fascism, powerless to preserve and expand women’s rights, powerless to save the planet.
All of that is bullshit.
Of course we are powerless, as long as we play by their rules. If our only form of dissent is “voting harder”, next to nothing will change.
There has to be time when we say “enough is enough”, when we withdraw our labour—when we strike—in protest at the way things are going.
Sure, strikes are often about economic issues. That’s inevitable, and an absolutely fundamental and valid part of what strikes are about. But strikes can be about social issues too.
The British Miners’ Strike of 1984 was not about pay. It was in protest about the Thatcher government’s proposed closure of working mines, entailing mass unemployment and a death sentence for many communities.
It was a struggle for justice, fairness, social responsibility and a say in determining the future.
So to those who say that American women must “play by the rules” now that the extreme right-wing Supreme Court has declared abortion illegal, I would say this: Remember the Icelandic women’s strike for equality in 1975, the Polish women’s strike for abortion rights in 2016, the Irish women’s pro-abortion “Strike for Repeal” in 2017 and the Spanish women’s strike of 2018.
Enough of poverty, enough of ecocide, enough of patriarchy!
Mike Hembury is an Anglo-Berliner originally from Portland, England. He’s a writer, translator, musician, coder, sailor, environmentalist and guitar nerd in no particular order. He is the author of New Clone City, nominated as a “Hot Berlin Read” by Exberliner magazine. You can follow Mike on Twitter here: twitter.com/schnappz