Home > Gender Politics, General Politics, Socialism, Trade Unions > Sitting-in against ACAS and socialist tactics

Sitting-in against ACAS and socialist tactics

Well now. Half the blogosphere has been discussing the latest outing of the Socialist Workers’ Party. Having concluded a Right to Work conference, SWP members decided to take advantage of what providence offered: an open door into the ACAS building, where BA managers and Unite union negotiators were sitting down for a cosy chat.

This throws up a few questions on the role of direct action in struggle. Was it right to occupy this building? What is the relationship between the Right to Work activists and the BA Cabin Crew? With what group of people should initiative lie?

In this instance, I don’t think occupying the building will have achieved much. Though we can only judge the negotiations as outsiders, it seems that the leaders of Unite already appreciate the depths of their members feelings. They have acquired some measure of a deal on the reasons for the strike, and are now holding out for Walsh to recant on perks and suspensions.

If this happens, it will be a personal defeat for Walsh and a psychological victory for the union, bearing in mind Walsh’s public determination that there shall be no concessions in this regard. If it doesn’t happen, and the union looks solid on defending the interests of members – as they did in this instance – then there’s no harm in negotiations.

Either way, the intervention of groups unrelated to the strike – despite their inclusion of some Unite members and other trades unionists who were at the Right to Work Conference – won’t really help matters.

Moreover, upsetting the negotiations gives the opposition an opportunity to blame the collapse on the intervention of a group that is external to the dispute, and thus blame the strike on those outsiders. Add this to Willie Walsh’s usual verbal diarrhoea when it comes to ‘militants’ and who knows what propaganda will be rained on BA workers.

That such blame is false is not the point. Willie Walsh is clearly out to break the union by any means necessary, as evidenced by his pretence at outrage over a union leader twittering on the progress of the talks, and by the cycle of suspensions and withholding of benefits from those members of BASSA who went on strike.

This is a point that can be made, along with all arguments for direct action, on the picket lines this morning. The final decision would then be with the BA workers themselves.

Socialists might suggest what could be achieved by such action – but the final decision should be taken through the democracy of union branches, or at least by the picket as a whole. It’s no use a committed and unrepresentative core turning up alone.

It is, as the Socialist Party article on the issue states, the responsibility of already-convinced socialists to raise the confidence of the rest our class to engage in struggle.

This cannot be done by activists alone. The key thing is to convince others and then act in solidarity – by taking part in an agreed-upon action. A good analogy is the action of socialists regarding strikes; we can argue that our workplaces should go on strike and then go on strike with them, and man the pickets, but it makes no sense for a socialist to go on strike on their own, and to hope that their colleagues will follow.

Judging by the interview above, the purpose of the occupation was to show solidarity – and again, the place to do that would be the picket lines during this week, to turn up and support pickets, make them lively and, crucially, make a political argument about the significance of this strike.

Some people have said they thought Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson were capitulating to Walsh, thus justifying intervention to stop the negotiations. But it is the political arguments made on the picket lines that are the best defence against the surrender of union bureaucrats – and in this regard, with each strike resulting in the cancellation of higher percentages of BA flights, the BA cabin crews have given every impression of being solidly behind the strike, despite Walsh’s campaign of victimisation.

  1. Stephanie David
    May 24, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    You’ve raised some good points. Yet I am not going to apologize for my participation in this event.

    Let me make this very clear – some of us were not SWP, but actually Union activists and other flavours of socialist who of course do not hold for unilateral or sectarian action but at the same time are not willing just to sit on our hands/bums/comfy socialist armchairs. We had at the last minute planned to protest outside the building. I was near the end of the demo, but admittedly would probably have gone inside and up as it were. And when our comrades did go in, the last thing to do would have been to leave them to it…

    So, not clever perhaps but these seemed the things to do at the time.

    I believe that the new situation and the resistance demand not just unions fighting on their own in isolation, but also any others of us, hopefully together. The lives of the young people with us on Saturday – not to mention us who were older – are and will be affected by what’s going on – dare I say perhaps as badly as the strikers themselves if not worse.

    There’s a woman from Canada who said once:
    “Never retract, never explain, never apologize;
    get things done and let them howl.”

  2. May 24, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    Ah Steph, hope you’re well.

    I hope you don’t think for a moment that my commentary here is a case of sitting on my hands / bum / comfy socialist armchair. Nor is that the case for a lot of other people who have criticised the move. The Socialist Party, for example, maintains a strong presence at all the pickets and will have been there this morning.

    As you know, I’m no stranger to pickets and protests and meetings myself.

    Where I think you go wrong is in your conflation of ‘unions fighting on their own in isolation’ with the desire (on the part of myself and others) that people don’t take rash actions when they could instead take considered actions that might have much greater effects.

    I would never do down the desire to express solidarity – it is noble. But, drawing on my own experience of the SWP and having watched a few interviews with the protesters, it seems that political inexperience led to a rather misguided method of demonstrating that solidarity.

    People who are on strike, especially in today’s context of a class consciousness that is not well-developed, should always remain in control of that strike. It can’t just be one more cause for the ‘protest movement’, forgotten as soon as its over – for these individual workers, it’s too important for that. Strong links can be forged, but cautiously, with patient work.

    Yesterday’s action took control out of the hands of the people elected to lead the strike. It is also in danger of making the strike appear like just one more bandwagon for an overwhelmingly young group of hotheaded activists, easily fitted into a bunch of stereotypes (true or, as is more likely, false).

    I don’t think that’s acceptable – and saying it seemed the right thing to do at the time just means that no one sat down and thought about it, at the time. Which is worrying of itself.

    As for ‘let them howl’, such a brazen attitude is permissible only where the action gets results. In this case, it hasn’t and isn’t likely to.

  3. Stephanie David
    May 24, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    Hey Dave,

    If anything it’s because I know you’re not sitting on your bum etc. and have indeed conveyed your thoughts without vitriol and sanctimony as so many comrades have done that I feel relatively safe here to express my perspective.

    Call me naive – but I know there will be so many others like myself joining the cause who haven’t got all the “political experience” in the world or who might not have joined the correct left group. Indeed, coming down like a ton of bricks, as people have in this case, will dissuade any new recruits.

    Let’s work together and not beat each other up.

  4. May 24, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    Well, at any rate, judging by Lenin’s Tomb (and judge for yourself whether that’s reliable), it seems to have cheered up a few of the BA cabin crews to see Willie Walsh so discomfitted, just as it brought a smile to my face when I watched some of the footage.

  5. Stephanie David
    May 24, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    Thanks for that.

  6. Brian Christopher
    May 25, 2010 at 11:52 am

    I just wanted to point out (Yet again!) that no one has attempted “justifying intervention to stop the negotiations”. The negotiations were not interrupted and there was no intention of doing so. Indeed Willie Walsh doesn’t blame the demonstrators for it – he repeatedly blamed Unite. Of course it wasn’t Unite’s fault either. The talks broke down because Willie Walsh is a union-basher!

    As well as this I should point out that the people most fervent about convincing anyone who will listen that the SWP smashed relations between Britain’s biggest Union and a Global Corporation are the same left sects who (1) the rest of the time say the SWP are tiny, ineffectual and irrelevant and (2) have themselves made substitution of their party for the class an art form.

    In contrast this demonstration was only made possible because a conference had, in a nearby area, brought together militants from all over the country. The SWP were instrumental in establishing Right to Work and while this particular demonstration had some unintended consequences the initiative (the RTW campaign) has brought together rank and file Trade Unionists in a way not seen in this country for quite some time.

    Willie Walsh is a bully – one of the most hated bosses in Britain and is intent on breaking the union at BA. Any demonstration against him, whether he’s having afternoon tea with his chums or telephoning his lieutenants to say ‘no deal’is a demo worth having.

    Real solidarity with the strikers has been a much bigger part of what we as revolutionary socialists have down in recent months to support the BA workers (collections, public meetings, motions of support, visiting picket lines, holding rallies). Perhaps if we have a discussion about that it would be more productive.

  7. May 25, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Actually Brian, if you read a bunch of the comments threads from various blogs that have articles on this subject, there are several people who have tried justifying it from that angle. If you read the article above, you’ll note the explicit mention that Walsh broke up negotiations, not the demonstrators nor the twitter incident.

    It’s also interesting that you want to draw the discussion away from the demo and towards what you’ve dubbed ‘real solidarity’, which basically concedes the central point of my article – that the demo may have made the participants feel a bit better, that they were ;doing something’, but that real solidarity lies elsewhere.

  8. Jacob Richter
    May 25, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    This idiocy is exactly what happens when there’s no party to the “linke” of Labour that combines class struggle with populism in terms of policy.

  9. July 12, 2010 at 11:46 am

    I don’t really get why these protesters are getting such a bashing. The cabin crew had plenty of forces lined up against them – BA management, the right wing media, most MPs, the legal establishment and the Unite Union bureaucracy. The main threat doesn’t come from a handful of protestors shouting ‘we support the cabin crew’. Mistaken or not,at least they were there having a go and giving Willie Walsh a hard time. So whatever criticisms you have of them, why not at least start from a position of support? Maybe the point is not that the protestors should not have been there, but that there weren’t enough of them. What would the attitude here have been if there had been 30,000 protesters there rather that 30? I doubt that this protest itself had much effect at all on the dispute. But lining up with the union-bashing media in labelling the protesters as idiots certainly doesn’t really help either, does it?

  10. July 12, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    Do thirty thousand protesters have any more right than thirty to usurp the struggle? No. If the staff at BA had decided to convene a demonstration, either in fear of being sold out or in order to underscore their resolve, then I’d have turned up myself and disrupted the meeting. This was not the case; it was the decision of people who are uninvolved with the struggle, providing a clear scapegoat for two groups (union bureaucracy and employers) who would each love to wiggle out of their responsibilities.

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