The lessons to be learned from the end of the strike in Cadiz are fundamental for the struggles to come. No, better conditions did not bring about an agreement between the bosses and the unions which the workers then accepted. Rather, the union leadership of the strike has prevented the workers from taking control of the struggle by inevitably ensuring that the conditions offered by the bosses would be accepted.
Table of Contents
- The strike has been called off: What has really happened?
What do we learn from this strike’s calling off?
- 1. Trade union goals subordinate the struggle for workers’ needs to the “needs” of the company’s profit
- 2. Without a strike general assembly and real strike committee, closed-door machinations are inevitable
- 3. The secret ballot atomizes and isolates workers
- 4. “Radical unionism” only radicalizes atomization and demoralization
- Conclusion: the end of strike in Cádiz and unionism
Read also: Metalworkers' strike in Cádiz, 24,11/2021
The strike has been called off: What has really happened?
During the night of Wednesday to Thursday, the first news of an agreement emerged from the closed-door meeting of CCOO and UGT with the employers.
The conditions “achieved” contradicted the goal of the strike and differed only in detail from management’s initial offer. Instead of meeting the effect of inflation (4.6% today, possibly 6% by the end of the year), they settled for a third (2% wage increase) plus the promise of a review that would cover up to 80% of what was lost.
When the morning came, the media all over Spain cheered loudly. From there, with all the media coverage giving “supporting fire,” the union bureaucratic machinery went into overdrive. The union tactic to make swallow was explicit:
We have reached a pre-agreement that we will submit to the assembly of delegates and, subsequently, each delegate in their company, if they see fit, will hold a vote on it.
That is, the leadership of the two big unions would meet with the members of the works councils of each center, since no real strike committees were ever elected. And only if, one by one, each of them met with a lot of resistance, would they call for a vote… by secret ballot.
Meanwhile, the supposedly “radical” unions (CGT and Coordinadora) that are organizing demonstrations in support of the strike, rejected the agreement and called to proceed with the strike. But when it came down to it, they take for granted the terrain imposed by the unions: approval by isolated workplaces and by secret ballot. They limit themselves to denouncing some vote gerrymandering and feint at keeping the strike call up on their own.
But the die is cast: the media celebrate the “agreement” in style and confusion and frustration, if not demoralization reign among workers.
What do we learn from this strike’s calling off?
1. Trade union goals subordinate the struggle for workers’ needs to the “needs” of the company’s profit
The state capitalism under which we live leaves workers and what they call our “legitimate demands” a very narrow space: the discussion mediated by the unions and their works councils of the price of our working hours, company by company and sector by sector. Discussion that all parties -unions, employers and the state- accept as conditional on the existence of profits.
From the beginning, “complying with the agreement” -that is, the law- and obtaining “workload” (new contracts) for the companies headed the demands put forward by the unions. It is an old story already familiar in Cádiz to the Navantia shipyard workers. It reiterates the idea that “the welfare of the workers depends on the results of the company”. The old formula hammered by the unions for years under the form “we cannot ask from the company what it cannot give”.
This makes union “demands” indistinguishable from those of company managers and owners vis-à-vis the state, and ends up turning them into “alternative managers” in shareholder battles, as we already saw in Alcoa. No wonder. Their raison d’être as an organization is to mediate the sale of labor power. The union bosses aspire to turn the organization of which they are professional cadres into one more monopolist within the great game of capital that determines prices and wages.
And since the unions will always subordinate the needs of the workers to the results of the company, their entire organization of strike instruments will reflect this and become an obstacle.
Read also: Why are the left and the unions blocking the strike?, 24/11/2021
2. Without a strike general assembly and real strike committee, closed-door machinations are inevitable
What strengthens any strike, small or large, like any class struggle, is that, even in a potential way, it materializes a collective subject. A subject that is much more powerful than any simple sum of individuals whose level of commitment and cohesion is unknown to anyone. If the assembly so decides, we will all go on strike, if not, no matter how much we believe in its necessity, we will have to accept it and continue to struggle to convince our colleagues.
However, we increasingly see unions calling us to go on strike without even convening an assembly beforehand or, when they do, reducing it to an informational assembly. The result is strikes that are not even company strikes, but strikes of individuals, which is why their recounting is given in percentage terms: “60% of the workforce followed the strike“, they tell us, as if it were a success. But if a majority wanted to strike, why not discuss it at an assembly and go all together?
The point is that if the assembly convenes, the assembly decides and also decides who represents it. The same assembly that convenes and directs, elects a strike committee and modifies its composition when it sees fit. Moreover, the assembly is sovereign and may well choose – this is the way forward – to include temporary and contract workers on an equal footing. In other words: the assembly, when it is such, tends to constitute a broader base than that intended to be represented by the works council regularly elected from among the union candidates in compliance with labor legislation.
That is the bottom line of this whole question: who has sovereignty: the workers or the works councils; the political bodies we bring into existence by ourselves as workers and which tend to include everyone, or the bodies imposed by law and which make us choose from among the unions.
Atomized assemblies by workplace and works councils self-invested as (fake) strike committees mean subordinating the organization of the strike to the unions and their goals, the first of which is the profitability of the company.
And yet, only in cases where combativeness overcomes them from the first moment, like this metal strike in Cádiz, they organize assemblies in which they do not get off the loudspeaker and try to impose themselves as a strike committee by virtue of “their rights” according to labor legislation.
As we’ve seen at Amazon, their “ideal” model is to present the strike as an individual right limited to whether or not to follow unions. Which makes the strike the opposite of a class assertion and therefore of something useful to get our needs met. The strike thus becomes exercise of citizenship, isolating us, atomizing us and, as in any market or parliament, reducing our sovereignty to choosing among the options offered to us by the institutions of state capitalism.
Accepting the disorganization of the struggle by the unions then means limiting bargaining to a closed-door machination with the bosses in which both “management teams” fix prices and conditions by analyzing the conditions of the company.
3. The secret ballot atomizes and isolates workers
A soft but no less insidious version of the same union citizenism is the imposition of the secret ballot in the assemblies. Isolated in front of the ballot box we are alone in front of the company and the unions, that is to say in front of the power of capital and the state. That is why they remind us that we must vote thinking about our interests… which is never the collective, but the anguish of not making ends meet and being left alone if the strike continues.
By contrast, by discussing openly and voting by a show of hands, face to face, shoulder to shoulder with the other workers, the vote itself is a bond of commitment and a show of courage. Assemblies organized in this way not only allow decisions to be made on the basis of numbers, but also on the basis of the commitment and spirit of their members. And the strike committees elected by them cease to be representations of the unions vis-à-vis the workers to become true delegations of the workers vis-à-vis capital.
4. “Radical unionism” only radicalizes atomization and demoralization
“Combative unionism,” ostensibly “radical,” adds to the old union playbook new paths to disaster under the cloak of false courage and outrage.”
We saw it yesterday in Cádiz. Instead of calling and mobilizing for a real strike assembly, they presented the secret ballots per work center as a valid ground of struggle… which they reinforced by denouncing ballot manipulation. And finally… they threatened to continue on their own, at the cost of splitting the workers and pitting them against each other.
It is obvious that in order to carry out a strike, it is not enough for an organization to call a strike on its own at its own risk outside the general assembly. That is more citizenism dressed in false radicalism. It is the assembly which has to decide and vindicate its decision as a decision of the workers as a whole.
It was already there, invisible, in the first phase of the struggle. Even if the “militant unions,” as we have seen, do not enter the bargaining table, they do nothing to turn informational center assemblies into general strike assemblies. Their struggle is against the ” major” unions for representation.
Their distinctive role is to derail the “radicalism” of the most committed workers from the struggle for a real strike assembly to the sterile terrain of the street outburst with the police, which the media is so fond of in an attempt to isolate struggles.
But that is only the first move. When the big unions force a “way out”, instead of pitting them against the unity of the assembly – which they helped to abort – opposed to capitulation, the “militant unions” separate the most militant workers from the whole, forget the general assembly, and throw them into a solitary and sterile strike that only serves to isolate and demoralize them in the face of “the lack of response” of the comrades.
How many “there is no way” will we hear now from those who followed CGT or the Coordinadora?
Conclusion: the end of strike in Cádiz and unionism
Any struggle by workers which goes anywhere is an exercise in centralism around the strike assembly. Anything else is tearing workers apart, pitting them against each other and provoking a demoralization that sterilizes the path to new struggles.
In the first phase of a struggle the centralism of the strike assembly is opposed by the “unity of the unions” and their attempts to plot with the employers behind closed doors by virtue of the privileges that labor law gives them.
Since the unions are what they are – aspiring monopolists of labor power under the law – all their “negotiations” will be contingent on company profits. They are “technical” and behind closed doors because, they themselves see themselves as managers with an alternative policy to the same ends.
When finally the machinations come to a “pre-agreement”, the poorer the agreement is the more they fear that they will lose control and that the strike will spread, the “combative unions” will call on the workers most committed to the struggle to “continue on their own” outside of the assemblies. They will end up being exhausted and will make them feel isolated, sowing mistrust and division for a season.
The first goal of any strike is to constitute a single workers’ assembly and a real strike committee, continually renewed. Only the strike general assembly can decide to capitulate or to continue.
In a strike the first thing to do is to establish a real unitary assembly of all the workers, then let this lead the extension of the struggle to other centers and sectors in order to change the general working conditions, the only way to impose the needs of the workers on the “needs of profits” that the unions take for granted.
The unity that matters and is fundamental to this whole process is that of the workers. The “union unity” will be, from the first moment, the main enemy of that centralization of everything on everyone. But then, to make us swallow the deal, will come the “union division”… to divide us and demoralize us leaving scorched earth.
The fate of the strikes is not decided at the negotiating table with the employers or the state, but on the ability to impose an assembly and a real strike committee.