From the “Covid strikes” to confrontation with unions

30 December, 2021

Workers strikes during 2021
Workers strikes during 2021

2021 saw the end of the “Covid strikes”, but also the promising appearance of mass struggles in new regions as well as quite a few useful lessons and signs of what’s to come.

Table of Contents

The big figures

Wildcat strikes during 2021
Wildcat strikes during 2021

Throughout 2021 and up to December 29, we recorded 16,935 strikes in our @huelga Telegram channel. More than 100 strikes a year were recorded in 22 countries and in 4 of those (India, France, Ceylon and Argentina), we recorded more than 1,000 strikes. The map pivots around however when we look at the recorded wildcat strikes, which were concentrated in Iran, USA, the major Spanish-speaking countries, France and Algeria.

The most noteworthy movements of 2021

The latest “strikes of Covid”

Sidi Bel Abbès teachers protest by breaking union control and denouncing the relationship between Covid and school.
Sidi Bel Abbès teachers protest by breaking union control and denouncing the relationship between Covid and school.

The first half of the year was marked by the last wave of “Covid strikes”, concentrated in the health and school systems.

The most relevant struggles took place in Italy and France where, only apparently, unions moved toward more combative positions because of pressure from workers. But in reality it was a tactical move that dissolved into nothingness as soon as, on the basis of large national mobilizations, the unions felt that they had regained control of the discontent.

This became all the more clear in Algeria, where workers had the strength to leap over the union siege. Faced with a wildcat strike, the state rushed to pay part of the back wages and the unions ran behind the class, desperately trying to summon strike assemblies held by them with which they hoped to regain control.

In South America, the unions applied a similar strategy by taking it even further. In Colombia, the organization of national strikes was raised on an organizational basis designed to give prominence to the petty bourgeoisie, a “transversal” nationalist program while never concealing their intent to centralize movements and protests with an eye to strengthening the “progressive” bloc in the next elections.

On this terrain, the mobilization, however massive it may be, however courageously and heroically it may confront a murderous and classist repression, can only end in legitimization at the ballot box of the same as always with some discursive additions and the best wishes of a more egalitarian economy or a non-repressive police force… Patriotic contradictions in terms where what remains is always the substantive: the economy, that is, the accumulation of capital… and the police shooting bare bullets.

Protests in Colombia, May 13

Centralizing in order to control, denaturalize and disorganize any autonomous expression of the workers was the strategy of the big trade union centrals in most countries. Where it worked, as in Colombia, and even where it did not drag the bulk of the workers, as in Greece, it was a decisive move to close, peppering with nationalist poison, the wave of massive but dispersed struggles that opened in 2020.

This was not the only disorganizing strategy faced by the workers. The wing left also tested, already at this stage, the weapons that would become increasingly important during last year and that we would see again, for example, in the metalworkers’ strike in Cádiz, Spain.

In Argentina, the collaboration of unions and trotskist-stalinist left wing offered a veritable array of tactics to whip up the atomization and cement the impotence of the strike movements that had been emerging in response to the non-payment of wages and the awful working conditions during the first three Covid waves.

The left’s mobilization technique is to keep the workers moving and dispersed. A lot of picketing, a lot of roadblocks and mobilizations… segmented by categories and trades. All in order to avoid the call for open assemblies so that the extension of the struggles becomes real and the workers in struggle in the health care sector converge with ginners, teachers, oil workers, miners, fishermen, administration workers and involve the entire community of working families who make use of hospitals and schools.

This is precisely the opposite direction from the one that could impose a position of strength on the part of workers.

How unions and the left sabotage the extension of struggles, April 22.

The workers of the former Russian bloc rehearse paths of affirmation as a class

Strikes in Georgia. Workers at the Rustavi fertilizer plant.
Strikes in Georgia. Workers at the Rustavi fertilizer plant.

In April, as Russia and NATO kicked off a new escalation of tension on the Ukrainian border, workers on both sides of the Donbass border signaled and defended their own alternative with force.

While the really important fact – and what actually stopped the military escalation for months – is that the movement occurred on both sides of the border, the strikes on the Russian side were put to the test against – and resisted – the fierce repression of a pair of petty company-republics dedicated to exploiting and plundering them to the maximum under a regime of true mafia terror. All this was created to ensure the Russian bourgeoisie the business of dismantling the local industry without paying even the contracted poverty wages.

Read also: Donbass strikes on both sides of the frontline point to an alternative to war, April 18. 

Within a few weeks, under conditions that were not quite optimal either, Georgia suffered what the Russian press called an “epidemic of strikes” and which was in reality nothing more than a return of the class struggle with very serious attempts and trials of extension and self-organization of the struggles. A tendency that we saw also showing force in Kazakhstan in July.

This is reminiscent of what happened a year earlier, during the crisis in Belarus, when the workers made themselves present with their own voice on the chessboard hitherto dominated exclusively by the government – and its Russian advisors – and the opposition – and its NATO advisors. But the difficulties in asserting a program of its own in the face of both ended up leaving the movement drifting towards a shipwreck.

In this type of situation, in which workers are called upon by two warring factions of the ruling class, it is not enough to avoid joining any side and their imperialist allies. It is peremptory to fight both from the first moment and with a clear programmatic platform. And this is practically inaccessible without self-organization stemming from workplaces and neighborhoods and without the extension of such struggles and assemblies. Without that, the nationalist poison will penetrate and dismantle any possibility of useful evolution to impose universal human needs.

And if this lesson needed to be illustrated in a forceful way, the July protests in Cuba and their absolute political impotence were there for the anyone to see.

Imperialism’s rivals to Cuba’s battered capitalism find it as convenient as the Cuban ruling class to pin the medal on themselves and attribute the inspiration for the protests in Cuba to the painful patriotic videos of millionaires disguised as lumpens arriving from abroad. It is the basic ground of understanding between one and the other: whoever wins, whatever happens, there will still be a motherland, as they promise each other. And this makes sense, as the motherland is nothing other than the alignment of the entire society with the interests of national capital, that is, the subjugation and sacrifice of the workers to… make their own exploitation more profitable.

It is normal for the government and the opposition to try to outdo each other in patriotism. As long as the protests in Cuba accept as their own such a terrain all they can aspire to is a change in the direction of their own hunger, possibly, hand in hand with new imperialist alliances. There is no patria y vida, homeland always means hunger and death.

To get the protests in Cuba out of this real impasse, the workers have to win their own terrain. Not dissolve into the peoplebut rather fight as workers against the regime.

Protests in Cuba, July 12

USA, Great Britain and the “labor shortage”

Striking workers at Kelllogs denouncing 12-hour workdays during the pandemic.
Striking workers at Kelllogs denouncing 12-hour workdays during the pandemic.

In the US, Britain and to a lesser extent the EU, the much touted recovery translated into an inflation that ensured real wages were driven down, while medical coverage and exploitation increased on the back of bogus short-time working.

The inevitable result, especially in the U.S., was an increase in precariousness whose most tragic consequences could be seen during the wave of tornadoes, and what companies called “labor shortages.”

The famous “shortage” the media talked about for months was nothing more than the expression that, contrary to the usual message, wage-setting “rigidities” are the result of structures and balances between large monopolies, not of nonexistent “worker protections.”

Basically labor shortages are not being solved through wage hikes for two reasons.

The first is that in a system controlled by large monopolies and state-imposed reference prices, there is nothing like the theoretical model of the “competitive market” with which economists pretend to explain price and wage setting as being bottom-up.

On the contrary, prices are set from “above”, i.e. from the sectors with the highest concentration of capital, to “below”, the sectors with the lowest capitalization and profitability. This is what we have seen in Great Britain with the lorry drivers. But also what we see in South Korea with the farmers: the big distributors sign their long-term contracts with their suppliers, if the latter raise the cost of their inputs their profitability disappears.

The second cause is that when in sectors that can pass on costs more easily to the final consumer there are wage rises, such as in the large supermarkets or logistics centers, inflation eats into wage hikes and reduces the real hourly wage… aggravating the situation for workers, because many of those wages are below the real cost of survival.

Labor shortages: FAQ and more, October 18

In this framework, the particular thing about the British lorry drivers’ strikes was that they exposed the role of the unions in this monopolistic game that they usually dress up for us as “social dialogue.”

News began to emerge yesterday about movement toward strike action at Hoyer, the tanker company that transports fuel to BP gas stations. […] Unite, the majority union at Hoyer is doing everything it can to neutralize the struggle. First, it has delayed the strike ballot until Friday, giving the British Army time to intervene in transport and ease the company’s situation. In addition, it has avoided even publicizing the imminence of a strike… lest it open up a discussion that could extend the strike beyond the company and the sector, which is key to leading the struggle somewhere useful.

To top it off, not all workers in the company are able to vote.. only union members. And even more importantly, according to trade union custom, the vote will not be in assembly or by raised hand voting. That is to say, it attempts to maintain at all costs the atomization of the workers by avoiding any real collective decision, i.e. a decision that would be of the workers as a whole, by instead having workers vote preset and undiscussed conditions in order to present the vote as a mere coordination of individual wills.

It is not difficult to understand why these four things: it is the way to prevent the union leaders from being subjected to the workers.

It’s not their business to help the development of struggles. Their business is to mediate the sale of labor power, aiming 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.

To be paid for organizing labor power in production is the same thing that any manager of any company does. The salaried manager is the characteristic form of the corporate bourgeoisie in the state capitalism under which we live. What is to be expected from the corporate… trade union bourgeoisie?

Thus, unions actually abort the organization of workers by corporatizing them in order to funnel their desire and need to fight into a terrain that in reality merely re-organizes the labor market, instead of a struggle for the universal needs of workers. As in the marketplace, in the union the whole set of possibilities is summed up to the outcome of supply and demand in a rigged game.

Labor “shortages,” unions, and workers’ morality, September 28

Signs of what is coming

Unions are increasingly defending the profitability of companies against the immediate basic needs of workers

During the strike at Kelloggs the unions not only divided the workforces, they also launched xenophobic messages against Mexican workers who allegedly "steal work" from U.S. plants when in fact they are exploited by the same company in Mexico.
During the strike at Kelloggs the unions not only divided the workforces, they also launched xenophobic messages against Mexican workers who allegedly “steal work” from U.S. plants when in fact they are exploited by the same company in Mexico.

The strike at Kellogg’s in the U.S. earlier this month, after workers rejected the company-union agreement, taught us very clear lessons about what the unions’ priorities are and why, increasingly, they are going to be more openly at odds with the workers.

In reality, all union talk about working hours is misleading. The union subordinates working time, like wages, to their profitability for capital. That’s why it is perfectly consistent when it proposes to cut working hours and when it endorses companies’ attempts to force us to work overtime so that they don’t have to hire anyone else.

This is not a matter of any particular union or country. We see it all over the world, in all sectors and for a very long time.

On the one hand, unions are organizations that sell labor power. Their “business” consists of discussing the price and duration of our working time, company by company and sector by sector. The assumption is that if they get better conditions and prices they will unionize more workers and get closer to the goal of representing the workers as a whole in negotiations. Their goal is to be a monopoly equivalent to the steel or energy monopoly which sits down to negotiate prices and quantities with a series of customers… to whose good performance, like any industrial supplier, they are committed.

Thus, by their own admission, unions and business are indistinguishable in their primary goals: to maintain the profitability of the capital invested in the company and, more generally, in the country. Even during the period when unions promoted pensions and social benefits, it was with the intention of pacifying workers they considered essential to winning World War II and the Cold War, such as railroad workers or auto workers.

The point is that capitalism in general has long since been unable to maintain an adequate level of capital accumulation, which is the basis of the system, without eroding workers’ conditions ever more furiously. So the unions become managers of cuts and casualization. How could Biden, who is ultimately politically responsible for national capital’s “good business as usual,” not support them now more than ever?

The problem is that, as we see at Kellogg’s strike and in all companies and countries, “good business” is increasingly antagonistic to the satisfaction of workers’ needs, which are otherwise universal needs: to work shorter hours, at more humane rates, and to be able to pay for the basic necessities needed for a physically and mentally healthy life.

But trade unions cannot give up on safeguarding the profitability of a business which in the end is their customer. To channel the struggle in order to impose our most basic needs through the unions is to try to save oneself from a shipwreck by clinging to the anchor of the sinking ship. Neither the unions nor their methods will defend us anymore… and they won’t in the future. It’s time for other means and other ways.

The Kellogg’s strike, tiered agreements and union goals, December 15

In case there were any doubts, after the unions ended up imposing a barely retouched version of the proposal rejected by the workers, a leaked e-mail from the company revealed the game openly: what the unions and the left had presented as a victory to achieve the end of the mobilization, did not change one iota the company’s costs or improve the situation of the workers. The union proposal merely “moved money from one line item to another” without conceding anything.

The ability to push forward the struggles will depend increasingly on the initial forms of organization

Metalworkers' strike in Cádiz
Metalworkers’ strike in Cádiz

This is what the metalworkers’ strike in Cádiz last November taught us. It was clear then that union goals subordinate workers’ needs to the demands of profit in the company, but also that without a strike assembly and a real strike committee, backdoor deals are inevitable, that the secret ballot is a way to atomize and isolate workers from controlling their own strike, and that so-called “radical unionism” only radicalizes the demoralization and isolation of the most committed workers.

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.

End of strike in Cadiz: What can we learn?, November 26
Read also: End of strike in Cadiz: What can we learn?, November 26

Will the struggles in 2022 take a new impulse on new bases

One of the first clandestine face-to-face assemblies - in the middle of the countryside - that are at the origin of the current self-organized mass strikes in Iran
One of the first clandestine face-to-face assemblies – in the middle of the countryside – that are at the origin of the current self-organized mass strikes in Iran

The massive self-organized movements that we have been seeing developing in Iran since July… and which continue to consolidate and spread, can only give us hope. So far this December, for example, they have jumped from petrochemicals to education, the mining or the textile sectors .

It is true that since 4 years ago now, Iranian workers have come the furthest in drawing lessons and gaining organizational skills to be able to take struggles further. Moreover, without their ability to configure themselves into a real threat on the system it would be difficult to understand the “self-limitations” that the regime has imposed on itself in escalating the war in the Middle East and the Caucasus in the pursuit of its imperialist interests.

However, Iran’s relative economic-geographical, political and linguistic isolation makes an expansion of the struggles beyond some regions of Iraq quite unlikely. A problem that also occurs with the wildcat strikes in much of Asia and North America. The political and trade union “wall” has so far proved hermetic even for the maquilas stuck to the borders.

In the Maghreb, Europe and South America however, the immediate impact that struggles in one country have, as they develop, on their neighbors is evident. That is why the European bourgeoisie looks with concern at the proliferation of strike calls this Christmas in France or Italy and interprets them as the prologue to a “hot winter”. In reality, as long as the mobilizations remain framed within a trade union framework that, as in Spain, “demands” to contain inflation by reducing real wages, little progress can be expected from them at first.

Overall, the outlook is that the “recovery” will prove increasingly contradictory, sucking income from workers to improve profitability at the cost of reducing the consumption base. The situation will worsen in most countries by the end of next year, when state programs and credit to boost “post-pandemic” accumulation will run out of steam without effectively expanding markets.

This trend is not going to have a fully synchronized timetable worldwide. In the US it will depend on precarious bidenite balances. In Italy or Spain it is going to be delayed possibly until the end of 2022, when the investments of the recovery plans will be exhausted returning thousands of workers to unemployment. In the Mabreb it will inevitably be linked to war tensions, etc.

So, on the whole, what is foreseeable for the 2022-2023 biennium is a rise in strikes and workers’ struggles, mostly framed by the unions but increasingly with more friction and earlier confrontations with them. For the same reason, during 2022, the strikes will probably take place in relatively limited geographical and sector-specific areas, as the unions will spare no effort to avoid “strike contagions”, as they did during the “Covid strikes”.

Finally, all this puts us back in front of the main task that workers have ahead of us: to organize in as many ways as possible in the companies and neighborhoods, to prepare the bases to impose real assemblies when the time comes to strike and to create networks that connect us and prepare us then to spread them.

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