Drama Saturday, as several SWP members (reports say from 60 to 200) supported by some from Workers' Power, fresh from the Right to Work Conference, intervene in the negotiations between BA and Unite and attempt to occupy the site of the ACAS-sponsored discussions. (Contrary to early media reports, and some newspaper headlines the next day, it now seems that the intervention did not actually stop the last round of negotiations.)
The Socialist Party was quick to assemble a response calling the tactic "completely mistaken", and I am certain this took all of five minutes to work out. I've been trying to work out for hours what the SWP could possibly have been thinking.
The SWP's skepticism in Unite secretaries Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, particularly their skepticism for a program of negotiations, is on record. The party was within its rights, and probably correct, to call for more strike dates and criticize the joint secretaries for not taking a militant line. Nonetheless, despite claiming to be listening to the needs of workers, the SWP's examination of the BA cabin crews' opinions seems to be limited to reading the Bassa online forum. This smacks distressingly of the SWP's confusion of armchair journalism with street work in the Lindsey dispute last year.
It is furthermore clear that in today's action, the SWP did not have the BA workers with them; one is reported to have spoken at the Right To Work Conference, but this is hardly a delegation. The Socialist Worker's article mentions "some 200 SWP members and supporters" but no BA employees taking part in the intervention (also, hinting that the SWP internally recognizes it made a mistake — or is confused about what it was trying to accomplish — the Socialist Worker article does not mention the presence of Tony Woodley at all). The SWP's official explanation for BA employees' absence is that "BA workers are unable to speak out in person, fearing draconian disciplinary measures". Seriously, Comrade Smith? Intimidation of workers is, by the nature of the beast, a constant feature not just of industrial action but of trade union work in general; being a known active member of a union puts you at risk. Bullying undoubtedly exists: the suspensions and dismissals of over fifty Bassa members for their roles in the previous round of strikes is unacceptable, grounds for a strike all on their own. Are we to believe that in this fever pitch of militancy every dissenting voice within the union has now been silenced, or that none of the disciplined workers were willing to join the SWP's escapade?
I find it far more likely, based on past experience, that the SWP has once again, motivated by an ideology of contempt for the working class, decided that a gaggle of revved-up but disposable activists is a valid substitute for actual mass action. That genuine mass action is starting on Monday seems to be no dissuasion, and never mind that a rejection of substitutionism was the first notion of the First International.
Underscoring this fundamental mistake, consider the phrasing in Smith's release:
"only resistance can stop ordinary workers from being forced to pay for a crisis brought on by the bosses, the bankers and the politicians for whom profit is far more important than the lives of ordinary workers.
There will be more protests and strikes if bosses and politicians persist in making ordinary people pay for their crisis. Through strike action and protests we will continue to oppose these attacks on the poorest in society"
"Only resistance" — certainly, but whose resistance? "Through strike action" — surely, Comrade Smith has not forgotten that it is workers, not political parties, who go on strike?
We hear two other common arguments from SWP supporters justifying Saturday's intervention, he lack of unity in a party that usually fetishizes centralist action smacks of post hoc flailing to explain a rash action. Both the arguments point in a substitutionist direction as well.
The first idea put forward is that Unite and BA were about to reach a bad deal, one which would have traded away too many concessions to BA management while wasting the militant atmosphere within the BA workers. Socialist Unity suggests that offering to trade away the strike for fairly small concessions is just a tactic, and while I wouldn't describe Woodley's strategem in such glowing terms it seems to have worked. Tactic or not, though, whether the BA workers should accept any offer is up to the BA workers to decide. Woodley and Simpson are the cabin crews' duly-elected representatives, and if the SWP want to represent the workers their Unite members are free to stand in the next Unite elections.
Thus we have the second argument, the idea that the Unite delegation is not representative of the strikers. Some press reports suggest that a divide has opened up between Unite and Bassa, the latter disappointed at the negotiators' non-militant tone. Meanwhile, it is true that while Derek Simpson was elected by the rules, he was elected with less than stunning results while Tony Woodley's mandate is several years old. If the problem is just their acting as representatives I refer back to the answer above; but what if it's the SWP's stance that the entire union is illegitimate?
There is a well-established basis for socialists, having decided that a trade union has gone completely yellow, to call for the establishment of a new union that truly acts in the interests of the workers. Trotsky says:
Therefore, the sections of the Fourth International should always strive not only to renew the top leadership of the trade unions, boldly and resolutely in critical moments advancing new militant leaders in place of routine functionaries and careerists, but also to create in all possible instances independent militant organizations corresponding more closely to the tasks of mass struggle against bourgeois society; and, if necessary, not flinching even in the face of a direct break with the conservative apparatus of the trade unions. If it be criminal to turn one’s back on mass organizations for the sake of fostering sectarian factions, it is no less so passively to tolerate subordination of the revolutionary mass movement to the control of openly reactionary or disguised conservative (”progressive”) bureaucratic cliques. Trade unions are not ends in themselves; they are but means along the road to proletarian revolution.
But if this is the path the SWP has chosen to take, they embark recklessly on a dangerous road. Just a few pages later in the same document, Trotsky reminds us:
Under the influence of the betrayal by the historical organizations of the proletariat, certain sectarian moods and groupings of various kinds arise or are regenerated at the periphery of the Fourth International. At their base lies a refusal to struggle for partial and transitional demands, i.e., for the elementary interests and needs of the working masses, as they are today. Preparing for the revolution means to the sectarians, convincing themselves of the superiority of socialism. They propose turning their backs on the “old” trade unions, i.e., to tens of millions of organized workers – as if the masses could somehow live outside of the conditions of the actual class struggle!
Socialists can easily keep the SWP in mind when reading the whole passage, although in fairness, the SWP can just as much keep the Socialist Party in mind when reading that passage and pondering our policy on Israel; the ultimate lesson is that hurling theory back and forth is a waste of time in the absence of data. At any rate, let's say that the SWP has adjudged the whole of Unite's relationship with Bassa to be rotten, unable to act in the interests of the workers. If Unite is rotten now then it was rotten a year ago; if the SWP want to change the structure of the cabin crews' representation that work should have begun well in the past. It's hardly like the BA dispute caught anyone in the trade union movement by surprise. Rushing in with a few dozen non-workers and intervening in the recognized union's negotiations is absolutely useless as a means to improving workers' representation in this dispute; the erection of a substitute union would fit into Peter Taaffe's "rule-or-ruin" analysis of SWP tactics, but if Saturday was an opening move in that act it would seem to be disconnected from the current dispute entirely.
Indeed, if the SWP wanted to intervene meaningfully in the BA dispute in a way that the union refused to, the SWP could have heeded its own call and led the cabin crews into a wildcat strike. This is something many of the workers seem to have wanted and something the trade union leadership refused to help bring about; where were the comrades then, anytime between December and last week? Note, by the way, how in that article they cite Lindsey as a success story of workers' action outside the official representation system — stark contrast to the SWP's line last year when they fixated on racist elements in the Lindsey strike, elements that led them, in a fit of sectarianism to initially abandon the construction workers while the Socialist Party instead worked to educate them!
The accusation naturally emerges, therefore, that Saturday's intervention was a publicity stunt. Certainly the SWP was organized enough to ensure the presence of a BBC camera crew and the story was picked up by most of the mainstream papers. A fear among BA workers that the SWP might be trying to hijack the BA dispute (and for airline cabin crew to describe something as "hijacking" is serious indeed) was reported by Workers' Liberty just days before the ACAS intervention. Nonetheless the intervention does not have the aroma, to me, of a well-planned publicity stunt, partly because if that's what it was then it worked incredibly poorly.
Given some of the fiascos that the SWP have described as "major victories", if this intervention had been a planned publicity exercise we'd be seeing far more chest-thumping. Instead, since Saturday the narrative from the ultra-left seems to be one of minimization, the idea espoused being that the intervention was an emotionally-driven act of solidarity and nothing more (one SWP member described it to me as "spleen-venting"). This is as close as an admission of a mistake as we are likely to get.
In the balance, Saturday could have been much much worse. If the SWP had arrived an hour earlier while negotiations were ongoing, and actually shut them down like the press said, it would have given right-wing trade union bosses the perfect excuse to purge leftists from their unions. That this did not happen, that Willie Walsh was willing to use any pretext, no matter how trivial, to shut down negotiations was dumb luck. Meanwhile, not just the SWP but the entire left is getting blamed for the strike, as evidenced by Walsh's accusations against a "militant minority". The bosses' goal in the BA dispute is to break the union; splitting the union against itself and forcing it to distance itself from its most effective members are both steps toward this goal. The Morning Star understates the issue when it calls the SWP intervention "not particularly helpful".
We are lucky that Tony Woodley was able to regain the initiative and my total solidarity goes out to the BA cabin crew as the strike gets underway.
I also do not, for my part, withdraw the hand of comradeship to the members of the Socialist Workers Party.
I do not believe that the SWP seeks to smash trade unions. I do not think the vast bulk of the party's members seek to set back or deflect the working class for their own ends. More concretely, while I refuse to shy away from facts no matter how awkward they may be, I think it would be wrong, harmful to the working class as a whole, for other activists and left groups to cease cooperation with the SWP, be this in TUSC, in Unite Against Fascism, or in other organizations. We must never concede our obligation to debate and constructively criticize, and we should refuse to take part in tactics that hurt the advancement of the working class, no matter how we might be attacked as "sectarian" or "soft on fascism" or "splitters" or whatever for doing so. But if we hope for the annihilation of the SWP as a body, the silencing of its voice, especially by reactionary forces, then we commit the mortal sin of sectarianism ourselves.