DISPUTE CLOSED WITH ALPHA CARE -Liverpool Solidarity Federation


Last Monday we reached an agreement with Alpha Care which satisfies the economic demands made by a former worker. This company, specialising in home-care, owed the worker some unpaid hours, mileage and holiday pay. She decided to leave the company because of the working conditions.

Liverpool SolFed supported the worker’s demands and distributed, along with other workers, a leaflet giving information about the dispute and encouraging them to organise for better working conditions.

Finally, Alpha Care agreed to pay the full amount demanded. However, the company did not acknowledge any debt and accused the worker and SolFed of “…not having followed the right procedures and acting in bad will”. According to them they only paid in order to not to see our faces anymore. Whatever the reason, at least the worker got the owed wages.

In today’s climate of privatisations and undermining working conditions, care workers are suffering a lot. Liverpool SolFed urges care workers to organise in order to fight back and improve working conditions in the sector. Among other problems, carers are suffering:

  • No guaranteed or uncertain hours
  • Unpaid travel time between jobs
  • Below minimum wage in real terms
  • Unpaid/unplanned breaks and expected to rest between jobs
  • Inadequate training, left feeling unprepared and unsupported
  • Unsafe manual handling and under staffing
  • Lone-working in high risk environments.

Muting the SWAN- A Radical Alternative to Trotskyist Social Work-The Sedge Wick

damned boss


Who are SWAN?

The Social Work Action Network are a campaigning group which aims to bring social workers and other interested parties together to campaign against austerity. ‘Radical’ social work has been around as an idea since the ’70s[1]. These days, in the UK at least, SWAN have a monopoly on the term. The 2011 book Radical Social Work Today, the textbook Critical and Radical Social Work, an Introduction, and the book series Critical and Radical Debates in Social Work are all edited by and feature contributions in heaps from members of SWAN’s twenty-person national steering committee.  SWAN have links to prestigious university social work departments and, anecdotally at least, the senior managers of at least a handful of NHS trusts and other big statutory employers.

What’s wrong with SWAN?

SWAN’s influence on social work seems to be chiefly top down. They hold a position of influence in the profession, while operating from within a relatively small circle of social work writers and theorists, with very little presence among the frontline social work workforce. The problems with ‘radical academia’ have been discussed at some length[2]. Fundamentally, though, it would be a mistake to assume that social work lecturers and academics have common political interests with social workers themselves. Actual social workers trying to build genuinely radical social work should be wary of an organisation which claims to speak for social work while existing outside of the industry, in a position of relative privilege.

When they’re not cornering the textbook market, SWAN protest. Their activism happens in the classroom or on the streets, but not in the workplace itself. This is a strategic mistake. Social workers’ power lies in the fact that the work we do is indispensable. At work, we have the levers of the whole social care system in our hands. This gives us power that we lack when protesting or lobbying. Social care policies are made in government but are made reality in the offices where we work; a concerted effort by organised social workers to boycott, sabotage, and strike against cuts and privatisation could disrupt the whole apparatus. By ignoring the workplace and only challenging austerity by protest and debate, SWAN are relinquishing real, grassroots power in exchange for symbolic opposition and impotent theory. There’s nothing radical about an organisation which marches against austerity in public but has no capacity to support social workers to defy the cuts, in the place where it actually matters.

SWAN’s connections to the Socialist Workers Party are also indefensible. SWAN’s links to the SWP are informal but nevertheless very real; several members of SWAN’s controlling body, the national steering committee, are connected to the SWP, leading to justified speculation as to how far SWAN takes its marching orders from the SWP. For anyone who doesn’t know, The SWP became a pariah among the left and radical communities in the UK after party leaders were accused of the rape and sexual assault of young activists[3], which the party bureaucracy then covered up. Everyone should be appalled by an organisation which enables rapists, but if anyone should stand up against gendered violence and institutional abuse, it’s social workers. Doing so is our job. SWAN’s obeisance to the SWP is collusive, discredits the reputation of the profession, and will ultimately distance SWAN from other, braver organisations who are prepared to stand up to the SWP cult.

SWAN and class

SWAN’s constitution states that, “While recognizing that social work is one of the mechanisms through which the State controls the behaviours of poor families, we believe nevertheless that social work is a valuable activity which can help people address the problems and difficulties in their lives.“ I can relate to this ambivalence, but without actually trying to resist the coercive State influence within social work, statements like this represent little more than Liberal guilt. The idea is to fight authoritarianism, not to ‘recognise’ it.

SWAN’s problem here is that, in framing social workers as agents of the status quo, they draw a line between social workers and the working class. Some anarchists share SWAN’s view of social workers as softcore law enforcement, although typically with less sympathy; The Class War party have railed against social workers in their publications, lumping us in with cops, lawyers and middle managers as being irredeemably ‘middle class’; privileged pawns of the coercive State (teachers get a similarly raw deal). For Class War, as with SWAN’s analysis, the fact that social work is a middle-class industry and the fact that it is a repressive force are linked; social workers are bourgeois themselves, so they prop up the bourgeois State. By marking out social workers as being a distinct social class from the ‘poor families’ we work with, SWAN’s analysis is not dissimilar to Class War’s.

The problem with this analysis is that the distinction doesn’t exist. In describing a profession of privileged individuals whose interests are closer to those of the State’s than the workers’, SWAN are only really describing themselves. Frontline social workers often live on the edge of hardship; like nurses, teachers and other public sector workers, social work salaries have stagnated in recent years as the cost of living has rapidly caught up and overtaken. Average salaries in many of the traditional industries typically seen as ‘working class’, including mining[4] , steelworking[5] and transport and logistics[6] often exceed the pay of supposedly ‘middle class’ social workers and other health workers by a considerable amount. Social work itself is a gruelling, thankless job, frequently dangerous[7], with shocking stress levels[8] and breakneck staff turnover. In an era of cuts and privatisation, pay and terms in local authorities and the NHS are frequently subject to change and review, and healthcare workers’ jobs are increasingly insecure[9]. My own team of thirty has seen four job lost this year. Of the people that I trained with, roughly half have left the profession in the two years since I qualified. SWAN’s line in the sand, between social workers and the ‘poor families’ we work with, has no basis in reality. Social workers shouldn’t let a traditionalist view of who is and isn’t working class blind us to the material fact that we, too, are the victims of capitalist exploitation; that we are coerced, more than we coerce, by the state and capital. By identifying social work with the forces of state repression, rather than with the lives of the people we work with, SWAN prove how out of touch their cohort of social work lecturers is with the real lives of underpaid and exploited frontline social workers.

There is no denying that working class children and families are over-represented on the caseloads of many social workers, especially in child protection services and other areas of social work where statutory powers shape the job role and where collusion with the police is the norm of the job. But ruling class collaboration isn’t fundamental to social work; while government social care policies are progressively coercive, the rank and file social work workforce share common material and political interests with service users and with the wider working class.  We need the services that give us jobs, just as our service users need services for care and support. We need to negotiate Capitalism for our food and shelter, just like everyone else does. SWAN separate themselves from the working class, and so can offer only guilty paternalism dressed up as radicalism. Genuinely emancipatory social work needs to recognise its own plight, and fight for itself as well as for others.

What might real radical social work look like?

The false divide between social workers and service users needs to be broken down, and the natural class animosity between workers and our managers and policy makers needs to be rekindled. Genuinely radical social work practice needs to be combative, whilst as far as possible integrating ourselves with the daily lives and struggles of our clients and the class as a whole. Doing this isn’t easy. I’ve outlined some possible strategies below.

Community autonomy. In some ways, social work lends itself more easily to radicalism than other health work does, because it has the potential to be much more democratic. You can’t easily teach patients to perform complex medical procedures on themselves, but you can certainly teach communities to feed, clothe and house each other, to counsel each other, and to protect each other. Radical social work should be educational. By teaching social work knowledge we can replicate ourselves, and democratise social work, to build communities which are not only resilient but autonomous, and independent from the increasingly fickle State for support.

Common ownership. Social workers handle public resources; sometimes (in the case of adult care workers commissioning social care, for example) we directly oversee the flow of money from the State to the client. Don’t forget that common ownership isn’t the same as State ownership; when you allocate budgets to clients, you are only giving them back their own money. Don’t ‘gatekeep’ resources.

This has implications for how we work. Social work managers are hell bent on stemming the flow of local authority money into the hands of service users, usually by tightly controlling the allocation of budgets and the thresholds for who can and can’t access services. This managerial control will manifest itself in a whole host of organisational policies and procedures. My own local authority, for example, has recently introduced a policy called the ‘options directorate’, which stipulates that patients in hospital should be discharged out of area rather than staying in hospital until a suitable local bed can be found. Another common example of managerial theft of resources is through the care commissioning process and social work funding panels, where social workers will apply for funds for service users’ care packages and managers will either authorise or decline them based on the current managerial zeitgeist. This is the kind of bullshit which we can, and should, be fighting against. To ensure clients have as much access to their own money as possible we need to be clever and think about some creative ways to sabotage these kinds of policies. When the law is on our side, we need to use it; this could mean learning to write water-tight panel applications, and being prepared to escalate, to support service users to complain, and to contact outside agencies like the Local Government Ombudsmen, regulators, and even the Press, to pressurise managers into doing what clients want them to. Be sneaky, learn the law and its loopholes, and don’t give up just because your boss stops talking to you.

Service users’ self-organisation. To their credit, SWAN have been effective in building links with user led campaigning groups. To be effective, though, political solidarity between social workers and service users needs to move beyond marches and become a real, concrete force within the lives of service users and the working lives of frontline social workers. We should be building solidarity through our work, not just in the political spheres around and outside our working lives. Doing this could involve talking about politics to service users as part of our therapeutic work with them, talking about our own experiences of using services, our own problems with landlords and bosses, and in doing so validating both ours’ and our clients’ legitimate anger at our shared political experience. We should try and use peer-run resources rather than statutory resources as far as possible, as our first choice not as an add-on to our care plans.

Suggest joining or forming autonomous organisations to service users who haven’t considered it yet. Get to know as much as you can about these organisations, both current and historic, so when clients feel self organising is impossible you can give them hope. Encourage clients to meet other people in the same situation. Consider facilitating groups where you can see multiple service users at the same time, and they can meet and support each other. If you live in an area which already has prominent self-organised service user groups then get to know them, find out what they do and how they see the world, meet up with the people involved. Let them direct your work, and be accountable to them as far as possible. If there is a lack of autonomous service user organisations in your area, then encourage service users to start them. Research and write leaflets on the benefits of peer support and self-organised service user groups. Try and use your skills and resources, the use of your office space and facilities, to lend solidarity and practical support to these groups, especially in their infancy when they may need help to get off the ground. This will allow clients to build their collective strength and put them in a better position to defend their own interests.

Service user self-organisation is important both for therapeutic and political advancements. Sue Holland’s Social Action Therapy case study is a good example of how a worker can facilitate this in practice, to encourage the development both of mutual support networks and of militant political organisations, both of which are invaluable in the current political climate.

Workers’ self-organisation Social workers will make themselves unpopular with their bosses if they do all of this. We will need to be able to protect themselves at work from repercussions, bullying, threats and intimidation which we might attract. To do this, we will need to build fighting organisations within our own workplaces, so we can use our collective power as workers to protect ourselves from vengeful managers, and to begin fighting for own political and economic advancement. Start by building close relationships with colleagues, and fostering workplace cultures where workers support each other collectively against management harassment and bullying.  As I’ve argued above, social workers share common interests with service users, so we need to fight to defend ourselves as well as defend our clients. Social workers should organise in the workplace to fight for better pay and conditions, for lower caseloads and less unsupported risk-taking, and to resist privatisation and the insecurity that comes with it. A union of social workers with radical politics will also be a powerful tool for fighting for wider political change. If we don’t like a particular cost-saving measure or repressive piece of legislation, we can simply refuse to implement it, and if we are well organised we can refuse on a huge scale, using our collective power to move beyond individual disobedience, to strike, sabotage and boycott to bring down iniquitous social care legislation or coercive government policy. As stated above, it is at work, not on the streets or at the ballot box, where we have the most power. If we organise at work, we can begin to use it.

These aren’t off-the -shelf models of radical social work which we can simply memorise and implement. Building the structures and cultures necessary to do this will take time, and may be a process of trial and error. These measures are far from perfect; relying on communities rather than the State to provide care could lead to an uneven distribution of services, as some communities hold more resources than others. ‘Care in the community’ has long been a by-word for care by the family, and over-emphasises the roles of traditional, patriarchal institutions in which women may be lumped with the burden of providing care unpaid. Transferring resources from the State into the pockets of service users may seem like something of a pyrrhic victory so much of the provision of care is now carried out by private companies. That said, theory is built up from the bottom. The ideas above might be enough to get us started.

As well as a criticism of SWAN and their Trotskyist ilk, I wanted to outlines a blue print for a new kind of genuinely radical social work which we can start building ourselves, now, without having to wait for a change of policy or another new radical social work textbook. Useful theory grows symbiotically with real struggle and action. We don’t need leadership from theorists.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/social-care-network/2016/may/24/radical-social-work-quick-guide-change-poverty-inequality

[2]See  http://libcom.org/blog/against-academic-alibis-best-education-struggle-%E2%80%93-george-ciccariello-maher-23082013 or http://www.wildcat-www.de/en/wildcat/96/e_w96_berufubewegung.html


[3]http://socialistunity.com/swp-party-members-write-full-narrative-comrade-delta-rape-case/, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/mar/09/socialist-workers-party-rape-kangaroo-court,



[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-15445418


[6] https://www.glassdoor.co.uk/Salaries/train-driver-salary-SRCH_KO0,12.htm

[7] http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2014/09/16/violence-social-workers-just-part-job-70-incidents-investigated/, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/18/social-workers-job-dangers-fears

[8] http://www.management-issues.com/news/1820/teaching-and-social-work-are-the-most-stressful-jobs/

[9] http://www.unitetheunion.org/uploaded/documents/guidetonhsprivatisation11-10734.pdf

Bristol Care Workers Network statement on the STPs and social care cuts in Bristol.

Bristol City Council recently announced £30 million in spending cuts, which will impact on social care as well as other services. Alongside this, Bristol CCG plan to cut 30% of hospital beds across the Bristol area as part of the new NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plans. The response from Bristolians to these cuts has been fierce. BCWN would like to thank all the groups and campaigners that have been organising resistance against these cuts. We are especially grateful to Bristol and District Anti-Cuts Alliance; The BADACA-organised demo in central Bristol last month highlighted the good work BADACA have done in bringing together activists from a range of political spaces into a unified movement. It was inspiring to be part of.

The cuts are particularly troubling for us because we not only use health and social care services but also work in them. At the BADACA demo, a speaker from Bristol Anarchist Federation made the point that the working class creates the wealth which the politicians are now trying to withhold from us. Or, to put it another way, that everything in society that’s valuable gets its value from the workers who make it. We share this belief, and we think it is especially true in the health and care sector. A hospital without its staff is just a lot of concrete and empty beds. Bristol’s hospitals, care homes, social care offices and day centres are only worth anything because of the skills and time of the workers in them.

They belong to us, and to the people who use them. They do not belong to the politicians. They are not theirs to cut.
Neither do they belong to the bosses. Politicians will order the cuts but it is the managerial class, within the services we work for, who will wield the axe. It is hospital managers and social services bureaucrats who pile up the caseloads in community teams, who cut the hours from home care packages, who kick patients out of inpatient beds when they’ve got nowhere else to go. It’s them, as much as the councillors, who create the relentless downward pressure on us and take our time and resources away until we can’t do our jobs properly any more. And, like the politicians, they have nothing to offer of any value to the running of these services. They can’t bandage, or prescribe, or counsel, or protect. Our bosses may work in the same institutions as us but they have no more ownership of them than the politicians in the council offices do.

Fighting the cuts means fighting the bosses within our workplaces, as well as fighting the politicians on the streets outside City Hall. We can fight, not only in our work but through our work, by defying our bosses and using our skills and resources in the interest of ourselves and our class. This means nurses not discharging patients unsafely just to free up beds, social workers not agreeing care plans which fail to meet basic needs, A&E staff refusing to shame patients into not using emergency services. Eventually, this will mean building new fighting organisations in the workplace; we’ve got no love for the existing trade unions, who march us out of work to protest the cuts on the streets and then march us straight back in again to do what we’re told. We need new unions, which let us use our collective strength as workers.

We wanted to make a final point on what is at stake in the struggle against cuts. Research by the Royal Society of Medicine showed that spending cuts in the NHS and social services were responsible for 30,000 deaths in 2015. This figure was rightly shocking to many people, but to those of us who work in health and care services, it shouldn’t be surprising. Anyone who has worked in the industry for any length of time will know a patient who has died, or had their quality of life drastically reduced, because of a lack of resources. This means we will have known people, and sometimes known people very well, who this government and the capitalist class have maimed or killed. This is why we are fighting.

Ultimately, the fight for our services will take place within the services themselves. Marching on the streets shouldn’t be a substitute for organising in the workplace. We can fight in the workplace for political goals, and for a better health service for everyone, as well as for better pay and conditions for ourselves. We’ve always known our bosses and politicians can’t run our services properly. If even they are now realising this, they should move over and let us run them ourselves.

Organising in the Care Sector-Calderdale Solidarity Federation


An account of a workplace campaign in the social care sector, from Calderdale Solidarity Federation.

A member of our Local was recently involved in organising and industrial action within the social care sector.

They work for an individual with a personal budget – where a person who has care workers is given the money by Social Services for them or their family to employ their care workers directly. This method of commissioning services is very much the future of social care (“Personalisation”) and currently is highly unregulated. Issues for workers and people who use support include:

Cuts to individual budgets being much easier to make on review than cuts to block services, resulting in reduced hours and people not getting the support they should have.

Deskilling of care profession – employees in personal budgets do not need any training whatsoever and there is little oversight of who and how people are being employed.

Insecure working conditions with zero hours contracts and insecure working conditions abound and people employing workers are driven into this by lack of funds. The typical money awarded for a budget is often less than is really needed.

Because personalisation is basically the wild west of social care a variety of new, highly unstable companies and roles have grown up around helping people to manage their budgets (“brokerage management”), often taking large fees from budgets and with very, very minimal regulation by anyone of the work that is actually done.

The person who our member worked for had a personal budget managed and administered by their relative but they struggled with the workload and various issues e.g. lack of cover staff so a “brokerage management” company was paid relatively high fees to solve issues.

The brokerage managements approach was to appoint a “temporary” manager who quickly told staff she expected to be their permanent manager. The manager employed their friends as bank staff without interviewing them and granted them permanent hours taken from existing staff – to the point where one staff member had their hours cut in half. The manager introduced new contracts in which all staff were given less hours than they had previously worked, were to restart their probationary period despite many working for the person for years, and the manger threatened the team leader with the sack if they did not get other staff to comply with the contracts and harassed them constantly on a range of other issues to the point where they were struggling to sleep, had skin conditions caused by stress and were interviewing for other jobs.

Staff initially raised grievances individually, joined reformist unions who wouldn’t help because they hadn’t been members long enough, etc – they were dealt with by divide and rule by the manager and most considered quitting. The atmosphere was poisonous, dispirited and not good for the person being supported let alone the staff.

After a talk on workplace organising from the Manchester Local, our Local’s newest member introduced the idea of workplace organising in wildcat fashion. They held workplace meetings, decided on a set of objectives, including 1) to ensure contracts did not contain a probationary period and stated the correct number of hours, and, 2) to get rid of the manager.

They formulated a list of demands related to the contracts and the way staff were treated and took them as a united front to the manager. She responded by phoning the complainants up individually to try and sow discord and lie about different things that had happened. When staff held more meetings and stood firm she agreed to a group meeting with the person’s relative who held ultimate responsibility but did not want to be involved too closely. By lying and generally sweet talking the relative the meeting was commuted to staff having individual meetings which they were then told were performance reviews.

Staff responded by refusing to attend the meetings. Instead they contacted the relative and arranged a separate meeting where they raised a list 20 issues including serious concerns about the way the manager treated the person we worked for, this with the backing understanding that we were very close to walking out of employment en masse. At this point the relative seeing that staff were united in opposition, the duplicity of the manager and the seriousness of the issues sacked the brokerage management company and contracts were rewritten without the probationary period and with the correct number of hours. Both demands were achieved relatively quickly by organising, sticking together and not being intimidated.

A quick victory was achieved in an unregulated sector by organising and sticking together. The Calderdale Local member would like to thank Manchester Local for their help and clear advice.

Calderdale Solfed are interested in speaking to others in the Social Care sector about setting up a social care sector network to act in solidarity and discuss issues e.g. how to organise in the face of the massive cuts the sector is experiencing, how to organise with the people we work with so we can fight for better living and working conditions together rather than being divided into employees and employers.

What do we mean when we say “Syndicalism”?-The Sedge Wick


What is Syndicalism?

The word syndicalism comes from the French word for an industrial or trade union. Put simply, syndicalism just means revolutionary unionism. Syndicalists are revolutionary socialists who believe that unions, rather than socialist parties or activist groups, are the driving force for social change.

All socialists and communists think that unions are important to some extent. Most socialists believe that workplace unions are useful because they let the workers protect themselves from being exploited by the bosses. If bosses try and cut pay or push up hours, for example, the union defends the workers with strikes and industrial action.

For most socialists, though, this is all the union is good for. Most socialists and communists believe that, while the unions can be useful in the short term, to make meaningful political changes a separate political party is needed outside of the workplace, to represent the workers in government. This can be a revolutionary party, like the Bolsheviks in the Russian revolution, or a parliamentary party, like the UK’s Labour party.

Syndicalists reject this. They see the separation between the workplace union and the political party as false. Instead,  they argue that if the union can fight for economic improvements in workers’ lives then it can also fight for social and political change.


Socialists (including syndicalists) believe that capitalism exploits workers by making them work. Workers produce goods and services through the work they do. Because goods and services have value, the workers, by working, also produce wealth. But if the worker works for a boss, then it is the boss who gets the wealth, in the form of profit. The worker usually gets paid a wage instead, which is a small fraction of the overall profit made. The boss can do this because, under capitalism, the boss owns the factory, shop, office or other workplace where the goods and services are produced. Socialists believe that the workers should get all the money that they make through their labour, not just the small part which the boss pays them. To do this, the working class as a whole (all the waged workers in any society) need to take over the workplaces (called the ‘means of production’) and run them themselves, without bosses, sharing the wealth between them.

Different groups of socialists and communists have disagreed about the best way to do this. Marxist Leninists (the types of communists who took over Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea, and the other countries we usually think of as ‘communist’) believe that a communist party is needed to do this. Rather than the workers seizing the means of production themselves, Marxist Leninists use the Communist Party to take over the whole economy of a country, with the aim of distributing its wealth out to the whole county’s population. The result is usually a Government dictatorship in which the economy is strictly regulated. Syndicalists think this is the wrong strategy. Instead, syndicalists think the workers in each specific workplace should try and take control of that workplace themselves, and run it democratically, without a boss or manager. This is called Industrial Democracy or, more simply, Workers Control. Syndicalist workers aim to do this by using strikes and other forms of industrial action to challenge and undermine the boss’s control over the workplace. Crucially, syndicalists aim to do this without relying on governments or political parties to do it for them.  Workers in their places of work have a lot of power. Whether it be growing food, caring for the sick or designing computer programs, nothing in society gets done without waged workers being paid to do it. Why would the workers rely on outside organisations to beat the bosses when they have so much power themselves?


What does a syndicalist union look like?

In the UK, when we think about unions, we tend to think about the big trade unions like Unite, Unison or the GMB. These are called ‘representative’ or ‘service’ unions. The members pay into the union, and when they need help, the union fights their corner for them.

Syndicalist unions work differently to this. A syndicalist union is an associational union rather than a representative one. In an associational union, the members, i.e. the workers in the workplace itself, are the union. There is no hierarchy or organisation above them that run their campaigns for them.  If ten workers decide to walk out of work one day, and not come back until they get a pay rise, then those ten workers are acting as a union. Whether the ‘official’ unions approved their action is not important.

This kind of strike action, where workers use their own initiative to organise a strike without involving outside agencies, is sometimes called a ‘wildcat’ strike. Wildcat strikes can seem difficult to organise, but it is worth remembering that most of famous strikes in UK history, from the General Strike of 1926 to the Miner’s Strike of 1984, actually began as wildcat strikes, with the representative unions only making the strike official well after it had already started.

Because of this, syndicalist unions can be very flexible and tend to vary in size, structure and composition depending on what sort of workplace they are in. Syndicalist unions are run democratically, from the ‘bottom up’, with as much power as possible being given to the workers themselves rather than to reps, stewards, or steering committees. There are lots of different ‘types’ of syndicalist unions, ranging from the ‘one big union’ of the IWW, which aims to organise all workers across the globe into one big, democratic union, to the loose, informal networks of activists and agitators favoured by some anarcho-syndicalists.

Revolution and the general strike

As we said, syndicalist unions are revolutionary. They are not just concerned with protecting the workers’ pay and conditions, but seek to bring down the whole capitalist system through revolution. Syndicalists believe that, rather than using revolutionary political parties to seize control of the government, the best way to bring about the revolution is through industrial action in the workplace. Specifically, they aim to do this using something called a revolutionary general strike. A general strike occurs when a large number of workers, across a range of different sectors and industries, go on strike at the same time. General strikes are very powerful political tools and have historically brought down governments and caused massive upheaval and social change. It was widespread union militancy which ousted Edward Heath’s Conservative government in 1974, for example.

Bringing down one government is not a revolution, though. A general strike becomes revolutionary when the striking workers seize control of their workplaces and begin to run them themselves, without bosses or the government. Worker’s control often happens organically during times of industrial unrest, simply as a point of common sense; workers realise that even during a strike, work still needs to be done, so rather than give up and hand control of the workplace back to the boss they simply begin doing the work themselves without the bosses. At various times in history, striking transport workers have delivered food to striking mine workers as a sign of solidarity, striking firemen have given lights and heaters to picket lines of office workers, and striking tram workers have given lifts to their fellow workers in other industries. Small scale acts of solidarity like this can sometimes escalate to much larger acts of industrial democracy. Sheila Cohen, in her study of the ’78/’79 general strike known as the Winter of Discontent, wrote that ‘within a short time, strike committees were deciding what moved in and out of many of the ports and factories… In some cases, strike committees controlled the public services of whole cities’

This is called dual power, when the bosses and managers haven’t been beaten yet but the workers are beginning to run their workplaces without them, based on solidarity and mutual support. Syndicalists believe these solidarity actions that arise during industrial unrest are not just important for practical reasons but are in fact the first actions in the revolution. If workers can run their workplaces themselves then there is no need for bosses. Without bosses, there will be no more capitalism. What’s more, if the workers are running their industries by giving their products and their labour to those who need it, not just to those who can afford it, then they are not only bringing down capitalism but building socialism.

The syndicalist revolution is not planned or staged; it arises spontaneously as individual industrial actions escalate into strikes, strikes become general strikes and general strikes become revolutionary. This can only happen under the right conditions; syndicalists see their role as building those conditions, organising their fellow workers into unions and preparing them for the revolution.


What ‘went wrong’ with the winter of discontent? – Sheila Cohen

Great article by Sheila Cohen on class struggle and the revolutionary potential of the Winter of Discontent.


Often portrayed as responsible for bringing down a Labour government and ‘letting in’ Thatcher’s Tories, the 1978-79 ‘Winter of Discontent’ remains a high point in the history of the class struggle in Britain.


The Winter of Discontent (WoD) has not had a good press – either from the right or, less predictably, from the left. The most recent diatribe against this historic wave of struggle comes in a relatively recent publication whose author claims that “The Winter of Discontent marked the democratisation of greed…It was like the spirit of the Blitz in reverse”. A former Labour minister’s comment on the WoD that “it was as though every separate group in the country had no feeling and no sense of community, but was simply out to get for itself what it could” is used to illustrate “the callous spirit which characterise[d] the disputes”.

This moralistic tone is sustained even by the openly revolutionary Paul Foot, who describes the strikes as “bloody-minded expressions of revenge and self-interest…”. The sense of sniffy distaste for what is seen as unacceptably “economistic” activity is reproduced in the argument by another left-wing writer, John Kelly, that “the strike wave [was] an example of an almost purely economistic and defensive militancy”. Poor old WoD; it just doesn’t come up to scratch.

So what could be the explanation of the Winter’s lasting fame, its sustained role as a symbol of everything that the ruling class loves to hate? Readers may remember photos of the notorious piles of rubbish used in Tory election posters of the 1990s; even today, the WoD is routinely invoked to raise a spectre of industrial struggle that must, of course, never again be seen. 1978-9 must have done something to rile the ruling class.

The Winter of Discontent was the longest and most comprehensive strike wave since 1926, with nearly 30 million working days lost embracing more than 4,500 industrial disputes. However, as suggested above, its analysis has always been riddled by mystifications and misconceptions. One such, very common, is that the WoD was a public sector strike – an assumption bolstered by the various urban near-myths of the dead being left unburied, rubbish piling up in the streets, etc. While these are not untrue, they are exaggerated – and in any case ignore the class basis for such supposedly “selfish” acts.

The focus on public sector workers also ignores the fact that this was originally a private sector strike wave. As such, the focus on action by relatively low-paid public sector workers draws attention away from the roots of the strike wave in the determination of the 1974-79 Labour government to restore “economic stability” on the backs of the whole working class through years of (initially) union-backed pay restraint. As shown below, it was this, and not the need to curb “trade union power”, which let in Thatcher.

By late 1978, British workers had already endured over four years of both voluntary and statutory incomes policy. Working-class incomes, which had risen in real terms during the late 1960s and early ’70s, began to see the beginning of the end of this improvement; statistics show that average earnings have never, despite ups and downs, returned to their peak levels in 1973.

What began the decline? The British labour movement’s devotion to corporatist approaches to combating the evils of capitalism, expressed in this case through the “Social Contract” introduced as part of Labour’s early 1974 election package. While the Contract, immediately and accurately rechristianed the “Social Con-Trick”, contained impressive reforms such as price curbs, pension increases and pro-trade union legislation (yes, that kind does exist) this was on offer from the first only in return for what was at first widely promoted as “voluntary” pay restraint.

It was hardly in accord with the times. Labour had come to office “in the wake of a tremendous wave of militant action…”: the new government could now “contain militancy only by running before it”. In part at least, the action expressed understandable outrage at the fact that Labour had inexplicably retained Heath’s “Phase Three” wage freeze, resentment over which triggered a wave of strikes by nurses, BBC staff, GE factory workers and many more.

It was not until that supreme architect of left social-democracy, Jack Jones, blessed the Social Contract with the sacrament of the flat-rate £6 limit, prompting a chorus of praise for “equality of sacrifice” from the likes of Tony Benn and Barbara Castle, that the gut-level militancy of the early Social Contract years turned into some semblance of acceptance. Trade unionists bit the bullet, accepted their £6 increase across the board, and gave class struggle a breathing space. For almost a year after August 1975, when the policy was introduced, workers withheld their power; strikes fell to their lowest levels in a decade.

It didn’t last, perhaps because the “reward” workers received for their year of sacrifice was to be – more pay restraint. When the government insisted on imposing a year-long 5% pay limit in mid 1976, the reaction was not long in coming. In early 1977 a strike by British Leyland toolmakers pointed to the increasing discontent of relatively “privileged” workers; not long afterwards, steel industry electricians, seafarers and Heathrow Airport workers were also on strike. The unrest was not unconnected to the fact that prices were now rising by 15 per cent and the purchasing power of the average worker had fallen by 7 per cent in the past two years.

By the autumn, firefighters and power workers were on strike, and a hysterical flood of headlines – ‘Callaghan Warns of Winter Strikes’; ‘Lights Stay Off’; ‘Blackout Threat to Kidney Patients’ – gave some indication of what was to come. The mass of workers had clearly been prepared to continue with some notion of ‘equality of sacrifice’ to aid the survival of a Labour government – but only as long as it seemed to make any sense. And after mid 1976, it clearly was not. By late 1976 and early 1977, working-class militancy had burst from its restraints in a resurgence of resistance, and a legacy of bitterness, which culminated in the 1978–79 ‘Winter of Discontent’.

The WoD, then, hardly fell out of a clear blue sky; rather, it was the culmination of a long series of strikes and struggles against drastic attacks on workers’ standards of living. Nor does its launch sustain the misconception that it was only weak and/or low-paid workers who took part. The first in the unbroken chain of disputes from late 1978 to mid 1979 was a 9-week strike over pay by Ford car workers which “drove a coach and horses” through Callaghan’s incomes policy with a 17% settlement. The “speedy and unprecedented degree of external support Ford workers received from the outset” was attributed by a convenor to widespread resentment of the pay policy.

The ‘Ford effect’ was felt in a wave of strikes. Workers at British Oxygen won an 8% rise in October; 26,000 bakery workers, novices to industrial action, walked out in November and gained 14%. By December, oil tanker drivers from Esso, Shell and Texaco had begun strikes and overtime bans, while in early 1979 lorry drivers used flying pickets to spread their strike throughout the country.

As the lorry drivers departed the industrial stage, however, on came the public sector workers in whose name the Winter of Discontent is normally commemorated. On 22 January a one-day strike brought out over a million public sector workers; from this time on a variety of groups began coming out on strike in pursuit of their own pay claims. School caretakers struck at the beginning of February, supported in many cases by teachers. Water workers broke through the pay code at the end of February with a 16% increase; on 23 February, civil service unions began national action for a substantial claim. The public workers’ struggle continued to stampede through almost every sector; picket lines appeared in front of hospitals, ambulance stations, refuse depots, schools, colleges and a host of other workplaces.

The media barrage is well-known, with “Rats on the Rampage” a typical comment. Yet rather than coming to the strikers’ defence against this ideological barrage, much of the labour movement leadership seemed equally horrified by the sight of uncollected rubbish and other reminders of their members’ indispensability. TUC leader Len Murray was ‘near to despair: this was not trade unionism, this was “syndicalism”. Yet stentorian condemnations did nothing to stem the quasi-revolutionary dynamic. Not only ‘syndicalism’, but elements of dual power began to characterize the dispute: ‘Within a short time strike committees were deciding what moved in and out of many of the ports and factories… In some cases strike committees controlled the public services of whole cities’ .

Thatcher herself records in her memoirs that ‘the Labour government had handed over the running of the country to local committees of trade unionists’; her fellow Tory James Prior complained that Britain was now being run by ‘little Soviets’ – local strike committees of lorry drivers, train drivers and other public sector groups beginning to come into the strike movement.

Paul Foot’s account affirms the dynamic: “I still recall a sense of wonder and admiration at the way in which the transport drivers of Hull took control of their industry and ran it…in the best interests of the community. The ability – and the yearning – for democratic control was there in abundance”.

As so often in disputes large and small, the action mobilised and built working-class participation and solidarity. Journalists reported that during their six-week strike “The impressive thing was how people who had never been on strike before manned the picket lines…they were totally at home with it, they accepted it. What comradeship there was!” FBU members turned up to the journalists’ picket lines with braziers, while pallets of fuel “fell out of the back” of a Royal Mail pantechnicon. Hardly the selfish sectionalism so disparaged by critics of the Winter.

Yet the outcome of this mobilisation, this solidarity, was not the triumph of the ‘little Soviets’, but victory for the emissaries of neo-liberalism. On 3 May 1979, Labour surrendered to Thatcher and all that she stood for.

This victory was by no means a foregone conclusion. During the election campaign itself, opinion polls varied sharply; two days before polling day, Labour was ahead 0.7 per cent.

Yet the Tories won by 7 per cent, more than enough to authorize Thatcher’s mission to destroy social democracy.

The conventional explanation for the loss was the electorate’s disgust with “trade union power” as symbolized in the industrial chaos of the Winter of Discontent. Yet the undoubted “unpopularity” of the strikes only accounted for about 1.5 to 2 per cent of the swing; the Tories’ policies on industrial relations were not even at the top of voters’ agendas. Nevertheless, almost the entire labour movement leadership took it for granted that it was “the unions” who had let in Thatcher. The question of what, or who, was lumped together in that formulation was not considered, any more than was the question of who held the “trade union power” she promised to vanquish.

There was indeed a form of power in the land during the Winter of Discontent – workers’ power. It was shown only embryonically, but it was based not on ‘greed’, not on the Satanic motives with which the press embellished their tales of evil, but on the usual reasons – attacks by capital on workers’ lives which go beyond the bounds of the tolerable. As one post-mortem pointed out, those who blamed Labour’s defeat on ‘union intransigence’ might be hard put to it to explain “what it was that turned the social contracting trade union saints of 1975-78 into the demonic fiends about whom we read in the Daily Mail of last winter”.

Those ‘demonic fiends’ did the only things that workers in struggle can do – they struck, they picketed, they stopped the movement of goods, they disrupted services. In that sense, these prosaic struggles of tanker drivers, gravediggers and dustmen also displayed the only power that workers can have; they withdrew their labour, with a force and to an extent that seriously challenged the organisation and structure of society. What they did not do was to display ‘trade union power’ in the monolithic, dictatorial way which the press, aided by politicians of right and left, sought to depict it.

Like all upsurges of struggle, the Winter of Discontent was raw, imperfect, lacking in ideal politics and strategy. Yet what its critics fail to recognise is that this is the character of grass-roots worker struggle in all its “spontaneous” and grassroots glory. The potential indisputably posed by such “economistic” activity – what are workers to struggle over, if not the price of their labour-power? – is that of a challenge to the capitalist class and state, as the rulers of that state undoubtedly recognised.

Originally published in The Commune.