Strikes and Industrial Protest in an Anti-Union State: Pre-Revolutionary Russia

Like just about all its predecessors, Cameron’s government is doing its level best to emasculate and destroy the trade unions. Thatcher did it back in the 1980s with her union-busting legislation, and then the highly militarised use of the police during the Miners’ strike. Cameron’s trying to destroy them and their political representation in the Labour party through attacks on the union levy, further legal limits on the right to strike, and the legalisation of the use of blackleg labour from agencies to stop strikes being anything but cosmetic. The International Labour Organisation in the UN have denounced this last piece of legislation. And David Davies, one of the most right-wing of the Tory MPs, called Cameron’s plan to force stikers on pickets to giver their names to the police as ‘Francoist’.

Dave Cameron hopes this legislation will leave the unions powerless, and the workforce cowed, willing to accept the very worst wages and conditions. In the short term, he’s probably right, but in the long term, probably not. Not from the example of pre-Revolutionary Russia. The lesson there is quite the opposite: if you grind people down into the dirt for long enough, and deprive them of the right to strike and form unions, they will nevertheless strike and form unions, and the strikes and unrest will get more severe the worse conditions gets and the more force is deployed.

Lionel Kochan, in his Russia in Revolution (London: Paladin 1970) notes that in 19th century Russia it was illegal to form trade unions, go on strike or form any kind of collective organisation for the workers. (p. 42). There were no friendly societies or strike funds to support striking workers. Nevertheless, strikes became a feature of Russian industrial life. To be sure, not all workers went on strike. He states that between 1895 and 1904, only half the workers in factories tended to go on strike, most of which didn’t last very long. The average strike lasted about ten days. (p. 44).

Nevertheless, industrial unrest became so chronic that the government was forced to increase the police and the armed forces to put down strikes. The number of policemen was raised to 1 to 250 workers, and there was one factory inspector, whose duties included warning workers that they could not legally strike, and what would happen to them if they did, for every 3,000 workers. The army was called in to suppress strike action and workers’ demonstrations 19 times in 1893, 50 in 1899, 53 in 1900, 271 in 1901 and 522 in 1902. (p. 47). And the number of those on strike could be huge. During the revolutionary agitation of 1905, 111,000 people had gone on strike by 8th January. (P.88). At its height, there were 125,000 people on strike in the Russian capital. (p.94). In 1907, 740,000 people went on strike. (p. 160).

Most of these strikes were for purely economic reasons – an increase in wages and the betterment of working conditions, rather than for political reforms such as the establishment of a parliament and the right to vote. Nevertheless, the number of political strikes increased as the new century progressed. And this was despite some minimal concessions to modern representative politics, such as the establishment of a parliament – the Duma – albeit on a very restricted franchise by Nicholas II. In 1910 there were 222 strikes involving 46,000 workers. The following year, 1911, there were 466, with 105,110 workers. And the number of political strikes went up from eight in 1910 to twenty four in 1911. (p. 161). In 1912 the number of political strikes rocketed to 1,300. (P.162). And then in 1914, the year the War broke out, the number of strikes as a whole shot up to 3,466, of which 2,500 were politically motivated.(p. 164).

In many ways, this is to be expected. If you drive people down to the point where they have absolutely nothing to lose, they will revolt, and revolt violently. At one point wages were so low -just 40 kopeks – that they were insufficient for a worker to support a family. You can compare that to the in-work poverty today, where most welfare recipients are people working, often very long hours, but not earning enough to support themselves or their families.

Despite the glowing picture of the Developing World by the Tory writers of Britannia Unchained, which urged Brits to work harder for less money, ’cause that’s what workers outside the West are doing, parts of India is currently riven by Maoist rebels. I’ve mentioned the Naxites before, radical Marxists in the poorest states in Indian waging a guerrilla war on behalf of the peasants and Dalits. And much of the radical Muslim unrest and terrorism in India has concrete social and economic motives. In many areas, Muslims are treated as second-class citizens, given the worst jobs and with an unemployment rate higher than their Hindu compatriots. In fact, most of the Islamic unrest throughout the world probably has its origins less in religious doctrine and more in conditions of high unemployment, low pay, poor opportunities and political sclerosis.

By making democracy a sham, and repressing unions and other organisations trying to work for better wages and working conditions, Cameron is storing up problems for the future. The Fascist dictatorships of Salazar in Portugal and Franco in Spain collapsed, partly through workers’ strikes. As did the Communist dictatorships at the opposite end of Europe.

Now Cameron needs to maintain the illusion of democracy, and some minimal welfare state in order to deceive people that his government is actually democratic, and he is doing something to help them. After all, Bismarck said

Give the workman the right to work as long as he is healthy, assure him care when he is sick, assure him maintenance when he is old … If you do that … then I believe the gentlemen of the Social-Democratic programme will sound their bird-calls in vain. (Cited in Koch, p. 48).

Of course, Cameron is doing his best to make sure people don’t have the right to work, or are cared for and maintained in sickness and old age. He wants to pass welfare provision on to private industry, who will provide a much poorer service. But he needs to give the illusion that he is doing all the above. And it’ll probably work – for a time. Possibly even decades. But at the end there will be an explosion. And it may be all the more bloody, because of the way he has reduced democracy to a sham, so that people will just discard it in favour of authoritarianism, just as after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 millions of Germans were convinced that democracy had failed.

But what does Cameron care? He probably banks on being long dead by then, if he gives it any thought at all. Or perhaps he dreams of fleeing somewhere else, when the conflagration finally comes. To Switzerland, perhaps. Or the Cayman Islands. South America. Perhaps, America itself, always assuming Sanders doesn’t get in. And if it all kicks off before then, he, or Bojo, or some other Tory pratt, will indulge their stupid fantasy of being a great war leader, bravely reconquering the cities from Communist militants.

And we’re back to Orwell’s description of the future: a boot stamping on a human face. Forever.

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