The photograph is from a general strike in March 2008. The bloc is that of General Confederation of Greek Workers. Τhe man saking his fist in the air is George Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece from 2009 to 2011.
On January 15 of 2018, a multi-bill was voted in the Greek parliament, which includes, among other things, a change to union law 1264/82. According to the amendment, in order for the grassroots unions to be able to declare a strike, 50%+1 of their economically settled members should participate in the vote of the general assembly of the union. Before this amendment, the required participation was the 1/3 of the members of the union, and in some cases even the 1/5. In any case, it is no coincidence that a left-wing government was needed to successfully modify a legal framework that remained untouched for more than 35 years and, by and large, made it particularly easy to declare strikes. From the point of view of the trade unionists, instead of making a real evaluation of the strike “weapon” all these years -an evaluation in which it would be concluded that that its use is largely chosen in times of restructuring and, at the same time, it is quickly abandoned equally largley due to assigning the responsibility for the resolution of the issues in party mechanisms- the amendment itself marks a strong blow to trade union action; and that means only one thing: the confession of the bankruptcy of trade unions. The trade unionists now found the opportunity to blame the state or the General Confederation of Greek Workers (ΓΣΕΕ, the highest, tertiary trade union body in Greece) for the disappearance of the strikes. However, the gravedigger is never responsible for the death.
We read that “this change is substantial first of all because it attempts to make it impossible for unions to declare a strike”. If this amendment makes the declaration of strike impossible, it means that either the unions cannot in general mobilise 50%+1 of their economically settled members to participate in the union’s general assembly, or that they can mobilise them but in this case the supporters of a strike won’t be the majority. If we believe the unionists’ allegations that the union is the form of class organization, and since the class is formed only within the class struggle, then the only conclusion we can make out of the lament regarding the amendment is that today the proletariat is incapable of struggle. And at the same time it means that the struggles of the last years were only a representation of class struggle.
We aren’t arguing that this amendment is irrelevant. Indeed, as a result of the abolition of free collective bargaining between trade unions and employers in 2012, the state is emerging as the main regulator of the salary level and its interventionist role is further strengthened after the current direct intervention in the way the trade unions operate. Although for capital the existence of a virtual unionism is preferable to its complete abolition, there is indeed a matter of preventive weakening of trade unions at company level which, combined with high unemployment and the expected legislative interventions at the secondary and tertiary level, will make the declaration of a stike much difficult in the future. Besides, it is not possible for the courts to continue declaring indefinitely 9 out of 10 strikes as unlawful and abusive (on the few occasions that a strike was indeed declared). With a classical neo-liberal method, the Left of capital uses the democratic notion of “50%+1” to pass on the workers the responsibility for declaring a strike, expecting, of course, that conservative reflexes among workes will prevail at the expense of a mood for struggle. It remains to be seen what the new role of trade unions will be when they can no longer play the role of a “responsible partner” leading to the internal dissolution of the strikes now that strikes would no longer be declared… And when already, of course, the employer will be able to cooperate with an “Association of Individuals”, representing only 15% of employees, to impose salary reductions. In any case, however, what is not changing is that the right to strike remains closely and monopolistically linked to the existence of a trade union organization; let’s just imagine how different things would be if a neighborhood assembly could declare a local strike, and indeed within a framework that would not be so tightly linked to collective bargaining…
But we need to put things right. In Capital, discussing the struggle for a normal working day and the relevant English laws, Marx noted that “It has been seen that these minutiae […] were not at all the products of Parliamentary fancy. They developed gradually out of circumstances as natural laws of the modern mode of production. Their formulation, official recognition, and proclamation by the State, were the result of a long struggle of classes”. (MECW, vol. 35). Laws don’t arise ex nihilo as an invention of the legislature, but they express an already existing social condition, or a real trend of the social movement. The amendment to the strikes does not fall from the skies with a parachute. It comes to express the given social reality. The new legislation is actually trying to make it impossible for unions to declare strikes in the long run. However, the unions are already unmassed and weakened, and the majority of them they fail to declare strikes – or strikes that are something more than a firework. And this is not a product of state activity.
The organisation of the class is a practical matter of struggle. As such, the organisation of the class doesn’t come of before the struggle. As an expression of the struggle, the form of the organisation is determined by the very content of the struggle. The proletariat doesn’t require a separate and autonomous way of organisation and expression, as these forms are shaped by the given social conditions. It is the struggle itself that produces the organisation, the organisational form that better fits the struggle, and not the other way around. If today the strikes are dwindling and the unions are weakening it doesn’t mean that the class struggle has disappeared. It means that due to the specific social conditions the struggle has different contents than those of the trade union struggles and of the traditional workers’ movement, and therefore the struggle takes different forms of organisation. And the historical movement cannot be the content of neither mourning nor celebration.
The bankruptcy of trade unionism doesn’t stem from some “sold leaders”, nor from the dominance of some “ideological hegemony” of capital, so that is needed by the militant trade unionists to “raise the conscience” of the masses of the workers. The union is a collective body of workers whose role is to mediate between the workers and the capitalist to regulate the working conditions and the level of salary. These aren’t insignificant issues, they directly concern the everyday life of the working class. However, as a form of organisation aimed at regulating the exploitative capital relation, it cannot escape the horizon of capital. It isn’t an organisational form of the working class as the class of revolution. But this isn’t enough for the interpretation of the current bankruptcy of trade unionism, as at present there is no revolution in sight, i.e., trade unionism wasn’t overcome within the context of a struggle for the sake of the revolutionary goal.
For capital, proletarians are simply labour power. They are the commodity that has the special attribute of being able to enter a productive process and produce new value. The essence of value is abstract labour, labour stripped of its specific content. This abstraction isn’t logical but real. Capital, in order to overcome the resistance of the workers within production, constantly strips them from the knowledge they acquire about the labour process in order for the capitalist to be the one holding control within production. This homogenization, the creation of a “simple” labour power, means flexibility. It means that labour power can be constantly introduced into production or be casted out of it, or that it can be constantly shifted from one job to another. This homogenization of the labour power has nothing to do with the unity that the proletariat seeks in its struggles.
Despite our objections to identity politics and the intersectionality theory, we must recognise that the various identities that emerged with the so-called new social movements are a very important fact that shouldn’t be overlooked. The disappearance of workers’ identity doesn’t mean, of course, the disappearance of the working class. It means, however, that workers do not recognise themselves simply as workers, that their existence and their life isn’t just their role within production. In the 19th century, with adult men working 15 hours a day in factories and women and minors 12 hours, the lives of the workers couldn’t easily be viewed as separated from their work. However, the reduction of the working day, the high unemployment rates, the development of a welfare state that made it possible for survival outside wage-labour, and the constant mobility from one workplace to another, meant the rupture of the workers’ identification with their job. Now, there was life outside the workplace. This, of course, doesn’t mean life outside of capital. Thus class struggle came out of the factory and spread to all spheres of life where the competitive class relation doesn’t appear and isn’t experienced in its immediacy as in the sphere of production.
In addition to this strike that the workers’ identity experienced, what happens when, in the midst of a capitalist crisis, workers are constantly casted out of production and no demands can be satisfied? The decline of the profitability of capital means that capital won’t allow any increase in the world’s level of salary. This doesn’t mean that wage claims disappear or that they become secondary in the struggle. It means that the denial of capital to meet the wage demands destroys the material basis of liberal redistributive campaigns, mass parties and mass trade unions. This doesn’t mean that the struggle disappears from the sphere of production. The stuggle within the sphere of production remain, but takes different forms than those of the past.
In order to stop working, the proletariat won’t seek any legal permission. The cessation of capitalist production won’t come after counting the attendance in an union’s assembly. No law can stand in the way of the struggle for the abolition of capital.