SHARKEY, ‘The Strike, The Chief Fighting Weapon Of The Unions’ (1942)

Source: The Trade Unions: Communist Theory and Practice of Trade Unionism, Lance Sharkey. The NCPA has a set of physical copies of the 2019 Ed. available for group study by Party organisations.

Engels, in his book “Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844” deals with the struggle of the British workers to improve their conditions. He considers strikes a school of war, a necessary and compulsory weapon in the struggle for the emancipation of the working class. Here is what Engels wrote:

“In war the injury of one party is the benefit of the others, and since working men are on a war footing towards their employers they do merely what great potentates do when they seize each other by the throat… The incredible frequency of these strikes proves best of all to what extent social war has broken out all over England.

“…These strikes, at first skirmishes, sometimes result in weighty struggles; they decide nothing, it is true, but they are the strongest proof that the decisive battle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is approaching. They are the school of war of the working men in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided… and as schools of war they are unexcelled.

“It is in truth no trifle for a working man, who knows want from experience, to face it with his wife and children, to endure hunger and wretchedness for months together, and to stand firm and unshaken through it all. What is death, what the galleys which await the French revolutionist, in comparison with gradual starvation, with the daily sight of a starving family, with the certainty of future revenge on the part of the bourgeoisie, all of which the English working man chooses in preference to subjection under the yoke of the property-holding class… people who endure so much to bend one single bourgeois will be able to break the power of the whole bourgeoisie.”

Engels, as we see, emphasises that the strike is one of the varieties of social war, that strikes are indispensable as schools of war. He fights against the underestimation of strikes, against a disdainful attitude towards the economic struggle of the workers. He stresses that great stores of courage, self sacrifice, devotion and firmness are necessary for strikes, and that the army of the proletariat is created and forged in these preliminary battles Marx shared this viewpoint of Engels.

All strikes have political significance, since everything that deals a blow to the capitalists deals a blow also to the capitalist order. But the point is the degree, the proportion of this significance. If an economic strike bears the nature of a spontaneous outburst, it does not thereby lose its political significance… “spontaneity is the primitive form of consciousness.” (Lenin.)

The political significance of this strike depends upon the size and scope of the movement. Even where the strike is on a broad scale, if the leaders from the very outset lead it into narrow craft channels, the political edge of the strike is blunted and it is immediately deprived of its chief content it can no longer yield the political results which it could have yielded originally; if a strike which has purely economic demands as its point of departure is from the very beginning consciously directed along the line of combining it with the, political struggle, it yields maximum effects. The general strike in N.S.W. in 1917 was an economic strike which bore, the nature of a spontaneous outburst. From its size and scope and the conditions in which it took place (war period) it could have acquired immense political significance. But the reformist leaders failed to combine this strike with the general political struggle; they led it into “narrow craft channels,” and consequently robbed it of its chief content. The 1917 strike, therefore, did not yield the political results which it could have yielded under more capable and revolutionary leadership.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks based themselves on the teachings of Marx and Engels. Whenever an economic struggle broke out in any part of Tsarist Russia, the Bolsheviks established contact with the strikers. They helped them win their partial demands, but at the same time developed their own Bolshevik propaganda aimed at gaining the strikers’ support for the general revolutionary programme of the Party. That is why the economic struggle in Russia grew into a political struggle, and the general mass political strike into an armed uprising in 1905 and again in 1917.

Strikes, properly led and conducted and properly timed, are a revolutionary weapon. Strikes develop the labour movement, organise and unite workers and win the intermediate social strata to the side of the revolution.

There are many examples of this in the history of the labour movement of this country and of our Party. The big strike struggles of the ’90s led to a political advance on the part of the working class. As a result of their experiences in the strikes of the 90’s, the workers began to realise the need for independent political organisation, a political party of their own, separate from. the bourgeois liberals, whom previously the workers had usually supported.

This led to the development of the Australian Labor Party. The Labor Party, while it separated the workers organisationally from the bourgeois political parties, has failed because it did not break with bourgeois political ideas, with bourgeois ideology; it rejected the proletarian ideology, Marxism. Nevertheless, the formation of the A.L.P. at the time represented progress. The experience of the workers with A.L.P. reformism prepares the ground for the conquest of the workers by Marxist-Leninist ideas. The chief aim of the communists is to build a party, not only organisationally, but ideologically and politically, independent of the bourgeoisie.

A number of strikes which we have led or influenced have considerably strengthened the Communist Party. In North Queensland, the Communist Party polled its biggest Parliamentary votes. This is largely due to the great work of the communists, J. C. Henry and others, who led the strikes of the canefields workers, and aroused the masses against the oppression of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, the giant millionaire concern which has dominated Queensland’s economics and politics.

Similarly, the Party’s influence started to become widespread among the miners as a result of the strenuous fight of the communists against the coal owners and the treacherous policy of the reformists during the lock-out of the Northern miners in 1929-30. This lock-out took place in accordance with the general drive of the capitalist class at that period to undermine Australian standards of living and to solve their economic problems at the expense of the masses.

In defiance of the arbitration award, the coal barons demanded a reduction in the miners’ rates and locked them out when the men refused to accept it. This experience demonstrates clearly enough that the bosses accept arbitration decisions only when it suits their book.

The miners on the Northern N.S.W. fields were locked out. The reformist leaders of the union, together with the Lang-dominated N.S.W. Labor Party and the “Labour Daily,” opposed the extension of the struggle to the remaining coalfields, and prevented a general strike in the mining industry; they pretended that it was necessary to limit the struggle in order that the miners remaining at work might provide the finance for the locked-out Northern men. As industry, due to the economic crisis, was reduced to a low ebb, it was a comparatively simple matter for the capitalists to secure all the coal they needed from the pits that remained at work.

The Kavanagh-Ryan-Higgins rightwing in our Party aided and abetted the reformists. This “leadership” declined to issue the call for an active fighting policy in the mining crisis.

The rightwing compelled our Party to remain passive for the first nine months of the lock-out, which lasted fifteen months. It was only after the rout of the rightwing within the Party (1929-30) that an active policy in regard to the lockout became possible. Our new C.C. at once took energetic steps to implement an all-out policy for a general strike; it exposed the reformist contention that the Northern miners would win by means of a “folded arms” policy at a time when the capitalists were getting all the coal they needed. Party organisers were at once despatched to all the fields to struggle for a general strike. The communists organised the miners for active resistance to police terrorism and the introduction of scabs into the pits.

The miners began to support the “all-out” policy. A conference of the lodges was called in the North, and the reformist officials only averted a decision for a general stoppage by giving small pits, with about 20 members, and who were unaffected by the lock-out, the same voting strength as the big fighting lodges with 500 and more membership.

The Scullin Federal Labor Government was elected at this time. Scullin and Theodore made lavish promises to the miners during the election, but repudiated them when in office, despite the fact that the Miners’ Union had contributed poundL1,000 to the A.L.P. election funds.

The Party and militant miners were not strong enough to prevent a betrayal. After fifteen months of stubborn resistance, the bourgeoisie and the reformists compelled the miners to resume on the owners’ terms.

The communists won great prestige, however, because they had put forward the only correct policy and had foretold the inevitable outcome of the reformist “line,” namely defeat for the mineworkers.

In the subsequent strikes of the miners (the “first” and “second” rounds) which the Party was able to strongly influence and lead, the treacherous policy of partial stoppage (in the existing mining conditions, partial stoppages at other periods are essential) was repudiated and the miners were able to realise their programme; a programme that was formulated by the communist leaders among the miners in collaboration with our Central Committee. The Party’s position was thus strengthened among the mineworkers and our comrades are now in leading positions in the union, and the Party receives a solid vote from the miners at election times.

Further good work will finally convert the miners’ organisation into a really revolutionary union and a firm support for socialism.

Revolutionary Role Of Mass Strikes
The revolutionary character of politicalised strike movements is revealed in the Russian Revolution. We read in the “Short History of the C.P.S.U.”:

“The workers’ political strikes stirred up the whole country. Following the town, the countryside began to rise. In the spring, peasant unrest broke out. The peasants marched in great crowds against the landlords, raided their estates, sugar refineries and distilleries, and set fire to their palaces and manors. In a number of places the peasants seized the land, resorted to wholesale cutting down of forest, and demanded that the landed estates be turned over to the people …

“In June, 1905, a revolt broke out on the Potemkin, a battleship of the Black Sea Fleet. The battleship was at that time stationed near Odessa, where a general strike was in progress.”

— From the “Short History,” C.P.S.U.

“Short History” relates how the strike struggles also brought the students and the liberal bourgeoisie into activity against Tsarism. Lenin, in preparing for the Russian Revolution, raised the slogan of mass political strikes, which he declared, “may be of great importance at the beginning and in the very process of insurrection.”

The experience of the Russian labour movement shows clearly that, contrary to catchcries of the reformists, who claim that the class struggle of the workers “frightens” away the intermediate strata – the farmers, the middle class, the white collar employees – the opposite is the case.

The struggle of the workers arouses the rest of the toiling masses. An energetic struggle on the part of the workers wins them as allies of the workers, and establishes the leadership of the labour movement over these masses. Such was the experience of the Russian workers. An examination of the history of the Australian labour movement also shows that great struggles lead not only to the growth of the trade union movement, but also to the election of Labor Governments (Bowling’s “Legirons” resulting from a miners’ strike, timber and mining strike before the election of the Scullin Government, etc.) proving that the “floating vote” (the middle strata) follows the working class when the latter fights monopoly capitalism.

A comparison between the Russian and German proletarian movements vividly illustrates these points.

Owing to the deep split in the working-class caused by the treachery of the Social-Democratic Party, the German workers were unable, after the end of the first world war, to conduct the persistent strike struggles and other forms of class war that the Russian workers did which led to the Russian Revolution. The social-democratic traitors again prevented mass political strikes, and the general strike at the time when the German financiers were preparing to place Hitler in power. As the German working-class was unable to conduct a determined and persistent struggle, to organise big strike movements, the middle strata could see little hope of the workers wresting power from the monopoly capitalists and land-owners.

This enabled Hitler, posing as an energetic champion of the middle strata, to win them for fascism, to deprive the working-class, split by the social-democrats, of allies. From this resulted the defeat of the German workers and the dire consequences of this defeat for the whole world.

The struggle of the workers, particularly mass strike movements, “arouses the masses.”

This emphasises the importance of good trade union work and properly conducted strike movements.

The general run of strikes in Australia have been of an economic character, or confined to economic demands, by the reformists. Political strikes have been few in number (Port Kembla), against scrap iron for japan, for the release of Ratliffe and Thomas, against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in the U.S.A. and possibly a few more). Political strikes are a higher form of struggle than economic strikes. Such strikes challenge the Government, the State, the rule of the capitalist class. One of our chief trade union tasks is the politicalisation of strikes.

Strikes are also important in that they reveal the class line-up to the more backward workers. The bourgeoisie, its press and politicians, and most of the clerics all unite to fight the strikers with every possible weapon. The law, the police, even the army. are used to crush the workers. The reformists oppose the strikers and thus expose themselves. The hypocritical mask is off. In a flash the real character of the capitalist State is revealed to the masses.

The Need For Generalship In Strikes
Strikes do not always, automatically and necessarily lead to progressive developments among the workers concerned.

Here I wish to emphasise the need for generalship. Those who are leading the strike must regard it as a battle, in which they, the leaders, must carefully estimate the strength of the enemy at any given moment, must realise the need to manoeuvre, the need for good tactical leadership, to be able to understand when the strike has been definitely lost; to be able to retreat while the strikers are still not divided and demoralised, to be able to prevent the exposure of the workers to undue punishment, in the event of the loss of the strike, and so on.

The example of a lost strike and bad generalship which led to lamentable results is, in recent times, the conduct, in N.S.W., of the Timber Workers’ Strike of 1929-30. This was a very important strike, it was one of the biggest struggles of the workers in defence of their conditions during the capitalist onslaught on the Australian standard of living during the depression years. It had many arresting and spectacular features, the mass pickets, the burning of the ballot papers in connection with the secret vote ordered by Judge Lukin (“ for” or “against” the strike, an attempt to break the strike) numbers of arrests, action against scabs, etc.

The strike lasted for nine months before it was finally called off. The workers were exhausted. The union in N.S.W. has shown little life since then and is in the clutches of a hopelessly reactionary clique of officials. This is because there was poor generalship; the strike was continued long after it was lost and the workers had become tired and demoralised. The contraction of the industry as the consequence of the developing economic crisis of the time opened the way for widespread victimisation of the best elements in the industry.

The tragic outcome of the Timber Workers’ Strike which had fired, the imagination of the masses in its earlier stages, underlines the need for a careful examination of the strength of the unionists and the employers, of the external and internal, the objective and subjective factors, the need for good tactics, the ability to manoeuvre, and the courage to make unpalatable decisions once it is clear that the tide of battle has definitely commenced to flow against the workers.

The General Strike Of 1917
The strike of 1917 was an important event in the annals of our trade union movement, and not merely because it was the biggest strike numerically which spread over a whole series of industries and several States, and took on the proportions of a general strike.

In the first place it was a protest by the workers against the imperialist war which had been proceeding for three years, the worsened conditions caused by that war, and the militancy engendered by the struggle against military conscription. Its general strike character was influenced by the agitation and propaganda of the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, who put forward the view that capitalism could be conquered by the general strike alone.

The I.W.W. agitation for the general strike was fairly widespread at that time. The I.W.W. however, because of their sectarian refusal to work inside the craft unions were unable to lead, organise or guide the course of the strike. The leadership of the strike was in the hands of the reformists, who did everything to limit it and to prevent it, above all, becoming a political strike, a challenge to the capitalist State, a struggle for power.

Leninism teaches us that a general strike, that is, a strike in all or most of the basic industries, as distinct from a general strike in one industry, must as a rule be a political mass strike. It is often necessary to broaden out partial strikes and aim to transform them also into political mass strikes. Our Party, because of this, would call for such stoppages only in the most favourable conditions, particularly a revolutionary or near revolutionary situation. Usually, in ordinary situations, our tactics are a one-day general stoppage or a series of such one day stoppages, as Engels and Lenin opposed the “economic” general strike of the anarchists.

The 1917 strike resulted, primarily because of its reformist leadership, in defeat, in a bad setback for the unions. Many of the unions did not recover from the defeat for years, and even to-day the cry is raised that 1917 proved the “futility of strikes.” It did not, but it further demonstrated the rottenness of reformist leadership and the incapacity of such anarchist and sectarian groups as the I.W.W. to take over the leadership of the working-class. It confirmed Lenin’s estimation of the general strike as a revolutionary weapon.

How Reformism Breaks Strikes
The seamen were heavily defeated in the strike of 1935. This strike was an excellent example of the betrayals to which the reformists are prepared to stoop. The N.S.W. A.L.P. Executive, dominated by the Lang inner group, treacherously decided that this strike must be defeated at all costs in order, as they thought, to put an end to the growth of strikes led by communists. The reformist union officials implementing this policy isolated the striking seamen, instructing their members to work ships manned by scab crews.

As a result of this betrayal, the union was seriously weakened and it took several years of persistent and patient work and correct policies on the part of the communists to re-unite the seamen and re-establish the strength of the union.

In the “depression” years strike-breaking was the general policy of the bureaucracy. Lang and the A.W.U. bureaucracy, for example, sent scabs to Queensland to break a shearers’ strike. The reformists policy ensured the defeat of the Northern N.S.W. coalminers. The Party had a great task in combating this widespread betrayal. The Party countered by organising rank and file strike committees to prevent official strike-breaking, establishing the widest democracy, and rank and file control of the conduct of the strikes. In addition, of course, they widely exposed the role of the reformists, who were openly protecting capitalism and assisting the capitalists to place the burdens of the raging economic crisis on the shoulders of the working-class.

This object lesson of the role of the reformist officials, which was also the role of the Labor Governments of the time, must never be forgotten by us. It is identical with the role played by the European social-democrats, which Lenin never tired of exposing, and which produced such dire results for the working class.

Strike-Breaking And Picketing
Strike-breaking is a big problem in regard to strikes. The workers on strike, if they are to be successful in the struggle, must prevent production through the employment of scabs. In addition to publicity, in support of their cases, the main trade union answer to strike-breakers is the mass picket to prevent them entering the work-place.

There has been a definite weakness noticeable in regard to picketing and measures against strike-breakers in some recent strikes in this country, in comparison with the picketing organised by the C.I.O. in the U.S.A. immediately before the last war. Strike-breakers are a real menace, they break down the strikers’ morale in that they make the latter fearful about the possibility of being re-employed at the end of the strike and, if strike-breaking is on a sufficiently wide scale (as happened in seamen and waterside strikes) , breaking the strike. The fight against scabs is therefore a prime task of the strike leadership. Nor is it good to leave the task of dealing with scabs to a small group of fighters among the strikers. The political mobilisation of all the strikers for the struggle against strikebreakers must be the aim. In addition, wide mass support, especially from other unions and the unemployed organisations, must be organised.

The problem of the strike-breakers often remains after the conclusion of the strikes, especially when there are large numbers of them. Many of them scabbed because of real want in their homes, because of prolonged unemployment; others are backward workers misled by capitalist slander of the strikers, etc. The task is to win them back to the labour movement, if at all possible, otherwise, the workers in the particular enterprise or industry are divided, the boss has a powerful weapon to hand, the workers are weakened and progress is hindered. Experience shows that often those misled workers can be won back to trade unionism. The position is different with chronic or more or less professional scabs, who are always at the disposal of the boss to break strikes. These must be driven from the industry.

Unions should always be careful not to give the impression that it is the union that stands between the unemployed worker and a job, that the union is a “job-trust,” confining employment in the particular industry to a chosen privileged few. If this were the case, then it is more than likely that backward workers, will think that at last they see their chance to get a job and smash the union which they regard as an obstacle to their employment, when a strike is called and the bosses are calling for “free” labour.

We must remember that Karl Marx wrote in the “Manifesto of the Communist Party” that competition (for jobs) continually breaks down the unity of the workers, and strikebreakers are converted into such precisely by the competition in the labour market.

Strike-breakers must be resolutely dealt with during strikes, but, also, correct measures should be taken in connection with them when the strike is over.

Working Days Lost Through Strikes In Australia
1913 ….. 623,528
1917 ….. 4,599,658
1919 ….. 6,308,226
1920 ….. 1,872,065
1926 ….. 1,310,261
1929 ….. 4,461,478
1930 ….. 1,511,241
1935 ….. 495,124
1938 ….. 1,337,994
1939 ….. 459,154