How are strikes won or lost? And how do we—either as historians or as trade unionists—make this judgement?
When we left the striking sawmill workers three weeks ago, they had the momentum. The strike had spread from the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation’s Dunneedaw sawmill, to the Corporation’s nearby sawmill at Dallah. In the following week, this escalated into a wider strike wave. Oil workers employed by the Burma Oil Company struck, followed by more sawmill workers on Yangon docks; this time those workers employed by Steel Brothers. On the 2 April there was a general strike of sawmill workers. In their internal correspondence, the Corporation’s managers in Yangon admitted being “impressed” by the scale of the action.
The employers did not stop their attempts to break the strike. They appealed to the power of the state. They impatiently sought the publication of the Labour Commissioner’s award over sawmill workers’ pay that had been outstanding from a previous dispute at Steel Brothers. A modest settlement on pay, they hoped, would undermine the “agitators”, which they still held to be responsible for the walk out. They also continued to appeal to the police to identify and arrest these “agitators” (in correspondence from the union these individuals are referred to as their “revolutionary trade union leaders”). By the 5 April, they believe all but one of these trade unionists had been arrested. But the strike continued nonetheless. The eventual Labour Commissioner’s decision, published on 4 April, was to equalise pay across the sawmills on Yangon docks. Unsurprisingly, this failed to undermine support for the strike.
On the 10 April, under the spurious premise of the strike disrupting war supplies (they still had sufficient timber in storage to meet the demand) a force of police officers and military police offers, led by European sergeants, arrived at the Dunneedaw mill. They forced the workers into their barracks, beating several with batons in the process. Eight alleged “ringleaders” were arrested. The hammer and sickle flags were removed from the front of the mill. The police questioned the workers in the barracks and they agreed to return to work. Tellingly, perhaps, four more workers were arrested in the process of this “agreement” being made. The workers at Dallah refused to believe that the strike had been broken until they were allowed to see for themselves. When their representatives saw work going on at the mill, they too returned to work.
After 5 weeks, the strike had been broken through force. During their action they had faced intimidation, police raids, and a shortage of food. It was only sustained state coercion that broke them. Following the strike, police remained stationed in Yangon’s sawmills. But, despite this defeat, the Corporation’s management begrudging had to recognise that the workers’ grievances were legitimate. They agreed to look into the problems of poor sanitation in the mill’s barracks. And, although they complained about it, they conceded to the government’s recommendations that additional war payments be paid to workers and agreed to comply with their legal obligations to provide their workers with accommodation.
How are strikes won or lost? In Yangon in 1941 a group of precarious, predominantly migrant workers sustained a prolonged strike against a large imperial corporation with the backing of the colonial state. The levels of organisation and solidarity within their union surprised the Corporation’s management. Yet, in spite of this strength, the union’s leadership were imprisoned and the workers returned to work with only piecemeal concessions. Is this a defeat?—it’s certainly hard to see it as a victory. But what could they have won? The Corporation’s management never once countenanced negotiations, and they had no supporters in the imperial government. The union had no opportunity to turn their newly found power into leverage. If it hadn’t have been wartime, might they have held out for longer and forced concessions? If their leadership had formulated less ambitious demands, might they have won more material improvements in their working conditions?
Any judgement of whether the strike was successful or not rests on counter-factual suppositions. This is because any judgement of “defeat” or “victory” can only be judged against what was possible. But what was possible was not fixed or obvious, not least because striking can make new possibilities apparent. As historians, we are supposed to be wary of dealing in counter-factual arguments; although in subtle and unacknowledged ways they often haunt analysis. But as trade unionists, we are always asking “what if…?”
My union, the UCU, suspended strike action on 13 April following a ballot of members. The vote was over whether or not to accept a proposal put forward by the employers to establish a joint expert panel to look at the valuation of the pension, with a commitment to ensure that we keep a guaranteed pension comparable to what we already have. In the week running up to the result, members of the UCU were asking “what if…?” a lot. We’ve all been running through various possible scenarios, trying to work out the permutations of what could happen. We’ve been asking ourselves, and each other, could we win more? Could we lose what we’ve won? Now the proposal has been accepted, and the strike as been suspended, we have already begun to ask what would have happened if…
In Yangon, the sawmill workers’ strike was the beginning of the end. It had followed on from wave after wave of strikes and anti-colonial radicalism sparked by an oil workers’ strike in 1938. British rule was rocking, but its fall was precipitated from outside the colony. Just before Christmas 1941 the docks were heavily bombed by Japanese forces. Casualties were high and air-raid shelter provision was entirely inadequate. The city’s working people bore the brunt of the devastation. Labour began to flee the city. In a matter of months the population, which before the bombardment had stood at roughly 500,000, halved. As the British retreated, they razed to the ground much of what remained of the docks. By March 1942, many sawmills were abandoned ruins; although the Dunneedaw mill survived.
In the UK Higher Education sector, things are not nearly so bleak. More university workers than ever before have felt the power of collective action. Something has changed. The strike was over our pensions—and that battle is still to be won—but the strike has also opened up new possibilities, new horizons: what if education was freed from the market? What if we ran our universities? This is the end of the beginning.