The workers, the unions, and the crisis


The working class is central to any project for revolutionary change. Yet today strikes are at an historical low. How do we help transform the bitterness at the base of society into action?

workers united bannerThe working class has to be central to any serious project for revolutionary change. That is because, in a modern industrial society like Britain, the working class a) forms the great majority, b) produces the wealth of society, c) is concentrated in large workplaces, and d) has the potential power to cripple capital and the state. Quite simply, workers, and workers alone, could one day overturn the system and remake the world. As students, protestors, activists, whatever, we can make a difference – but, on our own, we cannot break the power of the corporations and the nation-states of global capitalism. Only as workers do we have that potential.

Yet, in Britain at least, the working class is a sleeping giant. Despite 25 years of racketeering ‘neoliberal’ capitalism, despite credit crunch and financial crash, despite growing inequality, unemployment, stress-loads, and bullying, most workers are keeping their heads down. Strikes are few and usually no more than token protests. Much more common – even as bankers pocket seven-figure bonuses and politicians charge taxpayers to maintain their mansions – is workers accepting more work for less pay in the hope of holding onto their jobs. The bitterness at the base of society is palpable. But it is not organised and militant. It remains a sullen, murmuring, resentful, but passive discontent. 

Turning this anger into action is the key to the transformation of British politics. An attempt to understand how that might be done is the subject of what follows.

The changing shape of the working class

At the time of the 1926 General Strike, there were around a million miners in Britain. During the 1984-85 strike, there were less than 200,000. Today, there are fewer than 4,000. By contrast, 250,000 people are now employed by Tesco’s and 850,000 work in call-centres. Between 1978 and 2005, the number working in service industries increased from 14.8 million to 21.5 million, while those in manufacturing fell from 6.9 million to 3.2 million. An ever-rising proportion of workers are ‘white collar’ as opposed to ‘blue collar’. There are almost as many women in the workforce as men. There are larger numbers of part-time, temporary, and home workers. Such changes have been heralded as ‘the end of the working class’. This conclusion is false (1).

It is not simply that some of the trends – such as the rise in part-time, temporary, and home working – have been grossly exaggerated. More important is that the significance of the changes has been completely misconstrued. Class is a social relationship structured by economic exploitation and political domination. It is irrelevant to one’s class position whether one works down a coal-mine or in a call-centre: in either case, as a worker, to earn a living, one sells one’s labour-power for less than the value of the wealth it creates, and the ‘surplus-value’ is then appropriated by the rich and big business.

This is not rocket science. Yet the tired old argument that ‘we are all middle class now’ is endlessly recycled. In the 1930s, it was because people had council houses, gardens, radio-sets, and hire-purchase furniture (2). In the 1960s, the ‘embourgeoisement’ of ‘affluent workers’ was attributed to high wages, privatised life-styles, television, and enthusiasm for DIY(3). Now, commentators like Will Hutton and Polly Toynbee point to the burgeoning number of white-collar workers, service professionals, and IT specialists to substantiate a perception of society as an inverted pyramid, with a basic two-thirds/one-third division, that is, a majority ‘middle class’ and a depressed minority of unemployed, part-timers, and low-paid unskilled workers (4).

A right-wing variant of this theory posits the existence of a dangerous minority ‘underclass’, poor through their own failure, and prone to anti-social behaviour, disorder, and crime, necessitating tough laws, strong police, and a world of CCTV cameras, gated estates, and burglar alarms (5).

The truth is that we live in a society in which the old social inequalities have become more marked, not less. During the neoliberal era (1979-2008), the rich have got richer – much richer – and the working class relatively poorer (6). So far from society being an inverted pyramid, 1% own about a quarter of the wealth, 5% about half, and the top 20% about three-quarters. This accounts for the political and business elite and the solid middle class. The rest, about 80% of the population, form the working class – irrespective of whether they are men or women, blue-collar or white-collar, car workers or sales assistants, full-time or part-time, on fixed contracts or temporary ones (7).

That the composition and character of the working class is ever-changing has been axiomatic for revolutionary socialists since Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, writing in The Communist Manifesto of 1848, spoke of ‘constant revolutionising of production’ under capitalism:

‘The bourgeoisie [the capitalist class] cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society… Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air…(8)

What this implies is the decline of old industries, regions, jobs, and skills, and the rise of new ones, such that the working class is endlessly reconfigured to serve the changing needs of capital.

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