Yet Hobsbawm was correct to identify a long term contraction of the manual working class. The gentle post-war decline of manufacturing employees began to accelerate in the late 1970s and was apparent in the major centres of the world economy as these figures illustrating the decline of manual workers as a proportion of all employees in some of the major European economies since the early 1960s makes clear.
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Saturday, 4 May 2013
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This article considers the shape of working class and the challenges facing trade unionism stemming from the impact of neoliberalism in the last forty years.
What neoliberalism is and the degree it marked a break with the post-war settlement is regarded as decisive but honesty compels me to acknowledge that no narrative or account of neoliberalism is offered here. But it is assumed there was a ‘neoliberal turn’ that proceeded on the national stage in a complex dialectic of the economic, political and ideological levels mediated by a global crisis of profitability in turn amplified by the growing internationalization of the world economy. Indeed Britain’s relative economic decline was already visible in the mid 1960s vis-à-vis its immediate international competitors and placed increasing strain upon the ‘corporatist’ post-war settlement. To this author it seems Neil Davidson’s peerless overview of neoliberalism offers the essential outlines of just such an account (Davidson 2010).
A focus on what happened to the working class means we briefly visit two related topics that represented the IS tradition’s most serious attempt to wrestle with the changing composition of the working class and its implications for the class struggle from the late 1970s onwards.
The first was Tony Cliff’s ‘downturn thesis’ in 1979 that explored the fateful loss of impetus of the shop floor militancy that flourished in the post-war years. The second was the tradition’s response to claims that a contraction of the manual working class as a proportion of all employees fatally infirmed the socialist project. The issue of the ‘changing working class’ and changes in the structure of employment was addressed by Chris Harman and Alex Callinicos (Harman and Callinicos 1987). But neither Cliff’s ‘downturn thesis’ or Harman and Callinicos’s fertile exploration of the nature of the working class was really developed further. They were a necessary prolegomena left in abeyance as the theoretical arteries of the IS / SWP tradition hardened in adversity.
Considering neoliberalism – which loomed larger as the 1980s turned into the 1990s – would have meant further reflection on these starting points and broached questions at the heart of the SWP’s perspectives.
To begin this article starts with an apparent detour about how mass based trade unionism was finally achieved in Britain early in twentieth century. Originally this article was a paper for conference for socialists, trade unionists, students and anti-cuts activists commemorating the centenary of the 1911 Liverpool general transport strike. So the parts focusing on the Great Unrest 1910-14 are retained because as James Cronin summarized: “the shape of the British labour movement was basically set between 1889 and 1920. This primary mobilization of the working class proceeded through three turbulent explosions of strike militancy and persistent and profound social turmoil” (Cronin 1979: 93).
As I hope to show there are instructive parallels with the long ‘downturn’ that proceeded the Great Unrest 1910-14 when only one in eight workers held a union card and today when union density in the private sector has fallen so low. Not every parallel flatters this earlier history though I would caution that if the 1910-14 Great Unrest and the period before provides some interesting points of comparison for the current generation of working class partisans, I would not deny the historical specificity of this earlier season of struggle or imply that our own ‘explosion’ now being prepared, lies around the corner.
The Past: 1900-14
It is a hundred years or so since the 1910-14 Great Unrest – that passage of fierce class conflict that shook the edifice of late imperial Edwardian Britain before the caesura of the First World War. One of the highpoints of the Great Unrest was the 1911 Liverpool general transport strike which began among the seamen before spreading to the dockside workers and then to tram operatives, the benighted railwaymen and other groups of workers. A strike of goods porters of the Cheshire and Lancashire railway company led to the first ever national rail strike when the four different existing rail unions were compelled to respond to the militant initiative of their rank and file, and were unexpectedly rewarded with victory just three days later. This victory signaled the definitive arrival of trade unionism on the rails and led via union amalgamation to foundation of the National Union of Railwaymen in (NUR) in 1913.
What follows is not intended as a deep historical scrutiny of the events of 1911 or its backdrop in the Great Unrest or even the whole period between 1910 and 1920 – when the consolidation of mass based trade unionism in Britain was finally achieved as the unions finally embraced the proletarian majority for the first time and were transformed in the process. This period of struggle also illumines our present and retains some relevance to the question of how to revitalize the labour movement against the backdrop of the ‘waning of collectivism’ (Samuel 2006: 3-17). In 1909 on the eve of the Great Unrest only 15% of workers were in a trade union. Trade unionism was still in its “bow and arrow stage” according to WF Hay a militant South Wales miner (Haynes 1984: 90).
The general transport strike in Liverpool demonstrated a high degree of combativity and ‘spontaneity’. Ostensibly it was led by Tom Mann who had returned from Australia only shortly before. Mann’s career was extraordinary and he was literally on the spot for every major turning point in the British labour movement over four decades. Mann had been at the heart of the dock strikes in the East End of London in 1889. On his arrival In Liverpool in 1911, Mann took up the reins of organizing and spreading the action with the support of James Sexton, Joseph Havelock Wilson and Joseph Cotter who led the dockers, the seamen and ships cabin staff respectively. The strike committee they led shaped the strike’s tactics and negotiated settlements with the different dockside and shipping employers.
A notable feature of the unrest in Liverpool and elsewhere in Britain was the extraordinary hostility of working people to the civic authorities. During the national rail strike there was widespread sabotage of track and signal boxes. In Chesterfield a confrontation between strikers and soldiers saw the station being burnt down. In Liverpool thousands of troops and police (mainly from Birmingham and Leeds) were sent to the city while the first middle class citizens militia was founded (a forerunner of similar outfits constituted during the 1926 General Strike).
When Mann’s strike committee called a city wide general strike the warship Antrim appeared on the Mersey. The strike wave had been remarkably free of violence until baton wielding police attacked a crowd of 80,000 workers and their families in St. Georges Plateau on a day that subsequently became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ The savage rampage of the police had its sequel days later on ‘Bloody Tuesday’ when soldiers provocatively escorted a prison van through the heart of the working class North End of the city en route to Walton gaol. Soldiers shot dead two so-called ‘rioters.’ Hours later soldiers fired on crowds without warning and killed two workmen in Llanelli South Wales against the backdrop of the first national rail strike. Neither of the men, John John and Leonard Worsell, were rail workers and they were the last civilians to be killed on mainland Britain by the army (Holton 1975, Taplin 1986: 80-107, Mann 2008: 203-229, Evans 2011).
Yet in Liverpool the repression as in Llanelli and elsewhere ultimately proved to be no more than a violent gloss on the general transport strike which ended in victory days after ‘Bloody Tuesday’. The 1911 strikes in Liverpool proved to a major watershed for trade unionism in the city and more broadly the Great Unrest heralded the revitalization of organized labour in Britain as trade unionism spread to many hitherto unorganized sections of the working class. On the national stage, working class revolt converged with suffragette insurgency and Irish nationalist struggle for Home Rule, to hasten what George Dangerfield called the “strange death of liberal England” (Dangerfield 1997).
One notable feature of trade union growth in Britain is that generally it has been a product of spikes or explosions of class struggle whether 1889, 1910-20, 1934-39 or 1968-74 rather than a steady ascent. In an interesting essay on the pattern of class struggle in Britain, James Cronin suggested that strike action did not actually become the norm of working class struggle until the 1870s (Cronin 1973). It is noteworthy given Liverpool’s justified reputation as a stronghold of proletarian radicalism, that the city had trailed other major urban, industrial areas in the nineteenth century in terms of the development of independent working class organization. For example, six trade unions emerged from the unforeseen eruption of class struggle on Liverpool and Birkenhead docks between 1871 and 1873. Yet within a year all of these unions had disappeared. During the Victorian age it was extremely difficult to establish lasting trade union organization in the city due to a combination of mainly local factors that included (i) the fierce intransigence of the employers which meant it was not uncommon for workers with a grievance to approach their employers with a humble petition or deferentially seek mediators among ‘progressive’ or liberal employers, (ii) the constant over-supply of labour from North Wales, Cheshire, Lancashire and, of course, rural Ireland which reinforced the (iii) dominance of casualism on the docks that also partly reflected an enduring attachment to the practice among dockers because it meant ‘freedom’ from the clock, and (iv) and sectarian divisions between Catholic and Protestant workers.
Nationally the working class as a relatively cohesive force did not arrive until quite late. That does not mean the working class did not exist as a ‘sociological reality’ before the critical watershed of the 1880s. We must not downplay the tenacious struggles of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century either that included the peak of Chartism. Indeed Chartism’s defeat meant the loss of substantial ground. Marx and Engels learnt much from the working class struggles of the 1840s but the defeat of Chartism left them “isolated pioneers” during many of their years of exile in Britain with momentous historical events like the 1871 Paris Commune observed from afar. During this mid Victorian interregnum, before genuine mass workers parties began to appear, the rapidly growing working class was “still halfway between workshop and factory” (Perry Anderson 1976: 1-3). Similarly Chris Harman observed that in the Europe of the 1840s the working class could only be considered a significant presence in Britain and Belgium and the growth of new industries was inevitably accompanied by the contraction of others (Harman in Harman and Callinicos 1987: 80). In such a context The Communist Manifesto’s (1848) anticipation of the emergence of a global working class as independent agency proved to be extraordinarily prescient.
By the end of the nineteenth century Britain was already an old industrial country. Rapid urbanization and feverish industrialization ensured that by 1851 the majority of Britain’s populace lived in town or city. As Eric Hobsbawm noted in his 1978 lecture Forward March of Labour Halted? a century earlier, Britain was uniquely proletarian; its working class was overwhelmingly based in manufacturing, mining and the railways though a significant proportion of female wage labourers were in domestic employment and remained so well into the twentieth century (Hobsbawm 1978: 280).
Within Marxism the distinction between class-in-itself and class-for-itself has come to bear more weight than Marx’s original glancing reference perhaps justified. But we might see the passage between 1910 and 1920 as the period when the British working class finally developed trade union consciousness on a widespread basis and sealed its transition to being a class-for-itself in the minimal sense of becoming established as a distinct political presence nationally. According to James Cronin, the working class “thrust itself into the centre of Britain’s social and political life during an upsurge of militancy lasting from 1910 to the early 1920s” (Cronin 1984: 1). Similarly Richard Hyman observed that “trade unionism was more clearly on the offensive than in any other period of its development, before or since” (Hyman 1975: vii).
In the years before the First World War a sustained tide of industrial struggle swept Britain. Unofficial action and rapid unionization moved in lockstep. One indication of the advances trade unionism made is shown by the most successful union of the period: the Workers Union, which grew from 5,000 to 160,000 members between 1910 and 1914. Overall trade union membership rose from 2.5m members in 1910 to 4.1m members in 1914.
The arrival of the war marked a pause in the militancy though there was wartime opposition to dilution and the conscription of skilled men in engineering. However British workers did not strike against war as German workers did. In the war’s aftermath Britain teetered on the brink of social revolution. By 1920 trade union membership had swelled to 8.3m members. Winston Churchill, who had sent police and troops to Britain’s industrial centre’s (including Liverpool in 1911) throughout the Great Unrest, complained that the problem with trade unionism was there was not enough of it by which he meant not enough responsible union officials keen to establish organization and the inevitable discipline and machinery of bargaining that accompanied such a settled state of affairs. Churchill had bemoaned a similar lack as he dispatched troops to industrial hotspots throughout Britain during the Great Unrest.
A crucial feature of the pre-war militancy was that much of it simply bypassed the nascent machinery of conciliation and collaboration designed to ensure ‘social control’ of the nascent labour movement (Cronin 1984: 21). This was a process being fostered and promoted by the state and some of the more farsighted employers but real ambivalence about this containment strategy existed among the employers overall. On the one hand nearly 400 state posts were created by the Liberal government (in the Home Office, factory inspectorate and so on) for trade unionists, on the other hand, the state and even ‘liberal’ employers were not averse to intransigence and utilizing repression against strikes. The attempt to incorporate trade union officialdom was checked by the nature of the ‘dual revolt’ in 1910-14 that saw informal organization in often unorganized workplaces bypass the trade unions (Haynes 1984: 92). The spread of strikes and unrest saw the spread of union recognition and collective bargaining but the extension of collective bargaining was often regarded as tyranny by employers rather than the “sociological innovation that institutionalized class conflict” (Haynes 1984: 100). In 1907 4m working days were ‘lost’ to strike action. This figure jumped 10m in 1908 and reached a pre-war high of 41m days ‘lost’ in 1912. According to John Saville the explosion of militancy began where the great strikes of the unorganized and the unskilled in the 1880s, had left off among waterfront workers but then rapidly spread to entirely new sections of the working class (Saville 1988: 37).
Among the rank and file there was a widespread if often inchoate awareness that the trade union officials were a barrier to an effective offensive against the employers. The offensive nature of the pre-war militancy revealed the rank and file’s hostility to anything smacking of class collaboration and while wages, conditions and hours were the chief catalyst for strike action one third of strikes was in pursuit of union recognition sometimes alloyed with a strong desire for shop floor control (Hyman 1975: vii-xxxiii).
This reflected the pre-war growth in the influence of industrial syndicalism which strongly promoted workers self activity and the control of production. The other key element of syndicalist ideology was its critique of ‘sectionalism’ and the necessity for industrial unions in contrast to trade unions to place unions on a wider and firmer basis. Though syndicalist militants were a small minority they were often a key influence on their workmates and often articulated an aggressive hostility to the employers, capitalism and the advocates of parliamentary reform in the ranks of the infant Labour Party.
The workers offensive was a reaction to capital’s own offensive. Raymond Challinor argued that at the turn of the century, a strategy of confronting labour was increasingly forced on the employers by the relative decline of British capitalism as newly emerging competitors like Germany and the US challenged Britain’s global supremacy. Britain’s share of manufacturing output fell from 31.8% in 1885 to 14.1% in 1913. Also its economy remained overly reliant on the industries that had dominated the latter part of the nineteenth century like coal and textiles whilst the sufficient investment in new industries was lacking. Such investment might have secured competitive modernization but instead a growing proportion of capital was invested overseas rather than the domestic circuits of production. Between 1901 and 1905 foreign investment averaged £50m annually and climbed to £200m annually between 1911 and 1913. Squeezed profit margins resulted from, and, in turn reinforced falling domestic investment and spurred the employers ruthless cost cutting (Challinor 1977: 56-57).
The 1890s saw a series of harsh defeats for the working class especially the defeat of the engineers in 1897 after a national lock-out. The ASE took many years to recover. At the start of the new century workers faced wage cuts, speed cuts and a lengthening work day. In 1902 the Taff Vale judgement allowed the Taff vale rail company to successfully sue the ASRS rail union for lost revenue during unofficial action by its members (Dangerfield 1997: 184-86).
The bargaining power of workers grew weaker and only 1 in 8 workers held a union card despite the existence of 1,323 trade unions. The aggressiveness of the employers, Taff Vale and the frailty of most unions organizing a minority of the working class reinforced the caution of the union officials. The officials already regarded their primary role as mediating conflict between labour and capital and conserving union organization. The narrow sectional basis of the existing unions could be traced to their origins as “craft unions” established by highly skilled workers but excluding the mass of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. But from the 1880s onwards, the “general unions” started to appear attempting to organize all those workers not wanted by the “craft unions” and the titanic struggles of the Great Unrest 1910-14 and in the post-war period, was an extension of this process. Ironically another factor that reinforced the inertia and conservatism of the trade unions was the steady improvement in wage levels between 1850 and 1900. At one level the period between 1880 and 1910 could be regarded as one of advance for trade unionism, albeit unspectacular in extreme: union membership trebled in these years and trade unions in Britain were among the strongest in Europe. But from the early 1890s the numbers of strikes also declined though 1897 and 1898 saw a spike in strike days lost. More significantly, the proportion of successful strikes fell from 40% in 1893 to 17% in 1904 (Challinor 1977: 57).
A major impetus of the struggles of the 1910-14 Great Unrest 1910-14 was a rank and file drive of the largely unorganized to improve wages, conditions and win trade union recognition. This last was closely connected to a desire to overcome sectionalism. On the eve of 1910 there were just 2.5m trade unionists and 1,323 trade unions. The powerful appeal of syndicalism sprang from a dual awareness of the importance of collective organization but also the ineffectiveness of many unions as a defensive bulwark against the employers. A great absence and weakness in the movement was the lack of an appreciation of the importance and potential of trade unionism among the socialist left. This included the notionally Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF) led by the wealthy businessman HM Hyndman. The politics of the SDF was shaped by parliamentarianism and abstract propaganda. The group’s dogmatism and sectarianism made Engels despair. In 1911-12 the SDF became the British Socialist Party (BSP) when it merged with dissident ILP members and despite some early promise the hostility to ‘irrelevant’ strikes continued to mark the new formation.
The exception to this pattern was the relatively small number of syndicalist militants like Tom Mann who founded the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL) in 1911 that produced eleven issues of the Industrial Syndicalist. The only avowedly Marxist organization that did not share the native incomprehension of trade unionism was the Socialist Labour Party that creatively reworked the syndicalist ideas of the American Marxist Daniel de Leon. The SLP had split from the SDF in 1903 in opposition to its opportunism, disavowal of trade unionism and deference to parliamentarianism. The SLP counted among its ranks some of the finest socialists ever produced in the British isles like James Connolly. It had an orientation to the trade union struggle and was a significant presence on the Clydeside though, contrary, to some accounts it did succeed in creating branches in England. By 1907 two thirds of its branches lay outside Scotland (Challinor 1977: 87). However the SLP was also marked by dogmatism (for contrasting judgements see Kendall 1969: 63-77 and, more reliably, Challinor 1977: 278-83).
So during possibly the greatest passage of working class revolt in Britain the extant organizations of the left: the ILP, the infant Labour Party, the SDF-BSP, all shared either an incomprehension or hostility towards trade unionism or working class self organization which reflected an elitist top down tendency to separate politics and economics, privileging the former at the expense. Such a stance was part of a well established vein of “transcendental disdain” (Marx) for trade unionism that marked Britain’s native socialist traditions. In the socialist press Phillip Snowden attacked trade unionism while Arthur Henderson and three other Labour MPs proposed a bill to make strikes illegal without 30 days notice (Haynes 1984: 105).
In contrast the alternative ideological viewpoint suffered its own weaknesses. So the SLP understood the importance of the trade unions but their de Leonite critique of the limitations of trade unionism and the treacherous role of the ‘labour lieutenants of capital’ led to the embrace of ‘dual unionism’ which effectively served to isolate militants from the mass of workers and reinforce sectionalism. This may not have not have been so apparent given the SLP’s modest size and the fact that at one point the SLP claimed 1,500 workers as members of its trade union at the 10,000 strong Singer factory in Clydebank, a few miles from Glasgow, where it was strongest (Haynes 1984: 110, Higgins 1971). Thus in the period 1910-14 the left never benefited or indeed shaped the struggles of the period to anything like the degree that was probably possible.
The Impact of Neoliberalism on the Working Class
It might be argued the revolutionary left, particularly the SWP – Britain’s most significant revolutionary socialist organization – has failed to fully to appreciate the full import of the ‘neoliberal turn’ of the 1980s. A case could be made that Cliff’s original insights were not developed and as the 1990s arrived a debilitating lacunae at the heart of the party’s perspectives was becoming increasingly apparent. In mitigation Harman and Callinicos indirectly addressed some of the issues (Harman and Callinicos 1987) but also as Gary Daniels and John McIlroy observed that the “…the developments which constitute neoliberalism have crept up on us. Few designated Margaret Thatcher a neoliberal in 1980” (Daniels and McIlroy 2010: 6).
In 1979 Tony Cliff first proposed the ‘downturn thesis’ diagnosing a weakening of the militancy and intra-class solidarity that had underpinned the unofficial shop floor trade unionism of the post-war years. In truth Cliff was not the wholly original innovator of the ‘downturn thesis.’ Cliff probably drew on several sources. There was Stuart Hall’s genuinely arresting anticipation of the dangers embodied by Thatcherism though its Eurocommunist political premises and cool critical appraisal of the ‘antique’ class politics of the left simply led to a polite Social Democratic quietism in the 1980s. Also shortly before Cliff’s piece Chris Harman had also argued the current was flowing against the left and the working class apparent in the crisis of the revolutionary left across Europe and North America (Harman 1979). Cliff was attempting to re-orientate revolutionaries and socialist militants as working class resistance began to ebb. From the late 1960s, government and employers had sought to curb the unofficial movement on the shop floor to arrest the relative decline of British industry. Instead state intervention provoked generalized working class resistance whose fission severely stretched the limits of British trade unionism as it had developed hitherto.
According to Cliff the ‘turning point’ was the impact of the 1974-79 Labour government’s on the working class. Between 1975 and 1978 the Labour government imposed wage restraint delivered with the connivance of the TUC. It yielded a fall in real wages of 13% before a rebellion of the low paid reached critical mass during the ‘Winter of Discontent’ and torpedoed the ‘Social Contract.’ Inevitably the bitter fruit of the Labour government’s offensive against its own working class electoral base helped weaken the class morale that was the mainspring of workers shop floor power. A new defensiveness and lack of confidence now characterized many struggles according to Cliff (Cliff 1979: 1-50). The Tories were helped back into office in 1979 with a greater proportion of trade unionist votes than they had won in 1974 or would win subsequently in 1983 (Harman 1987: 83-88).
Indeed, as Ian Birchall argues in his biography, Cliff might have been criticized for a failure to recognize the ‘downturn’ before 1979. As early as 1975 there had been a debate in the Communist Party with various critics of a Gramscian or Eurocommunist provenance, challenging the party’s industrial strategy (Birchall 2011: 442). Some of these critics were profoundly critical of a mode of struggle they felt imprisoned workers in the snare of ‘economism’ that was unable to provide a bridge to socialism. Of course what they meant by ‘economism’ was quite different to that understood by Lenin. It served as a catch all for the industrial struggle of the working class per se and implied there was some other ‘model’ available. Hobsbawm echoed these criticisms counterposing ‘economism’ to the existence of a larger political or communal interest that assumed the underlying identity of the interests of the working class and the Labour government.
Recently Sheila Cohen has criticized this stance by arguing that the problem was not militancy per se but the absence of an explicit and systematic consciousness of the importance of these grassroots struggles among those conducting them: “an awareness which would identify them as advances in a ‘war of position’ between labour and capital.” For Cohen the barrier was the pervasive nature of reformist ideology shared by the rank and file militant and the trade union official alike, an ideology critical of capitalism’s abuses but which implicitly accepted there was no alternative social order and so reforms and improvements would have to be wrung from capital (Cohen 2006: 175-76).
By contrast Eurocommunism simply proved to be latest updating and rationalization of reformism. Later in the pages of Marxism Today and against the backdrop of Thatcherism and a far reaching shift to the right in the labour movement these ideological positions hatched into invocations of post-Fordism, ‘new times’ and the post-industrial society. But in the mid 1970s there was no echo of this CP debate in the IS itself despite a major factional battle that saw the departure of a section of the IS leadership and membership many seriously committed to the group’s rank and file strategy, a strategy apparently shared by all though Cliff began to wonder aloud if the shop stewards were being “bent” by the reality of Labour in power and point to an older, supposedly more conservative layer in contrast to a younger layer of workers in the workplace (Higgins 1997, Birchall 2011: 344-379). Yet we should be wary of anachronism when discussing the mid 1970s split as the ‘downturn’ controversy only became controversy in the SWP in 1979. More importantly, Cliff faced a great deal of scepticism and resistance to his new sober estimate of the balance of class forces throughout the party (Birchall 2011: 442).
But whatever the final telos of the Eurocommunist argument surely its account of Thatcherism was prescient and perspicuous? Daniels and McIlroy are rightly critical of contemporary accounts of Thatcherism like Stuart Hall’s ‘The Great Moving Right Show.’ Hall’s article was indisputably an acute and clear eyed anatomy of Thatcherism. Originally drafted in January 1979 before the Tories swept to power it was later substantially rewritten, appearing in a 1983 collection called ‘The Politics of Thatcherism’ which was itself a distillation of the politics of the Eurocommunist helmed Marxism Today journal. There was much to admire in Hall’s account which was framed as a specific alloy of Gramsci and Althusser. It regarded Thatcherism as an intervention fashioned from pre-existing ideological elements that had been previously marginal or unrelated but were synthesized to create a space that ideologically condensed and articulated the ‘crisis’ through the lens of Thatcherism. Indeed this lens was intended to ensure the ‘crisis’ was actually lived on Thatcher’s terms and the ‘solutions’ were viewed through a similar ideological optic. In Hall’s view the success of this ideological-hegemonic strategy would have a prophylactic function, acting as a powerful barrier to alternative narratives of the ‘crisis’ and their ‘solutions’ even though ‘objectively’ they ran counter to the ‘interests’ of many those interpellated or constituted as political subjects by such ideological siren calls (Hall 1983: 19-39).
But such views tended to exaggerate the degree of Thatcher’s hegemony. Daniels and McIlroy follow earlier critics (like Callinicos 1985, Milliband 1985) who sharply contested the excessively masochistic claims for Thatcherism’s appeal. They note that in January 1979 a record majority told pollsters that trade unions were ‘too powerful’ though those surveyed were divided as to whether this was a good or bad thing. Yet by 1981 the proportion of voters telling pollsters the unions were ‘too powerful’ was the lowest since 1973 and fewer respondents approved Thatcher’s trade union ‘reforms’ than did Heath’s a decade earlier. Though record numbers of C2 skilled workers defected to the Tories alongside many newly unionized white collar workers and the growing intermediate layers like supervisors, managers, highly skilled salaried workers and the like, the total of C2s was only marginally higher than 1974 when Labour ousted Heath from office with 37% of the national poll (Daniels and McIlroy 2010: 37-39). Evidently there was a ‘new’ appeal among some sections of workers but this was far more delimited than the reverse proselytizers of Thatcherism allowed for. Also, with successive enlargements of the franchise there had always been a section of the working class that had voted for the Tories.
Cohen notes that despite the propaganda campaign to make “trade unionism dirty words” (the starting point of the Ridley plan), Thatcher moved stealthily, first of all introducing the 1980 Employment Act that provided government funding for union postal ballots, restricted picketing and ‘secondary action’ (solidarity) in the first salvo of anti-trade union laws carefully put in place to circumscribe the unions. But as Cohen demonstrates such destructive measures still required the supine acquiescence of the TUC and despite rhetoric promoting non-compliance like the specially organized 1982 Wembley Conference that gathered to discuss the next round of anti-trade union laws, meaningful opposition quickly collapsed like a house of cards (Cohen 2006: 53-55).
Electorally the Tories did not become more popular. Throughout the 1980s the Tories remained, electorally, a minority taste though Thatcher arguably succeeded in a creating a specific electoral bloc combining traditional middle class Tory supporters with newly emerging occupational segments based in the new or rapidly growing economic sectors like financial services, the City, sales, retail and so on. Trade unionists voting Tory declined again in 1983 despite the popularity of the Falklands War. The Tory vote declined further in 1987 and 1992 and their vote was dwarfed by the combined votes of Labour, the SDP (formed in 1983 by top table defectors from Labour) and the Liberals. Crucially the vagaries of Britain’s ‘first past the post winner takes all’ electoral system helped the Tories stay in power until 1997. During the high tide of Thatcherism between 1983 and 1987 the British Social Attitudes survey recorded what it termed a “shift to the left” among the British public largely hostile toward a whole number of Thatcherism’s fundamental nostrums (Daniels and McIlroy 2010: 37-39). There were points in the 1980s when the Thatcher could have received a fatal rebuff thus checking the advance of neoliberalism. The most important such moment was the epic 1984-85 Miners Strike that despite the careful planning of the Tory government, the state managers combined with the supine abstention of the TUC and Kinnock’s Labour leadership had at least two clear cut moments when the NUM might have won: the dockers strike that erupted in the summer of 1984 in defence of the National Dock Labour Scheme and the pit deputies threat to withdraw pit safety licenses for all working collieries.
Even so a rejection of Marxism Today’s reading of Thatcherism that legitimated the Eurocommunist’s advocacy of the ‘broad democratic alliance’ between Labour, the Gang of Four and the Liberals and proclamations that ‘post-Fordism’ rendered older models of socialism antique, must not be allowed to obscure the import of the Tories incremental ‘neoliberal turn’ which operated on the national and international plane. Nationally: deflation in the context of a global recession allowing unemployment to rise dizzyingly, the first salvo of anti-trade union laws, the beginnings of a reduction in welfare coverage though this did not at all mean reduction in the role of state, simply a reordering of its priorities, regressive taxation and the abolition of capital controls. Later other measures would be added to the neoliberal repertoire such as privatization and ‘deregulation’ of the City. Internationally: ‘globalization’ understood as the growing salience of international competition, the reign of the market and ‘financialisation’. As the 1980s progressed, ‘globalization’ accelerated as the market pulled in previously ‘sheltered economies’ like Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and India. ‘Financialization’ involved deregulation and the scrapping of capital controls and great flows of capital across the globe that fed, and, in turn sustained the further acceleration of ‘globalization’. The reach of the market was extended even further with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites.
Ironically, in Britain, the ‘neoliberal turn’ could only be carried through by the state though it was not until Thatcher’s second term that the Tory government could fully rely on the ‘state managers’ and senior civil servants to implement their program. The state still had a pivotal role to play in providing an optimal environment for capital in terms of infrastructure, subsidies and incentives (as neoliberalism meant Keynesianism for capital writ large), the supply of adequately skilled labour, minimal legislative interference and so on. So ‘actually existing neoliberalism’ – for this was emphatically no return to the nineteenth century – retained elements of the post-war Keynesian settlement while radically remaking those elements especially the role of the state (Daniels and McIlroy 2010: 29).
Perhaps the greatest prize that neoliberalism carried off in the 1980s and the 1990s was that of attaining the trade union’s quiescence. The Tories success in intimidating the trade unions was crowned by the capitulation of Labourism whose acceptance of neoliberalism set the final seal on the new consensus and the paramountcy of the market. As Gregory Elliott pithily expressed it: Labourism had never been an offensive power against capital but after 1979 it could scarcely be regarded as a defensive power either (Elliott 1993).
With the return of capitalist crisis to the heartlands of global capitalism – simultaneously the transmission belt of the crisis of working class morale, leadership and organization – and a motive force driving capital to radically attenuate the post war settlement – the class based reformist parties of Labourism and Social Democracy became active agents in radically recasting the existing ‘social compromise’ in a neoliberal direction.
After the Labour Party’s electoral debacle in 1983 policy albatrosses were sacrificed and the constituency based left demoralized or purged with a consequent narrowing of ideological horizons as the leadership drove the party to the right. By the late 1980s Kinnock’s Labour Party had declared for the ‘social market’ as it grew to accept the new landscape created by the Tories. The ambition to restore full employment quietly receded as did the goal of reversing the Tory privatizations.
But it was the arrival of Tony Blair as leader after John Smith’s unexpected death in 1994 that finally confirmed Labour’s accommodation with neoliberalism. When Blair was elected party leader Labour had suffered four bitter electoral defeats in a row (1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992). A slick ‘moderniser’ barely acquainted with the traditions of the organised working class, contemptuous of trade union baronialism, Blair had set his sights on the goal of, if not quite emancipating Labour from the ballast of the trade unions by breaking the ‘organic link’, then drastically attenuating union influence. A reduction of the ‘block vote’ in the party’s electoral college was obtained (from 70% to 50%). In the eyes of the modernizers, the existence of the ‘block vote’ was an embarrassing indication of Labour’s below the stairs origins as a creation of the trade union movement. Of course the ‘block vote’ had been the innovation and instrument of the trade union bureaucracy and had always been wielded to ensure the dominance of the bureaucracy and parliamentary cliques over the union and party rank and file’s. Battening off a grievious legacy of defeat, the ‘modernisers’ exploited their position of strength to push the trade union chiefs for concessions on ‘reform’ of the ‘organic link.’ But perhaps the most dramatic episode of the party’s revisionist reconstruction that defined the birth of ‘New Labour’ was Blair’s success in ditching ‘Clause IV’. Despite the successive derelictions littering Labour’s record ‘Clause IV’ had remained a vestigial talisman of the party’s socialist aspirations.
As ‘New Labour’ went into the 1997 general election it relentlessly emphasized the common ground it shared with the employers and the Tories, openly promised to retain the Tory anti-union laws and boasted the unions would receive no more favours than the bosses club, the CBI. In the event the CBI and employers were perhaps treated far more kindly than the TUC which saw its modest hopes for a union-employer ‘social partnership’ with government as ringmaster after the ‘Rhineland model’ brusquely rebuffed by Blair. Blair and Brown in opposition also rejected the most timid steps toward ‘redistributive justice’ or progressive taxation. Indeed Blair’s ‘New Labour’ proved allergic to encouraging expectations of change other than a change in the personnel in government or cultivating any illusions that it would deliver reforms. In fact ‘Vote Labour with no illusions’ might very well have been Blair’s slogan (Alford 1996: 2-23).
Whether apocryphal or otherwise, it is said that Thatcher came to regard Blair as her greatest achievement.
So even allowing for the novelty of neoliberalism and the difficulty of identifying a definite point of departure from the corporatist post-war settlement, there was a general tendency in the SWP to focus on the continuity with the past or to maintain that the post-war settlement essentially remained in place. Some of this had to do with identifying the fulcrum of resistance. Thatcher was in power for 13 years but public expenditure was cut in real terms in only two of those years. Public sector employment grew while trade unions were reduced but certainly not destroyed (the NUM was one of the exceptions). Evidently there was some truth to this picture but simply emphasizing the continuities with the past led to complacencies in analysis. Part of the issue here then is properly defining neo-liberalism and its scope.
How do arguments reaffirming the centrality of the working class connect with current arguments about the changing nature of work, the radically altered ‘new capitalism’, the flexible labour market, the acute problems faced by trade unionism in the context of declining membership and, finally, the subject presently functioning as a mnemonic for all these problems: the precariat? The supposed dilation of precarious work and the emergence of the precariat defined in nuce as labour easy to fire, temporary, often notionally self employed, low paid and lacking the rights of full, long term and often organized workers, is at the centre of debate. In a conjuncture dominated by the gravest crisis of global capitalism for generations and by austerity imposed by a supposedly enfeebled neoliberal coalition government, the relevance of questions about the shape of the working class for socialists and militants trying to organize at the grassroots and workplace, is an urgent one.
Since the 1980s trade unionism in Britain has suffered a steep decline from its historical highpoint of 13.9m members in 1979. In 2009 union membership stood at 6.7m members. Similarly according to the Labour Force Survey trade union density had declined precipitiously from 52.9% in 1977 to 24.7% in 2009 (LFS 2009).
In turn the strongest citadels of trade unionism in manufacturing suffered the sharpest decline. A combination of global recession and Thatcher’s premeditated domestic deflation of the economy in the early 1980s led to a mass shake out of labour that saw one in four manufacturing jobs disappear between 1978 and 1985 – a retrenchment of 22.8% in employment in the sector (Harman 1986: 3). Significantly manual workers were also the core of Labour’s electoral support. After Labour’s 1983 electoral meltdown when it won just 26.6% of the national poll, some observers linked falling Labour support with an irreversible shift in the class and occupational structure of British society and some concluded on this basis that only a fundamental realignment involving a shift right towards the ‘centre’ could remedy Labour’s impasse. Such a shift entailed Labour’s fatal embrace of neoliberalism.
The most celebrated version of this argument – for its cogency and the controversy generated – was offered by the eminent grise of British social history and founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Historians Group, the late Eric Hobsbawm, who had diagnosed the forward march of labour halted as early as 1978 in a lecture delivered during the twilight of Callaghan’s Labour government, then beset by a growing social and economic crisis. Since 1978 the long retreat of organized labour in Britain and elsewhere has seen many former critics concede Hobsbawm’s general argument. The latest, Goran Therborn, argues the 1970s marked the highpoint of the labour movement in the twentieth century before the millenarian “Grand Dialectic” of Marxism, was checked and reversed with the “triumph of neoliberalism” and the definitive eclipse of “Eurocentric industrial socialism” (contrast Therborn 1984 and Therborn 2013: 11).
After Thatcher’s 1979 election victory, Hobsbawm reworked his lecture, dropping the question mark capitalizing the l of labour in a move deftly underlining the basic identity Hobsbawm saw between the Labour Party and the working class. Originally there were two key elements in Hobsbawm’s position. Firstly, recognizing the long term contraction of the manual working class – Labour’s core bedrock and, secondly, Hobsbawm’s insistence that fratricidal economism or sectionalism, supposedly prominent in the shop floor revolts against Labour’s income policy in the late 1970s, had undermined a wider social solidarity and sapped political goodwill toward the Labour government.
In other words Hobsbawm failed to offer a serious, critical appraisal of the demoralising impact of Labourism itself on the working class, the effects of the imposition of pay restraint on workers that led to a 13% fall in real wages between 1975 and 1978, before the ‘Social Contract’ was torpedoed by a bitter rebellion (Harman 1987).
Yet Hobsbawm was correct to identify a long term contraction of the manual working class. The gentle post-war decline of manufacturing employees began to accelerate in the late 1970s and was apparent in the major centres of the world economy as these figures illustrating the decline of manual workers as a proportion of all employees in some of the major European economies since the early 1960s makes clear.
Yet Hobsbawm was correct to identify a long term contraction of the manual working class. The gentle post-war decline of manufacturing employees began to accelerate in the late 1970s and was apparent in the major centres of the world economy as these figures illustrating the decline of manual workers as a proportion of all employees in some of the major European economies since the early 1960s makes clear.
So in 1960-61 the percentage of manual workers as a proportion of all manual workers in the following countries was: Belgium (34.6), France (27%), Germany (36.5), Italy (26.6%) and Britain (34.8%). In 1970-71 the percentages were as follows: Belgium (32.1%), France (25.8%), Germany (37.6%), Italy (31.1%) and Britain (32.4%). In 1980-81: Belgium (21.9%), France (22.3%), Germany (32.7%), Italy (22.3%), Britain (20.6%). Finally, in 1991-92: Belgium (17.7%), France (18.9%), Germany (28.2%), Italy (19.8%) and Britain (18.9%) (Sassoon 1999: 652).
Though Sassoon notes the reduction of manual workers as a proportion of the workforce, apropos Labour’s falling share of national polls in the 1980s, he argues the central problem was less the ‘disappearance’ of Labour’s core constituency but rather the desertion of so many C2 voters in 1979 and 1983 to the Tories (or the SDP after its formation). As we noted above a third of trade unionists voted for the Tories in 1979 mirrored in a swing of 11% among skilled manual workers from Labour to the Tories (Sassoon 1999: 654).
Yet the corrosive impact of Labour’s ‘crisis management’ governments not only drove away many skilled workers from their traditional party but also prevented the mass of routine white collar workers proletarianized and unionized in the 1960s and 1970s from transferring their allegiance to the Labour Party as manual workers unionized from the late 1880s through to the Second World War had progressively done so. The growth of white collar trade unionism had actually reversed two decades of trade union stagnation as union density in Britain rose from 43.1% to 52.9% of the workforce between 1968 and 1977. Yet in 1983 – Thatcher’s second electoral victory – only a quarter of white collar workers supported Labour at the polls (Harman 1987: 83-95).
In the early 1980s the Tories carefully choreographed set piece confrontations with the steel workers (1981), the printers (1983) and most significantly, the miners (1984-85), led to defeat for these groups of workers. Defeat bred defeat. The Tories had been careful to prepare the ground and isolate each group of workers before entering the struggle. When it was prudent to do so the Tories walked away from confrontation. Indeed they backed off from a battle with the miners in 1981 pressurizing the Coal Board to quietly shelve plans for pit closures (Cohen 2006: 57).
They incrementally introduced anti-union laws that ensured the landscape in terms of the law and trade unionism was transformed by the end of the decade (McIlroy 1988). The Tories also mobilized the repressive apparatus of the state, particularly the police, in a centralised and co-ordinated fashion as factories closed and unemployment rose spectacularly. For many observers the miners defeat fed a growing apprehension of a ‘waning of collectivity’ (Raphael Samuel), of the weakening of those formerly automatic ties of reciprocal class solidarity, a bedrock consciousness of ‘us and them’ both generated by, and animating the collective organizations of the working class and shaping the milieu of the manual working class and its communities (Samuel 2006: 3-17). The extension of this ‘collectivity’ was the existence of ‘trade union consciousness’ across the working class.
Indeed in his dazzling overview of neoliberalism Neil Davidson argues the “reduction” of the trade unions in Britain proceeded on three lines in a coherent offensive reliant on the “strong state” for its success. Firstly, unemployment was allowed to rise to levels unknown in the post-war years. In 1982 factory closures unemployment hit the 3m mark where it stayed until 1986. Simultaneously benefit claimants were being treated with increasing harshness. This tended to reinforce the isolation of the unemployed from the employed working class. Also the destruction of social housing via the ‘right to buy’ played a role in domesticating workers resistance. As Kevin Doogan has argued the ‘fear’ of redundancy especially for workers with mortgages and families hardly corresponds to the actual possibility of redundancy but workers with families and mortgages internalize that ‘fear’ and hesitate to take industrial action. Secondly, the Tories set out to provoke confrontations with state backed workers (see above) and rely on the wider trade union movement’s timidity and the law to discourage solidarity being extended. Britain’s industrial relations landscape was transformed in a decade from one characterized by laissez-faire to being among the most internationally legally restrictive frameworks in place. Thirdly, in a more prolonged process where the employers led, new industries were established and previously marginal industries expanded as manufacturing capacity and jobs were shed. This process often took place in areas like new towns with low and non-existent union membership where management made strenuous efforts to prevent a “culture of membership” taking root. Sheila Cohen noted that the reimposition of the bosses ‘right to manage’ has acquired a novel twist with neoliberalism with a whole new adversarial free workplace culture promoted by the employers with the willing cooperation of the trade unions keen to stave off redundancies (Cohen 2006: 70). As Davidson ironically observes, Britain had its own analogue of the US experience where the ‘sunbelt’ beget the ‘rustbelt’ as jobs migrated South and tossed away their union cards en route. In Britain, the job flight to new towns and conurbations was far more significant than the job flight to Global South (Davidson 2011: 28-32).
Crucially, in the ‘new industries’ like the call centre industry that now employs 850,000 workers, the typical entrant is a young adult largely unaware of trade union traditions. These workplaces present formidable barriers to efforts to organize for a number of specific reasons including employee turnover, the proportion of students among the workforce and so on. Recruiting young workers as they enter employment is key to retaining their loyalty and thus ensuring the trade unions remain relevant.
Eric Hobsbawm had something similar in mind to Samuel’s ‘waning of collectivity’ when he discussed a ‘common style of proletarian life’ that emerged from the 1880s and dominated until it began to be eroded in the 1950s. This ‘common style of proletarian life’ reflected a historic reordering of the existing homogeneity and heterogeneity, of the stratified divisions of the nineteenth century working class as the old craftist, ‘aristocracy of labour’ (coined by Marx in correspondence in 1872) was undermined by the transfer of skill from men to machines, the appearance of a separate stratum of technicians and professionals not recruited from the workshop and the growth of the tertiary sector and white collar employment (Hobsbawm 1978: 281). Indeed this ‘common style of proletarian life’ or ‘trade union consciousness’ was the foundation Labourism was built upon. For other observers, the ‘recomposition’ of the working class indicated a deeper, more profound mutation of society whether it signaled the advent of ‘new times’, ‘post-Fordism’ or the ‘post-industrial society’ thus posing threat to the continued relevance of the labour movement (Samuel 2006: 3-17).
Composition and the Working class
Clearly since the late 1970s there has been a dramatic change in the composition of the working class. As we noted above manual workers declined as a proportion of the total workforce. But changes in the composition of the working class have been an integral feature of capitalism since its inception. In its most celebrated, lyrical passages The Communist Manifesto (1848) defined the capitalist mode of production as a dynamic mode distinguished from all previous modes of production by the “constant revolutionisation” of production. In Capital (1867) Marx elaborated further: the industrial revolution was in part defined by a historical transition from the formal subsumption of labour power to the real subsumption of labour power. This historical process had involved a more or less prolonged struggle by capital to make artisanal forms of the labour process it had inherited its own object and thus transform the labour process itself by introducing and extending the social division of labour, detail labour and so forth. This development was an aspect of the transition from the domestic putting out system to manufacture and to machinofacture in the course of the nineteenth century.
So the dynamic of competitive capital accumulation led to changes in the production and labour process which also drove the constant making and remaking of the working class. Nevertheless we should parenthetically concede EP Thompson’s stricture that one, variable aspect of this ‘making’ of the working class, as part of the dialectic of the subjective and objective, was a product of the resistance of the working class itself which though it was an exploited, subaltern class, had never merely been the fungible object of capital. Thompson made a vital methodological point and one at the centre of his theoretical enterprise that: “class and class-consciousness are always the last, not the first stage in the real historical process” (Thompson quoted in Price 1980: 14). The transition from a strongly artisanal labour force to factory hands also paralleled a transition from one mode of industrial conflict dominated by machine breaking, ‘food riots’, physical violence to the resort to the strike weapon which became slowly separated as those other means became obsolete (Cronin 1979: 46-47).
Though manufacturing did not employ all manual workers (as Harman had pointed out), it certainly embraced the bulk of them. With the contraction of manufacturing in the advanced capitalist economies, the tertiary and service sector grew. In his 1978 article Hobsbawm had conceded that a wider proletarianisation of the workforce had accompanied the contraction of manual workers. Cliff also made this point when commenting on the growth of trade unionism among white collar workers echoing earlier arguments on these lines in the IS tradition (Cliff 1979 and Hallas 1974). But Cliff also maintained white collar workers were far less “strike prone” than manual workers as newcomers to trade unionism (Cliff 1979: 13).
Relatively new to trade unionism white collar workers had yet to acquire the traditions of solidarity and militancy that distinguished other sections of the working class. They had only begun the process of acquiring ‘trade union consciousness.’ But this was also true in the past of other sections of the working class such as the highly skilled artisans outflanked by manufacture or the craftist engineers undone by deskilling and machinofacture. Or the car worker of the 1930s Midlands new ‘greenfield’ sites far from the factories, smokestacks and mines of the great industrial cities like Manchester or Birmingham or the sprawling industrial conurbation of the ‘Black Country’ (this aspect of the ‘changing working class’ is captured effectively by Smith 2007: 48-69).
This discussion points to two key points: firstly, classes do not stand still, and, secondly, Marxists should be wary of ‘normative’ conceptions of the working class and ‘timeless’ assumptions about what the working class should look like.
Today the lives of the vast majority of the populace are still shaped by the necessity of having to sell their labour power whether low paid or well paid, organized or unorganized. This is not to deny the real objective difficulties facing militants in their efforts to organize in areas that have proven stubbornly resistant to such attempts or those areas that have become a byword for what is now widely perceived to be precarious work. At present trade unions face a number of challenges not least retaining their existing members even as they aspire to extend their influence and membership. The success of such an elementary task may well be connected to effective resistance to the neo-liberal cuts strategy of the Con-Dem government and a broader revival of the working class. We will return to this question in our conclusion.
Trade Unions Today
(i) International context
Clearly the ‘neoliberal turn’ in the course of the 1980s was a major demarche for the trade unions. Yet international comparisons are difficult to make because of the (i) different national contexts, and (ii) variable methods of statistical collection. Leaving caveats aside Daniels and McIlroy summarise the latest international comparisons made by Jelle Visser on the state of trade union organization in 24 major countries published in 2006 (Visser 2006: 38-44).
During the 1980s union membership increased in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Korea. In Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Japan union membership remained stable. In contrast the US, Britain, France, Holland and Ireland experienced significant declines in union membership. Also union density – the percentage of workers in unions of all employees – also fell.
During the 1990s the decline in the US and Britain continued and they were joined by Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Italy and Japan. The position in France stabilized though from a low base. Membership grew in Belgium, Holland, Spain, Canada and Ireland.
So the picture in the last two decades of what Goran Therborn somewhat mournfully described as the ‘workers century’ was of a generalized retreat by trade unionism. From 1980 the US lost 2m trade unionists and from 1990 Germany lost a third. Britain’s steep fall came on the heels of historically high union membership of 13.4m in 1979. Between 1978 and 1985 2.5m trade union members were lost in Britain alone (Harman 1987).
The following period between 1997 and 2005 was one of stabilization but not resurgence. So in the US union density fell slightly from 13.6% to 12.5%. In Britain density fell from 30.6% to 29% and in New Zealand from 23.6% to 22.1%. There were steeper falls in Australia from 30.3% to 22.9% and Germany from 27% to 22.6%. Ireland went from 43.5% to 35.3%, Italy from 36.2% to 33.7% and Sweden 79.5% to 74.1% (Daniels and McIlroy 2010: 5-6).
However as Daniels and McIlroy point out aggregate union membership or density is not the only indicator of trade union strength. The level and intensity of industrial action is also important. The industrial landscape in the US, Britain and Germany between 1996 and 2005 witnessed a low level of industrial action. So in this period Britain’s strike rate was half the average of the core 14 EU economies. France was double the average and Spain and was eight times greater than the average. Also, France currently has a union density less than a third of Britain’s. Yet in the last ten years the French working class has been far more combative than British workers.
Any estimate of working class strength has to look beyond aggregate union membership and density and also consider class consciousness, confidence and militancy. Furthermore as indicators of class strength they are never simply ‘givens’ but hard won gains acquired by the working class in action and as such they may also be eroded or lost entirely.
(ii) Trade Unions In Britain Today
Today there are 6.7m trade union members in Britain. In many ways this represents an impressive benchmark. Historically it is relatively high and there is no other association or organization that comes close to claiming the allegiance of so many people in Britain. There are many more trade unionists today than there were on the eve of the Great Unrest 1910-14 discussed earlier. This is the case even though the period between 1880 and 1910 saw annual if modest growth in trade union membership despite largely being a period of relative downturn. Even so the decline from the heights of 1979 was steep and further declines cannot be discounted.
Consider the following trends. According to research in 2005 by Alex Bryson and Rafael Gomez focusing on young adults and trade unionism, a major obstacle to the revitalization of trade union membership is the growth of so-called ‘never members’. In 1980 only a quarter of all employers had never been in a trade union. In 2005 that figure was one half of all employees and though three in every five public sector worker was a trade union member, the corresponding figure for the private sector employees was one in every six workers. Also as Darlington concedes employment growth in unionized workplaces is slower than non-unionised workplace and that inevitably means that falling trade union density is destined to continue in Britain unless it is arrested by trade union growth from a different source (Bryson and Gomez 2005).
Bryson and Gomez claim that falling union membership is due to the rise of ‘never members’. Between 1983 and 2001 the percentage of workers who had never been a union member rose by over two thirds from 28% to 48% while trade union membership fell by a third from 49% to 31% in the same period. Crucially, this partly explains why union density is greater among older cohorts of workers. In other words, higher union density among older workers is not simply an expression of the length of service. The implication is that union density will eventually start to fall among future older cohorts of workers unless, once again, these trends are arrested by new countervailing trends. Interestingly, Bryson and Gomez found that for workers born after the mid 1960s never joining a trade union was a common life event. In 1994 ‘never members’ became the majority of the workforce for the first time in the post-war period. Thus, trade unions face the danger that joining a union might become a deviant instead of a conformist behavior. Part of the point about tradition is that it is shared among a group as part of its experiential horizon palpably connecting the generations and thus establishing threads between the past and the present. Also a common life experience in part shaped by a basic awareness of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is vital for ‘trade union consciousness’ to flourish. If the experience of struggle, collectivity and solidarity is lost or becomes atypical then trade unionism is confronted with difficulties. We might say that Bryson and Gomez’s research symptomatically underscores the importance but also difficulties of attracting new, young entrants into the workforce (Bryson and Gomez 2005).
Yet what is missing from Bryson and Gomez’s research or rather what needs to be borne in mind is the wider historical or social context in which trade unions flourish or otherwise and the past drivers of union growth. So the pioneering struggles to establish trade unionism in the nineteenth century were led by militants or particular sections of the workforce ie. deviant minorities though these minorities were articulating the wider, largely inchoate experience of their workmates.
As we saw the decline in union membership since 1979 has stabilized in the last fifteen years or so but this has not brought a renewed advance. The latest snapshot of trade union strength estimates membership at 6.7m members. The 2009 Labour Force Survey (hereafter LFS) calculates union density among all workers to be 24.4%. Trade union density is higher among women (29.5%) than men (25.2%), a reversal only established in the decade before 2009. So 2009 marked the eighth consecutive year that women were more likely to be union members than men. Male trade unionism was severely hit by the millions of jobs shed in traditional male occupations, particularly manufacturing, mining and so on. Two thirds of all manual occupations in manufacturing have disappeared since the 1970s. In contrast to the declining fortunes of manufacturing employment there was major growth in the service / tertiary sector though these sectors contained many manual occupations such as dockers, lorry, bus and train drivers, postal workers, refuse workers and so on.
Also since the ‘neoliberal turn’ there has been a massive expansion of employment in health and education. Kevin Doogan has drawn attention to the massive expansion in the realm of social reproduction such as health and education and noted how retrenchment in terms of cuts to social benefits and so forth, has obscured reality of employment growth in areas dominated by female wage labour. So between 1992 and 2002 total employment in the EU grew 8.7% but employment in education was double at 17.7%. 12.2m jobs were created overall in the EU during this period and over half of these jobs were in health and education. Interestingly employment growth driven by health and education experienced a similar surge in the US between 1980 and 2000 (Doogan 2010: 136-38).
Part of the Tory animus towards the public sector apart from a desire to recommodify social reproduction by means of contracting out, privatisation and the like, in all likelihood derives from the fact that public sector trade union density is 56.6%. This is in sharp contrast to the historically low level of 15.1% for the private sector – a quite stunning reversal of the previous relationship that means just one in seven workers remains a trade union member in the private sector. However we need to be wary of misunderstanding the figures concerning trade union density. Union membership is in fact fairly evenly split between the private and public sectors. Union density in the private sector is so low because the sector is actually much larger than the public sector though in certain strategic areas of the private sector union density is quite high (Smith 2007: 53).
Chris Harman claimed that the ‘headline’ figure actually underestimated trade union strength in the private sector as almost half of all private sector workplaces were covered by collective bargaining agreements. Also key private sector industries enjoyed high levels of unionization such as the 40% of workers unionized in electricity, gas and water supply, transport, storage and communications (Harman).
Perhaps unsurprisingly trade union density mirrors the North-South divide and also separates the Celtic ‘fringe’ from England. In 2009 union density was 39.9% (it had grown 4.2% in the ten years before 2009) with Wales the next highest (35.4%), followed by Scotland (31.8%) and finally England (26.1%). In England union density was at its lowest in the South East, London and East Anglia. Significantly across all sectors of the economy 46.6% of all UK employees were in workplaces where trades were present (LFS 2009).
Also being a trade union member remained a reliable indicator of better pay (the so called wage premium) with average hourly earnings of trade union members 15.3% more than non trade union members though according to analysis by Mercer and Notley the wage premium has narrowed in the last thirty years.
Though union membership fell steeply between 1979 and 1995 this fall was broadly in line with the overall fall in employment levels though such a claim hardly began to convey the devastating impact of unemployment and recurring recession on regions where ‘traditional’ industries provided the spine of employment. In 2009 union density among female workers in the public sector was 56.8% while among men it was 56.2%. In the private sector just 12.4 of women were union members compared to 17.2% of all men. The public sector is the main bastion of full time women’s employment and its growth in recent years across the OECD economies has been pivotal in the feminization of the workforce and the trade unions (LFS 2009).
Between 1995 and 2009 trade union density fell in the public and private sector having failed to keep pace with overall employment growth. We saw in Bryson and Gomez’s research on ‘never members’, union density increased as workers got older. So for the 16-24 age cohort of males and females union density was just 9%. The corresponding percentage for the following age cohorts was: 25-34 (28%), 35-49 (32%), 50 plus (35%). But Bryson and Gomez also suggested that the relationship between rising union density with older cohort and length of service was breaking down (Bryson and Gomez 2005).
The larger the workplace the higher trade union density and so workplace with 50 plus workers had 37% density compared to just 17.2% in workplaces employing less than 50 workers and the coverage of workplaces by collective agreement reflected this pattern with 45.4% (50 plus employees) and 19% (50 less employees). More problematic is the fact that trade union density is higher among managerial / supervisory employees (28.6%) than non-managerial employees (25.4%) and this probably reflects the higher union density in the public sector. Ominously union density fell between 2002 and 2009 by -5.3% among process plant operatives and machine operatives and by -6.6% among skilled trades. Among the workforce collective agreements covered 34.2% of full time employees and 28.6% of part-time employees while there were definite benefits to being a trade union member. Thus the wage premium – the difference between what union members and non union members earn – in the public sector was 19% and in the private sector was 5.1% (LFS 2009).
Presently the savage effects of the Con-Dem coalition’s austerity measures, public sector cuts and rising food and energy prices is contributing to falling earnings and depressing living standards for the overwhelming majority. A significant rise in militancy and industrial struggle leading to a wider revival of trade unionism would be needed to reverse such trends.
Comments on precarious work
Before considering the present state of the trade unions we briefly comment on what is widely regarded as a novel mutation in the pattern of employment especially in Britain and the US. We are referring to the notion of precarious work and the assumption central to the idea that the growth of the former is undermining stable, permanent employment in the old heartlands of late capitalism.
There is some pre-history here as discussion and speculation about profound changes to the nature of the occupational structure stretch back to the 1980s and even further. The Marxist French Regulation School argued that the post-war regime of capital accumulation had been characterized by the ascendancy of the Fordist model of accumulation and yoked mass production to mass consumption providing the basis upon which the edifice of the Keynesian post-war settlement arose (Aglietta 1979 originally published in French in 1976; for a devastating critique see Brenner and Glick 1991: 45-119).
Subsequently, a number of theorists took their cue from the exhaustion of Fordism and the emergence of a new, more flexible, less standardized regime of accumulation, to suggest far reaching changes to the labour market, the occupational structure and the working class. The 1980s saw the adumberation of ‘dual labour market theory’ in various guises such as Atkinson and Gregory’s ‘dual labour force’ theory that highlighted the existence of a ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ in the labour force on the basis of a “meager empirical foundation” (Doogan 2009: 90). In the 1980s Chris Harman challenged some of the assumptions underlying the idea of a ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ labour force by arguing that part-time employment, contracting out and contracting in were identifiable trends in employment that particularly stood out during downturns in economic activity but once there was a need to increase output due to more stable demand, employers were likely to turn temporary workers into permanent workers and part timers into full-timers. Also Harman pointed out that an economic downturn or recession was more likely prompt employers to shed part-time or temporary workers rather than shedding full time or permanent workers, shifting work back to the ‘core’ workforce (Harman 1987: 64-65).
For some the notion of precarious work has a great deal of explanatory power while others have contested its validity on the basis of empirical weaknesses and theoretical shortcomings. The following definition of precarious work comes from the International Metalworkers Federation’s (IMF) 2008 Spotlight campaign material against precarious work. Its anonymous authors define precarious work as “typically non-permanent, temporary, casual, insecure and contingent.” Significantly, in recent years the neoliberal ‘strong state’ has abetted certain neoliberal employment practices by abridging statutory rights or removing them all together and allowed employers to pursue ‘flexibility’ in relation to their employees. These employment practices include temporary contracts, bogus ‘self employment’, abusive probationary periods, involuntary ‘free’ work, on call or optional daily hire, contracting out, employment disguised as training and so on.
Also the IMF Spotlight document argues that precarious labour has long been a feature of employment in the Global South and its arrival in the old heartlands of global capitalism represents a new threat to stable, permanent employment (IMF Spotlight 2008).
One issue is the use of employment agencies to provide employers with temporary labour. In Britain it is estimated that there are between 1.1 and 1.5 million temporary workers. Most temporary workers are employed in manufacturing, transport or financial services with the majority of agency workers employed in large workplaces of 50+ alongside permanent workers. Unsurprisingly the majority of these temporary workers regard agency work as a route to permanent employment while employers mainly cite the provision of temporary cover to meet a short term uptick in demand as their chief reason for employing agency workers.
Figures in the LFS 2010 temporary workers earn just 68% of the salaries of permanent workers and yet 35% of temporary workers from agencies have been doing the job for more than a year meaning they are permanent in all but name, pay and conditions. Also since October 2011 the coalition government changes to the agency worker regulations (AWR) has given the employers more of a free hand to discriminate against temporary workers.
Kevin Doogan cites the OECD’s 2004 Employment Outlook survey that reported 7% of male full-time employees were temporary workers. The corresponding figure for women full time employees was 10%. Indeed Doogan argues that issues around contingent and precarious work are bedeviled by a tendency to hypostatize certain local trends in what is a variegated, complex pattern of employment. The pattern of employment, the occupational structure and the labour market are quite fine grained and important nuances can be missed by analysis or interpretation, as for example, in assuming changes in the nature of work have proceeded from the labour market or the production process and not changes in social policy or welfare. More generally, theories of atypical contingent labour, the dual labour market, precarious work and the like, implicitly assume a ‘normative’ conception of the workforce or pattern of employment, from which the former departs.
In light of the IMF Spotlight description of precarious work we might consider that precarious work has always been a feature of employment, to a greater or lesser degree, particularly if we think of the wretched nature of work and employment for long historical periods in Britain or in certain industrial settings. Perhaps the ‘renewed’ significance of precarious work in the economies of late capitalism should be considered as part of the demarche of neoliberalism in the 1980s. In other words, the problem of precarious work and its import might be subordinated to the larger problem of understanding neoliberalism.
Neil Davidson suggests another way of regarding the problem by arguing that the post war ‘Golden Age’ of full employment that stretched from the late 1940s until the arrival of mass unemployment in the early 1970s, often treated as a ‘normative’ yardstick, was in fact the anomalous development historically (Davidson 2010). More generally, the ‘neoliberal turn’ and the severest global crisis of capitalism since the 1930s has underlined in a quite startling fashion just how historically transitory the post-war settlement was, how full employment or, say, a national health service free at the point of use to all, are not at all the natural, essential and inevitable outcomes of capital accumulation.
Another theoretical controversy proposes the novel salience of ‘flexible accumulation’ and linked this to contingent labour in circumstances where capital has acquired an extraterritorial nature. Thus capital’s heightened degree of mobility reflects the trends of globalization and financialization. A number of theorists have contrasted extraterritorial capital to the territoriality of organized labour and suggested that capital is now able to detour national labour movements to a degree hitherto unknown. While it would be hard to gainsay capital’s newly acquired extraterritoriality given the massive growth in global flows of capital, financialization, the tendency of corporations and multinationals to invest more in stock markets or simply hoard billions instead of investing in production, we should be wary of overstating the case. Extraterritoriality has its limits and if capital refuses to invest in production because of the low rate of profit it still remains dependent on labour and the labour process. Massive investment in factories and plant accompany capital’s requirements for infrastructure, educated, skilled workers, supply chains, energy sources and markets and their consumers. In other words, a relatively finite bundle of goods, or necessary conditions is required for productive investment.
These ‘enabling conditions’ are provided by states which are by no means powerless vis-à-vis capital in general, or transnational corporations, in particular (TNC’s). Indeed national or supra-national arenas (like the EU) are territorialities that also provide capital with their markets. Of course the fear of capital’s mobility is a powerful disciplinary factor on local labour movements, exploited by TNCs to gain an advantage over labour and a competitive edge against rival capitals as the history of the car industry in North America, Europe and South East Asia indicates. Only recently GM deliberated about which of its European plants would have to face closure. In Britain both government and the trade unions beat a path to GM’s door to provide assurances of workers continuing willingness to be ‘flexible’ in order to save the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port. Yet GM’s decision was hardly a capricious search for low cost, flexible labour but rather a painful strategic dilemna of a TNC reluctantly dealing with the consequences of indefinite ‘overcapacity’ in the European car market.
In this context, Kevin Doogan has noted that all the talk of the rise of the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and other economies, though they have relatively cheap but educated labour, tends to obscure that plentiful labour low costs are transitory and in China labour costs are already rising. Startlingly, Doogan points to the UNCTAD World Investment Report that shows that in 2005 Britain received $165bn or 18% of all Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and alongside the US, Canada, France and Holland received 75% of all FDI while the poorest 50 nations received just 0.8% (Doogan 2009: 63-75). Also citing Kim Moody, Doogan notes that since the early 1980s the US has received more FDI than the outflow of FDI and yet 4m manufacturing jobs were shed in the same twenty year period indicating that whatever else was going on the loss of manufacturing employment could not be credibly explained by ‘capital flight’ (Doogan 2009: 75).
Such a picture would certainly appear to undercut common perceptions of ‘capital flight’ leaving organized workers high and dry by capital chasing cheaper, more flexible sources of labour to exploit elsewhere in the globe. It shows how the advanced, developed economies remain at the core of the global economy and underlines the fact that China is not just a rival to the established developed economies but joining the ‘club’. Nevertheless, Doogan’s 2005 FDI figures for Britain omit the impact of crisis of 2008-09 that saw the developed economies lose much ground in terms of the inflow of FDI though they have subsequently recovered some of that ground. Even so the developing and transition economies have retained the inflow of FDI they won during the crisis. In 2011 Britain was the third largest recipient of FDI among the developed economies after the US and Belgium whilst also being the third biggest investor of FDI with $107bn invested abroad after the US and Japan (UNCTAD World Investment Report 2012).
Returning directly to precarious work there are other problems with some accounts. An egregious instance of ‘theory’ driven accounts or speculation that is ‘blind’ to the complex empirical issues at work is the distinction between part-time and temporary employment. Often these two areas are confused. The OECD’s 2004 Employment Outlook survey reported that 7% of male full time employees were temporary while 10% of female full time employees were temporary. In contrast 34% of male part time workers were temporary workers while the corresponding figure for women was 18%. So there is less overlap between part time and temporary work than is often assumed. For example four in five women part time workers worked on a regular basis in Britain (Doogan 2009: 155).
Similarly a 2001 US Bureau of Labor survey found that 91% of part timers were regular employees and that the largest proportion of these were located in the retail sector where the wage differential between part time and full time employees was the lowest. Again focusing on some of the complacent generalizations from a weak empirical base Doogan takes up some of the critical challenges to Chris Tilly’s research on the growth and nature of part time employment in the US from 1970. Tilly made a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ part time employment that in his view sprang from the growth of a ‘secondary labour market’ of low paid, low skilled, disposable labour largely made up of involuntary employment. Subtle though the point is, Doogan draws on research critical of Tilly but makes the more general but useful argument that though involuntary labour has expanded in the last forty years, the growth of part time employment from 1980 occurred because of the growth of industries that employed part time workers. Full time workers were not being replaced by part time workers. Trends and patterns in employment are quite complex and quite specific and generalizing from trends can be misleading or skew reality. Often flexibility in employment simply mirrors the specific contours of an industry or sector that is particularly sensitive to fluctuations in demand in opposition to those sectors where demand is more predictable. In such contexts a more flexible labour force is likely to be found such as the retail sector (Doogan 2009: 157-59).
A crucial issue arising out of the debate on precarious work but also the future of trade unionism, concerns the nature of work for young people. There is a widespread perception that features typifying employment for the 16-24 year old cohort such as low pay, part time, unsociable hours and so on, will spread to, and undermine the permanent, stable occupations of their parents. In other words, when young workers are their parents age they will find precariousness has become universalized. We should not be complacent about such a vista; the ruling class are currently conducting an offensive against working class living standards right across the board but such an extreme scenario of universal precarity is implausible for a number of reasons. Firstly, it misunderstands the nature of employment for the 16-24 year old cohort that has broadly shaped the nature of the work they do in the post war years; features that define the occupations that 16-24 year olds do in the course of their transition to the sorts of occupations that typify employment for older workers.
In Britain there have been modifications to nature of employment for young people in the last forty years or so. One is the great expansion in the service and retail sectors that created a new demand for labour. Another has been the great reduction in manual based apprenticeships as manufacturing employment declined. Of course some of these apprenticeships are now degree based and part of the great expansion, and participation of young people in higher education. Connected to this central development Kevin Doogan notes the more recent rise of the student labour market driven by the expansion of student numbers in Higher Education and the state’s attempt to cut grants and subsidies and shift the burden of tuition costs onto students. In doing so an incentive was created for growing numbers of students to find part time and temporary employment. Evidently, the phenomenon of graduate unemployment notwithstanding, most students will not spend the rest of their working lives doing bar work, serving in restaurants or stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s (by 1998 a quarter of the supermarket’s workforce were students). Though connected to a longer established pattern of employment for young people and the expansion of services and retail, the rise of the student labour market has been driven by social policy and is here to stay (Doogan 2009: 163-64).
Examining recent ONS statistics for 2012 on the structure of employment in the North West of England among the 16-29 year old cohort, it is revealed that a shade over a quarter of those in employment were in sales and retail (12.7%), waitressing (3.33), care home assistants 3.11%), bar staff (3.0%), kitchen and catering (2.94%), office clerks (2.46%) and customer care assistants (2.41%).
These figures are interesting on a number of different levels. According to ONS figures for 2012, NW England generated 10% (£120bn) of the UK’s GDP. It was the region where manufacturing made the greatest contribution to GDP. Yet for these young workers, the figures show how important service sector and retail employment are. But it should be borne in mind that a large proportion of young people in HE or unemployed are not indicated. Most importantly though these statistics are a snapshot of a particular occupational profile and they show us what young workers are doing at 18 or 22 but not what they will be doing in their 30s, 40s, 50s or beyond (ONS 2012).
(iii) Trade Union Revival?
Only recently Ralph Darlington considered the potential of the existing network of workplace reps and lay stewards providing the spine of any revival of trade unionism. Darlington’s position draws on a critical tradition, a native socialist and Marxist evaluation of the ‘Janus’ like character of trade unionism that focused on the perennial conflict between trade union officials and the rank and file. Essentially this theoretical stance logically led to a sociology of the trade union bureaucracy that explained why the officials conservation of the union apparatus and their mediatory role between capital and labour, was vital for understanding the nature of the animal. This tradition stretched back to the working class revolts of 1910-20 and was adapted and developed by the IS as the post-war boom started to lose momentum and the struggle on the shop floor reached a peak during the extraordinary struggles of 1968-74 (Sheila Cohen 2006: 9-29).
Darlington’s balance sheet views workplace reps as qualitatively distinct from the full time union officials and potentially more responsive to union members. In the different political climate of the late 1970s Tony Cliff asserted that “the institution of shop stewards is profoundly democratic. They are the direct representatives of the workers” (Cliff 1979: 32). Despite the profound changes in the workplace and the low level of struggle Darlington also maintains that the lay reps are potentially more responsive and democratically accountable to the ordinary union members. Workplace reps and stewards remain the backbone of workplace organization “in dealing with workers’ grievances, and standing up to management and attempting to preserve/advance their members pay and conditions of employment” (Darlington 2010: 1).
However this optimistic assessment is not shared by all. Earlier Daniels and McIlroy argued that the qualitative weakening of workplace organization based on lay representatives was one of the “achievements” of the Tories after 1979. The role of lay representatives after the ‘neoliberal turn’ has been radically altered and rarely involves negotiation or face to face on anything as substantial as pay. With the TUC largely sidelined what modest support there was for projects like the Union Learning Representatives (ULRs) “represented the state’s attempt to reshape workplace trade unionism and channels its functions away from adversarialism.” Thus ULU provided limited scope for trade unionist activists in the workplace (Daniels and McIlroy 2009: 140-41). Yet Darlington’s argument has received some support. More recently, on the basis of detailed research on the impact of union Equality reps in the workplace, Sian Moore, has argued that despite their apparently anodyne remit and the strenuous efforts by the employers and union officials to maintain ‘non-adversarial’ workplace culture, Equality reps have been drawn into the role of quasi representatives of workers particularly through issue like workplace stress and bullying and were often pushed down a path of viewing employer-employee relations in an increasingly adversarial manner (Moore 2011).
More broadly Darlington recognizes the weakening of stewards organization in the last 30 years. He points to the rapid dilation of shop stewards during the 1970s that saw numbers peak at 350,000 in 1984. Shop stewards organization had spread from its manufacturing strongholds to other growing sectors of employment. But the differential impact of recession in the late 1970s and early 1980s combined with the rapid advance of neoliberalism meant numbers tumbled as plants and factories closed. A leitmotif of Alan Thornett’s gripping account of carworker militancy at British Leyland’s Cowley plant in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, is the potential and limits of British trade unionism – “strong on organization, weak on politics” – in a narrative that weaves the story of a tenacious shop floor militancy, hair raising betrayals by the union officials, and deftly ends with Thornett’s major illustrative lesson: militant trade unionism could not ultimately prevent the rash of plant closures in the early 1980s. In other words, in the face of a combination of severe recession and a determined, unified ruling class offensive, the relative fragility of workers power within capitalism, the dependence of a strong shop floor organization on quite specific enabling conditions, was cruelly exposed when some of those crucial constitutive features disappeared (Thornett 2011: 355-61).
But what are the number of lay reps and stewards today? Weighing the available evidence Darlington estimates the current number of workplace lay reps is between 128,000 and 137,000 (or 146,000 if smaller workplaces are included). The TUC estimate of 200,000 lay reps is considered overly optimistic. Darlington concludes that whatever the real figure – presently the same level as the mid 1960s though shop stewards were then were far more powerful – the numbers are likely to have fallen further since the Con-Dem coalition took office in 2010 due to the public sector cuts, redundancies, outsourcing, privatization and decentralization of pay bargaining.
Clearly public sector trade unionism has been facing a major challenge analogous to the onslaught against trade unionism in manufacturing in the 1980s. However there are some important differences. In the advanced late capitalism’s the variegated tasks of social reproduction are irreplaceable: capital requires an educated, skilled workforce to compete internationally. The capitalist state if it is to retain and attract investment must ensure there is an educated, literate and skilled workforce. The manufacture, of say, televisions may migrate to South East Asia but social reproduction in the realm of healthcare or education cannot similarly be ‘lost.’ Of course the privatization of pension provision, social insurance and healthcare are eminently feasible and the Tories are assiduously working toward this goal. But the success of this project would not spell the disappearance of the public sector or the role of the neoliberal ‘strong state’ (Davidson 2011).
Currently lay reps are present in just 13% of workplaces with 10 or more workers and even in workplaces where trade unions are recognized only 45% of these workplaces have an onsite lay rep – a fall of 10% since 1998. The majority of reps are in the public sector (67%) while the private sector shares 17% according to the 2004 Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS). Darlington notes that the majority of these stewards are male, full-time and over 40 years though the proportion of women reps is growing (44% in 2004). The 1968 Donovan Report had recommended the incorporation of lay representatives and shop stewards to tame union militancy but incorporation or ‘participation’ as it was known as in some sectors (see Thornett’s account of the baleful impact of the unions embrace of ‘participation’ at British Leyland in the late 1970s) did not really start to take off until Labour came to office in 1974 (Hyman 1978, Cliff 1979, Cohen 2006 and Thornett on ‘participation’ 2011). So with the state’s encouragement employers pursued the integration of shop stewards by granting facility time, sometimes on a full time basis, which took reps away from the shop floor and their workmates. According to 2004 WERS 85% of these full-time reps were in the public sector (mainly health). Most were remote from their members but 1 in 10 received no pay for time spent doing their union duties (Darlington 2010: 4-5).
In an appreciation of Richard Hyman’s work, Darlington and Upchurch have mounted a stout defence of the sociological validity of ‘trade union bureaucracy’ against the tendency of late Hyman to dismiss the concept as perjorative and unscientific. Indeed they convincingly restate a concept that Hyman – now Britain’s pre-eminent authority on industrial relations – had helped to develop when he was a member of the IS (Hyman left the group in 1976). Basically Darlington and Upchurch make the case, suitably reworked and updated, that the division between the trade union bureaucracy or ‘full time officials’ and the ‘rank and file’ despite the weakness of the latter in recent years is still central to any appreciation of intra-union dynamics (Darlington and Upchurch 2012).
Yet the weakening of workplace organization and low strike levels prompted a shift in the balance of what lay reps did - away from bargaining on behalf of their workmates toward handling grievances and disciplinary cases of individual employees. A relatively passive rank and file has left workplace reps relatively beleaguered and subject to various conservative pressures, more dependent on the union office than they were thirty years ago. Also the union’s willingness to play their part in such somnambulistic ‘New Labour’ schemes as ‘Partnership in Work’ could only dampen any restiveness in the workplace. Significantly, lay reps and stewards have not been able to provide the alternative leadership to the full time officials they were able to in the past. Consider the era of full employment when strikes could begin and end in victory before the regional union office was even aware of it. The changing ratio of stewards and reps to union members also tells a story, from 1:25 to 1:37 and this trend has been accompanied with the growing length of tenure of union officials (Darlington 2010).
On the ‘strength’ side Darlington considers the network of 150,000 health and safety reps that have improved workplace safety as area of union advance. As we noted above more contentiously he also regards the 22,000 ULRs or learning reps who promoted skills training and employee development as providing an embryonic model of trade union activism among individuals who in contrast to the union full timers are younger and more likely to be black and female (Daniels and McIlroy 2009, Darlington 2010 and Moore 2011).
How has the trade union movement responded to falling membership and declining influence? One response – prevarication dressed up as decisive action – was merger. In 2007 the TGWU formed from various general and transport unions in 1922 (Coates and Topham 1997), merged with Amicus to create Britain’s biggest trade union, Unite. Derek Simpson, the leader of Amicus, even declared: “we don’t need to organize – that has failed. The way to grow our unions is merger” (quoted in Cohen 2006: 156). Unsurprisingly, a ‘top down’ approach that omitted any scrutiny of the underlying weaknesses could not halt the decline. With the abandonment of the ‘service model’ of trade unionism already well under way, the two unions had talked of devoting 10% of their combined resources to recruitment.
Over a decade ago as a new generation of senior full time officials on the left began to emerge including some future General Secretary’s there was a move from the failed ‘service model’ of trade unionism (treating union members as customers requiring a range of services, legal advice and so on) that came to dominate after Kinnock’s embrace of ‘New Realism’. Criticism of the ‘service model’ mainly focused on its failure to arrest union decline and signaled the discussion on the merits of the ‘organizing model’ (this debate was mirrored in other advanced Anglophone economies that had undergone similar declines in union density like the US, Australian and New Zealand). The ‘organizing model’ chiefly involved a significant commitment of time, personnel and resources for recruitment campaigns in a strategic workplace or sector by mounting highly visible campaigns and trying to foster confidence and initiative among workers. But there are definite limits to this latter goal as left critics and advocates of an alternative ‘rank and file’ or worker-to-worker model for recruitment and union building, have made clear (Cohen 2006: 152-56). More often than not other beleaguered activists have tended to view the ‘organizing model’, for all of its limitations, as the only show in town.
In 1999 in a move billed as a ‘return to roots’ the TUC launched the ‘Organizing Academy’ with various partner unions as it bid adieu to the bankrupt ‘service model’. The academy was intended to train a cadre of union recruiters and organizers and according to the few evaluations examining its effectiveness the results have been mixed (many of these evaluations have been conducted by these researchers who have collected their research in Simms, Holgate and Heery: 2013). The major unions also launched their own versions of the organizing academy. Between 2005 and 2007 2,000 stewards went through Unison’s One Step Ahead program whose focus was branch organizing and recruiting. Arguably such initiatives in Unison are nugatory given the weakness of branch organization and the passivity of the union rank and file. In the last decade in the NHS Unison’s commitment to ‘partnership’ with NHS managers and the government has been nothing short of a disaster for NHS employees fuelling demoralization and cynicism in equal measure.
The PCS trained 3,000 extra reps whilst its membership grew from 265,000 to 300,000 members (this was before the advent of the Con-Dem coalition). Unite has combined recruitment while talking the talk of revitalizing the union movement and even the importance of renewing the networks of reps and shop stewards. This would involve a focus on the major issues of concern to the target audience in order galvanise existing and potential members alike in sectors like aviation and the meat industry where an industry wide combine of 50 lay reps representing 18,000 workers was successfully created.
More recently the austerity onslaught by the Con-Dem coalition has prompted Unite unfurl its ‘community union’ initiative among the unemployed – the union members of the future in the eyes of Unite - in an effort to canalize some of the energy of the anti-cuts ‘social movements’ and groups like UK Uncut and Occupy. Appropriately Jerry Hicks – Len McCluskey’s left-wing, rank and file challenger for Unite’s top job – is a member of one of Unite’s ‘community branches.’ Certainly in Liverpool, Unite and other trade unions have placed their personnel and resources at the disposal of the local Trades Council and a coalition of anti-cuts activists trying to build the fight against the deepest cuts the Coalition has passed on to any local authority in the country - Labour led Liverpool City council – in an interesting extension of the campaigning aspects of the ‘organizing model.’ Yet Unite’s initiative in Liverpool is clearly driven by the actual Unite cadre on the ground and the sheer scale of the local authority cuts as the union does not play this role everywhere. More generally the unevenness across the country as it is mirrored in the changing, jagged profile of the resistance to the cuts in this or that region, city or town, points to the need for one national anti-cuts organization. Yet for a variety of reasons including fissiparous sectarianism of the main left groups, no such national organization is on the horizon as we approach the third anniversary of the Con-Dem coalition (Seymour 2013).
Returning to the ‘organizing model’ - it will not revitalize the trade unions though it could possibly play a subordinate part in the process that will do so. It was on the face of it a response with promise from the TUC-trade union bureaucracy who recognized that something was needed as membership (and income) continued to decline and ‘New Labour’ spurned all but ‘social partnership’ lite not to speak of Blair and Brown’s refusal to repeal the Tory anti-union laws. Also it was necessary for members to feel they ‘owned’ the union to some degree even if this was to be under strict parental supervision. An added impulse was the proliferation of anti-austerity grassroots resistance and the example of the student anti-fees struggle in 2010-2011. These clearly helped push Unite to introduce Unite Community union in an effort to harness some of the energy of that activism and capture the attention of an age cohort of workers and potential workers the unions will need to attract to have a future. But ultimately these ‘top down’ initiatives will be insufficient without a major revival of industrial struggle.
I have suggested that Thatcherism or the ‘neoliberal turn’ had a differential impact on the working class in the last 30 years. Workers and trade unionism in the much larger private sector where roughly 45% or so of trade unionists are still found (density is much lower at 15.1%) experienced setbacks as a result of the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs. In extreme cases whole industries were virtually wiped out like mining which now employs only 5,000 miners. Sometimes industries were profoundly reshaped like the car industry. In the 1970s there was no other section of the working class that was more militant than the car worker – including the miner, the building worker or the engineering worker. The high pitch militancy of the car worker whose mass meetings addressed by the plant stewards typically ended with a show of hands is so emblematic of the period that it upended the complacent illusions of John Lockwood’s ‘affluent worker’ (a sociological study of Luton car workers of the early 1960s).
In 1970 the car industry employed 850,000 workers nationally. Today that figure is 145,000 (constituting 0.5% of Britain’s total workforce) in the factories and related suppliers. To put that in perspective there are now 850,000 workers employed in Britain’s call centre industry many of those located in former industrial heartlands and cities. In Glasgow, the city that once built one in four of the ships on the world’s oceans, one in ten are employed in a call centre. The more productive contemporary car worker produces many more cars than their 1970s counterparts and 80% of these cars are for export reflecting another turnaround that contributes about 10% to Britain’s balance of payments.
There are some interesting implications in the extraordinary productivity gains made in the leaner manufacturing sector that still exists in Britain. One is that manufacturing – acutely sensitive to rationalization and reorganization in the globalised economy – is unlikely to be a key provider of employment growth even if we were to assume the Tory led coalition government’s stated desire to ‘rebalance’ the economy was not a promise given in bad faith. The Tories, whose main donors are hedge funds, are absolutely committed to defending the City and Britain’s vitally strategic financial industry and only ‘reforms’ designed to stave off real reform would ever be contemplated by the party. Indeed such considerations also extend to the other political parties belonging to the ‘neoliberal’ club and the consensus that the economy, like the weather and other natural phenomena, takes care of itself. This ‘neoliberal club’ includes Labour. Also if this quite hypothetical ‘rebalancing’ was somehow to be achieved and manufacturing’s share of GDP increased, employment levels would not reach the levels of the past. Workers are far more productive in manufacturing today. In the last decade manufacturing continued to shed jobs. The working class looks different today than in our recent past though the growth of ‘immaterial labour’, the white collar working class, the expansion of the health, education, retail, service and tertiary sectors were all trailed before 1979.
If private sector trade unionism especially in manufacturing suffered major setbacks because of the imposition of neoliberalism then public sector workers maintained pay and conditions far more effectively until the Con-Dem coalition’s arrival in office in 2010 heralded a major uptick in shedding public sector jobs. Not that there were not any attacks on public sector jobs, salaries and conditions before the 2010 watershed (see below).
But trade union organization remained relatively strong in this sector though as we know the pay and the average pension of the overwhelming majority of public sector workers in local and central government, teaching or nursing, was modest in comparison with the headline figures. The idea these workers were in some way ‘privileged’ or ‘feather bedded’ by the taxpayer as David Blunkett (ex-Blairite cabinet minister) recently suggested echoing the crassest Tory propaganda, is absurd. As we know, the NHS physiotherapist might be living with the BT call centre team leader or the female primary school teacher might be married to a bus driver with three boys and so on, revealing the innumerable threads that connect the private and public sector in working people’s real lives.
Obviously for socialists it hardly needs to be underlined that the public sector workforce and their trade unions are an integral and established part of the working class and will be at the heart of any future mass challenge to the bourgeois order. In other words, public sector workers will be part of the vanguard when the major revival of industrial struggle finally arrives as it will eventually do so in some quite unexpected fashion, perhaps as an explosion of militancy following the pattern of strike activity that has typified Britain’s industrial relations landscape according to James Cronin (Cronin 1979: 45-73; 93-125).
Speaking of that much misused and as a result suspiciously regarded concept of the ‘vanguard’, it is important to state clearly what we mean and what we don’t mean when we invoke the concept. Alternatively we could simply forego use of the word as a word as irredeemably compromised and tainted as the rest of the hollowed out, demoralized concepts belonging in the junk room of ‘Leninism.’ But if we did not use the word the thing and consequently the real world problem it denotes would remain.
What did the IS tradition mean when it pointed to the ‘vanguard’ in the late 1960s and 1970s? Firstly it had something to point to: the ‘vanguard’ was embodied by those workers who practically led their workmates on the shop floor, in the office, in the staff room, on the ward, daily over many years. The unofficial shop floor movement was viewed through the lens of the IS group’s understanding of the ‘changing locus of reformism’. This grasped Labourism’s faltering loss of direction in terms of declining activism and votes from the 1945-51 highpoint. The long boom and full employment allowed workers to aggressively improve their lives by winning wage increases and tangibly improved conditions by means of strike action. The political establishment dubbed this ‘wages drift’ while the IS described it as ‘DIY reformism’ whose greatest virtue in that specific time and place, was that it worked.
By the early 1970s a putative vanguard was visible in a network of militants, stewards and reps, provoked by the new determination of the ruling class to curb shop floor power. A corollary of this understanding of the vanguard was that any revolutionary socialist organization that aspired to smash the bourgeois state in contemporary conditions would eventually have a membership of hundreds of thousands and that active membership would be cadre, a rank and file of leaders. The ‘party’ was out there and it still had to be built and any serious revolutionary organization would have to “root itself hand and brain” in this layer. This was a view of party and class that was at odds with the hyper-vanguardism of most groups inhabiting the ghetto of ‘marginalised Leninism’ (Hallas 1971: 9-24).
Yet this scenario of strong workplace rank and file organization whose enabling conditions were the long boom and full employment will not be repeated. A stable framework was created that only visibly started to break down with the first Wilson led Labour government of 1964-70. As the shop floor revolt grew it came into conflict with the corporatist framework and strategies of capital deployed vis-à-vis the trade union bureaucracy: an arrangement that had underpinned a certain pattern of capital accumulation. That is not to say that the workers fight for improved wages was responsible for the crisis. It is quite possible to see the origins of the crisis as lying elsewhere such as a global decline in the rate of profit while treating working class struggle as a factor exacerbating the crisis. Capital with less room than hitherto to manoeuvre was emboldened to attack wages and conditions to restore profitability. Yet the neoliberal offensive against the working class took some time to emerge – globally in extremis Chile in 1973 was one test bed, New York City’s bankruptcy in 1975 was another and there was aspects of Labour’s period in office between 1974-79 that indicated the tenor of the following decade – but neoliberalism did not emerge fully armoured or conscious. The trade union bureaucracy was still expected to play its part in policing the rank and file, urging restraint and ‘belt tightening’ in the interests of British industry and jobs.
Working class revolt between 1968 and 1974 transformed the fortunes of the revolutionary left. The renascence of Trotskyism in the industrial sphere from the 1960s onwards was driven by the upsurge in struggle. While most workers remained stubbornly loyal to Labourism and the older Communist Party officials travelled to the right as they nested in the trade union machines, a layer of young workers chafing at the restraints of the ‘affluent worker’, repelled by Wilson in power 1964-70 and radicalized by Vietnam, were drawn to the miniscule ranks of the far left where they swelled its ranks. Though relatively marginal overall on the industrial scene, Trotskyism was a growing force and lent a radical cutting edge to the shop floor struggle in certain areas where it became established like BLs strategically important Cowley car plant. Trotskyism and militant trade unionism were potentially a fertile combination (McIlroy 2007: 259-96 Thornett 2011).
John McIlroy has argued that in terms of perspectives and industrial strategy there were inevitably weaknesses accompanying Trotskyism’s effervescence: an overly sunny evaluation of the balance of forces, an underestimation of the limits of shop stewards power, the absence of a hard headed analysis of the rhythms of the capitalist economy, its ups and downs and the lack of an appreciation of capitalism’s resilience (McIlroy 2007: 260). But there was one group that showed real promise and consequently shared these traits to a far lesser degree and that was refreshingly heterodox Trotskyism of the International Socialists whose rank and file strategy was tempered by a commendable realism.
Though some believed the weakness of shop floor militancy in the 1970s lay in ‘economism’, Sheila Cohen arriving at a quite different, antagonistic conclusion claims the tragic weakness of the shop floor militancy lay not in that militancy as such but in the pervasive dominance of reformism as an ideology throughout the working class. Apparently dissimilar Alan Thornett summed up the historically abiding weakness of British trade unionism: strong on organization and weak on politics. But in the absence of a properly articulated politics perhaps reformism was the form of ideology that imposed itself spontaneously or more accurately the form of consciousness that arose spontaneously from the specific milieu and practices of workers? Of course ‘weak on politics’ does not necessarily suggest a vacuum or absence but something weak as an operative guide in the world but whose hold on consciousness may, paradoxically, be quite strong. Something like reformism. In Cohen’s view what was missing among the shop stewards and the militants was a strategic awareness that the movement was engaged in a ‘war of position’ with capital. In comparison the ruling class did not lack such an understanding and this allowed them to ride defeats and setbacks and plan for payback.
At present it would be difficult to eschew realism when the ideal of an independent movement across the class based in the workplace as distinct from the ‘networks’ of grassroots activists fighting the effects of austerity and cuts in this or that town, remains an aspiration. Given that the context for a strong workplace based rank and file does not at present exist as it did in conditions prepared by the post-war boom perhaps ‘political trade unionism’ is not yet entirely redundant? In that sense the grassroots networks of activists, socialists and campaigners remain important, linking up with workplaces or providing the some of the cadre for rebuilding in the workplace. So the picture is less stable than our recent past and potentially more volatile. Perhaps resistance will be a more volatile mixture of the ‘war of position’ and the ‘war of manoeuvre’, of attrition and explosions of struggle? Perhaps we will see novel forms of rank and file organization as we did in the highly significant Sparks dispute during 2011-12 that led to the victory of rank and file electricians over the construction giants and the collapse of BESNA? It has been a characteristic of the history of the working class that struggle has thrown up novel and unanticipated innovations in forms of resistance.
Since the financial meltdown in 2008 sparked the deepest, severest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s volatility has characterized the struggle in many countries especially in Southern Europe where Euro meltdown, default and austerity have sparked serial general strikes. Britain has seen nothing like the level of resistance of Greece, Spain or Portugal where the crisis – in these ‘weaker links’ - is far sharper. Since the Con-Dem coalition took office three years ago take home pay has fallen 10% on average – an extraordinary fall. The situation in Britain is potentially volatile though it could be said that at present an inchoate rejection of major elements of neoliberalism across significant swathes of the populace comfortably coexists with a pervasive belief there is no alternative. Without invoking the underlying ‘anger’ that is often said to exist with its accompanying question begging assumption that this ‘anger’ will blow up, it is clear that with living standards dropping sharply since 2010 the neoliberal consensus shared by all the major political parties is under severe pressure and neoliberalism is no longer the potent ideological chloroform that it was once was.
The protracted global crisis shows no sign of being ‘resolved’. Indeed all the ills that neoliberalism was supposed to have been the cure for, remain. In fact, updating Stuart Hall, the ‘resolution’ of the crisis might in fact mean having to adapt to the new dispensation, even more subject to the vagaries of impersonal market forces than under the social neoliberalism of the Blair years, where your life is in your own hands as never before but every aspect of your life chances – education, health, work – is also subject to risk as never before. In other words, capital’s ‘resolution’ simply involves more of the same: shifting even more of the burden of the crisis on to the back of the working class and poorest. Keynesianism is long dead but ‘privatized Keynesianism’ for the wealthiest lives on. What is striking about the present crisis is how it seems to have taken us all back to some starting point to the early 1970s when neoliberalism started to emerge blurry and indistinct from the shadows.
In terms of the public sector and the pension battle we must recognize that the coalition government has succeeded in getting past a major potential block to its plans to impose austerity. As Kieran Crowe rightly argues the implicit strategy of the smaller unions (and part of the left) of “bouncing” the bigger unions like Unison somewhere Dave Prentis never had any intention of willingly going, failed utterly. Though N30 succeeded in mobilising over a million public sector workers Prentis was back at the table days later conceding the pension argument to the government. Equally insidious is the process that has seen thousands of public sector workers take ‘voluntary’ redundancy while young new entrants are faced with worse pay and poorer pension provision (Crowe 2013).
There was precious little rank and file initiative or pressure to prevent the trade union officials capitulating. But seeing the problem in this way was itself perhaps part of the problem – it implied a loss of perspective that would have meant recognizing our weakness or starting point - in the sense that strategy had to be simultaneously cognizant of where we were as well as where we wished to go. A strategy of ‘putting pressure’ on the officials smacked of making a virtue of necessity. More importantly it prevented revolutionaries from fully focusing on what could be done and what needed to be done in terms of building on the ground and building or extending the networks on the ground that might begin to provide the basis for acting independently of the trade union officials. Of course much of this was, and, is aspirational but it is still necessary. It is necessary to go about the work of a building a workplace based network of militants and activists. This is a central task but will surely be linked to building the wider grassroots networks of resistance to austerity and will only effectively be built with a high degree of collaboration and cooperation across the diaspora of leftists, trade unionists and activists though not all are likely to fully appreciate the importance of independent working class organization. Some of those political differences are already apparent in Left Unity where many of those drawn to the initiative have emphasized the importance of reviving genuine working class representation and constructing an electoral alternative to Labour – not that these political differences should be any barrier to working together.
Such a perspective means selflessly building at the grassroots, in the locales. Also encouraging rank and file initiative is now required while eschewing the self defeating substitutionism and shortcuts of the Leninist vanguards where socialists graft as foot soldiers for the union officials as interests momentarily ‘coincide’ while incidentally keeping the modest apparatus of the ‘party’ ticking over.
There has been some comment recently about the profile of the SWP – an ageing cadre much like the CPGB of the late 1970s – with a membership skewed toward the public sector with a heavy cohort of teachers, lecturers, local government workers and public servants, in areas where trade unionism retained its greatest strength. No doubt this profile is in essence shared by other revolutionary and socialist organizations. In part it reflects where we are. There should be no shame in this as it is one index of what happened to the working class and the major hammer blows inflicted on manufacturing and the loss traditional manual occupations in the last forty years. But it is incumbent on socialists to fully consider the implications of such developments.
Only recently the employment economist John Philpott has exposed the challenges facing public sector workers compared to the previous decade when jobs were also shed. At the end of 2012 there were 5.72m workers employed in the public sector with the overwhelming bulk of these in central and local government. Allowing for statistical adjustments Philpott calculates that public sector employment fell by 410,000 (-6.5%) between 2010 and 2012, an indicator of the net impact of the overall scale of job cuts carried out by the coalition. Furthermore, Philpott points to the Office of Budget Responsibility’s (OBR) forecast that indicates a further projected fall of 340,000 jobs between 2013 and 2015. The 1990s also saw falls in public sector employment with 75,000 jobs disappearing annually (or 590,000 in total). Philpott puts this in perspective by noting that the Con-Dem coalition are cutting public sector employment at double the rate of the 1990s.
As argued above the fate of manufacturing employment in the early 1980s does not represent a strict analogy with the problems facing public sector workers but obviously the going will be tough. The struggle to defend pensions as well as fighting the cuts is at the heart of a confrontation where a strong ruling class seeks to decisively tip the balance of forces even further in its favour in the context of a profound global crisis. Insofar as the ruling class succeed in such an enterprise this would represent a major setback for all workers as it would not only mean worse pay and conditions for public sector workers but also facilitate the goal of a far reaching shift of the costs of welfare and social reproduction onto the working class.
Yet the majority of the working class is not employed in the public sector and whole new sectors have developed in the last thirty years where trade union organization is weak or non-existent. It is necessary for socialists, militants and trade union activists – ideally as a ‘community of militants’ collaborating and cooperating closely together – to try to organize across the class. Obviously socialists often organize where they are; they attempt to root themselves among their workmates; to prove themselves the most reliable, steadfast trade unionists but also, on the basis of this starting point, ‘tribunes of the oppressed’. But that should not blind us to the necessity to of trying to conquer newly emerging sections or break through in those areas that have proven stubbornly resistant to trade unionism. We should not unwittingly make a make a virtue of organizing only the ‘strongest’ sections of the working class. The disappearance or absence of trade unionism across swathes of the private sector workforce has to be regarded as what it is: a historically contingent product of defeat, an effect of the ‘neoliberal turn’, of the ruling class offensive and as a strategic Achilles Heel of the working class.
A grassroots orientation on workers in the private sector must be part of revitalizing the left and workplace organization. Despite the extremely low level of strikes and other forms of industrial action especially outside the public sector recent years have seen some straws in the wind that dimly indicate the possible shape that a broader return of industrial struggle might take such as the factory occupations at Vestas on the Isle of White and Visteon in 2009. Both indicated the frustration inside the class, the potential but also the accumulated weaknesses. Similarly in February 2012 workers at one of Mayr Melnhof’s packaging factories in Bootle in Liverpool’s North End spontaneously occupied their factory against management plans to make 49 workers redundant without any consultation with the workforce.
The workers ran through the factory gates and a few hundred yards to the shop floor where they had a ‘sit down’ or, more accurately, collapsed gasping. Sadly within hours the MM packaging workers had been persuaded to end their occupation. The dispute was then characterized by mass picketing at the factory gates to pressure the management into negotiations on the planned redundancies. Eventually, the management, still playing hardball announced it was to close the factory down completely. This may well have been their intention since losing major packaging contracts. MMP workers now embarked on a courageous, high profile and well regarded campaign of “political leverage” to win decent redundancy terms. Unite put their full support behind this campaign and McCluskey – an ex-Liverpool docker – made himself very popular with the Bootle workers with his involvement. Delegations of MMP workers travelled Europe, picketing the MMP’s corporate HQ in Austria, the HQ of high profile customers and other MMP factories in countries like Germany or trying to win the non-handling of MMP Bootle. It was an impressive campaign but little effort was made to shut down Bootle’s sister factory on the Deeside where the union only had a toehold and a bullying culture on the shop floor existed. Self defeatingly “the lads” at Deeside MMP were said to be “different” – a different culture and no tradition. Clearly there were real obstacles facing victory in the MMP dispute especially as it was quite likely the management has always intended to close down the Bootle factory (most MMP workers refused to believe management intended this from the start). The action of the MMP workers in occupying took management by surprise but it was a defensive reaction that sprang from much provocation. Any realistic opportunity to reverse the redundancies or stop the factory closure lay either in militant action and continuing the occupation and sit down or winning effective solidarity at Deeside. Or ideally both. On the other hand the premise of the “political leverage” campaign that the union officials happily promoted was to win decent redundancy terms for the workforce.
Closer links and ties between the two factories – a half hour car drive apart might have helped to establish trade unionism in Deeside long before the dispute arose. More generally socialists and trade unionists in the course of building networks and linking workplaces need to adopt just this sort of strategic long view for building in their locality, discovering the terrain in their locality and creating links further afield.
A major part of the grassroots activity of socialists who accept the centrality of workers self-organization must be to recapitulate – in new ways – the basic ‘from the bottom up’ tactics that marked the efforts of socialists, syndicalists and militants to organize the non-unionized and unskilled between the late 1880s and 1910. The rank and file networks created by the Sparks and the militant, uncompromising course they pursued to defeat BESNA and proposals to slash their wages by 35% point to what is needed more widely across the class. Finally the last forty years demonstrate that there can be no stable islands of trade unionism. Broad swathes of the working class cannot be left safely unorganized thus leaving existing union organization vulnerable to further encroachments by capital. For such a situation to continue ‘indefinitely’ would mean trade union membership continuing to fall and the further erosion of existing workplace organization. And in these circumstances ‘trade union consciousness’ would also wither. Such a baleful vista would constitute a major loss to us all.
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