This article is the second part of an exploration through the modern trade union movement in Britain, its decline, its relationship to the existing working class, the challenges union militants encounter, the re-organisation of the working class and the prospects of returning trade unions to genuine centres of resistance and schools for socialism.
As I outlined in my previous article the legal and organisational setbacks alongside the bureaucratic conservatism of British trade unionism offer some of the answers to how and why the unions and the workers’ movement at large have declined. This, however, is only a partial explanation as something deeper has taken place in Britain and the capitalist world at large. The organisation of work and daily life has been radically transformed over the last 50 years. Whole industries have disappeared, working class communities have been hollowed out as big cities draw in the best and brightest, along with most of the investment, leaving former industrial towns rotting and stewing in discontent.
Even from within we recognise that something is not right, the workers’ movement appears uncanny, with rituals, such as the Durham Miners’ Gala, without miners, and the annual Tolpuddle shindig without agricultural labourers, central features of our calendar. Corbynism too fits the bill, talk of socialism adorned with the imagery of the workers’ movement past, replete with a vernacular from the 1970s but genuinely lacking a mass base among the working class, who eyed Corbyn suspiciously even if they were trade union members. We are confronted by the shadow of the old workers’ movement, where we expend a great deal of our energies, that lacks much of the substance, and institutions, that truly gave our movement a mass character and support.
This reality should not come as a surprise to us as capitalist society is a society constantly on the move, old relations are torn up and replaced, the working class in turn is made and remade over and over again. Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto explained this:
“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.”
This article looks precisely at how the “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions” have changed our daily lives, how the certainties of the post-war period have given way to a far more precarious yet materially abundant moment. How the working class has resisted and changed, that the central social relationship between capital and labour remains antagonistic despite the re-organisation of work and the necessity to politically re-found the workers’ movement for today’s conditions.
From Saltley to Orgreave
For my generation and those that have followed it can be hard to imagine the world of work that confronted our parents and grandparents. What the defeat of the Miners crowned in 1985 was a process that dispersed and fragmented working class experience, shattered the trade unions and by extension the living workers’ movement.
I regularly think about how different the world of work looked to my parents. My mother for example left school in the 1970s and walked straight into a job in one plant, when she didn’t like that or got too uppity for the foreman she could go to the workshop or plant next door. She has regaled me on occasion of walking into one job in the morning, walking out in protest at lunch and then into another job for tea time. The big plants, GKN, Valor, M&B, the Jag and Longbridge among many others were the heart of a manufacturing world that coloured everyday life. Factories, workshops and even shifts would be known to drink at this or that pub, live primarily in this area or that, support the Villa or the Blues with closed shops, union membership and sticking up for each other being the norm. In comparison, when I started work in the early 2000s this whole world had gone, my mother had lived through it dying and went into nursing distrusting the unions today. Within her working life the unions have gone from something relevant and familiar to everyday life to another outside actor that today appears to be part of human resources processes.
The truth is my mother entered the workforce just as the ground beneath the post-war settlement was coming apart. The shocks of recessions, political crises and stagflation had brought an end to any notion of industrial peace with Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath asking for the electorate to deliver a death blow to trade union militants at the February 1974 election. The country answered in the negative and Labour’s Harold Wilson was spirited into Number 10 though both parties registered a reduced vote. This was, as they ever are with the Labour Party, a false dawn. Wilson was set on taming the unions, setting out with Barbara Castle to deliver stability with trade union legislation to be updated following the her proposals in the 1969 ‘In Place of Strife’ White Paper where increasing state interference in the trade unions, in ballots and the legality of strikes would help deliver the stability the capitalist class desperately needed following the failure of Heath’s 1971 Industrial Relations Act. In July 1974 the new Labour government replaced Heath’s act with their own Trade Union and Labour Relations Act which amounted to a sleight of hand, essentially copying over the 1971 legislation in a more palatable style for the trade union leaders. As David Beecham wrote in International Socialism journal, Wilson’s legislation provided a “magical solution that unites Labour and Tory Parties”.
The initial response to falling profits, sluggish growth and inflation saw waves of deepening and scaffolding for the Fordist arrangements. The screws were tightening on groups of workers through the introduction of managerialism, team working, increased bureaucratic oversight and incentives to increase productivity. Full employment and the union organisation meant that even with inflation and crises real wages were relatively maintained and attempts to break British workers by using workers in other parts of the world were limited. Faced with this capital deepened the internationalisation of production, weakening the national workers’ movements, trade and finance was set loose and by a million cuts the industrial landscape of Britain shifted. Structured mass unemployment in the eighties broke working class organisation and culture, weakening workplace protections and union participation across the entirety of the working class.
The shift in production from Britain intensified and as the dictatorships in Greece, Portugal and Spain fell and their entry into the European Economic Community presented greater flexibility for capitalism with new industrial bases and relatively cheap labour. A pattern repeated with the collapse of the party dictatorships and economic liberalisation programmes in the former Warsaw Pact states and the opening up of the Chinese economy.
Automation and technological advances have also helped reshape the lives of millions of workers. No clearly is this more evident that on the docks where containerisation coupled with the logistical ease offered by the internet and the utilisation of robotics in picking, packing and sorting ended the world of dockers and just like the miners their communities too. The managed decline of Liverpool throughout the Thatcher years is a testament to this with Cabinet Office papers from 1981 commenting that “Liverpool dockers had caused the docks to decline by their appalling record of strikes and over-manning.” So the political offensive against the organised working class goes hand-in-hand with technological advances, the internationalisation of production and the destruction of declining industries combines to recompose the working class, the world of work and the daily lives of workers for the benefit of capitalist stability and expansion.
The number of factory and steward committees in Birmingham along with increase in strikes and burgeoning radicalism here in Britain, in France, Italy, the United States and from behind the Berlin Wall made many of the comrades I met when entering the socialist movement confident of a coming revolution. Tony Cliff sensing the shifting mood among workers wrote in 1973 that:
“Workers’ power lies mainly in the factories, docks and other places of work. A revolutionary socialist organisation must be built not as a collection of local branches, but as a union of factory branches. It can lead the decisive sections of the working class if it has strong party branches in the factories, especially the big ones.”
My friend the late John Knowles, a militant of the International Socialists and Troops Out Movement, once described to me in detail which bridges and overpasses he and his comrades had noted down to be blown out to slow the movement of troops and the police come the glorious day. Were they wrong to be so hopeful? Yes, but also no. Yes because clearly the revolution did not come. No, because for a moment in the early and mid 1970s the British working class held the ruling class by their short and curlies, making the capitalists sweat and slowing the tide of economic and technological change that was undoing and remaking the working class the world over.
If the Miners’ victory after Saltley Gate in 1972 followed by the fall of the Tory government in 1974 were indicators then the rise of working class power seemed irresistible. Yet within a generation mining would be a marginal activity and British miners largely consigned to the history books. Remembered now in the popular imagination through films such as Brassed Off, Billy Elliot and more recently Pride. With capitalism restructuring, the unions, especially those that brought down Heath, had to be confronted and with the capitalist offensive fronted by Margaret Thatcher the victory at the Battle of Saltley Gate was overturned at the Battle of Orgreave 12 years later during the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike and the miners brutally defeated. Printers in 1986 and dockers in 1995-98 faced a similar onslaught and all fell. From then on the character of the working class was transformed from top to bottom.
The pressure moving the tectonic plates of capitalism didn’t just come from above. The trade unions were assailed from without as we have seen above but below the surface there was disquiet in the working class. Young workers didn’t want the world of their parents and in turn their parents wanted their children to succeed, travel and break out. The post-war boom had achieved an historic increase in living standards for workers in the West which sated an appetite for systemic change but opened the way to new struggles over personal freedoms like the opportunity for women to be financially independent. For example, it was not until 1974 that women could legally open accounts in their own names by themselves in the United States and in the UK it wasn’t until 1982 that pubs were legally barred from refusing women service. Movements against racism and homophobia also ramped up in the big cities, the beating cosmopolitan hearts of these struggles.
One way of looking at the changes is through the eyes of Jeremy Deller whose art has been witness to the changes that have remade the life of the working class in Britain. Take for example his discussion of the wrestler Adrian Street and the picture with his father taken by Dennis Hutchinson in 1973. We know that the writing was on the wall for the industry and the horrendous conditions miners endured. In pit villages and towns across Britain the opportunities for young workers to escape were increasing. For Deller this picture “is the most important photograph taken in Britain after the war.” It is the extreme ends of a working class world in which one was giving way to another. Deller writes that the photograph is:
“the perfect summation of the difficulty post-war Britain had to come to terms with being a post-industrial country. A country where the power of heavy industry had diminished, a country that was shifting towards an entertainment and services-led economy. All of the stresses of that shift are visible in this photograph, and all are present in the life story of Adrian Street. In this one image, he personifies the British post-industrial struggle.”
It does for me too. Because truth be told, having humans hack coal out of the ground for most of their lives and then die from everything they have breathed in is a world that had to come to an end. It should have done on our terms, freeing workers instead of throwing them onto the dole and their communities into ruin. The 1970s high points of militancy came at precisely a time when British capitalism was remoulding work and the trade unions, the Labour Party nor the socialist Left had many answers beyond the maintenance of the status-quo.
Both at work and at home Labourism and the post-war world of work offered little to workers in controlling their lives, their homes and communities. It was the union leader, the council bureaucrat or mandarin in Whitehall that decided how, where and in what condition was acceptable for you to live. The socialism on offer from the mainstream Left, Communist Party and the Militant Tendency included, was a paternalistic and rather grey world where yes many council houses could be built, but be in no doubt they were houses for a working class, a slave class whose imaginations were to be kept within the grey realm of a mixed and semi-nationalised capitalism. No matter how good council houses look on paper they can be truly appalling under both Labour and the Conservatives and by no means is my experience of them rare. Only when my parents bought their council house could they truly make it warmer, comfier and, importantly, their own.
In 1964 Herbert Marcuse, following Marx’s understanding of capitalism as a constantly revolutionising system, could sense the changes that were underway writing that:
“What is at stake in these technological changes is far more than a pay system, the relation of the worker to other classes, and the organization of work. What is at stake is the compatibility of technical progress with the very institutions in which industrialization developed. These changes in the character of work and the instruments of production change the attitude and the consciousness of the laborer, which become manifest in the widely discussed “social and cultural integration” of the laboring class with capitalist society.” (Marcuse, 1964, pg 32)
The capitalists grasped these changes too and as Marcuse predicted began recuperating the radical desires that had grown up against the post-war world for their own ends. Where we end up is that the youth struggles of the 60s and the social movements of the 70s and 80s won many victories but none of them proved, in the end, a real threat to capitalism. Quite the opposite, the base of consent was strengthened and with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the party dictatorships in the East it became clear to many workers that there was no alternative.
How and why the Right managed to ride the wave of capitalist change deserves more than can be said in a few lines here. However, the short answer is that the Left, confronted with these changes, was organisationally and programmatically incapable of offering a better world that was both tangible for workers and apace with dreams for wider freedoms and control over their lives. The choice between the bureaucratic collectivist economies of actually existing socialism or a mixed economy of British Road to Socialism and the Alternative Economic Strategy variety simply didn’t cut the mustard.
In Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 movie, Parasite, we find the Kim family folding pizza boxes for a trendy pizza firm being paid a pittance whilst struggling to stay connected to the wider world by stealing WiFi from their neighbours. Such work in Britain is common, from Avon sellers to Deliveroo riders to website designers working from their bedrooms we find at the bottom of the working class a deeply atomised and isolating relationship to work. The solidarity the Kims can find is within the family not between fellow workers, because they don’t see others and are not seen by others as existing within the same world as other workers. Violence and competition is their way forward. Revenge against the rich and those around them. This competition within the working class is not new but today the market sets against and demands workers outdo each other with ever greater stratification and difference. Whether becoming a capitalist stakhanovite working ridiculous hours, folding ever greater numbers of pizza boxes faster or working unsafely in the gig economy where union support is almost nowhere to be seen and the law almost entirely silent until a catastrophe, workers are pitted against each other in a manner unseen for generations.
Outside of these jobs we have witnessed a huge change in the industrial landscape with over four million manufacturing jobs lost since 1979. Over the last 15 years we have seen some 800,000 jobs lost to automation with around 3 million replacing them. The quality of these new jobs is contested, once secure incomes, good pensions and jobs for life have given way to a more precarious world of work. As the Institute for Public Policy Research noted in 2017 the new service industries where desk and computer work is required we find a “massive disparity in wages from the highly skilled to the middle and lower skilled workforce making common cause between the technically adept and the wider workforce limited.” Some highly skilled workers are doing very well whilst a great many struggle to stay afloat making unionisation in the new industries difficult to say the least.
Since 2000 there has been an 89% increase in self-employment in Britain, a radical change within itself with employers now using fake self employment to drive down costs and increase profits with consecutive governments using it to help mask unemployment. Today 99.9% of all businesses employ fewer than 250 workers accounting for 60% of the workforce and of those 95% of Small and Medium Enterprises are considered micro-businesses employing fewer than 10 workers. Meaning, 57% of all British workers have jobs where a close working relationship with managers and owners is the norm. Which will mean personal relationships, friendships, family connections and similar social circles making the notions of class antagonisms unpopular if at all considered. Of course many of these businesses are run by small scale tyrants but the nature of these workplaces ensure that even on the rare occasion where workers unite and place demands, and even should they win, the opportunities to generalise struggles remain limited.
There are over 3 million managers in the UK making up around 10% of all workers. Even where many of these titles confer little if no monetary advantage over the shopfloor the status and control over daily work is enough to engender an entire layer of workers to the commercial health of a business, enforcing tighter controls over work, sackings, discipline and restructures on behalf of the owners. This is not to say that all workers don’t have a stake in the commercial viability of their workplace but that the increase in managers and the differentiation that follows is a barrier for unionising and building solidarity.
So what we have here are two mutually supporting processes. The first of which is the deepening of differentiation within the working class, whether through pay, position, industry or status where, following the defeat of the trade union Left in the 1980s, workers regularly see each other as competition and any attempt to rock the boat as a threat to their livelihoods. This can also take on ethnic and gender dimensions, for example 48% of black workers in Britain are working in the lowest categorised sectors. In my own workplace in the heart of Black Manchester, none of the Senior Leadership, very few of the teachers and just one of the administrative professionals are Black. For all of the Nike and Coke Cola adverts, politicians and celebrities on their knees and the promotion of Black capitalists the social position of Black workers continue to lag behind their white counterparts. Corporate campaigns and contemporary political activism around Black Lives Matter seeks to diversify the upper echelons of our society, a process already well under way in the cosmopolitan centres of the West. This shift from class politics towards more identity focused discussions and campaigns can obscure the shared experiences of the entire working class and reinforce the deepening stratification we have witnessed over the last 50 years.
Secondly, the working class has been dispersed over the last 50 years. As Marx comments in Capital “workers’ power of resistance declines with their dispersal” and if there is one lesson the communist Left must learn it is this. The working class have been remade and looks different to the one we read about, dream about and organise for. As we have seen above the highly concentrated and often uniform workplaces of the post-war working class have almost entirely disappeared. The unions too have disappeared from the vast majority of workers’ everyday lives.
Rolodex Marxists who imagine that what once was can come again with little or no thought to how the working class has been remade over the last 50, and even less thought on why capitalist realism and the daily lived experiences of the majority in society will not permit a return to the trade unions of old. Class is a contradictory, dynamic and antagonistic social relation and not an unchanging social location. The character of the working class is always under active creation and political formation. Writing in Open Marxism in 1992, when the changes we have looked at above had not been supercharged by the arrival of the internet, Werner Bonefeld, Richard Gunn and Kosmas Psychopedis wrote that:
“Capital is therefore always in a position of having to recompose itself by reintegrating the working class into the capital-relation. The conceptual foundation for this approach is the circumstance that the relation between capital and labour is asymmetrical: capital depends upon labour, for its valorisation”.
Grasping the changed character of work, how could Tony Cliff’s advice above be useful today where workplaces look so different? Clearly only really in the public sector, in our schools and universities where the socialist Left still maintains some degree of organisation and power. A bigger shift is needed today one which involves an expanded view of our organising priorities that place the renewal of communist politics firmly in the workplace but also in homes and communities where our dispersal can be overcome in common cause for better living conditions, cheaper rents or food prices alongside the day-to-day struggle over wages and the control over work.
We have as Mario Tronti once wrote “reached a period of in-between in working class history: we must examine it deeply and grasp its implications, for its political consequences will be decisive.” Automation, climate change and an ageing population all need to be confronted and answered positively. So too do the desires for greater freedoms and control over everyday life, an expansion of democracy into all spheres of our lives needs to be fought for and made tangible to workers. Imogen Woods in this journal has offered a classwide approach to refound the workers movement and make relevant the trade unions through organising around “demands [that] are made beyond the workplace that encompass the interests of our class as a whole”. In essence a move beyond trade unionism and if coupled with confronting capitalism as it exists today and the struggle for a party we will begin taking real steps in making a communist future a reality.
In the next article we will look at ways out of margins, the daily resistance to work, the lessons of new unionism and how the pioneers of communism fought to establish trade unions and organisation, the struggle over social reproduction and the terrain on which the workers’ movement can be politically re-founded.
- Uncanny as explained by Mark Fisher following Freud as the “strange within the familiar, the strangely familiar, the familiar as strange”- Fisher, Mark. (2016) ‘The Weird and the Eerie’. London: Repeater Books, pp. 9-11. ↑
- Marx, Karl. (1990) ‘Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1’. London: Penguin Books, pp. 591. ↑