Precarious work and contemporary capitalism

Jonathan White

Scarcely a week goes by at the moment without some press story about precarious work in Britain and it’s undeniable that something profound has happened to Britain’s labour market. The full-employment boasted by Tories is in truth closer to full under-employment – a swelling in the ranks of part-time workers. Self-employment, real and bogus has expanded massively. But what exactly is going on? And how should the labour movement respond?

For some writers today, we are living in a new world of work characterised by technologically dominated platform working in a gig economy. Work has become precarious, mobile, flexible, empty of meaning and probably just best endured in return for a basic income. This idea has been expressed in its most sophisticated form by Guy Standing who has argued that neoliberalism and post-Fordism are bringing with them the breakdown of old certainties about work and the emergence of a new class, a precariat. The precariat composed of migrant workers, downwardly mobile middle class professionals and the ‘left behind’ chronically under-employed in deindustrialised communities. It stands in opposition to the ‘salariat’ – those sections of the working population who have held onto secure work and it is qualitatively different from the old proletariat who consisted ‘mostly of workers in long-term, stable, fixed-hour jobs with established routes of advancement, subject to unionisation and collective agreements, with job titles their fathers and mothers would have understood, facing local employers whose names and features they were familiar with.’

Now, there are serious weaknesses with this analysis. Firstly, it’s a-historical. Working-class history is littered with precarious workers, many of them turning up in the annals of the trade union movement as leading sections of the old proletariat that’s supposed to have been overthrown. Secondly, it’s questionable how useful the concept of the precariat is for explaining what’s happening to the working class of the global south, whose ranks are being swelled by the movement of multinational capital. These people look more like the proletarians of 19th century Europe than components of a new class. Finally, it’s politically dubious. The concept of a precariat establishes a cleavage between the interests of different sections of the working class and, in Standing’s formulation at least, struggle is directed toward the achievement of a basic income that leaves existing property structures fundamentally unchallenged. Whatever it is, Standing’s vision is not one of a united working class engaged in self-emancipation.

However, we shouldn’t chuck out the idea of precariousness. It has currency because it describes something real that is happening to working people, and if the hot-takes emanating from Britain’s intelligentsia aren’t adequate, then we need better concepts for understanding what’s going on. In a new essay for Trade Union Futures, I look at how an engagement with Marx’s ideas can shed a different light on this issue and give some pointers to the trade union movement in how to respond. Here’s the argument in brief.

In capitalist societies Marx argued, businesses accumulate capital from the exploitation of working people: their ability to persuade and coerce people to contribute more work than they are paid for in wages. Because profits depend ultimately on this exploitation, capitalist firms constantly try to work out how to extract more labour from workers: cutting wages, intensifying work, introducing new ways of working and bringing in new technologies.

As capital accumulates, capitalist businesses draw ever more people into industrial work and away from work on the land or small property owning. At the same time, the capitalist businesses are constantly changing the technologies they use and the skills they need and seeking to replace expensive workers with cheaper ones, often women, children or migrants. Finally, the anarchic competition between capitalist firms leads to many businesses being driven to the wall or swallowed up.

In these ways, Marx argued, capitalism created its own surplus population, what he called an ‘industrial reserve army’. Ever growing numbers of workers are drawn into industrial production, others are cast out to join the ranks of the unemployed or under-employed. From this perspective, capitalism has always had a precariat. It’s partly the industrial reserve army of labour. But partly, precariousness is just a condition of life for the wider working class.

In the advanced capitalist West during the post-Second World War period, the so-called ‘Golden Age of capitalism’, it’s arguable that these forces at the heart of capitalism were relatively muted. But this was a brief period in the history of capitalism and it only really meant something in the advanced capitalist states. With the neoliberal turn, we’ve seen the forces creating precarious work unleashed once more. Now they run riot across the globe, fuelled by the development of financialised multinational corporations.

Today, monopolistic multinationals are decisive players in the global economy and the majority are now owned solely or predominantly by investment banks, investment funds or private equity. Why does this matter? It matters because these financial businesses look for steady flows of high dividend payments and they turn over their portfolios rapidly in search of the best returns. In the 1950s, the average shareholding was six years in duration. Now it’s six months. This changes the way that big businesses behave, gearing them to the creation of profit at any cost. CEOs of multinationals strive to keep the dividends flowing by growing fast through aggressive mergers and acquisitions, by share buybacks that artificially boost share prices and by tax avoidance. Most importantly for this essay, multinationals also try to drive down the cost of labour and this explains why they strive to create cheaper ‘flexible’ workforces that can be hired or fired at will and to offshore work to the new working class in the global south.,

These same companies have used their dominance of the state to beat down labour market regulations across the globe. Collective bargaining and employment law frameworks have come under sustained attack not just in Britain but in the USA, the EU, the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe and across the global south. Multinational companies insist on flexible labour laws and the dismantling of collective bargaining arrangements as the price of investment.

Finally, the state employment sectors that were built up over the course of the twentieth century have come under sustained attack from multinationals and their finance capital backers. With marketisation and privatisation of public services have come the mantras of the New Public Management and the conscious attempt to fragment jobs and create flexible, precarious workers within the public sector.

What’s to be done? In the longer essay, I look at the state of the British economy, its working class and its unions in a bit more detail. But a few things can be suggested here.

Firstly, there are no magic bullets for unions. For all the boosterism surrounding ‘new small unions’, their actual record in organising and bargaining for precarious workers is certainly no better than that of big general unions like Unite or the GMB. Equally, there are problems with the way the TUC affiliated unions operate if entire workforces of precariously employed retail workers, for example, are fenced off by unions with no intention of organising them. The weak bargaining power of unions in the global south can be ameliorated to some degree by supply chain organising, but this is long-term and patient work with few quick wins. The bigger problem is that financialised multinationals controlled by remote shareholders have few incentives to engage in collective bargaining. This is what makes the issue of politics and ownership so vital. Unions interested in building workers power must recognise the limits of their ‘economic’ role and ensure they also mobilise around alternative economic and political strategies that aim to tackle the financialised ownership patterns of multinational capital.

At the same time, however, the ability of left political parties to gain and hold power will depend in part on the levels of active support they can mobilise from the masses of people organised in unions. Unions have no choice but to put major resources into confronting the reality of precarious work and organising around whatever can be won in the workplace. Otherwise they will simply wither. But if they can make themselves relevant to precariously employed workers in the modern proletariat through flexible organising and combining different strategies and tactics, and encompass this within active support for radical action to change the financialised ownership basis of contemporary capitalist businesses, then they can start to build genuine power in the workplace.

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Time to root out the ‘New Public Management’

It’s beyond doubt that our public services are in crisis: the winter emergency in the NHS; a retention crisis in the school system and the failure of more academy chains, another rail franchise scandal on the East Coast line; the … Continue reading

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Small unions and big leaders, or why we might need to ask some different questions….

In November last year, the Huffington Post ran an article by Professor Gregor Gall about the emergence of ‘new, radical, independent unions’ like the IWGB. In it he declared that “more than any other union” the IWGB has led the way in “fighting bogus self-employment and precarious employment amongst cleaners, couriers and drivers, especially in London” and that they “have been able to make considerable headway in successfully fighting for the rights of precarious workers…when their much bigger and more longstanding counterparts like Unite and the GMB have not”? (emphasis added).

Is this true?

It is difficult to deny that, despite the launch of more organising initiatives than you can shake a stick at, existing union structures have failed to stop the ebb of union membership and power. Unions are not keeping pace with the changing nature of the economy. In that respect, Gregor Gall’s piece is a welcome addition to the wider debate. Indeed, last year, Trade Union Futures published a piece by Jake Burns in which readers were invited to consider “heretical” propositions, including the case for developing new unions. Nevertheless some of the wilder statements in Gregor Gall’s piece are not particularly helpful.

One of the troubles is that the way many commentators make unsubstantiated statements and claims for the IWGB and sister unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as Wobblies), United Voices of the World (UVW) and the Cleaners’ and Allied Independent Workers’ Union (CAIWU). Statements and questions are framed in a way that leads one to draw simplistic conclusions: that the problem is located within centres on existing unions and their leaderships.

Having a pop at existing union hierarchies and leaders is always fun, but it is not very analytical and doesn’t help those of us wanting to organise the unorganised.

For example, Gall uses the successful of outcome of two IWGB members’ case against Uber at the Employment Appeal Tribunal as the hook for his piece. Only much later in the article is it mentioned that the original cases (along with 60 others) were taken by the GMB and, it seems that the IWGB picked-up the members in question from an existing union. Also, shouldn’t he have highlighted that without the initial resources provided by the GMB, the cases may not have seen the light of day?

Please be clear, it is not the purpose of this article to dismiss the gains made by the IWGB et al. The IWGB and its like, along with various ‘pop-up’ unions, must be considered as part of the changing industrial relations landscape. That union’s members should be congratulated for building the power necessary to wring concessions from their employers. But let’s keep it in context. At best, the combined membership of these small unions is 3,000 members. A proportion of those members were members of existing unions with pre-existing grievances before they jumped ship; they weren’t entirely the unorganised. To suggest, as the Huffington Post article does, that these unions’ achievements, however remarkable, are greater than all the work done by UNITE, GMB, UCU, RMT, UNISON etc. seems to be more a statement of faith than one borne out by an analytical approach.

It is this simplistic approach that bedevils debate about trade union renewal. Far too much, the debate skips over structural determinants and ploughs straight into issues of leadership and organisational character in which the heroic leader apparently enables an activist-led, democratic, model of labour organisation without ever really thinking through what that means in concrete terms.

Of course, strategic decisions made by union leaderships are important but these are situated within a much larger framework that dictate the parameters of the choices available.

What is needed is some structural analysis before the debate on agency. On this site, there are already essays and briefings on the changing nature of the economy and the issues faced by those attempting to build union power. But there are other fundamental questions that the movement needs to address, such as

Why is the nature of work constantly changing?

What is ‘precarious work’ and how has it developed?

Why are trade unions struggling to organise labour in these new spheres?

Do newly emerging unions offer something different to existing union? Why do some consider them to be more radical? Do they offer a blueprint for future organisation?

Trade Union Futures aims to stimulate debate and discussion on these and more issues. In the coming months we will be publishing new blogs and essays as our contribution to addressing these questions of our time.

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Brexit and Public Services

As TUC Congress kicks off the headlines have been dominated by Frances O’Grady’s defence of Single Market membership. This is the culmination of months of recent debate in the labour movement around the commencement of the government’s Brexit negotiations and the policy of the Labour Party. Much of this debate has been reflected in the pages of the Morning Star and has tended to focus on the question of Single Market membership. In this blog, Jane Carolan, the former chair of Unison’s policy committee argues that we need to keep a focus on the role the EU plays in reshaping public services. Trade Union Futures invites more contributions on either side of the debate over the labour movement’s position on the EU.

Brexit and Public Services

Political and media discussion over Brexit has overwhelmingly focused on whether it should be “hard” or “soft”, whether free movement (and hence migration control ) was the principle motivator of the Leave vote , or whether membership of the Single Market is the only way forward. Trade union campaigns have focused on “workers’ rights” insisting on a level playing field between the UK and our EU counterparts.

This is a continuing theme from the trade union Remain campaign, based on a view that fundamental rights emanated from EU legislation. This supposed strength of the EU is brought into question by several ECJ rulings in favour of corporations, for example the Viking, Laval and Alemo-Herron cases. (1)

Yet arguments about the essential ideology of the European project were far wider before the EU referendum and for many years on the UK left included the serious threat posed to public services. The main thrust of European level economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation and privatisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness, the neo liberal agenda writ large . This has been reflected in European treaties from the early 1990s and the austerity programmes imposed in response to the 2008 economic crash.

However voices on the sidelines of the Brexit debate continue the conversation about privatisation and public services:

“One of the biggest prizes in the UK’s Brexit negotiations is the opportunity to devise our own public procurement procedures………The existing EU-inspired regulations are complex, time-consuming, and cost both the public sector and potential contractors hundreds of millions of pounds per year…….Our Brexit negotiations need to ensure that as soon as possible after March 2019 we withdraw from the EU procurement regulations which would be possible even if there was a transitional customs union.” Simon Randall CBE, former Bromley Councillor and local authority adviser on procurement matters 

APSE is calling upon the Government and all political parties to ensure local government services are protected. A future domestic framework, governing matters such as freedoms and powers for local councils, procurement regulations, environmental protection regulations, employment matters for the local government workforce and, most importantly, council budgets are treated fairly with the full involvement of the local government sector. In developing alternative plans, policies and any necessary legislative changes, local government needs to be fully consulted.” Paul O‘Brien Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) 

“Public services have been brainwashed by marketeers and ….. it is incredulous that little effort had been made to expose the limits of markets and neo-liberalism despite the major role this had played in creating the recession.” David Walker Guardian

Public services used to mean publicly owned, publicly delivered universal services. Public procurement refers to the purchase by governments and state-owned enterprises of goods, services and works. As public procurement accounts for a substantial portion of taxpayers’ money, governments are expected to carry it out efficiently and with high standards of conduct in order to ensure high quality of service delivery and safeguard the public interest. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must ‘comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality’. This means that all procurement contracts must be open to bidders across the EU and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries.

Thus there is an imperative to begin to frame a critique of EU procurement, competition policy and single market regulations to examine its effects on public services and public service delivery. More importantly, are there left alternatives that deserve promotion and not only challenge the neo liberal agenda but could bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs?

(1) For an alternative view see Brian Denny, EU Attacks Our Pay And Undermines Unions – Morning Star online https://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-6560-The-EU-attacks-our-pay-and-undermines-unions#.WbJcD4bTXqA

Jane Carolan retired from UNISON NEC in June 2017 and was formerly chair of UNISON NEC policy committee

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Missing the movement

Zoe Williams’s call for ‘fresh thinking’ shows an ignorance of what’s really happening in the unions

Zoe Williams is a highly skilful, highly intelligent writer who considers herself a progressive and who has done much good work to promote progressive causes. She often writes thoughtful and thought provoking articles. That’s what makes her article on the trade union movement so disappointing. Williams appears to be completely unaware of recent and current developments in the unions.

Leaving aside the comments about Len McCluskey, Unite makes a bizarre target. The union can be accused of many things but a lack of strategic thought and imagination are not among them. Unite’s Community initiative does precisely what Williams wants the unions to do. It is a serious, if not uncontroversial, attempt to create structures that bring people outside employment into contact with unions. Unite Community is creating precisely the bridges between struggles and organisation in the workplace and those around collective consumption that Williams calls for. The jury is out on whether it will work but it’s a bold initiative. Unite is placing serious resources behind attempts to organise migrant workers. Unite’s leverage strategy has demonstrably delivered some impressive results in key industrial disputes, to the point where it became an issue of Parliamentary concern for the Conservative Party.

The idea that unions are resistant to engaging with the precariously employed or the new workforces in the economy is just bizarre. One can question how successful they have been but the idea that unions simply view agency workers and those on zero hours contracts as a threat to their members is seriously wrong-headed. Unions in the public sector deal with this reality every day as a consequence of public sector reform and the New Public Management, from the NHS, Local Government to the Civil Service and the tertiary education sector. Unions in the retail, social care and hospitality industries, often deal with little else.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of the NUT will be able to tell you how much thought and energy is going into the issue of building closer links between workers in schools and the parents and communities who use their services. Yet Williams calls on unions to reach out to consumers, citizens and communities as though no one had ever thought of it before.

The Pop Up Union that gets a passing mention is wrongly described as having won a victory. It didn’t. The Southern Rail dispute is cited to accuse the RMT of neglecting the rail consumer. This overlooks the work of the  joint union Action for Rail campaign, the efforts made by RMT reps to directly communicate with consumers, not to mention the spontaneous solidaristic organisations of rail users in support not just of Guards, but of the unions’ calls for nationalisation.

The suggestion that unions might engage in campaigning to inflict reputation damage begs the question of what Williams has been doing while a succession of unions have been using her paper among others to target Sports Direct, Uber, ASOS, the care industry, even universities.

None of this is to say that unions are succeeding or doing as well as they could be. But Williams’s suggestions indicate that she hasn’t really been paying attention to the unions and might be in a poor position to lecture them. Those who are working in the trade union movement know better. And many of us know that in fact none of these tactics and approaches represent a magic bullet (though at times the TUC has behaved as though they are). Instead, each must be adapted to the precise, concrete situation in which unions find themselves. Further, those working in the movement are (or should be) aware of the limits on our ability to simply make things different through acts of sheer will power. Reading Williams’s article, you could be forgiven for thinking that all we need to do is get our shit together and it could all be fine. This is voluntarism writ large.

One of the strangest things about Williams’ article is that she manages not to mention the constraints placed on unions by the state. The Trade Union Act has only just come into force, placing new obstacles in the way of our freedom to associate and our freedom to organise and withdraw our labour. We have a legal framework that would warm the heart of a Chilean Fascist and these laws have real life consequences on our ability to defend members. This is not a small matter. It’s certainly not a matter for silence.

Similarly, there is no place in Williams’s article for any consideration of the way the state’s actions have interacted with profound changes in our economy and class structure. Capital has been dramatically recomposed in Britain as a consequence of state policy in the 1980s, and EU membership, as well as broader forces like technological change. The British working class and its working lives have been dramatically transformed and the state has made absolutely sure that we were hampered in responding.

Zoe Williams says she intends her article to be helpful and positive, but it shows little knowledge of what the movement is doing and her analysis deals with unions in the abstract, as though they are unconstrained by the state or the deeper forces at work in our society. It also shows no sense that the movement has a history. It’s as though everything that’s happening is without precedent or parallel. This is not really good enough.

As we have argued consistently on this site, there are major challenges facing our movement – some immediate and obvious and some deeper and more profound. There is no one answer. The survival and revival of the movement will depend on our ability to learn properly from our history, analyse and understand the forces changing our world around us, identify the ones we can shape – as well as those we can’t – and develop ideas and approaches appropriate for our situations. This was the very rationale for setting up Trade Union Futures and we will continue to do our bit.

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Making the case for New Unions

Jake Burns asks if the left should consider breaking with historical union structures if they inhibit the ability to organise workers in unorganised workplaces:

We cannot ignore the fact that union membership has been falling steadily from its zenith in the late 1970s. Members are now heavily concentrated in the public sector and although some quarters cling to the delusional notion that this sector is still subject to national bargaining, an honest appraisal would suggest otherwise. Trade union density in the private sector is 13% and falling. Vitally, fewer workers than at any point in the 20th century are covered by collective bargaining agreements. , with entire sectors of the economy almost free of union organisation. In key areas of economic importance, there simply is next to no union organisation, meaning that union power is ebbing.

Since the 1990s thousands of books, articles, and academic papers have been written about union attempts to create organising cultures. Unfortunately, none of the numerous initiatives within individual unions; nothing co-ordinated by the TUC has addressed the fundamental problem. At very best, some unions are slowing the rate of decline of organised labour. Now it is always fun to blame union ‘leaders’ but it seems pretty pointless laying the blame at their door when they are also constrained by existing roles and structures.

Elsewhere on the Trade Union Futures site, some of the reasons for the drop in union power are explored. A major factor is the movement’s failure to adapt to the changed political economy of Britain. This begs a question: given a free hand, where should those wanting to organise the unorganised focus their resources? Looking at four important areas of the current economy reveals some real problems to be overcome.

First, the financial sector, which in turn can be split into the retail and clearing banks. In retail, there are low levels of organisation by Accord and the ex-banking unions that are now part of UNITE. But, the investment houses, where the big money is are virtually union-free. It is an attractive thought to have organised labour at the heart of the capitalist beast but this isn’t a sector easily lending itself to collectivisation. Of the top 1% of earners in the economy, half of them are located in the investment sector. Most workers have more modest salaries but the starting point in the City is around £30k plus for graduates. Trying to create the sense of grievance to organise these workers around would require considerable creativity and the lower paid workers providing general and security services tend to be outsourced.

Second, the social care and personal health services is growing. Highly-regulated sectors of this ilk provide ample opportunity to put employers under pressure without the immediate need for industrial militancy. Employers are vulnerable to effective campaigns but, sloganizing aside, the reality is that these businesses are in tight multi-employer cost competition. They operate on low profit margins so the economic imperative is to dig in and fight hard against union organisation. Wins in this sector are hard won.

Third, transport: leaving aside the well-organised and militant rail sector, the other sub-sectors of the transport industry have all the organising problems associated with mobile workers, competitive employers and marginal costs (see above).

But there is a sector that has grown exponentially over the past couple of decades: the wholesale and retail sector. Internal consumerist consumption is vital to the economy and with over 4.5m workers, low density levels, and plenty of grievances this is fertile organising ground. Profit margins are generally high, so it would be economically possible for employers to cede ground without a fight to the death on every occasion.

You would expect unions to be at the forefront of organising these workers but while increases in individual union membership may be reported, density has not. In short, ground has actually been lost by trade unionism within the retail sector, not gained.

Now for the controversy. TUC affiliated unions sign-up to agreements to stop unions poaching members from another affiliate. These agreements also allow unions to make claims to specific sectors. The reality is that some unions try to put a protective ring around an entire sector but then fail to organise the workers.

This is just one example of where current structure and form are problematic. Is it time for the left to consider supporting tactical breaks within current union structure and form?

TUF has featured articles about the emergence of civil and social movements (CSMs) and activist networks as campaigning organisations but, thus far, there has been little discussion about their emergence as actors in their own right within the employment arena.

Stories of pop-up unions surface occasionally but these are few and far between. They have generally centred on service workers, often with a grievance against existing unions as well as employers. For example, a relatively recent Morning Star article (21st September) covered foster carers voting to form their first-ever trade union. This featured the  International Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), a non-TUC affiliated but certified union which describes its mission as “organising the unorganised, the abandoned and betrayed”. On investigation it is difficult to detect a coherent strategic approach at the heart of the IWGB and it would be interesting to see how well it would fare without the driving personality at its centre.

Many trade unionists will also have encountered activist networks, for example those centring on specific industrial issues (e.g. the casualised workforce). While the tendency is for the official machinery of unions’ structures to see these networks as alternative sources of power and to crush them in their infancy, some incorporate their demands into official policy to weaken the attraction of a separate entity.

To most of us on the disciplined, non-ultra left, it is almost heretical to consider proposals that would break with the existing basis of trade union organisation, including the TUC. But if we really think it necessary to increase our significance in people’s everyday struggles; if organised labour is to gain more power to defend our class and to lead the fight for real political change then current union strategies for renewal are failing, badly.

Perhaps we should consider radical alternatives if we want to develop a new cadre of labour organisers. We have to ask ourselves whether, in some sectors, there is a case for developing new unions.

 

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Strikes and industrial militancy after the Trade Union Act

There are arguably two urgent questions facing the Marxist left in the trade union movement: how to provide leadership in assisting the movement to organise in the real labour market of today and how to raise the tempo of struggle within the workplaces where we are organised. This blog only discusses the second of these questions.

The Trade Union Act and national collective bargaining

The passage of the Trade Union Act into law crystallises a critical tactical and strategic question for the labour movement. What is the role of strike action in future life of the trade union movement and does the strike still have a role in the struggle to build a socialist alternative?

The Trade Union Act, as we know, was simply the latest in a succession of Conservative measures to cripple and strangle the power of organised labour. It was explicitly aimed at hamstringing the public sector unions which form the heartland of the movement with the bulk of its membership and the bastion where collective bargaining is still at least formally observed. The Act throws new barriers in the way of public sector unions looking to mount large scale set-piece national strikes.

Crippling the ability of public sector unions to deliver national strikes will of course further the fragmentation of national collective bargaining structures. But the argument also runs the other way. The fact that strike ballots for large-scale national actions have been delivering turnouts below 50% is arguably symptomatic of the deeper breakdown of national collective bargaining structures.

Under the weight of long-term labour market restructuring in the private sector – assisted by the state – and neoliberal public sector reform, driven at national levels by the state and the EU, national collective bargaining structures were disintegrating in any case. NHS Hospital Trusts manage their own finances and engage in procurement of scores of subcontractors to deliver services. The BBC is now simply a commissioning agent for hundreds of small companies comprised of its former employees. Academy Schools set their pay and conditions at the level of the School or the chain. Universities and colleges increasingly do the same.

Why is this important? It matters because national collective bargaining structures and processes and the strikes used to support them are becoming more remote from meaningful outcomes for members. And following John Kelly’s mobilisation theory, if the secret of mobilising workers in struggle is to work on a deeply felt injustice which can be easily attributed to an enemy, around an issue that can be simply collectivised and where it is possible to win something, then it becomes clearer why turnouts in national strike ballots might have been low even before the Act passed into law.

Put simply, workers struggles and union structures and practices have to follow the restructuring of work and decision-making. Of course, this is not actually a simple issue of power travelling down to the local ‘firm’, as in reality, control of public services is being handed to large monopolistic companies who own or control many smaller ones. But the point remains, national strikes are going to be increasingly hard to deliver because they are increasingly detached from the reality of the organisation of either the public or the private sectors.

Strikes and industrial leverage in the workplace

So what happens now? Do we consign the strike weapon to the cabinet of labour movement curiosities? Obviously not. At a very simple instrumental level, to do so would be to denude the movement of a vital and necessary weapon. But we do need a shift in thinking and a new generation of trade union leaders at all levels who understand how to use strikes strategically. It is clear that it will still be possible to win strike ballots and use strike action, but only where it is related to some action designed to win something tangible for members. That does not rule out national or large scale strike ballots. Far from it. the decentralisation of bargaining has been uneven and some bargaining structures are still linked to meaningful processes. These must be defended. Yet we must learn to fight coordinated local battles around workplaces too. It’s clear that the strike weapon can still be effectively used locally without falling foul of the legislation. In their recent IER pamphlet, Ralph Darlington and John Dobson note ‘a clear tendency for workplace, area or single employer ballots to obtain ‘higher’ turnouts and be more likely to clear the 50% threshold’. Turnout in NUT’s national ballots, for example, is around 31%. At school level it was around 64%. Similarly, FBU area ballots outstripped national ones. The current dispute in Southern Rail passed the required thresholds.

Most of these struggles are defensive ones over jobs, working hours, terms and conditions, pensions or imposed pay cuts. With the cost of living set to rise to 3% next year and possibly more beyond, we may well see a revival of more serious wages struggles in both the public and private sectors.

Strikes that are integrated into clear strategies for winning focused gains for workers will always be an option. But they must form part of a wider tactical armoury that uses and combines all the accumulated wisdom of the movement as the concrete situation demands: strategic supply chain organising, leverage campaigning, community and social movement mobilisation and the ‘borrowing of power’ from other agents in supply chains, together with various forms of unofficial or illegal industrial action.

Workplace militancy and the class struggle today

Crucially, for Marxists and those on the genuine left, workplace struggles, including strikes, form a vital part of the wider development of class struggle. As our briefing note explains, the temporary withdrawal of labour throws into question the everyday exercise of control in the workplace and exposes the fundamentally exploitative nature of the working relationship in capitalist societies. This class character of strikes is always present, even if workers aren’t always aware of it. As the current Southern Rail dispute demonstrates, during strikes, the class nature of society and the state can come clearly into view and the question of political power quickly arises.

The state is, quite evidently, an overbearing presence in modern British industrial relations: hampering organisation, proscribing industrial action, blacklisting workers, conducting ideological warfare on unions and so on. Equally, for all the guff about globalisation, the state is a hugely significant agent in the modern capitalist economy. Just taking the rail industry as a contemporary example, it is the state that privatised Southern Rail. The state constructed the conditions that enabled the restructure of the industry around service transnationals like the Go-Ahead Group and its owners. And as the TUC’s excellent recent report demonstrated, it is the state that constructs and guarantees profits politically for these companies. This is why the seemingly small workplace struggles in the dispute at Southern Rail have assumed a sharply political form, throwing up questions about the control of the entire industry.

A rising general level of workplace militancy would raise the possibility of large numbers of workers engaged in struggles that might enable the development of a wider class consciousness. This would feed into – and in turn develop – the political forces arguing for an alternative economic and political strategy today, turning the struggle against a particular government or an ideology into a more profound challenge to the capitalist class as a whole.

Is it possible for workplace struggles to play this role in supporting the development of class struggle and class consciousness today? If so, what might this process look like? It’s unlikely to look like the sort of general strike calls repeated so often in certain sections of the left. The call for a General Strike Now might feel good on demonstrations and serves as a useful slogan with which to characterise everyone else as a sell-out, but it is a slogan and nothing more.  However, it is possible to imagine an industrial strategy in which large numbers of workers were mobilised around a large number of smaller workplace based struggles, deploying strikes where appropriates, both legal and illegal.

Our own history shows us that the emergence of political class consciousness at the beginning of the twentieth century and during the strike wave of 1968-74 was built on years of action in many forms taken by shop stewards at the level of the enterprise or shop floor. But for this, we need a new generation of workplace reps and activists who are engaged in political education, applying this to their workplaces and their industries to recognise and exploit spontaneous struggles, to identify the points where unions can exercise leverage, developing collective struggles as part of this and applying the appropriate tactics to each situation. We also need to build an infrastructure to support these reps and to help socialise their experience, to make it part of the common consciousness of the movement. Social media can clearly play a helpful role in this, bringing spatially dispersed struggles quickly into contact with one another. And we need more, not less coordination. Coordination that is less fixated with Grand Days Out and more with ensuring that collective struggles are effectively developed, won, and then widely shared and built on. Then we might be able to ensure that class struggles at the point of production play their role in developing a wider class challenge that questions not just neoliberalism, but capitalism.

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