Tag Archives: unions

Why are these so few strikes? When will there be more?



There was a time when I, and many of my friends, believed that socialism would come about principally through a continuous process of trade union radicalisation with small, sectional strikes leading to larger, industry-wide ones, and then national strikes. Workplace struggles would become successively more common, and more successful. Ultimately, the workers would finally stream out of the factories to take over the whole world.

For much of the past 30 years, the continuing holding of that belief has involved a certain denial of reality. Every small strike that took place I personally welcomed as the start of a generalised upturn – hoping there would be a direct route from a single strike to the mass strike and then to the revolution. It was not just a matter of reading too much into short, localised disputes. I remember, 25 years ago, being much comforted by a talk given to a set of statistics which appeared to show that the growing tendency for jobs to become more precarious was in certain ways limited. It seemed from the figures that young workers were speeding through a series of temporary or part-time contracts before settling on fixed-term, permanent jobs at around 30, and then sticking to them with no less determination than all the generations that had preceded them. The interpretation of the figures may or may not have been correct, then or now – that is not my point – what I remember rather is the physical sense of relief I felt in my heart and lungs at encountering a serious explanation which reaffirmed my existing beliefs. This was not a healthy state to be in…

The lack of strikes matters not just if class struggle is seen in offensive terms, but also if it you follow its defensive aspect. Every government of the past fifty years has attempted to attack some aspect of the welfare state – when they have been defeated, it has usually been because a group of workers formed an alliance to protect (eg) abortion rights (in 1979). When strikes are low, it makes it harder to organise effective resistance.

When mass strikes did not happen, the challenge became to establish a different sort of optimism – a more guarded sense of hope, a surface caution beneath which there lurked a willingness to discard everything when necessary in the hope of being part of the single moment at which the world would turn. I think Daniel Bensaid had something similar in mind when speaking of revolutionary “impatience”: a fusion of optimism and seeming disdain in which the former was always waiting to subordinate the latter.

There is something of the same spirit in a recent article by Simon Joyce, which explains in compelling detail how mistaken a 30 year perspective of imminent mass strikes has been. He writes: “the current low level of strikes is unprecedented in British history. Official records of strikes in the UK have been kept since 1893 and record numerous ups and downs, periods of calm and sudden upsurges. Seen in this perspective, the last 20 years are exceptional. Never before has a low-strike period lasted so long.”

He goes on to insist that the present system of low strikes is stable: “once in place, institutional arrangements for conducting relations between unions and employers tend to be fairly robust and are only altered in ‘times of great crisis’. It is likely that it will take some type of wider social or political crisis significantly to upset the current institutional arrangements”. In so arguing, Joyce is undoubtedly right. I am sure some readers will disagree with him, even if they do not say so in public. A tendency could not change its 30-year perspective without some disagreement as to the new approach to take. But the people who disagree with him are projecting their wishes onto reality rather than engaging with the world in which they live.

Where I think there is space for further discussion is in Joyce’s explanations for the decline in strike figures since 1991. First, a large part of Joyce’s analysis is given over to the package of employment law changes which came in between the Heath and Thatcher governments (under Heath, the right to take an unfair dismissal claim to the then industrial tribunals, under Thatcher the anti-union laws, especially the balloting requirement for strikes).

These are part of the picture, but the relationship between law and society is subtle, and I would be critical of anyone who argued, for example, simply that “more law” must mean “fewer strikes”. (Or conversely, that the retreat of law from industrial relations, represented by the decline in ET figures since fees were introduced recently, will – by itself – make strikes more likely).

In an old book, I once set out the sociologists’ concept of “juridification”, ie the process where disputes which are seen as fundamentally non-legal and are resolved without litigation become things which are dealt with in the courts. Juridification implies its opposite, “de-juridification”, i.e. when things which were once treated as a legal question stop being so. The point of invoking either concept is that the last 150 years of workplace history in Britain gives examples of both dynamics, and in particular of occasions when a big opening up of legal opportunities for unions or for workers has not resulted in juridification. EG on both sides of the 1914-1918 war the ruling class and the state made serious efforts at legalising industrial relations – by giving unions incentives to fight battles in court. But there was no meaningful take-up of these opportunities and strikes remained ubiquitous.

Undoubtedly the Coalition has engaged in a systematic campaign of de-juridification. In an early draft of the same book, before the Coalition government had even been elected, I speculated as to how the Tories might implement what were then New Labour’s vaguer proposals for dejuridification and joked in a bitter spirit that what would be needed would be a system of criminal penalties for those who dared to bring tribunal claims – say, a £500 fine for anyone who took one case to a Tribunal, and jail terms for those who brought a second. Of course, politics turned out even worse than my satire, in that the fine for claimants (the “fee”) has been set at nearly three times higher than the level had guessed.

After decades of individual employment rights, it is almost certain that the dejuridification of dismissal rights will not result in a simple process whereby unions simply take up dismissals and strike over them, as if the entire preceding period of 40 years had simply not happened. Instead, what we are actually seeing is a very clear process by which unions are trying to make the best of what is left of the old Tribunal system – so while the headline figures for the decline in Tribunal claims is very high, this is masked by a series of attempts by unions to keep on going as if nothing had happened. These tactics of “making do” including lobbying Labour and the SNP for a reversal of fees; and a judicial review brought by UNISON (so far unsuccessful at 3 court hearings) to declare fees unlawful. Most significantly of all, unions have so far largely paid the fees on their members’ behalf, with the result that despite the very sharp feel in overall Tribunal cases, it seems that the number of cases brought by unions is holding up at more or less the levels they were before. If that process continues, as on my prediction it will (assuming Labour does not simply come back in and abolish fees), it could have all sorts of further unintended consequences. It could for example make union membership significantly more attractive than it has been to non-members in organised workplaces; since the union will subsidise a tribunal hearing which members could never afford themselves. It would also operate a vast cost on unions, who would have to pay thousands of tribunal fees and millions of pounds a year. What we are not seeing – yet – is any process of unions striking over cases that they would a year ago it would have been economically wiser to take to Tribunal. I do not think that will happen without other, larger changes in the relationship between workers and employers in the workplace.

Joyce is right that the anti-union laws have placed an additional pressure on the bureaucracy to police its own members. This is almost the one place where I think it is useful to speak of the memory of the 1980s, which is felt much more keenly within this level than in the typical workplace. Hundreds of senior trade unionists remember the sequestration of the once-massive funds of the miners’ union, and this memory places an enormous pressure on the individual bureaucrat not to mismanage a ballot where, it is assumed, the entire resources of the whole union could be at stake.

But this is not the only problem of the anti-union laws: they are costly, they are slow (amounting to, in effect, a statutory one-month cooling down period between the original decision to strike and any outcome), and they are intended to prevent the very strikes that were most effective in the 1950s, and 1960s, ie localised, rapid strikes by specific sections of workers about smaller issues as well as large ones.

I agree with Joyce that the left needs to give a much larger commitment to campaigns for the repeal of the anti-union laws, but having played a very modest part in one or two of these initiatives, we need to recognise how isolated the interest presently is in repeal – either within the unions themselves or, especially, among committed activists on the left but outside the trade unions. There are good examples on the left in recent years of causes which were isolated to specific groups but have acquired a more general significance – eg Defend the Right to Protest, set up around what once seemed the relatively narrow, immediate issue of the criminalisation of the 2010 students protests – any serious critique of the anti-union laws would rapidly founder if it was just the trade unions with their existing fiefdoms, rivalries and aging activist base.

Joyce makes good points about the link between low inflation and few strikes. Historically, medium-level inflation has been associated with policies of (modest) redistribution from the rich to the working class. We forget on the left just how important low inflation (“monetarism”) was to the early Thatcher governments as a strategy for a more radical kind of class rule. The left in general should be better at exposing this ongoing fixation, which is amongst its other problems also a partial cause of the present stagnation of the European and British economies.

I also think he is right to work into the equation the part played by unemployment. Again, it is a regret that no-one on the left ever seems to sit down and try to calculate or still less publicise how many people in Britain are now unemployed. We have allowed a situation of mass unemployment to be treated as normal which few recent generations would have tolerated.

A further, modest point of disagreement is where Joyce, despite focussing on what he terms “economic factors” resists any idea that the post-1979 economy is in any meaningful extent different from that which preceded it. In particular, he resists the characterisation of the present as a “neoliberal” capitalist economy, as distinct from the post-war state capitalist, welfare state, economy.

To an extent, his own developed argument makes this a meaningless distinction – after all, as soon as you recognise that there are significant dynamics such as low inflation and high unemployment, you are starting to accept that the industrial economy runs on – subtly – different lines from before.

Moreover, if you understand industrial disputes in social activist terms, as Joyce does, then the key issue when workers consider when deciding for or against striking is whether they will win. The “confidence” approach suggests that winning is simply a matter of will, workers with the greatest confidence will take the most radical steps (unofficial rather than official, continuous rather than discontinuous action) and that these will be the most effective. Now, this idea brings certain insights; clearly, to say from the outset that certain forms of strike are impossible is to reduce the choice of protest actions available to potential strikers, and this reduces their prospects of winning. But, equally clearly, among the reasons why strikes have lost in the last 40 years are some economic factors which are primary to and causative of workers’ lack of confidence. Even if we just limit ourselves to Joyce’s two principal economic factors, unemployment and inflation, they serve to discipline workers, unemployment especially, because it changes the calculation as to how much the workers will lose if the action is wholly ineffective and they are all dismissed.

For that reason, I look forward to the historian of the future who can go a little further in addressing the analytical weight to be placed on certain other features of our present economy. For example, Joyce alludes to size of establishment as a factor in the decline in strike levels. Could this have an importance within manufacturing in particular? The 99% fall in the number of strikes in coal since 50 years ago is down to the destruction of jobs in that industry; the 85% fall in the number of strikes in manufacturing over the same period cannot be down simply to the loss of jobs because there are still millions of people working in manufacturing. What has happened though is that there are very few employers, as there were in almost every medium-sized town in Britain just 30 years ago, with several thousand workers all doing relatively similar tasks. To this extent, the capacity for manufacturing workers to feel that they have a power to take on the employers is surely reduced as the size of the workplace is diminished. Could the demise of the giant plants (and therefore the large single-workplace strike) have had an effect in terms of the capacity of workers in one town to see someone else striking a large workplace, to hear about it and want to copy them? Where workplaces are smaller, it surely follows that strikes have less of a rallying effect as physical expressions of the different interests of capital and labour.

Or, to take another example, structural mass unemployment has not served simply to act as a caution for those worried about losing their jobs (what you might characterise as the “reserve army of labour” effect). Additionally, it has had an impact on the nature of the jobs that are being created. I have seen some estimates of job creation since 2008 which suggest that fewer than 5% of new jobs presently being created are full-time, permanent, direct employment. Even if these estimates are hopelessly wrong, and as many as 20% or 40% of new jobs are secure, the picture still remains that for hundreds of thousands of new workers, their industrial reality is not that of the Fordist economy, with secure jobs with long-term prospects.

Portraying some of labour’s difficulties as structural is not to close off the possibility of defeat, but to encourage people to think towards the dynamics of the present crisis which are superficially most obstructive to strikes and yet at the same time capable of challenge.

The issue which I have focussed on in repeated blog posts over the last 18 months is the precariousness of labour both because of its disciplinary aspect and its demobilising potential but also because it seems to me that it gives an incentive to groups of workers to organise. Joyce points to on one group of workers where strike rates have held up relatively well – those engaged in transport. The most successful strikes in history by this section of workers were precisely by groups of people who were precarious and yet wanted greater control over their working lives (carters, dockers…). And now we find ourselves in that same situation again, where the greatest incentive to protest is among groups that are outside what is presently assumed to be the centre of working class life. It seems to me almost certain that when the industrial sociologist looks back from 2035 in our direction, the disputes they will describe with the greatest affection will have something like the same character of those of 125 years ago, with struggle coming from those presently seen as marginal but eager to have the levels of job security which 40 years ago were universal.

This Crumby Twilight Shift takes the Biscuit (Women’s Voice, 1978)



I work the twilight shift, 5.15 to 9.45 at night in Gray Dunn’s biscuit factory. Twilight shifts are supposed to be of great benefit to women with children who want to go out to work, but who would think that 24 hours could revolve around 4 ½ hours on the conveyer belt?

My family life is practically nil. All my time is taken up with organising my life to suit my job. The only time I see my husband is for one hour at night when we are both tired. He often has to work overtime at the weekends to.

I get up at 7.45 and get Sean, my oldest boy, ready for school. Monday, Wednesday and Friday are more hectic than usual as these are playgroup days for Julie, my other child. You would have thought this would give me a bit of a break, but it only lasts from 9.30 to 11.30 and there is hardly time to get back home in between. So I just stay there.

I get home with Julie after 12, make the lunch, rush through the day’s housework in time for Sean to come home from school at 3pm. I give him a quick snack and then get both of them ready to take to my mother-in-laws’s for 3.50, in time for me to start my shift.

There are about 400 women working on the twilight shift. It’s the time when they can get out and leave their husbands to look after the kids. But there’s no peace either in the conveyor belt. This factory works 24 hours, non-stop production. You need to be able to lip read to survive, the machinery is so noisy. The building is antiquated, safety standards are at a minimum, and there’s little protective clothing.

Because the union is very weak in the factory there is little consultation between the shop stewards and the workers, no union meetings and there are no shop stewards at all for some sections. There is no provision for union meetings during working hours so for us it is impossible to ever got to a meeting anyway. No wonder women workers are uninterested in the union. All of this makes it very difficult for those of us who would like to see a change.

One way I see of solving this is by informing women of what is really going on in the factory, and what their rights are. This can be done by producing Womens Voice leaflets encouraging women to take part in union activities and so feel less isolated.

We have already done this in some women’s factories in Glasgow and we’re going to do in mine after this article has started the ball rolling!

A biscuit worker

Glasgow Womens Voice

Women’s Voice 13, January 1978

The new layers


Between 1900 and 1979 the worst year for strikes in Britain was 1927, with just 1.17 million strike days. It was the year after the General Strike, after which the miners (in whose support the 1926 Strike had been called) had gone down to a crushing defeat. Many of the previous year’s activists had been victimised and the leaders of the movement were desperate to promote compromise.

In three of the last four years, strike levels have been lower even than they were in 1927 (2008: 759,000 days; 2009: 455,000 days and 2010: 365,000 days). “The biggest wave of industrial action since 1926”, as some enthusiastic voices reported the public sector strikes of 2011, represented more struggle admittedly more than the seventy-year nadir of 1927, but only marginally more. The total number of strikes days “lost” during the 2011 strikes (1.39 million strike days) was less than 1 percent of the strikes in 1926 (160 million days).

Those of us who are committed to an idea of working-class struggle, along the lines once envisaged by Marx (“the proletariat is revolutionary relative to the bourgeoisie because, having itself grown up on the basis of large-scale industry, it strives to strip off from production the capitalist character that the bourgeoisie seeks to perpetuate”) should be honest with ourselves. Strikes are at historically low levels; trade union membership is half what it was, and union density in the private sector in particular has fallen sharper still.

If there is hope it lies in the new layers: workers unburdened by 40 years of defeats.

Looking at where jobs have been growing the UK economy, compared to four years ago, there have been modest rises in the number of workers employed in two sectors in particular: health (by around 10%) and transport (around 5%). These sectors have survived the recession because they are on a trend of long-term jobs growth. With more people living into their 90s, there are inevitably going to be more people in future involved in nursing and in all forms of adult, social care.

Transport includes all the drivers who deliver the books, cds, furniture, second hand goods and even food shopping that are increasingly purchased online. The Unite website reports recent strikes by bus drivers, protests by National Express drivers showing their solidarity for strikers in the US, and above inflation pay rises for Unite members working for UPS. There is clearly a lot going on; more, relatively speaking, than 30 years ago when drivers where seen as a conservative layer compared to steel and power workers, miners, etc.

One group of workers who it is difficult to track through the statistics are call centre workers, who by general estimate now stand at around 1 million people, or 4% of the total UK workforce. Of course, “call centre worker”, like “factory worker”, describes the content of how people work, and how they are managed, rather than the sector of the economy they work for. Call centre workers in the civil service tend to be in PCS, in banking they might be in Unifi or Unite. Many ex-BT, at Virgin and elsewhere are in CWU.

Call centres are worth watching because theirs is a type of working which people can go into relatively young, and because of the intense disciplinary conditions which are common in the industry, the intense scrutiny there can be of the time workers to take to answer calls or their average duration, the bans on toilet breaks, the electronic monitoring of the content of the phone calls, the dismissal of union reps. These are the sorts of conditions which time and again throughout the past 150 years have caused groups of workers to strike.

If the focus is on the unions, then right now I would encourage readers to look at two groups in particular:

Unions organising at the intersection between secure and insecure work. Under the past 30 years of neoliberalism, there have been dramatic changes to the nature of the employment contract. The proportion of workers who are engaged directly (ie non-agency), as employees (ie not self-employed), on full-time permanent contracts, is shrinking year on year, and is now down to around 55% of all workers. It is hard to organise the most precarious workers, but if they are going to be organised (as once the unions managed to organise the dockers, the most precarious of all workers in late Victorian Britain), it is most likely to come about through strikes by intermediate groups, neither as secure as classroom teachers, nor as insecure as agency workers on zero-hours contracts in a canning factory.

Just to give an example of how this might work: there have been a number of strikes by groups of London cleaners in the past couple of years including London underground cleaners and cleaners at SOAS. In both cases, the proximity of unorganised to organised groups of workers has made it easier to bring about solidarity from other groups of workers, and easier for the cleaners themselves to organise.  If you are going to try to organise the unorganised, mere activist good sense suggests that this is far easier done near an existing union base than in areas where unions are in all other respects very weak.

Workers organising inside and against their own unions. Workers at One Housing Group, on strike this week, give an example of how it can be done. Historically, the housing association, like most others, has been organised by Unison. But when the employer awarded at the same time, its chief executive a £31,000 pay rise, and many of its workers an £8,000 pay cut, the initiative was taken by Unite, a union which then represented just a tiny proportion of the workers. Unite was able to take a lead because of the organising style of Unison, which has long involved a very small number of national officials representing whole branches of the economy (education, health, housing, etc). It is not an organising approach. There is relatively little emphasis on holding meetings, supporting reps, etc. In a year, Unite’s membership has risen ten fold. Workers are now on a three day strike, with more strikes threatened.

Another example is the Pop Up union at Sussex University. There has been a similar dynamic on site, with clerical grades and security guards historically represented by Unison, a union which organises in the higher education sector in the same way that it organises in social housing. Reps have set about addressing the disparity between Unison and the other unions on campus, not by poaching Unison’s members, but by setting up an all-grades workplace union, which workers are invite to join on a “dual” basis. The Popup union has been registered as an independent union with the Certification Officer, has had meeting many times larger than any of the individual unions have been able to call by themselves, and has begun balloting for stikes. It is not always onwards. The union has had to retreat, a little, in this past week after the employer threatened it with an injunction. The Popup form is not a magic cure to the general weaknesses of the trade union movement, but neither, as a comrade has represented it, “the desperate gamble of a mini-union to bypass the dead hand of the union bureaucracy.” It is instead an attempt to build up the confidence of people, within their existing unions, to strike.

Anyone who who thinks that the trade union movement in 2013 already represents the final organisational form that the British working class has adopted, to last from here to the other side of a revolutionary struggle, reveals only the poverty of their ambitions.

Waiting for the great leap forward


Despite the crisis in the SWP; Socialist Worker still publishes interesting articles. One which struck me was Simon Basketter’s ‘How close are the unions to calling a general strike?’ (http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=30958) Together with Solomon Hughes (now writing for Private Eye and the Morning Star) and Esme Choonara, Simon is one of the best journalists to have written for Socialist Worker since Paul Foot’s death. In the past he has written well on blacklisting (http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=27224). In contrast to the very general pieces aimed at people coming into contact with the left for the first time, which make up too much of SW’s output (and indeed of The Socialist, its nearest direct competitor), Simon’s articles are usually well-informed and revealing.

The focus of his article is on the developments since the TUC’s decision at its 2012 Congress, to consider the practicalities of a General Strike against austerity. Unions views on the proposal were summarised in a private report which some kindly source leaked to SW. Simon doubts it will happen: “without determined pressure from below, they’re not about to encourage the sort of resistance that can win”. According to him, Unite wants there to be a 24-hour political strike against austerity but sees a need to prepare the ground for it further. Its response, he summarises, as “yes but not yet”. As for Unison, it reports that its “members’ taste for and willingness to engage in industrial action is falling … union membership numbers, and density, are falling as the cuts bite.” As you go through the union movement, the numbers of unions unequivocally in favour of action seems to be very few.

Simon cites Unison’s view that a successful general strike could only be the culmination of a serious campaign across unions and communities. The people making this point are at the heads of the union movement, and despite having every opportunity, have done previous little to usher a mass, grassroots campaign into being. But if we could ignore the source, focus on the argument rather than its maker, surely it is right that the desire for a general strike has to come organically, from below. It should be the end, not the beginning.

A bureaucratic general strike, called at the urging of a few generals without popular demands for it, would leave precious little in its wake. Many years ago, Tony Cliff, the founder of today’s SWP, made the point that routinist general strikes, controlled rigidly from above (including Sweden in 1909, Belgium in 1913 and, arguably, even Britain in 1926), weakened and did not strengthen the movement which took part in them: http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1985/patterns/part1.htm.

Simon’s piece ends with the date of the TUC’s next meeting, 24 April. The National Shops Stewards Committee, a Socialist Party-led campaign, has gone further, calling a lobby of the TUC meeting. I have no problems with that call, will argue for its support within the movement and, only provided that I am not at court, I will be at that event myself. Union branches which are active recruit more people than those which are quiet; and what is true at the base of the movement is equally true when you think of the movement as a whole. But, we have been here before, haven’t we? The revolutionary left were the most determined supporters of the pensions strikes of 2011 and 2012, dubbing them “Our day to smash the Tories” (http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=26509). As we all know, rather than the strike galvanising action at the base, a one day strike here was followed by a second day there, the gaps between the strikes grew longer rather than shorter, and a cautious, bureaucratic campaign became weaker the longer it went on.

If I was still a branch secretary, the action I would hoping to see would not be a national general strike, not now, not with the present balance of forces, but a strike in one workplace or industry which had the potential to raise intense feelings of solidarity, either because of the workers involved (eg nurses, firefighters) or because of the issue (something that goes to the heart of the austerity agenda). “Patco” or “1984-5” in reverse would be fantastic; but, as a more modest ask, something like “Besna plus” would be a healthier, sustainable next step.

In the recent SWP crisis, many people in the faction were critical of the SWP’s industrial perspectives, which broadly seem to be to make a long-term alliance with sections of the trade union leaderships, chiefly the leaderships of the PCS civil servants’ union and the National Union of Teachers, in the hope that by inviting them to our events, giving them prime speaking roles, they will have a closer connection with left-wingers in the union movement, and it will be pulled, progressively, into calling more strikes, or even general strikes, which will in turn break the psychological weakness (“lack of confidence”) which holds back rank and file activists from striking. The SWP’s main industrial campaign “Unite the Resistance”, is thus characterised – at the most charitably – as presently a National Minority Movement Mark II, intended to give rise to a future Rank and File Campaign.

Several voices associated with the faction complained that in party publications it is always assumed that almost the entire working class is still organised in trade unions (only around 1 in 4 UK workers works in a workplaces with a recognised union, compared 4 out of 5 before 1979). It was complained that we have made no reckoning with the disappearance of unions from the sectors which generate the most wealth (banking, finance) or from the sectors of the economy which recruit young people (cultural production, and all sorts of businesses, even those as mundane as high street shops, associated with it).

Simon has a sceptical intelligence and you can see in his piece flashes of greater honesty than the party usually allows. As for the two unions which are supposed to be carrying the hopes of the entire working class in their shoulders – Simon portrays the former as hopelessly tied by its alliance with its fellow, more right-wing, teaching union, the NASUWT. “The NUT said it is for action and it looks forward to talking about it. The NASUWT is against it and looks forward to talking about it.” PCS, with RMT and the FBU, belongs within a section near the very end of his article, devoted to the verbal militancy of the “smaller left unions”.

There is a point here, of greater significance than he gives it. Many SWP authors who write about unions imagine that the most important group of activists in Britain have something like the following personal history. They were recruited into the union movement between 1980 and 1985, they studied at university, taking not one but two degrees (a teaching or social work qualification, a masters in journalism, a PhD…). They started their working lives in the public sector and through good fortune and occupancy of “core” public sector roles (i.e. by being University Readers rather than University cleaners; or by being council Housing Officers rather than council security guards) they have avoided outsourcing. Sticking with the left and with the trade unions through a series of defeats, the activists have been “battled-hardened” against others in generation who took private sector jobs, promotions, or benefitted from council house off sell-offs, low-level tax avoidance, etc. They now hold lay positions from which only retirement or death could prise them.

This layer dominates the discussion of “working-class” politics within the SWP. We have never integrated into our thinking the different pressures there are now on workers (directly responsible in increasing numbers for either childcare or adult care) compared to the militants of the 1970s, who were men, living in a world where women’s working was the exception in all age groups save those under 30.

Even our most recent attempt to write about women’s politics theoretically – Sheila McGregor’s recent piece for the International Socialism Journal (http://isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=885&issue=138), while celebrating women’s increasing presence in the workplace and acknowledging that women are much more likely to work part-time than men, is blithe to the contradictions of these processes, the downgrading of “women’s work” into a low-status, low-paid niche, and the inevitable next step, the crisis that the health and council worker unions have had over the past 10 years in negotiating pay deals which do not merely institutionalise unequal pay, with too many “bending the stick” towards promoting better-paid male members of the union over worse paid women (http://www.struckout.co.uk/when-workers-sue-their-own-union-round-two/). Men’s and women’s mutual solidarity in the workplace is, in other words, something to be constantly fought for, rather than something to be assumed.

In particular, Mcregor relies on recent, successful, meetings of the NUT union as a sign that when workers struggle, they unite. But teachers are an atypical group of workers, is that very large numbers of them are engaged in similar contracts: typically working full-time, on collectively (nationally) negotiated contracts, etc. The private sector workforce looks less and less like a staff common room.

People who have similar collective experiences write for our publications; when we write about the trade union movement, we are writing about people who – we assume – look, think and sound, like senior public sector trade unionists. In the recent party crisis a disproportionate role was played by trade unionists in their 50s. In any healthy organisation, a layer of this sort would be worried by its looming retirement. One reason this thought has not occurred to our comrades is that a union activist aged 52 or 54 in the PCS feels “young”; as the trade unionists with whom they ally or argue will be the same age as them or even older. At one point, this generation will hit 65, and then, as has happened to previous left generations (in particular, the industrial cadre of the old Communist Party in around 1979: 35 years or so after had first been recruited) they will vanish leaving no successor generation.

How far this generation is representative of union activists, or the working class in its majority experiences is questionable. When you ask people in this country what is the best single marker of class, the most common answer they give you is education. On this test, the group in a minority within a minority (only 20% of adults in Britain hold any degree at all; fewer still have one and a professional qualification). It is a public sector layer, whereas less than one in four workers is employed in the public sector. “Core” public sector workers, like these, having final salary pensions arguably have as much in common with MPs and bankers as they do with the 9 out of 10 workers who rely on private pensions or no pensions save the state pension. It is a layer whose day to day experiences at work are professional and either didactic (teachers) or even disciplinary (benefits staff, social workers, the council housing officers who will make the decisions as to who to evict under the bedroom tax).

There is a common SWP speech which goes something like the following: “class in Britain is changing. Just look at me, I’m a university lecturer / a teacher / a senior civil servant. Forty years ago, people like me thought they were middle class. Now we go on strike just as often as anybody.” The average bus driver or building worker or nurse who hears that speech may think “Welcome to the working class, brother” (the hope of the speaker is that this will be the response). But the listener may just as well think “You’re a teacher. You don’t look or sound to me like a worker but like a downwardly mobile member of the middle class. I’ll listen to without malice, but you don’t have the same experiences as I do.”

I’m not saying any of this in order to denigrate the left in general or my comrades in particular. I’m just trying to spell out some reasons why we would need a deep draft of humility even if it wasn’t for the recent crisis, and to spell out some of the ways in which more honest and deeper theorising could lead us to notice other kinds of working class experiences, and make the left open to a much wider set of people than it is at present. There are, after all, lots of interesting things happening within the trade union’ movement, from which we could be learning. They include the recreation of rank and file trade unionism where particular circumstances have made it possible (especially in construction), new forms of trade unionism based on signing people up to unions in general rather than a particular union membership scheme (see for example the recent pop-up union at Sussex university, which in turn reminds me of older examples of this, such as Battersea and Wandsworth’s regional organising, funded by their previous success with the Workers’ Beer Company), the use of festivals and marches to create a community consciousness of class, far wider than trade union membership in the locality (the popularity of Tolpuddle and Durham Miners Gala). They include, and this is a more complex model, which needs careful accounting, GMB and Unite’s experiments with “leverage” and political campaigning to win industrial struggles.

Meanwhile, if only we were capable of seeing working-class people as united by more than just work (eg common experiences of housing, benefits, etc), we might have a theory which was capable of explaining why it is we should take part in the bedroom tax protests, and where they fit in Marx’s schema of working-class emanicaption.

Spread class experience beyond white collar unions to “work” in general (speed-up, self-exploitation, the rise of bogus self-employment and its relationship to benefits), and beyond work to workers’ common experiences of housing, education, the family etc – and we might yet find ourselves with a plan to get from the “here” which is a cycle of defeats under capitalism to the “there” which is a movement and a class with momentum behind us again. Simon’s passing specticism, in other words, might help us to find a little political wisdom…

[originally published on Facebook; thread here]