The return of working class militancy?


11:14 am - April 25th 2008

by Dave Osler    


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Personally I’ll only believe that there is really an upturn in the class struggle at the point of production when Leicester Square is knee-deep in rubbish, at least a dozen bodies remain unburied, and the ghost of Red Robbo bestrides the now presumably deserted Longbridge car park once again.

But as someone schooled in the quasi-syndicalist brand of Marxism that sees industrial action as the first step to imminent world revolution, the co-ordinated public sector stoppages involving 350,000 workers does have a sort of seventies retro ring about it. Just in time for the Rock Against Racism 30th anniversary gig, too.

Of course the truth is rather more complex than we once liked to think. There is little hard evidence for the notion – once popular on the far left – that a few hours on a picket line instantly overcomes sexist or racist prejudices and kills 99.9% of all ‘reformist illusions’ dead, instantly transforming the average timid workplace rep into an incipient Bolshevik.

Although tyesterday’s mini strike wave might fool you into thinking otherwise, the overall level of industrial disputes – which can be seen as a rough ‘n’ ready barometer of the state of class consciousness – remains historically low.

Even though we are now a generation removed in time from the defeat of the miners’ strike, the British working class remains intimidated and frightened to act collectively, and is considerably less militant even than its US counterpart.

As savvy commentators note elsewhere, even an extended series of 24-hour strikes is not in itself a particularly effective weapon. New Labour can easily get away with ignoring what is for most practical purposes nothing more than a gesture. And just try selling an all-out indefinite stoppage in a workplace where the majority of union members have got mortgages to pay.

In many quarters, the full extent of the setbacks hasn’t really sunk in yet. The Socialist Party, for instance, points to recent industrial action in defiance of a Greek court injunction ‘an illustration of how workers in Britain will sweep aside our anti-trade union laws in the future’. Just like that, as Tommy Cooper used to say.

The trouble is, as the National Union of Seamen found to its cost in the late eighties, the British state is sufficiently vindictive to destroy a trade union if necessary.

Repeal of the anti-union laws needs to be a priority political campaign for the left. In the meantime, forget about any return to Fred Kite tactics.

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About the author
Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Trade Unions

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Reader comments


Teachers aren’t working class but the victims of their strike action are working class children, since middle class children have doting parents to help them with their exam revision.

+1 @ Nick. A walk-out among well-educated, well-paid civil servants over not getting the kind of enormous pay rise they’ve received for most of the last 10 years is not The Workers Sticking It To The Man.

The Grangemouth strike is more interesting, in a “return to classic industrial action” kind of way (although again, the average wage at Grangemouth is £40k and they’re skilled engineers). What we really need is unionisation among people who actually need the help…

[also, seamen are a bit of a weird example, given that Britain still has a decent shipping industry. Miners would’ve been more conventional…]

3. Luis Enrique

I don’t really know whether the teachers ought to get their pay rise or not – although I think it’s somewhat unfortunate timing to be pushing for 10% at a time when many in the private sector will be getting 0% or being laid off. I know about half a dozen teachers, and their salaries don’t look too bad, compared to their age and education level peer group in the private sector. But perhaps it makes sense to raise their pay, to help recruitment & retention.

Anyway, I digress. What I really want to say is that if teachers care about their real wages (that is, they don’t want the spending power of their pay packets eaten away by inflation) then ought they not care about setting off an inflationary spirals at a time where’s there’s inflationary pressure from oil/commodities? Is there any acknowledgment, anywhere in the left wing ‘support the public sector pay claims’, about what the consequences for inflation are? Because I haven’t seen it.

The is no longer between the “haves” and the “have nots” its between the “haves” over who gets the biggest piece of the pie.

Guy
http://www.sleepywhisper.com

Aren’t we seeing middle class brain workers striking against a Labour Government? That government may be very right wing, but these strikes have nothing to do with Marxist confrontation between the working class and capitalist employers.

When was the last strike which was about Marxist confrontation between workers and capitalist employers?

Teachers aren’t working class, Nick? Says who?
We’re not all on thirty-three grand a year with holiday homes in Tuscany, you know.
There again, I’m just a lecturer.

But perhaps it makes sense to raise their pay, to help recruitment & retention.

If it did, they would not need to go on strike. Obviously you cannot pay less than is needed to attract people to do the work, whether there is a strike or not – so any strike must be aimed at achieving more than that.

In the meantime I doubt the strike will win many friends among parents – but it might do Labour a bit of damage, and the Tories a bit of good.

Teachers aren’t working class, Nick? Says who?

Says any sane socioeconomic assessment of who is and isn’t working class, whether you base it on education levels, manual labour, income over the median wage, job security and stability…

Income over the median wage? I earn £22,000 a year with eight years’ experience.
Job security and stability? I’m on a short-term contract until July. After which I revert back to being paid by the hour.
Education levels? So anyone with a degree ceases to be working class?
Manual labour? Ok, you’ve got me there…

This brings us to interesting Naomi Klein territory – does being a temporary worker inherently make you working class irrespective of industry? There’s an argument, from pay, stability and labour power, that it might.

Still, it’s fair to say that *most* teachers are in permanent, well-protected jobs that pay over the median, and so don’t count as working class under any sane metric…

The word *most* swings it. However, I’m wary of over-defining class distinctions. There are people who control the means of production and people who sell their labour for money. Teachers (and we lesser-paid brethren college lecturers) are in the second camp, well-protected or otherwise.

There are people who control the means of production and people who sell their labour for money.

Aye, but I definitely sell my labour for money, certainly don’t control any means of production, and yet take home an annual wage that’s sufficiently large that nobody in their right mind would categorise me as working class.

Or don’t you believe that a working class / middle class distinction is valid in a society where 80% of households derive income from selling their labour for money, 10% own everything and 10% live off benefits? I can kind of see your point, if so…

“Teachers aren’t working class, Nick? Says who?
We’re not all on thirty-three grand a year with holiday homes in Tuscany, you know.
There again, I’m just a lecturer.”

You don’t need to earn 33K or own a holiday home to be middle class.

Of course, the real divide is not working class or middle class but the Productive Class (good teachers, hard-working nurses, successful independent businessmen etc..) and the Parasitic Class (incompetent teachers, lazy nurses, Capita etc..) who survive through exploiting political institutions rather than bringing genuine value to others. It is not how much someone earns, but their relationship to those that pay for them (productive/beneficial or parasitic).

Incidentally, this an interesting look at the history of public sector pay disputes: http://burningourmoney.blogspot.com/2008/04/striking-picture.html

15. Matt Munro

“You don’t need to earn 33K or own a holiday home to be middle class.”

No – you need to earn at least £60k . An awful lot of people (including state school teachers) seem to think that they are middle class because they have a degree and a mortgage, when they are nothing of the sort. Some public/private school teachers are middle classas are some state school heads, but state school teachers are all working class.
Judging by the ones that were interviewed during the demo I wouldn’t let any of them train my dog, let alone teach my kids.

“No – you need to earn at least £60k”

???

Under your metric, only the wealthiest 20% of households in the UK are middle-class.

That, fairly obviously, makes your metric insane.

Or don’t you believe that a working class / middle class distinction is valid in a society where 80% of households derive income from selling their labour for money, 10% own everything and 10% live off benefits? I can kind of see your point, if so…

Broadly speaking, that’s about the size of it.


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