Socialist Worker

White collar part of working class

by Martin Smith
Issue No. 1670

WHEN I started work as a civil servant at the London Passport Office 18 years ago I made the terrible mistake of believing I was going up in the world. I arrived at work wearing my best suit. I got the shock of my life. Everyone else was wearing jeans. All I did all day was stamp passports. I was part of a clerical production line.

Today the myth that white collar workers are not part of the working class remains as strong a ever. White collar workers such as office workers, many council workers and teachers make up a large section of Britain's workforce. Sometimes discussions confuse 'white collar' and 'service' workers. This forgets that 'service' workers include groups such as rail workers, post office workers and bus drivers.

These groups are some of the best organised in the country and no one would argue that they are not part of the working class. But what do Marxists say about office workers, teachers and civil servants? Can they be described as working class?

Under capitalism, workers' jobs change all the time. In the early 19th century some shipyard workers and engineers regarded themselves as skilled craftsmen, as 'labour aristocrats', a cut above ordinary workers. By the time of the First World War most such workers thought of themselves as working class. What brought about the change was a number of attacks on their working conditions, long strikes and lockouts.

The nature of white collar jobs has changed massively over the last 100 years. Clerical workers in the 19th century were regarded as middle class. Their pay, status and even dress made them more akin to managers. A clerical job was a prized job and was usually a lifetime post. No clerical worker thinks that today.

The growth of white collar jobs throughout this century has been accompanied by the huge growth in the number of women workers. Over the last 40 years office work has become increasingly deskilled and dependent on machinery. Work has become boring and repetitive. The introduction of costly technology (computers, faxes and photocopiers) has changed the pattern of work inside the office.

Investment in machines means that white collar jobs are no longer nine to five. White collar workers are expected to do shift work. Many offices are now open 24 hours a day. Certainly, in terms of pay, a routine clerical worker is part of the working class. A low grade civil servant earns around £13,000 a year - no more than a manual car worker at Ford's does. Computer technology also acts as a hidden foreman. It is used by management to record and monitor how much work a worker does. Management monitor the number of telephone calls answered and at a flick of a switch a supervisor can increase the pace of work.

Clerical work has taken on more and more characteristics of manual labour. Today there are giant offices called call centres. At the giant call centre in Croydon hundreds of telephone operators answer enquires all day long. Operators are not allowed to spend any longer than three minutes with a customer. Supervisors monitor their calls and operators can be sacked for talking to one another. Conditions are so bad that most workers in call centres only last three months in the job.

Call centres have become the cotton mills of the 1990s. These changes have led to what has been called the 'proletarianisation' of clerical workers. Increasingly white collar workers are joining unions and going on strike. Today unions with many white collar members, such as the MSF, UNISON and the PTS, are as large and organised as their manual counterparts. White collar workers are on strike as often as any other group. Among those at the heart of the mass strikes in France in 1995 were white collar workers.

It suits the ruling class to pretend that white collar workers are not working class. Bosses want white collar workers to think they are part of the system and not the victims of it. The fact is that the vast majority of white collar workers are just as exploited as traditional manual workers.

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Article information

Sat 30 Oct 1999, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1670
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