Socialist Worker

Is there a new class of worker?

The last in our series warns against seeing false divides in the working class

Issue No. 2297

The previous columns in this series looked at how the ruling class tries to weaken the working class by dividing it. It sets employed workers against unemployed, and those who claim benefits against those who do not.

Workers have a common interest in opposing these attempts to divide them. But this does not mean there are no differences within the working class.

In recent years many on the left have drawn attention to young people and others working in low-paid jobs on short-term contracts.

It is often argued that these are so-called “precarious” workers who form a new class, one that is historically and politically distinct from the “traditional” working class.

These ideas are often linked to arguments about globalisation.

Multinationals can move capital and goods around the world. It is claimed this has made it difficult—or impossible—to defend more stable manufacturing jobs in the West.

Others go even further, arguing that casualised workers have interests actively opposed to those of other workers. Trade unions are therefore written off as a solution.

But employment patterns constantly change under capitalism. Vulnerable, casualised and short-term jobs are not new. They crop up whenever old jobs go and new ones take their place.

So we should not overstate the extent of the shifts we see today. Most workers in Britain are employed full-time and on a permanent basis. Most still work in relatively large workplaces with more than 50 colleagues.

There has been a relative decline in manufacturing jobs. In 1980 one in four British workers was in manufacturing, while today that figure is around one in ten. But the overall economic output of manufacturing has steadily risen over that period.

Fewer workers are being employed in manufacturing. But those workers have higher rates of productivity—so are in a stronger position to hit profits if they strike.

The economist Kevin Doogan notes that the fear of jobs being lost or shipped abroad far outstrips the reality. And bosses use this fear to drive down wages and conditions.

The left should reject notions of a separate “precarious” class of workers.

Myths

Employers want us to believe that stable jobs with decent levels of pay are an impossible luxury, or that casualised employment represents a kind of “freedom”.

Casual and flexible work does exist, but this in no way signals a fundamental shift in class structures and relations.

The idea that casualised workers are unable to organise, or have interests at loggerheads with those in more permanent work, are convenient myths for the bosses. And these myths have been propagated throughout the history of capitalism.

The 1880s saw an explosion of casual and low-skilled employment in the factories and docks of east London. Sections of the left dismissed the possibility of ever organising these workers.

But a strike in 1888 by “matchgirls”—young women employed on poverty wages by Bryant & May to make matches—shattered that idea.

Dockers and gas workers followed suit. They had been employed casually on a day-to-day basis, but went on to become one of the most powerful sections of the working class.

This period of “New Unionism” saw radical trade unions emerging across these workplaces.

So however poor their working conditions were, workers were able to organise and fight to improve their lot. There is no reason to think they cannot do the same today.

Recently electricians in the highly casualised construction industry took on their bosses. These skilled and relatively well-paid workers have immense potential power.

They built rank and file organisation and blocked an assault on their terms and conditions. To try and categorise such a group as a separate section of the class would be a mistake.

These methods of working class struggle have delivered results in the past. And these methods are the most effective in fighting unemployment, low pay and short-term contracts today.

Globalisation and changes in technology have constantly changed the shape of class struggle.

Workers who in one era were unorganised and weak can become organised and powerful in the next.

And the nature of work is fluid. Some who had previously been seen as part of a privileged elite—such as teachers—are now very much recognised as part of the working class.

But such changes to the battlefield do not change the fundamental nature of the class battle that plays out on it.


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