Socialist Worker

How Mr Nice can turn out so nasty

PAUL McGARR on the balance struck between bosses and workers

Issue No. 1807

READER Peter Norcliffe raised an important issue in a letter to Socialist Worker last week. He questioned the paper for being too negative about all bosses. 'There are', Peter wrote, 'also hard working, considerate companies and organisations which strike a good balance between looking after their workers and the local environment, and can still make a profit.'

A similar view underlies much of the talk of 'partnership' with companies used by many trade union leaders and local councils. There are differences between companies, and not all bosses are exactly the same. But there is a problem with Peter's argument. Firms are in business to make a profit, and they do so in competition with others.

Assume that a particular boss is hard working, and starts off being committed to looking after workers and the environment while still making a profit. Let's call their firm Nice Co. The boss may refuse to make more money by slashing spending on curbing pollution. The firm may also pay workers a good wage, give them long holidays and provide a good working environment.

But what happens when a rival firm decides on a different approach? A rival firm, Nasty Co, decides to boost profits by cutting back on environmental standards. It pushes up profits by holding down workers' pay, cutting jobs, and making those left do longer shifts.

Nasty Co's cost-cutting means it is making more profits than Nice Co. Nice Co may decide to boost profits in a different way, by investing in better machinery, or training workers to be more skilled and productive. But nothing stops Nasty Co doing the same.

If Nasty Co makes more profits this soon puts a pressure on Nice Co. Nasty Co can use its greater profit margins to lower the prices it sells its products for, undercutting Nice Co. This will lead to rising sales and even greater profits for Nasty Co, with falling sales and lower profits for Nice Co.

Pressure can be compounded when shareholders or banks that buy and sell shares in firms see this happening. Investors will demand action from Nice Co to boost profits, or they will pull money out and move it to Nasty Co.

Sooner or later Nice Co faces a choice-either go down in the face of competition, and risk bankruptcy or being taken over, or cut costs and drive up profit margins to survive.

To survive as a capitalist Nice Co has to abandon consideration for workers, and begin to hold down wages and attack conditions. Nice Co may say it regrets doing this but that everyone must 'tighten their belts' to 'save jobs'.

The battle for capitalist survival means Nice Co has to ape the behaviour of Nasty Co. Mr Jekyll who heads Nice Co turns into Mr Hyde, the boss of Nasty Co. This iron logic runs through the whole of capitalism. It compels, on pain of extinction, all firms to sacrifice consideration to the need to make profit. If capitalism is doing well as a system and there are plenty of profits being made all round, there is more leeway for firms.

But the anarchy of competition for profits sooner or later leads to economic crisis. Then the fight for maximum profits and survival becomes intense, and the pressure to attack workers mounts. The pressures driving the bosses are only one side of the equation. Workers organise by building trade unions. They use their strength to force limits upon bosses-who risk damaging strikes which cut off all their profits. Through struggles and pressuring governments workers can win laws and rules which protect them.

They win things like a minimum wage or laws forcing bosses to pay welfare contributions like national insurance. But faced with economic crisis all these things come under pressure too.

Some bosses may pretend to be caring and considerate for marketing or PR reasons, or to help persuade workers to go along with their plans. Almost always the reality is very different to the public image. Stagecoach's Brian Souter cultivates his image, wearing jeans and even appearing at the Scottish TUC. Yet he enjoys fabulous wealth grabbed by hammering the conditions and wages of workers on his buses and trains.

You get bosses who have a personal concern for, say, the environment. But their firms damage the environment in their quest for profit. BP boss Sir John Browne makes great play of his environmental concern over issues like global warming. Such concern appears to be genuine. It does not stop him, as BP boss, pushing for massive new oil production which will fuel global warming, or his firm being involved in environmentally damaging schemes in areas like Colombia or Alaska.

The logic of capitalism means that cosying up to 'nice' firms disarms workers and only strengthens the bosses. Workers only gain what they have the strength to impose on or wrest from bosses. Sooner or later that means a fight with even the most seemingly considerate or caring firm.

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Sat 6 Jul 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1807
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