Amid an often gloomy picture for the state of workplace resistance, a new book argues for optimism.
Nothing to Lose But Our Chains by Jane Hardy should help every socialist and trade unionist who wants to organise. It looks at what work is like in 21st century Britain—and at the potential for trade union organisation.
It’s a direct response to arguments that say changes in British society over decades have made “traditional” forms of workplace resistance impossible or outmoded.
“This is a response to two strains of thinking,” Jane told Socialist Worker. “One argues that the changes in the economy have meant changes in work and changes in the composition of that working class.
“It says that there’s been a shift from a traditional working class, which was collective and solidaristic to one that’s fragmented and has lots of different labels such as knowledge workers, creative workers.
“That’s intertwined with a debate that argues there’s a division in the working class between those people who are precarious people with permanent jobs.”
But, as Jane says, the fundamental ability of workers to resist—their power to stop working and shut down production—is still the same.
That’s not to say that Jane thinks nothing has changed inside capitalism, or that these changes haven’t affected how workers can fight back.
The revolutionary Karl Marx, says Jane, explained how capitalism constantly changes. “Under the whip of competition that drives firms to adopt new innovations in technology, capitalism constantly reorganises itself,” she says in the book.
Jane describes how the face of work in Britain has changed over the decades. One major change is the rise in so-called “service” industries. This is coupled with the emergence and growth of “neoliberalism”.
This is an approach to politics focuses on “strong property rights that free up entrepreneurship, liberate markets and reduce the role of the state,” as Jane puts it in the book.
In Britain, this has meant encouraging privatisation in nationalised industries. The competition makes bosses squeeze more out of workers by driving down wages and forcing them to work harder.
It also brought a growth in outsourcing, where a business pays a private company to employ workers on their behalf.
These changes don’t just cause hardship for workers. Their precarious nature creates challenges to trade union organising.
But the scale and significance of these challenges shouldn’t be exaggerated.
For instance, forms of casualised or precarious work have existed in various guises for decades.
Jane warns that emphasising “precarity” as the most important feature of these jobs can lead to pessimism about the possibility of organisation.
It can also obscure the one thing they have in common with all other workers—their exploitation and their collective role in production under capitalism.
Rather than look for differences between manufacturing and service jobs, Jane says the two are linked—there’s no clear division between them.
So-called “service sector” jobs are often still connected to the production of physical goods. Lorry drivers, cleaners, caterers and call centre agents—to name just a few—all provide the infrastructure that facilitates production. Meanwhile, teachers make sure bosses have trained and educated workers.
“There’s sometimes an idea that only people who make things are exploited and produce surplus value,” Jane told Socialist Worker. “I go back to Marx and argue that everybody who’s involved in that process, that value chain of making something, is exploited and generating surplus value.
This isn’t just some abstract point. It has real implications for how bosses can organise workers—and how workers can organise to resist.
“One argument about the neoliberal era is that everything is mobile—that things can be moved to places such as China and this undermines the power of workers,” Jane said.
“Yet, first of all, not all manufacturing has moved to China. Capitalism is dynamic and there are quite a few things that moved back.
“But mainly,” she added, “there are loads of jobs that are not mobile—jobs that are associated with the infrastructure such airports and roads. There are jobs that are linked to the human infrastructure—health workers, care workers.”
This means that many workers are still concentrated in huge workplaces.
“A great statistic is that the NHS is the fifth largest employer in the world,” Jane said.
“That doesn’t mean to say there’s an automatic road to them being organised. But it’s still the case that people work in large workplaces.”
All of this means that workers’ strikes can still deliver important successes and victories.
To make the point, Jane’s book highlights recent strikes that have done just that. It features interviews with workers that fought for them.
Some of these disputes were among workers some might have suggested were unorganisable, such as a strike by home care workers in Birmingham.
Birmingham City Council wanted to force new shifts making them work 14 hours a day for 8 hours’ pay. But the workers forced the council to backtrack in 2019, after a total of 82 days on strike.
Many of the workers had never been on strike before, and the nature of their jobs meant they tended to work alone.
The reps overcame this with systematic organising—making sure every worker was contacted—and organising meetings. Crucially, the strikers themselves organised activities.
In another example, Jane tells the story of outsourced cleaners, caterers and other workers at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in central London.
These mostly migrant workers, employed between two different outsourcing companies, won the London Living Wage after an indefinite strike of over a month.
Waves of protests and strikes before the walkout encouraged other workers to join the union. The workers stayed solid throughout the strike, thanks to mass pickets that targeted the department.
Importantly Jane presents these strikes as part of a history of similar struggles.
Jane tells the story of a two‑day strike by council workers in Glasgow in 2019 to win equal pay for women. But she makes the point that this is just the latest victory in a timeline of struggles to organise, strike and win among women workers.
In the same way, Jane puts recent struggles by outsourced cleaners as part of a history of migrant workers’ strikes.
One reason for doing this is to show the continuity between workers’ struggles of today with those of the past, rather than emphasise supposed differences.
Jane highlights a strike by women chain makers in the Black Country, on strike for ten weeks in 1910 against low pay. “Those women could not have been more precarious,” she said.
“They worked for subcontractors, in sheds adjacent to their houses, with their children running around. But nevertheless, they came together and were on strike for a long time until their employers backed down.
“If people in those circumstances can fight and win, we can do so again.”
In later chapters, Jane also looks at ongoing attempts to organise workers in un‑unionised workplaces—discussing reasons for their successes and setbacks.
She also takes on debates about the effect of anti-trade union laws and the willingness of union leaders to fight.
Jane argues that the low level of struggle is rooted in the attacks on trade union organisation over decades, beginning under Margaret Thatcher. Anti‑union laws give union leaders a reason not to call strikes—but they can be defied.
All of this makes the book an intervention not just in academic debates, but a practical argument for trade unionists today.“Sometimes there is a lot of pessimism about workers being able to organise,” said Jane. “Strike statistics can look quite dismal but they’re not always a good reflection of what’s going on.
“The Glasgow women’s strike shut down the city for two days—but that significance wouldn’t show up in strike statistics.”
Ultimately, the book should encourage anyone who wants to organise in their workplace today.