The return of strikes should put paid to the many claims that working class people no longer have any power. But in response to our recent new activists’ guides, a Socialist Worker reader asked the interesting question of what had changed for the strength of the working class since 100 years ago or 50 years ago.
After some crushing defeats for working class people in the 1980s, paving the way for the onslaughts of free market attacks on jobs and services, there’s been no shortage of such arguments. They’re rooted in changes that do seem to have taken place. The supposed decline of the manufacturing industry for instance, and the apparent rise of jobs in the service, IT or financial sectors.
These are jobs that maybe couldn’t have been dreamed of in the 1920s or 1970s, when the working class was at the height of its power.
And, some arguments suggest, they mean workers can no longer use their power in the way they once did. Work now is precarious, we are told. It’s unorganised, and concentrated in jobs that don’t have the same importance to profit-making.
It’s true the working class is changing—and always has. Capitalism means firms and industries constantly find new ways to make profits.
Whole industries rise while others fall into the dust. New jobs are created and others are smashed. And bosses are always looking for new ways to squeeze us.
They want new ways to make us work harder for less, new ways to monitor and measure us, and new ways to keep us apart. Jobs that we might think of as citadels of union power in the past—such as dockers—were once also considered too precarious or unorganised to fight.
Sometimes, though, the scale or impact of these changes can be exaggerated. For instance, the number of people in temporary jobs in Britain made up just 6 percent of the workforce in 2021. And far from being fragmented, about half of private sector workers in Britain are employed by companies with 100 or more workers. The vast majority of these work for companies with 500 or more. That gives them considerable potential power.
Capitalism, whatever way it is organised, is compelled to push us together to exploit us for profit. That means two things. First, it means firms and industries depend on our labour to make those profits, whether we’re manufacturing goods, distributing them or selling them on. We’re all united by that shared exploitation giving us the collective strength to disrupt or shut them down.
Secondly, because production is organised across society, small groups of workers can have a big impact. People at one point of the production chain depend on others. Relatively small groups can shut down entire networks.
Amazon is often held up as the prime example of the powerlessness of workers in “new” industries. But thousands of people are drawn together into its warehouses, the nodes of its distribution and delivery networks. If they strike, they cause disruption far beyond their own workplace.
What’s more, capitalism also has to create a web of other jobs, all designed to facilitate production. Industries and firms all need caterers, cleaners, call centre agents, IT technicians and many more to function.
They need teachers to provide a skilled workforce. They need train and bus drivers to get them to work. And they need shop assistants so that workers are clothed and fed.
Everyone is tied into system in some way or other. So we’re powerful, even if we don’t necessarily feel that we are. It’s a question of confidence and organisation.
Both of those took a battering after the defeats of the 1980s. All too often since, union leaders used those defeats to argue that that fighting was no longer possible. This current wave of strikes is an opportunity to prove that wrong—and in the process rebuild organisation in every workplace and industry.
Keir Starmer's Thatcher praising speech
Historian John Newsinger writes