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Are we losing all our power?

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Issue 1693

The working class across the world

Are we losing all our power?

By Hazel Croft

ARE THE days of the strength and power of the working class numbered? That is certainly the view promoted by many media commentators and academics, and one which has been accepted by many ordinary people. They point to globalisation, new technology and the development of e-commerce. They argue that workers no longer have the industrial muscle of the past and are increasingly confined to insecure, marginal and poorly organised “McJobs”. But is this the real picture?

Across the world the working class today is bigger than ever before. For the first time in history there are more workers in the world than there are peasants eking out a living on the land. Both in Western industrialised countries and in the Third World masses of people have been pulled into cities to work for a wage. Countries like Nigeria, Thailand and Malaysia have a huge workforce they did not have even 30 years ago.

In the last three decades every single country has seen a decline in those working on the land and a rise in the urban population. Even in countries where workers do not form the majority they are still present in huge numbers. In the top industrialised countries the number of industrial workers has fallen, but only from 120 million to 112 million in the last 30 years. And the number of industrial workers today is still nearly 30 percent bigger than it was in 1950-a period people think of as the heyday of industry.

Workers in every field of work face increasingly similar pressures from profit-hungry companies urging longer hours and greater flexibility, and threatening workers with the sack. And workers everywhere are also increasingly living the kind of lives that their counterparts elsewhere would recognise-from the way they dress to the hopes they have for their families and future. Many people have argued that the working class is in terminal decline in Britain.

Manufacturing industry was decimated under the last Tory government, and now under New Labour. This year the jobs axe has loomed over workers in the car industry, shipbuilding and textiles. Britain is the exception to the general pattern in the top industrialised countries in that the number of workers in manufacturing has fallen quite sharply over the past 20 years. But that does not mean the working class in Britain is becoming extinct.

Despite the jobs massacre there are still some four million manufacturing jobs. These jobs account for nearly a quarter of all male full time jobs. On top of this there are nearly two million jobs in the construction industry and 209,000 jobs in the mining, energy and water supply industries. Official figures and media commentators often imply that only those who “get their hands dirty” are working class. But many of those in the service sector are in jobs that involve what most people would think of as manual work. The category “service sector” includes a vast range of jobs.

Many jobs which are seen as traditionally “working class” and which have a strong tradition of union organisation are counted as part of the service sector. They include postal workers, bus workers, rail workers, dockers, telecom engineers, distribution drivers and warehouse workers. And there are jobs in the genuine service sector like hairdressing, waitressing or working in a hotel or at McDonald’s, which are exhausting, hard labour. Public services, like local councils and the NHS, also include manual workers like bin workers, street cleaners and hospital electricians. No one could seriously say these people don’t graft or get their hands dirty.

Making or serving

THE TOTAL number of manual workers in Britain is around ten million. That means in every town and city in Britain, in the south as well as the north, there are huge numbers of manual workers. The Post Office alone employs some 190,000 people, the vast majority of them postal workers sorting or delivering the mail. The Post Office workforce has actually gone up by 14,000 in the last 20 years. And this does not include those doing the same job in private delivery firms such as UPS or TNT.

Overall there are 1.7 million workers in transport and communications industries. Even those who work in fast food restaurants or hotels often do practically identical work to workers in manufacturing industry. It is hard to see much difference between the job of someone in a food processing factory and someone who flips burgers in a fast food joint. Both work under strict supervision, churning out similar goods on a production line. Distinctions between manufacturing and service workers in the official figures are often meaningless. Take the example of “contracting out”.

In British Aerospace, for example, the cleaning and catering jobs used to be classified as “manufacturing”. But when they were contracted out the jobs were redefined as “service” jobs-even though the same workers were doing the same job in the same place.

White collar Privilege?

THERE ARE millions of workers in Britain doing “white collar” jobs in offices, call centres and the public sector. It is often assumed that white collar jobs are middle class. It is true that in the 19th century clerical work was regarded as a middle class occupation. Clerical workers then had the kind of pay and status which separated them from other workers.

But white collar work has been totally transformed over the last 100 years. Today the vast majority of white collar workers, such as bank workers, do low paid routine work. They are subject to the same kind of supervision as manual workers on the assembly line. Office workers face speed-ups, pressure to do longer hours and resulting increased stress and bad health. The introduction of technology like computers and photocopiers has meant that working in an office has become more and more like working in a factory.

Take call centres. Over 400,000 people are now employed in call centres. Most of these are based in big workplaces, working alongside hundreds of others. Workers are confined to “work stations” and forced to answer call after call-a bit like they were stamping tins of beans in a factory. So, far from disappearing, the production line has spread into new areas. The vast majority of those who work in jobs once seen as “professional”, like lecturers and teachers, have seen their work transformed, and face attacks and pressures once only associated with manual work. The majority of white collar workers have also begun to organise in the same way. Teachers, health workers, bank workers, civil servants and others have joined unions in huge numbers over the last 30 years.

Workers, whether in factories, offices, schools or hospitals, have enormous potential power. The only way the bosses make their profits is through the exploitation of workers.

If workers act and fight collectively they have the power to bring the bosses’ profit-making system to a grinding halt. Over 150 years ago the revolutionaries Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote that in creating the working class the capitalist system had produced its own gravediggers.

At the time they wrote, the working class across the world was tiny, confined largely to the north east of Europe. Today the power to bury the capitalist system is in the hands of workers across the world.

Number in employment, top 25 industrial countries (thousands)

1950 1971 1998

Agriculture 73,397 40,066 19,323 
Industry 88,102 120,184 112,750 
Services 97,551 156,570 272,889 

TOTAL 259,050 316,820 404,962

Total number in employment in Britain (thousands)

1950 1971 1998 

Agriculture 1,225 753 450 
Industry 10,844 10,569 7,201 
Services 10,092 12,822 19,376 

TOTAL 22,161 24,144 27,027

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