By Joseph Choonara
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Working class gets an injection

This article is over 5 years, 11 months old
The junior doctors' strikes raise questions about how socialists should define the working class.
Issue 410

Back in 1986, or thereabouts, I wrote to Margaret Thatcher to ask her to draw around her foot. My primary school teacher, whose motivations I can only speculate about, had asked us to contact someone famous and obtain the said outline. Being literal-minded, I decided that there was no one more famous in Britain than the prime minister.

Thatcher did not reply, setting me on a path towards revolutionary socialism. I cannot have helped my case by including a short passage celebrating the teachers’ strike that had recently shut down my school.

It is sometimes hard to recall that white-collar workers, especially those such as teachers seen as belonging to the “professions”, were not always regarded as being at the forefront of trade union activity.

In the 1950s the influential American sociologist C Wright Mills could confidently list “schoolteachers” alongside “salespeople” and “assorted office workers” as groups forming “the white-collar mass”. They supposedly enjoyed an income and status setting them apart from other workers, and tended not to identify with traditional notions of class struggle.

However, as education assumed a central role in capitalist society, as it was successively reorganised to meet the needs of that system, and as a mass of graduates, themselves products of the education system, were drawn into teaching, many of the distinctions of the profession were stripped away.

Today teachers are subject to similar indignities and pressures to those experienced in manufacturing or service industries. There were national strikes by teachers in Britain in the mid-1980s and again in the late 2000s. With struggle came politicisation. It took until the 1997 election for voting Labour to be a majority position among teachers — some 59 percent that year according to one poll.

Strike activity among teachers is a global phenomenon. In recent decades it has achieved a geographical spread “far greater than was the case historically for the textile or automobile industries”, according to one international study of patterns of industrial action.

Junior doctors today seem to be following the same course as teachers before them. Doctors have struck before in Britain. In 1975 consultants and junior doctors withdrew non-emergency services over changes to contracts — but that strike was at least in part because the new contracts would force them to abandon their lucrative private practices.

An interview with the socialist doctor David Widgery in this publication in 1988 lamented that, in a survey of 360 doctors, “only six were going to vote Labour”. Even today many senior figures in the British Medical Association are Tory supporters.

Yet history moves on. The NHS, as well as being the most cherished institution in British society, is also one of the biggest — reputedly it is one of the largest employers alongside the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and McDonalds. Like education, it has been subjected to successive reorganisations, which have eroded the status, wages and conditions of many doctors, especially those early in their careers.

Speaking to those on the picket lines during the first strike, you would hear that the dispute was primarily about defending the NHS and maintaining standards for patients. But one also told me that her pay left a lot to be desired and would fall further under the Tories’ proposals. She compared her income to that of the City bankers, whose activities, unlike her own, were to the enormous detriment of society.

This is the language of class antagonism, familiar from picket lines across the country, especially since the 2008 financial meltdown.

There has been much hand-wringing on the left in recent years about the need to identify “new class forces”. Some look to the movements of young people protesting in squares in Greece or Spain, or as part of the Occupy Movement. Others talk about an emerging “precariat” of marginalised workers. Still others, influenced by figures such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, speak of an amorphous “multitude” whose struggle can involve just about anyone doing anything subversive.

Any movement of resistance is important. However, counterposing such movements to the “traditional working class” misses the point. There is no traditional working class — capitalism constantly throws up new class forces as it chaotically reorganises itself.

Speaking about the ebb in class struggle after the upsurge of 1968-1974, Tony Cliff, a founder of the SWP, noted that, while traditional groups such as engineers, miners and dockers “were by and large acquiescent” by the late 1970s, new groups had emerged. “Women and black workers entered the battle… Other sections came to the fore…hospital workers, local government workers and white collar workers.”

They could not, back then, fill the gap vacated by the big battalions of the labour movement. Nonetheless, they presaged the emergence of new groups coming into sharper conflict with the system and beginning to realise their collective capacity to fight. Today strike activity is, not exclusively, but largely, a white-collar affair in Britain.

Whether the junior doctors win or lose — and we should strain every sinew to ensure it is the former — their entry into struggle shows the continued vitality of the working class.

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