‘We are all middle class now.’ That’s what politicians and media pundits would have us believe. Gone forever are the days of the real workers-the miners and the engineers. Instead we have the new middle classes-the computer operators and public servants.
A hundred or so years ago white collar workers, clerks and accountants were a clearly identifiable small layer of relatively privileged workers. Readers pitied the plight of poor Bob Crachitt in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, since clerks were generally a lot better off than other workers. In terms of pay, security, social status and authority, clerks were much closer to the employer than the factory hand.
This situation has been completely transformed in the last 100 years. There has been a huge growth in the white collar workforce. As production became more mechanised and sophisticated, more office workers were needed to regulate and supervise the process.
In the private sector this was associated with the introduction of ‘scientific methods’ of production, alongside the growth of transport and communications. In the public institutions there was an increase in the functions of the state in both welfare and control.
Some previously small sectors of the economy have developed into vast institutions themselves-finance, banking, advertising and the media. All this has meant a growing army of white collar workers. The nature of their work and their social position has been transformed. The relative privileges enjoyed by the clerks at the turn of the century are long gone.
Most white collar workers work in big anonymous office buildings. Their working day can be as highly regulated as it is on the shop floor. Computers and other machinery determine the pattern of their work. White collar work is increasingly identical to traditional manual work. Operatives perform a limited series of repetitive tasks to service their machines in highly restricted conditions.
Up until the 1950s and 1960s, civil servants and bank workers were figures of some standing in the local community. Picture the rigid class consciousness represented by the bank manager Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army. Today bank workers and civil servants are more likely to be young, female and black than stiff upper lipped and snooty.
This process can be described as the ‘proletarianisation’ of white collar work. The proletarianisation of white collar work has gone hand in hand with the rise in the number of women employed in these jobs. Last year nearly twice as many women as men, some 150,000 women, joined the workforce.
They work predominantly in low paid, clerical and administrative jobs and in the service trades. Only 8 percent of women workers are employed in manufacturing. But that does not mean the working class is shrinking. The vast majority of white collar workers are as working class as the miners and dockers.
Some old fashioned attitudes may still be around. So white collar workers may consider themselves superior to manual workers. Similarly, some manual workers may still view the office with some suspicion. Yet in terms of wages, most white collar workers today earn less than manual workers.
This is true of call centre workers. The average wage of the 5,000 call centre workers in Britain is only £13,000 a year. Many of these workers are young women. Many are employed by agencies and have no security or rights.
The situation is very similar for the increasing numbers of women and young workers who are employed by supermarkets. Many civil servants and NHS workers are also paid a pittance. And it is not just a question of low pay. It is also about long hours and poor conditions.
This reality is reflected in the changing social outlook of white collar workers. Their conditions compel them towards the tradition of working class methods of defending their living standards. They are increasingly joining unions, organising against their employers and going on strike.
One of the fastest growing areas of unionisation is among white collar workers. Some 120,000 workers won union recognition deals last year. Significant numbers of them worked for BT Cellnet and Easyjet. Some of the biggest disputes of recent months have involved civil servants and health workers.
White collar workers, like manual workers, have nothing to lose but their chains.
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