Industry matters: Capitalist assault upon the working class

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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The sharpening overproduction crisis of capitalism is prompting ever more vicious and devious efforts by the ruling class to drive down the conditions of life for ordinary working people. At the same time, it is making it ever harder for social democracy to retain its stranglehold on the labour movement, and so is creating fresh opportunities for the proletariat to advance in understanding and organisation.

Capitalist assault upon the working class

For those still grimly hanging onto their jobs, the everyday struggle is to resist employers’ efforts to freeze their wages, erode their working conditions and undermine their pensions, with the spectre of unemployment looming ever larger.

To justify pay ‘restraint’, the capitalist points to the shrinking inflation rate and shrugs: “Prices are coming down for goodness sake – don’t be so greedy.” Yet a recent report from the Left Economics Advisory Panel (LEAP) demonstrates from the state’s own figures that the less well-off, far from seeing their burdens eased by deflation, have actually seen the cost of living increase, leaving the better-off to reap the benefits. On this evidence it seems that, far from being the great leveller, deflation is currently serving to intensify the polarisation of wealth and poverty.

The biggest price rises have hit the essentials, which even the poorest are obliged somehow to find the money for – gas, electric, water, council tax, rent, basic nourishment. For the poor, these basics account for a much bigger slice of their total spend than is the case for the better-off, whose broader expenditure includes a range of cut-price luxuries. So it is that, although the rate of inflation is sinking overall, the misery of the low paid and those on benefits is increasing. Under these circumstances, a pay freeze for the low paid amounts to a pay cut. Again, the new minimum wage arriving in October (representing a rise of 1.1 percent, the lowest on record) amounts to a pay cut.

For those whose living labour can no longer be profitably exploited by capitalism, the prospect is grimmer still. On top of the injury of mass unemployment is now heaped the insult of workfare.

With both long-term unemployment and youth unemployment spiraling out of control, the government is hard pressed to hide the scale of the crisis and keep the jobless docile. That is what lies behind the government’s new Welfare Reform Bill. This bill would make receipt of Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA, or the dole) dependent upon claimants participating in schemes involving either “work” or “work related activity”, the latter defined as “activity which makes it more likely that the person will obtain, or remain in work, or be able to do so”.

For those that go along with what is effectively forced labour, they will swell their benefit income by a princely £1.73 an hour. If they refuse this ‘offer’, they risk losing their dole for between one and twenty-six weeks.

Policing the unemployed is already a major business opportunity for get-rich-quick vultures like the Action 4 Employment (A4E) scam recently exposed on the TV documentary Benefit Busters. This ‘training’ company made a fat profit of £5.2m last year, mostly milked from the public purse in exchange for its expertise in winkling the unemployed off benefits and trapping them into low-paid jobs.

Once the government decides you have been on the dole too long, they can send you along to an A4E ‘training’ centre. The training consists mostly of filling in CVs and scouring the net for vacancies – first for a two-week ‘course’, then for a 13-week ‘course’, and finally for a 26-week ‘course’. Very little of practical use is taught, and the only hope of escaping from the mind-bending tedium is to accept a ‘work experience’ package, eg, working full time in an Oxfam shop for a few pennies extra.

Scams like A4E, far from being just ‘rogue’ outfits, are entirely representative of the kind of official slave labour schemes coming over the horizon.

Despite social democracy …

Whilst this spells misery for millions of working-class families, it is also scary stuff for the Brendan Barbers of this world, whose first class tickets on the social-democratic gravy train depend on their skill in continuing to promote social peace and class collaboration – a task that is becoming harder by the day.

When he went to Chequers to beg Gordon Brown not to persist with public service cuts, for fear that this would prolong the crisis, swell the ranks of the unemployed to upward of 4 million and “scar for life a generation of young people”, our glorious TUC chief was begging for his own political life. After all, said Barber, “prolonged mass unemployment would not just do economic damage, but would have terrible social effects. Last time we suffered slash-and-burn economics, we had riots in the streets here in Liverpool.”

The problem for Barber, as for the monopoly-capitalist system to whose service this labour aristocrat has dedicated his life, is that “slash-and-burn economics” is not a Thatcherite or ‘New’ Labour aberration but a necessary outcome of overproduction crisis, however much its delivery may be tempered by the application of neo-Keynesian remedies. To limp on in power for a while, Brown has had to drop the phony ‘Labour investment versus Tory cuts’ rhetoric, taking the opportunity of the Liverpool TUC congress to embrace his new vocation as cutter-in-chief. Barber, on the other hand, is allowed to indulge in a little genteel hand wringing over cuts in public services – so long as he can keep the unions tied to Labour, 70 percent of whose funds they supply.

… workers resist

But workers’ resistance to these attacks on their class continues to build. And while social democracy may try to starve that resistance of the leadership it requires, it cannot stop it developing its own momentum.

The Communications Workers Union (CWU) is balloting its Royal Mail members for a national strike this autumn, following on from a series of rolling one-day strikes over the summer, both in London and around the country. Whilst the government is wary of moving too quickly, the aim of the current policy of wage freezes, compulsory redundancies, office closures and management bullying, all dressed up unconvincingly as ‘modernisation’, is clearly understood by the workforce to be the back-door privatisation of the publicly owned Royal Mail.

At the end of August, Fujitsu workers voted to take national industrial action in response to the imposition of a pay freeze and attack on the final-salary pension scheme.

Across the water in Dublin, staff at a branch of the travel agency Thomas Cook went down the ever more popular road of occupying their place of work sooner than just meekly walk onto the dole queue. Told on the Friday that they were to be laid off with immediate effect, they promptly barricaded themselves into the building.

The company sought and obtained an arrest warrant for the workers. Armed with this – and with battering rams – dozens of police mounted a dawn raid, smashing down the doors and terrorising the occupants. One heavily pregnant woman later gave birth under police guard in a Dublin hospital. Under pressure from popular opinion, however, court proceedings against the workers were dropped and Thomas Cook agreed to negotiate with the Transport and Salaried Staff Association (TSSA).

Meanwhile, our own home-grown occupation pioneers – the Vestas workers on the Isle of Wight – continue their campaign to nationalise the plant. Although their occupation concluded with eviction on 7 August, the campaign continues to win support. The Vestas workers have picketed the front and back gates of the Newport factory in an effort to prevent the management from taking back complete control of the plant itself and of such machinery and turbine blades as remain inside.

The Vestas workers and supporters who occupied a crane in Southampton on 15 September as part of the blockade were arrested under anti-terror laws and only bailed on condition they don’t communicate with each other or go back to the docks. The state is again revealing the true purpose of the ‘anti-terror’ laws: to terrorise workers who take a stand in defence of their class.

Rail workers, too, continue to put up a spirited fight, with the RMT planning to ballot its 20,000 rail members for national strike action if Network Rail presses ahead with plans to make 1,800 maintenance staff redundant, in addition to challenging efforts by Virgin to mess about with the rostering patterns of on-train catering staff and putting the squeeze on London Mayor Boris Johnson to honour his pledge of extending the London Living Wage minimum to cover all those working on the London Underground.

Disorganising the working class

If the above cursory survey sounds a little disjointed, that accurately reflects the current reality in the class struggle. Despite all the huffing and puffing we have had in the past from TUC bigwigs over the need to ‘coordinate the fight back’, most of the fighting back has been spontaneous in nature. Whilst some would seek to make a virtue out of this ‘bottom up’ spontaneity, those who recognise that, “in its struggle for power, the proletariat has no other weapon but organisation”, cannot accept this false comfort.

Not only does social democracy fail to organise resistance to attacks upon the working class, it also exposes workers to the poison of social chauvinism. The spontaneous countrywide wave of strikes triggered by the Lindsey dispute back in February displayed the best and the worst sides of spontaneity.

The fact that the construction workers at Lindsey had the initiative and courage to down tools in defiance of the union-bashing laws, and that hundreds of their fellow workers did likewise in solidarity, was welcome proof that the combative spirit of the proletariat can never be quenched.

But the fact that the fight to defend jobs remained enmeshed within a perspective of defending ‘British’ jobs from ‘foreign’ usurpation was also a bitter foretaste of what lies in store if we fail to advance from spontaneity and break with the divisive and disorganising influence of Labour imperialism.

Over in south Wales, next door to the existing Uskmouth power station, Severn Energy is building a new gas-fired plant, costing £400m and due to open next year. Competition for construction jobs on the site is fierce. Predictably, site contractor Siemens is happy to turn the situation to its advantage, employing migrant labour at cheaper rates and worse conditions.

All such divide-and-rule attacks on the working class need to be confronted with a clear demand: Jobs for All. If migrant workers are vulnerable to superexploitation because they are non-unionised, isolated and fearful of the consequences of speaking out, then the priority must be to get them out of isolation and into unions, organised behind the common cause: Jobs for All.

The RMT does some very good work organising migrant workers employed as cleaners on the London Underground, and has a stance on this question that chimes well with its disaffiliation from the racist Labour party. Yet even these comrades can get into a dangerous muddle when striving to show solidarity over an issue like Uskmouth.

A member of Cardiff RMT reported from the Uskmouth blockade in these terms: “Just a quick report about the blockade at Uskmouth this morning. Held in protest at the number of foreign construction workers being employed by Siemens at the Uskmouth plant, on lower wages and poorer conditions than they would have to pay UK workers.

No word about drawing migrant workers into the union, no word about campaigning to achieve parity of wages and conditions, no word about raising the bar and demanding jobs for all – the problem is baldly stated: too many foreigners.

It cannot be doubted that it is a lot easier right now for Unite to mobilise a couple of hundred people to blockade Uskmouth in defence of Welsh jobs for Welsh workers than it would be to try and do the same behind the slogan Jobs for All. The truth, however, is that such an approach plays into the hands of capitalism, deepening the divisions within the working class at the moment when it is more than ever necessary to unite against capitalism.

Further on in his report, the Cardiff comrade notes that, in addition to the Socialist Party and the SWP, a “couple of people promoting the BNP as ‘a viable protest vote’” showed up, “but their hateful diatribe was poorly received by all those present”. Whilst it’s heartening that the fascists got short shrift on this occasion, their presence at such demonstrations – and the ubiquitous Union Jacks jostling alongside union banners – should serve as a warning of the perils that await if workers fall for the siren song of British Jobs for British Workers.

Never mind the BNP head bangers, Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson is introducing new rules that will require British firms to advertise jobs in UK Jobcentres for a month before they are offered to migrant workers. The rules will also double to a year the qualification period for skilled foreign workers to join multinational firms. Some reports claim the changes would have excluded one in 10 foreign workers granted permits last year.

Whilst the actual impact of such rules upon migration patterns is dubious, the primary aim of such moves by capitalism is to spread disunity in the working class, encouraging ‘home-grown’ workers to blame ‘foreign’ workers. The dearth of jobs is nothing to do with migration, however, and everything to do with the overproduction crisis.

The most controversial issue to come up in the Liverpool TUC was raised by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), another union that has had the sound good sense to break the link with Labour. With the support of the RMT, PCS and others, they put up a resolution calling for a boycott of Israel. The alternative proposed by top table to pull the teeth of the resolution failed to win sufficient support (succeeding only in splitting the Unite vote), so, in a panic, Barber postponed the final decision till the last day of congress.

The end result was less than perfect (limiting boycott to exports from illegal settlements), but neatly demonstrated how the liveliest unions on the domestic scene also happen to be those with a better grasp of proletarian internationalism.

Visteon workers praise Gerry Adams’ intervention

Proving the equation from the other direction, that seasoned anti-imperialist fighter Gerry Adams has won praise from workers at Visteon in Essex for his staunch backing of their cause. Comrade Adams has demanded a full investigation into the firm’s pension crisis following Visteon’s collapse in April, which left more than 600 people out of work when its factories closed in Basildon, Enfield and Belfast.

The government-run Pension Protection Fund is set to take over Visteon’s retirement scheme but this could mean up to a 50 percent drop in the former car workers’ monthly pension payments.

The Belfast factory is in Gerry Adams’s West Belfast constituency and he joined calls for Ford, which owned Visteon until 2000, to rescue the pension scheme.

Visteon pensioner Paul Bailey (60), of Benfleet, told the Essex Echo: “We all know Gerry Adams’s history but I can’t fault him for all his support.

“He spoke out earlier this year to help ensure former Visteon workers got the redundancy packages they deserve and now he’s backing us over pensions.

“He’s a man with a high profile and a lot of influence, so hopefully he can help us a lot.” (Cited in ‘English workers praise Gerry Adams for trying to save their pensions’,, 17 September 2009)