Chris Harman


A spectre of class

(12 November 2005)

From Socialist Worker, No.1976, 12 November 2005.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Recent battles over public sector pensions and trade union rights demonstrate that our rulers still fear the collective power of workers, writes Chris Harman

Something has been happening in recent weeks which should not be possible according to much orthodox wisdom. The government has been doing its utmost to stop trade unions using the power of their members to protect public sector pensions.

Yet the purveyors of orthodoxy continually tell us that the working class is dying and has no power to use.

A few weeks before May’s general election, Tony Blair was adamant he was going to set an example to the rest of Europe by making all employees work five years longer.

He clearly believed all the propaganda about workers and unions having lost their power – until the major unions won massive ballot results in favour of strike action. Blair then panicked and ordered his ministers to delay doing anything until October.

But come October, his fear of a public sector general strike by the “powerless unions” of the “declining working class” had not gone away. He forgot his resolve to set an example for all Europe and allowed a deal to go through that does not raise the retirement age for existing workers.


Nevertheless, the propaganda about the union weakness and working class powerlessness did have an effect – on the unions’ leaderships. Instead of seizing the opportunity to grab a complete victory, they accepted that new workers will have to work longer.

This amounts to betraying the new generation of workers. It creates a two-tier workforce, with different terms and conditions for young and old. This opens up a division that invites further attacks on the pensions of existing workers at some point in the future.

But this cannot do away with the fact that workers in very different sorts of jobs – some manual, some white collar, some “traditional working class”, some often thought of as middle class – were prepared to engage in the collective action that commentators routinely dismiss as “old fashioned” and “ineffective”.

And the pensions dispute is by no means the only example of workers engaging in the sort of action we’re been told is impossible. The Gate Gourmet dispute at Heathrow was another such event at an airport that employs 70,000 workers and is Britain’s largest single workplace.

Some years back there was a strike by airline catering workers doing a similar job for SkyChefs – but it was completely defeated.

This time round, predominantly white male baggage handlers walked out in sympathy with predominantly Asian female Gate Gourmet workers. This unofficial action caused the whole of British Airways to shut down during the peak summer holiday period for the second time in three years.

British Airways last week announced that the walkout had cost it up to £45 million – just under a fifth of the £241 million profits it raked in during July, August and September.

Victory possible

The outcome of the Gate Gourmet dispute has not been the full blooded victory for the workers that would have been possible had the union openly thrown its weight behind the walkout. But unlike SkyChefs, it has not been a shattering defeat either.

The backdrop to these struggles is the fact that while the working class in Britain has changed in many ways over the last quarter of a century, it is still the class whose labour keeps British capitalism going.

This is despite constant proclamations from media commentators that the working class is on the wane and no longer figures as a political force.

Typical has been the claim of Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. “We have seen the most rapid change in social class in recorded history – the 1977 mass working class, with two thirds of people in manual jobs, shrunk to one third, while the rest migrated upwards into a 70 percent home owning, white collar middle class,” she recently wrote.

In fact any serious analysis of the workforce in Britain and the US points to a very different pattern. Large numbers of jobs have disappeared in old industries like mining and steel. But the new jobs that have replaced them are just as much working class as they were.

Dustmen and women, bus, train and lorry drivers, postal workers, warehouse workers and cleaners, are all part of the “service” workforce. In September 2001 “distribution, hotels and restaurants” accounted for 6.7 million jobs and “transport and communication” for 1.8 million. On top of this there are still more than three million workers employed in manufacturing industry.

And most “white collar” jobs in the service sector are not middle class by any stretch of the imagination. In fact much of the shift from manual to white collar amounts to no more than a change in the name given to essentially similar tasks.

Industry or service?

Someone (usually a man) who worked a typesetting machine for a newspaper publisher 30 years ago would have been classified as a particular sort of industrial worker – a printworker. Someone (usually a woman) working a word processing terminal for a newspaper publisher today will be classified as a white collar service worker.

There are also hundreds of thousands of people in jobs that were traditionally relatively privileged, but are today increasingly subject to the same payment systems and pressures that have long afflicted manual workers.

This applies to teachers, nurses and even to university lecturers. That is why such groups have over the last 30 years become willing to take strike action – something that was hardly ever known from them before.

Add all these groups together and you find that far from the working class disappearing, it amounts to about three quarters of the population in both Britain and the US. And this working class shows no sign of “declining”.

In fact, the white collar careers that can truly count as middle class – managers, lawyers, senior civil servants, headteachers, all those with the power to determine their own work tempo and to hire and fire others – only amount to about 12 per cent of the labour force in Britain or the US.

Even these people are not in the same league as the managing directors and City speculators who award themselves multimillion pound salaries.

Lifestyle questions

These facts are ignored by media commentators, parliamentary politicians and establishment academics. They treat class as a question of lifestyle, identifying it with the way people dress or speak, the particular character of the jobs they do, or the extent to which they live in poverty.

But this approach obscures the fundamental divide in any society – that between those who control the means of creating wealth (what Marx called the means of production) and those who can only get a half decent livelihood by toiling for them. Lifestyle, dress, levels of income and consumption are a product of this division, not its cause.

The system of industrial capitalism is about 250 years old.

It started in small pockets in the north of Britain and what is now Belgium before spreading out until it eventually encompassed the whole world. Along with this growth has gone a massive expansion in the number of people whose only livelihood is waged work – from a few hundred thousand in the early decades to somewhere around 800 million today.

At each stage in this growth, new industries have come to the fore, changing the image of the stereotypical worker. In the early 19th century the textile workers were seen as typical. In the 1880s it was the dockers and miners.

In the 1910s and 1920s it was the workers in heavy industry, while in 1950s and 1960s it was workers in car production and light engineering. At each stage there were those who said the new groups were not “real workers”.

Pervasive defeatism

The new groups of workers have often emerged in the aftermath of defeats experienced by a previous generation. This was true in the 1850s and 1930s, and it is true today. This has always created a widespread feeling that it is not possible to fight the system collectively. Demoralisation and defeatism have been pervasive.

But even when people do not feel confident about fighting the system, that does not stop the system fighting against them.

Every time there is an increase in competition on a national or international scale, capitalists try to protect their own profits by increasing the burden on those who labour for them.

Today we are seeing the pressure of capitalist competition increasing across the globe. That is what leads Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to say European nations “have to change to face the challenge of China and India”.

By “change” they mean pushing though further attacks on welfare benefits, privatisation and marketisation in health and education, along with ever greater pressure for people to work harder and longer.

They effectively tell people that even the things that have made life bearable in the past – the promise of job security, the tea or lunch break, the wage that allowed them to buy small luxuries – have to be taken away from them.

So the pressure on workers here is not going to cease – until there is a fightback. And there will be a fightback. The eventual effect of these attacks is always to cause some groups of workers to take action. You can push people so far – but no further.

Often the first workers to strike back are the new groups previously regarded as subdued and non-militant previously. Examples include the London match girls and dockers in 1889, Liverpool rail workers in 1912, London dustworkers and Liverpool busworkers in 1969.

When they take action they discover they have a power they never dreamt of – a discovery that inspires other groups to take action of their own, opening up a period of intensified class struggle.

Last updated on 14 December 2009