First published in Socialist Review, November 1959.
Republished in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp.136-40.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive
Thanks to Ted Crawford.
As we go to print the news of the “settlement of the 30 weeks old official strike at Norton Motors, Birmingham, is still fresh. We hope it remains fresh in the minds of militant workers throughout the country: a fresh indictment of the AEU leadership which pledges support but caves in to management at the earliest opportunity; a fresh exposure of a leadership which even alter backing the strike officially refused to put teeth into it. refused to call for the blackening of Norton goods and refused to support the workers at the London motor-cycle show who actually boycotted the Norton stand.
There is only one attitude that the organized worker can adopt: solidarity wit the strikers. We must be united in condemning the AEU Executive’s recommendation to resume work on management’s terms. It was a shameful betrayal of the strikers by their leadership. – Editor.
As long as an employer has the power to hire and fire workers as he pleases, so long will the struggle over the right to work be one of the most important and serious that organized workers cat undertake.
That struggle is going on today. Fifteen years of full pay packets, jobs for all and of a strong trade-union bargaining position have done nothing to still this basic conflict in capitalist society. With the first signs, such as we have seen recently, of redundancy the struggle breaks out afresh: the bosses-with the generous support of the government-sack where they can; the workers prevent sackings where they can. Sometimes we win, sometimes they win – it all depends on the relation of forces.
There is no argument about what constitutes the final answer to capitalist redundancy. it is “no sackings”. By rallying around such a slogan, not only do we defend our jobs today but early question the “right” of capitalists to control production, enforcing a policy of “no sackings” on management we substitute a measure of workers’ control for capitalist control and so to e an important step towards the social control of the means of production – the aim of every socialist.
But we should remember that workers’ control of hiring and firing is not merely a resolution that can be carried and then forgotten about. It is aimed at the very basis of capitalist society in the West-the sanctity of the private ownership of the means of production (when they are profitable) – and will be met by ruthless opposition on the part of the capitalists and their supporters. Such opposition can be overcome only by a working class completely solid in its belief that there is no other way but to fight for its present jobs with everything it has got.
Are the strands of solidarity binding the British working class so tightly knit as to support such a struggle today? And is there the widespread feeling that a struggle for the retention of jobs is a matter of life and death now?
The best that the advocates of “no sackings” as the rallying slogan for the fight against redundancy can offer is a promise of mass unemployment in the future. “The brutal fact in this situation,” states the widely read pamphlet published by the Norton Motors Strike Committee, “is that the 6,000 sacked B.M.C. workers, the first list of 3,000 Standard workers ... plus all the smaller redundancies, are the beginning of mass unemployment” (emphasis in the original). Take action now, runs the argument, to avert something that will happen in the future, to deal with problems that will then penetrate the consciousness of the masses.
Whatever may or may not happen in the future the facts at present are that in mid-September there were 247,600 registered unemployed in Britain and 361,000 unfilled vacancies at the Labour Exchanges at the end of August. The fact is that 1,375,000 workers are on overtime in manufacturing alone and probably as many working extra hours in non-manufacturing trades. The fact is that less than 400 of the 6,000 sacked B.M.C. workers were still without jobs three months ago, that the number of actual strikers at Norton’s was less than the number working inside and outside the gates, that local unemployment even at Coventry is disappearing slowly but surely. Finally, it is a fact that some 41 per cent of workers change their jobs voluntarily each year which shows that people are not very frightened of the “once out never in again” position of pre-war days.
When we compare this present position with the inter-war period of real moss unemployment it is not surprising Mint the majority of workers, especially the vast majority of those who have not experienced redundancy at first hand for as long as they can remember, discount the prophecy of mass unemployment as scaremongering.
Today less than one and one-quarter per cent of gainfully employed people are unemployed (under a quarter of a million); between 1921 and 1938 the percentage of unemployed in a much smaller labour force fluctuated between 9.7 per cent. (in 1927) and 22.1 per cent (in 1933). During the whole period there were seldom less than one million on the stones and often more than two and a half million (Beveridge, Full Employment in a Free Society, 1944, pp.47, 111). Unemployment was a long term prospect in the thirties, measured in years (ibid., p. 64 shows an average of one-quarter of all unemployment lasting 12 months or more); today, the majority of cases are measured in weeks.
Older workers who remember what these figures mean in the flesh cannot see the urgency of hanging on to jobs at all costs; younger workers who have no terrible memories going back 25 years but who have had the experience of changing work places before, possibly a number of times, cannot imagine why on earth they should cling to a particular job for dear life. Jobs can be had almost for the asking, why fight desperately for one or the other?
Such talk cannot satisfy the trade union militant. If he believes that mass unemployment is on the cards in the near future, he would be criminal if he kept silent about it. He will sound a warning as loudly as possible. But warning and propagandizing, getting support for a policy that might lead to action in the future is a different matter from formulating the slogans for direct action today.
Direct action can lead to victory only in so far as the broad masses of workers throw in their united support, in so far as they recognize the aim of the struggle as their own immediate, concrete desire. When the rank and file are on the march the job of the militant is to keep well within sight of the rest. Otherwise they will lose one another, the militant slogging way beyond the horizon and the rank and file deprived of its own leaders and a prey to the union bureaucracy.
It is no good calling for action suited to slump conditions when such conditions do not obtain and when the working class as a whole knows it. True, “no sackings” is the only answer the militant can give to capitalist redundancy. There is no other. But he must be prepared to spend time convincing the mass of the workers that it is the only answer. To call for a mass struggle for “no sackings” at once is like calling for a struggle for the forty-hour week with which it is connected – a good thought, but pious; nothing that is going to galvanize anyone into activity. Anyone who tries will soon be branded as a sectarian, abusing the energies of the working class for purposes which are unrealizable at present.
There are exceptions. The workers at A.P.V. (Crawley) and at Fords gained magnificent victories precisely because they fought for “no sackings”. But in both cases the issues were clear cut and well understood on the factory floor. As the Norton strikers’ pamphlet states, “this agreement (to retain workers on the payroll until suitable alternative work be found) was vital to Crawley workers because Crawley is a new town, and if there is no work there it would entail over 20 miles journey to Brighton or London to find other jobs, in addition to paying the high rents of the Corporation houses.” A.P.V. workers did not have to go to school to learn the importance of retaining their present jobs.
In the case of Fords, redundancies were declared at the time of the B.M.C. strike as an obvious manoeuvre in the general campaign against the motor workers. The ruse was sufficiently patent for Ford workers to see through it and successfully challenge the company.
It is difficult to find other examples of successful “no sackings” strikes. The stoppage of 105 electricians at Standards during September is significant. The issue was one of redundancy. 5,000 workers “blacklegged”. The draughtsmen who had been on strike themselves immediately before came to a settlement with the company during the electricians’ stoppage – an unthinkable procedure had the electricians’ case been in any way a popular one.
We must be flexible in the tactics of the fight against redundancy. We aim at the best we can get, taking into consideration the strength of the bosses and especially, the solidarity and militancy of our side. Where these are strong, there is no question as to our demand- no sackings. But under present conditions of full employment, widespread overtime and high and easy mobility between jobs there is no doubt that such an extreme demand will rally active support in a very small minority of cases.
The majority of redundancy cases will have to be fought on another demand, one more in tune with the problems facing the mass of workers today and therefore more appropriate as a slogan for immediate action. “For substantial compensation on redundancy”, “for a guaranteed annual wage”. The miners have it – 26 weeks on two-thirds pay – why can’t the rest of us? Why can’t we do even better?
As for rallying support on the factory floor, there can be no comparison. Redundancy today appears to the majority of workers as the exception, as an individual problem, somebody else’s can. The unemployed worker himself does not feel that he is joining an army of unemployed (as he would have felt 20 years ago) but that he is on his own. Large compensation payments or severance pay, enough to tide himself and his family over without difficulty until he finds a job comparable to the one he has just left is what he wants. And for a highly mobile working class this is an understandable demand at present, one that will go far to satisfy the desire for economic security in a way that fits in with our experience of the immediate past.
The duty of the militant is to formulate this demand in the tactics of struggle.
Last updated on Last updated 21.5.2003