As we said in the last issue of Aurora, bosses are seizing advantage of increasing unemployment to reduce ‘labour costs’. It is encouraging to see a growing number of workers refusing to take this lying down.
Certainly the insulting 1% pay rise nurses got for their key role in the Covid line of fire speaks volumes. When taking inflation into account this is a real-terms pay cut. Even the nurses union has been making motions towards strike action. Now every wage worker can expect their pay and conditions to come under threat.
Amongst those already taking action are around 300-400 bus drivers in Manchester employed by Go North West. They have been on strike for weeks trying to resist the company’s attempt to cut sick pay and force them to work longer hours for less by "firing and rehiring" them on worse contracts. Throughout March, British Gas engineers staged walk outs to protest the same dirty trick. Across the country, electricians have been picketing Balfour Beatty and NG Bailey headquarters for weeks to oppose deskilling. Meanwhile, more precarious workers are rejecting impossible gig economy conditions. Over 200 Deliveroo couriers have refused to work and joined demonstrations demanding a guaranteed minimum wage, safety measures and worker status (their current “self-employed” status means they do not have the same rights to minimum wage, sick pay, etc., that employed workers have).
Whether the attacks come in the form of "firing and rehiring" workers on new, worse contracts, taking advantage of workers’ “self-employed” status to circumnavigate the obligations of basic workers’ rights, “raising” pay at a rate that hardly offsets inflation, or good old-fashioned arbitrary deskilling and pay freezes — all these are fairly typical tricks in the bosses’ playbook. Their aim is to make their workforce pay, in a desperate attempt to boost their falling revenues, ‘shareholder value’, increased costs and ultimately their profit rates against the backdrop of a pandemic, Brexit, and an underlying economic crisis which refuses to go away.
Unions v Self Organisation
And that’s the key. Capitalism across the globe is facing a crisis that threatens life as we know it. But the trade unions are an entrenched part of capitalism’s survival system. And let us make no mistake, they are there to ensure a compromise with the bosses, not to get the best deal for us. Conflict between the contending classes is inherent to the capitalist system. The role played by the unions is that of a pressure valve — allowing different groups of workers to ‘let off steam’ while the system continues functioning unharmed.
At the end of the day, the trade unions owe their existence to the wage labour system that is capitalism and they will not rock the bosses’ boat. For workers, on the other hand, our best chance of success is to fight on our own account and draw in the support of as many other workers as possible. This means going beyond the trade union perspective. The unions may well claim a victory in some of these sector-by-sector, workplace-by-workplace disputes, and some newly-unionised gig workers may be a little better off, but they must be seen for what they are: disparate battles in the wider class war, a war which the working class has been losing for decades now.
What we need now is recognition amongst wage workers as a whole of the connected nature of all these struggles; of the fact that despite our kaleidoscope of different life experiences, we are united by our shared condition as an exploited class, and thus by our common interest in the overthrow of this system that is rotten to its core. For this we need to organise directly to express our interests and overcome the isolation and division that we face; struggle committees made up of delegates chosen at mass assemblies, selected from our own ranks and recallable the moment they cease to represent our interests as a class. These will necessarily be temporary bodies, which cease to exist when the struggle in question is over, lest they reproduce the same old bureaucratic structures.
In the wider sphere we also need our own political organisation: not by any means to put up candidates for parliament but to put forward the only sane alternative to capitalism: the programme for a world community of freely associated producers. It is a programme not set in stone nor dreamt up from someone’s head but the distillation of key lessons from past struggles won and lost, and from present struggles as our history continues to unfold. Those of us whose experiences have led us to communist consciousness must come together to form an organisation, or “party”, up to that task. The ICT’s goal is to work with other nuclei of that future party to provide a reference point for the revolutionary working class, a memory of the lessons of those past struggles, so that when the time does come and the class is ready to move from the defensive to the offensive once more, we are not just repeating the mistakes of the past and we know what we are fighting for — a stateless, classless, moneyless society, organised on the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.
The above article is taken from the current edition (No. 55) of Aurora, bulletin of the Communist Workers’ Organisation.