Today everyone wants to talk about the working class. At the last UK general election Cameron claimed to speak in the name of “hard working people” and Theresa May has gone one better in wanting to represent the working class, while UKIP claims to be able to speak for – and take the votes of – the workers who have become disillusioned with the Labour Party which imposed austerity on them for the 13 years of the Blair and Brown governments.
But when workers struggle for their own interests it is a different story: Mrs May’s spokesperson condemned the strikes called in December as “completely unacceptable” and showing a “shared contempt” for ordinary people.
Although strike days are at a historic low at present, the disputes going on this winter involve many of the concerns all workers face, especially when they are an average of £20 a week worse off than before the financial crash. To take some examples: BA cabin crew taken on since 2010, in the “mixed fleet branch” with worse pay and conditions, have rejected a derisory 2% pay offer and are concerned about cuts in training courses; workers at Crown post offices are concerned about job security, due to closure of offices, as well as pension changes; tube workers also concerned about jobs with closure of ticket offices, as well as bullying management; rail workers are concerned about safety on trains, as well as jobs for guards. These disputes illustrate the fact that what members of the working class sell to the capitalist, their labour power, is not simply a commodity like any other sold at around the minimum cost of production. If supply outstrips demand it results in the suffering of unemployment. And the cost of labour power, the wage or salary, has a cultural and moral component according to what is considered an acceptable standard of living, and according to what the workers can win by struggling. While there is a working class there will be class struggle.
Trade unions are not the voice of the working class
Does this mean that the trade unions, which after all are negotiating these disputes, speak for the working class? Not at all. If we take the example of the strikes on Southern Rail over driver operated trains, an issue of safety that affects drivers, guards and passengers, we can see that the unions are not working according to the principles of solidarity that underpin all workers’ struggles. Not only have ASLEF and the RMT kept the drivers and guards separate, when they both face the same issue, but ASLEF, the TUC and Southern Rail cooked up a deal for drivers that would isolate and undermine the guards’ struggle, and actively oppose any tendencies for solidarity. They are acting according to the principles of insurance – pay your dues to ASLEF and we will provide certain benefits – in opposition to the working class principle of solidarity. The vote to reject the deal shows that this principle remains alive in the working class.
At this time it is certainly very difficult to grasp the nature of the working class and its struggle, and the revolutionary potential it carries within it. Not only are the unions able to reduce almost every struggle to a question of their negotiation, over the heads of the workers; not only is almost every politician claiming to defend capitalism and nationalism in the name of the working class; but this comes more than a quarter of a century after 1989 when the fall of the Soviet Union was used for a barrage of propaganda purporting to show that there is no possibility of any better society than capitalism, as the Stalinist counter-revolution performed one last service for capital through its collapse. Nevertheless proletarian struggle still contains the revolutionary perspective it showed 100 years ago in the Russian revolution. The solidarity necessary for any struggle is a small indication of this, contradicting the capitalist principle of “every man for himself”.