The shape of the working class

Issue: 113

Martin Smith

‘There was a time when one in four of the world’s big ships were built on the Clyde and more than 1 million of the UK’s workers were coal miners. Today the supermarket giant Tesco’s employs just over 250,000 workers—making it the biggest private sector employer’.1 So began a report on BBC 2’s Newsnight. The programme took for granted the ‘common sense’ argument that the traditional working class in Britain is in terminal decline and is being replaced by a low paid, unorganised, part time, casualised workforce based in the service sector.

These conclusions are drawn from two main assumptions. The first is the decline in all major capitalist countries of manufacturing industries. The second argument, and one promoted by the likes of New Labour, Polly Toynbee and Will Hutton, is that the majority of people in Britain are now home owning, white collar and middle class. They cite the huge expansion of white collar jobs in teaching, local government, the civil service, design and technology, which were regarded as middle class professions, as proof that the majority of people are middle class.

They believe the country’s workforce looks something like an hourglass, with a large glass bowl at the top, containing around 70 percent of the population, which is doing very well or reasonably well. The bottom glass bowl contains the other 30 percent—the poor (unemployed, part time workers) and low paid service sector workers. Toynbee believes that the growth of the service sector means workers do not have the economic power or the industrial muscle that their forefathers had. The politics underpinning this assumption is Margaret Thatcher’s and subsequently Tony Blair’s belief that we live in a ‘classless society’.

Yet arguments about the death of the working class are nothing new. Over the past 50 years they have regularly been resurrected. For instance, in the 1950s academics claimed that workers in the motor industry had become ‘embourgeoisified’ because they could afford fridges, cars and holidays abroad. French theorist Andre Gorz declared in an article written in early 1968 that ‘in the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes’, and the historian Eric Hobsbawn made a series of assertions that the working class was in terminal decline in the1980s.2

Are we all middle class now? What does the working class look like in Britain today? Are the trade unions finished? These are the questions I want to attempt to answer. I also want to refute the notion that the working class is in decline, arguing instead that it is becoming larger and more diverse in its make up.

Who is working class?

Before we look at who makes up the working class in Britain today, it is important to define what makes someone working class.

Marx argued that under capitalism there are those who own the means of production, the factories, offices, railways etc—the ruling class; and the working class who sell their labour power in order to survive. In the Communist Manifesto he argued that the ruling class has developed ‘a class of labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market’.3 In other words, class is a social relationship.

The Marxist historian G E M de Ste Croix put it the following way:

Class (essentially a relationship) is the collective social expression of the fact of exploitation, the way in which exploitation is embodied in a social structure. By exploitation I mean the appropriation of part of the product of the labour of others: in a commodity-producing society this is what Marx called ‘surplus value’. A class (a particular class) is a group of persons in a community identified by their position in the whole system of social production, defined above all according to their relationship (primarily in terms of the degree of ownership or control) to the conditions of production (that is to say, the means and labour of production) and to other classes.4

However, today the structure of capitalist society is more complicated than simply being divided into two diametrically opposed classes—the ruling class and the working class. There is a substantial ‘middle class’ in Britain. Sociologists claim it represents about 15 to 20 percent of the population—foremen, low grade managers, doctors, head teachers, etc. These people face contradictory pressures. On the one hand, their wealth and social position mean that they buy into the system; on the other hand, because they sell their labour power they too can find themselves in conflict with the system and look to a collective response. The class forces around them shape their reaction to events.

It is interesting to note that a growing number of people describe themselves as ‘working class’. In 1994 51 percent of those surveyed by Mori described themselves as working class; by 2002 it had risen to 68 percent.5

But Marxists reject the popular notion that what defines your class background has something to do with your lifestyle, income, accent or how you feel about your class position.

In the early 1980s I worked as a civil servant in the London Passport Office. One member of staff used to come to work wearing a three piece suit, bowler hat, briefcase and a copy of the Financial Times under his arm. From his appearance you would have assumed that he was a top civil servant—he was in fact a filing clerk! Likewise the stereotypical view of an airport check-in worker is of a ‘corporatised glamorous woman’. Yet it was these women, in the summer of 2005, who brought British Airways to its knees when they organised an unofficial sit-in. When their working conditions were under attack they were forced to act collectively—in fact they went further than that: they adopted militant tactics associated with car workers in the 1930s or Glasgow shipyard workers in the 1970s.

So it is important to understand that being working class is an objective relationship; the actual class position of individuals depends not on what they feel about which class they belong to, but whether they are forced to sell their labour power or not. Class position is not the same as class consciousness. Workers are still workers even if they vote Tory, own shares or buy their council houses.

There are those who view the working class through the prism of what it looked like in the 1950s. They therefore conclude that because the number of miners in Britain in the 1950s was 600,000 and today it stands at less than 4,000 the working class is in decline.

Capitalism is characterised by the constant revolutionising of the means of production. This means that from its earliest inception one of its key features has been restructuring: once-dynamic industries go into decline and new ones spring up. Alongside these grow newly developed towns and regions, and new working methods. Most importantly, this means that the working class is also constantly changing. This process of the constant revolutionising of the means of production was recorded by Marx. He wrote, ‘All old established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question’.6

This process is as old as capitalism itself. The basis of much of the Industrial Revolution was the textile industry. As the century wore on, coal and heavy industry became the backbone of British capitalism. These mainly male blue collar workers are what shape many people’s vision of what a worker should look like. It is not true that these workers were automatically militant and pro-union. I once saw an exhibition at the now closed Labour History Museum in east London. It had a display of two photographs of a boilermaker in east London. In one photograph taken in 1886 he is standing there surrounded by apprentices, looking like a ‘middle class gentleman’. In the second, dated 1900, he is wearing a boiler suit with a union badge pinned on it, surrounded by a dozen men who look just like him. The transformation was down to two things, the deskilling of his job and the New Unionism strike wave that hit the country in 1889.

Again in the1930s Britain experienced the growth of new industries such as car manufacturing and light manufacturing goods. If you look at the car industry, much of it developed on new greenfield sites like Dagenham, Coventry and Oxford in the 1920s and 1930s. These factories were state of the art and hostile to trade unions. There were many at the time who said that it was impossible to organise in them because the workers had been bought off. Similar things are said about bank workers, IT workers and media workers today. By the 1950s car workers were regarded as one of the best-organised and most militant sections of the working class. The experience of work and collective organisation and struggle brought about those changes.

Socialists have to understand the conditions that create the working class as what Marx termed a ‘class in itself’, and how that class can develop revolutionary ideas and become capable of making a revolution, become a ‘class for itself’.7


The 2006 UK Social Trends survey notes:

It is well known that the UK economy has experienced structural change since the end of the Second World War with a decline in the manufacturing sector and an increase in the service sector. Jobs in the service industries have increased by 45 percent, from 14.8 million in 1978 to 21.5 million in 2005, while those in manufacturing have fallen 54 percent from 6.9 million to 3.2 million over the same period.8

Figure 1 reveals this trend.

Figure 1

This decline in the numbers of workers involved in manufacturing was going on throughout the 20th century as the table demonstrates. At the same time we have seen a steady rise in the numbers of people working in the white collar jobs and the service sector. Today white collar and service sector workers are the majority. This trend also shows no signs of being reversed.

However, manufacturing workers are still a large and powerful section of the working class. To put it into perspective, one out of seven of the British workforce is employed in the manufacturing sector. These workers often work in large and well-organised workplaces like engineering, car manufacturing and food production. Although their numbers have fallen, those workers who are still employed have become more and more productive and in some senses more powerful. Take, for instance, the UK car industry. Over the last 30 years there has been a huge fall in the numbers of workers employed in the industry. However, car production has barely fallen. At the height of UK car production in the 1970s Britain produced about 1.7 million cars a year. By 2005 it had only fallen to 1.6 million a year. New technology means that one car worker can produce eight times what their predecessors could 30 years before.9 Polycell, the wallpaper paste and DIY products manufacturer, has seen productivity rise by nearly 300 percent in the last 25 years. This is despite the fact that the workforce has halved over the same period.10 Each worker is more productive and consequently more powerful.

Numerically, union membership is fairly evenly split between the private and the public sector, with 47 percent of union members employed in the private sector and 53 percent employed in the public sector. However, union density in the public sector is 59 percent and only 19 percent in the private. The difference in density is explained by the fact that there are more people working in the private sector (ie around three quarters of all workers). Union density in sections of manufacturing remains very high (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

White collar workers

When I started work as a civil servant at the London Passport Office 22 years ago I made the terrible mistake of believing I was going up in the world. I arrived at work wearing my best suit (in fact it was my only suit). I got the shock of my life: everyone else was wearing jeans. I ended up being assigned to a huge office, where half the people opened letters all day and the others stuffed envelopes. My job was to stamp the passports with a huge brass embossing machine all day long. I was part of a clerical production line.

The nature of white collar jobs has changed massively over the last 100 years. Clerical workers in the 19th century were regarded as middle class. Their pay, status and even dress made them more akin to managers. A clerical post was seen as a prized job and was usually a lifetime post. It was also a job that required a high level of skill. Very few clerical workers see themselves as that today.

The growth of white collar jobs throughout the last century has been accompanied by a huge growth in the number of women workers. Over the last 40 years office work has become increasingly deskilled and dependent on machinery. Work has become boring and repetitive. The introduction of costly technology (computers, faxes and photocopiers) has changed the pattern of work inside the office. A similar process has gone on in education, banking and local government.

One council housing worker described the drudgery of his work.

We don’t have to clock in and out like my dad did when he worked in a factory. We now have a computer—I call it the hidden foreman. It is used by management to record and monitor how much work we do. It knows what time I start work, what time I finish, how long it takes me to have a piss. It monitors the number of telephone calls I answer and at a flick of a switch a supervisor can increase the pace of our work.11

Investment in machines means that white collar jobs are no longer nine to five. White collar workers are expected to do shift work. Many offices are now open 24 hours a day. Certainly, in terms of pay, a routine clerical worker is part of the working class. A low-grade civil servant earns around £17,000 a year—no more than a manual car worker at Fords does. The growth of a large layer of middle management has accompanied this growth in white collar jobs.

Today the myth that white collar workers are not part of the working class remains as strong as ever. Yet unionisation levels and strikes in this sector refute this myth. The drive to attack the working conditions, skills levels and pay of white collar workers over the last 30 to 40 years has been accompanied by a growth of trade unions in the public sector. Figure 3 below shows the gross weekly pay scales of public sector workers. It demonstrates that the majority of white collar workers’ wages are comparable to manual workers’ wages. It also demonstrates that women workers are predominantly found in the lower paid jobs.12

Figure 3

White collar workers such as office workers, many council workers and teachers make up a large section of Britain’s workforce. Today, they are some of the best-organised workers in the country (see Figure 2 above). Just as with their forefathers and mothers in the cotton mills, the mines and car plants, the growth of trade unionism in the white collar sector came about over a relatively long period and as a result of a number of disputes, strikes and campaigns.

Over the past 20 years Britain has witnessed a huge growth in call centres, there are approximately 850,000 workers currently employed in them. Some studies describe the workers in these centres as white collar workers and others as part of the service economy. But they are also commonly described as the new coal miners of the 21st century.13 If you read most reports in the media you would assume that these workers are completely atomised, have no power and face the constant fear of having their work outsourced to India or Romania. But again that is not a true picture. A series of recent studies shows that most of the companies which run these operations expect the number to keep on growing over the next few years, though not at quite the rate of a few years back. For every story about outsourcing to India, there is one about a new call centre being built in Britain, mostly ignored by the press.14 In fact a recent report in the Guardian notes that companies like Kwik-Fit Insurance and Powergen, who had outsourced their work to India, are now relocating back to the UK because they can’t find enough staff with the right level of technical skills and knowledge. Ironically, ICICI OneSource, a Mumbai-based outsourcing company, said it was building a new 1,000 person call centre in Belfast because of ‘its highly skilled workforce and relatively cheap property prices’.15

Again expanding job opportunities and skills shortages in the industry are giving call centre workers the confidence to demand higher wages and better conditions. Last year I spoke to a call worker from Newcastle. He told me:

There are five call centres on our industrial park. All of them are constantly advertising for trained staff. You end up meeting workers from other call centres in your lunch break in local cafes and pubs. Of course you find out who has the best hours and who gets the best rates of pay. All you have to do is ask your supervisor for a pay rise or a change in conditions. If they say no you just move to the next call centre across the road. There is a natural levelling up. It’s good old fashioned economics of supply and demand.16

It’s also become clear that unions like the CWU, Amicus and Unison are now organising in some of these centres.

The service sector

The increase in white collar jobs has gone alongside the rise in service jobs. The image painted of the service sector is of low paid, part time McDonald’s type jobs, but the reality is somewhat different. Many service workers are in what would be considered ‘old working class jobs’. Hospital ancillary workers, dockers, lorry drivers, bus and train drivers and postal workers all work in the service sector. These can hardly be described as ‘new’ jobs: they have been an integral part of the UK workforce for a considerable length of time. And over the past ten years post and rail workers have been some of the most militant groups of workers. And are their jobs much different from those in manufacturing? What’s the difference between someone who makes a clutch or mends or replaces a clutch? Likewise there is very little difference between a worker in a large fast food restaurant and a worker who works in a food processing plant.

In fact the pressure on sectors of the service industry is to centralise and create powerful hubs. This leaves them open to worker pressure and organisation based on new groups of workers.

Look at supermarket distribution. Tesco is now the biggest private sector employer in the UK. It has concentrated all its distribution of food and goods in half a dozen massive warehouses across the country. It also employs ‘just in time’ methods of distribution. The warehouses are staffed by several hundred ‘pickers’—forklift truck drivers and support staff. If they withdraw their labour the whole system comes crashing down. This was demonstrated in the summer of 2005 when Asda distribution workers struck at a distribution centre in the north east.17

McDonald’s is one of the biggest corporations in the world. In what sense can those workers do any less useful or less real jobs than a worker making a tank or a Barbie doll?

There are those who argue that the growth of the service sector has brought with it greater levels of job insecurity, and part time and temporary working. It is of course true that neoliberalism has brought with it more flexible working but it has not brought about a radical overhaul of working life in Britain. According to Social Trends over a quarter of workers were working part time in the spring of 2005; around four in five part time workers were women.18 The levels of temporary work did increase during the mid-1990s, but have declined in recent years. In 1992 6 percent of workers in the UK worked on a temporary basis and by 1997 it had peaked at 7.5 percent; it has since fallen to 5.5 percent.19 The vast majority of workers have permanent jobs. In 1984 82.8 percent of the workforce had a permanent job. By 1999 that had fallen by 1.1 percent to 81.7 percent. It is also worth noting that a further 3 million people had joined the workforce.

Women workers

On Tuesday 28 March 2006 nearly 1.5 million workers struck over pensions in the biggest show of unity since the General Strike of 1926. It was the biggest ever one-day strike by women workers in Britain, and it was the most ethnically diverse. The strike smashed the myth that women can never be organised in a way that male workers have traditionally been.

More and more women are taking a central role inside the working class. Today 13 million women work, 49 percent of the total workforce. Women are now more likely to be union members than men. That is one of the findings of a report by the Department of Trade and Industry. The report, based on figures from the Labour Force Survey conducted in 2005, shows that for the second year running, the rate of female union membership has outpaced that for male employees. Over the 12 months to autumn 2005 union density levels among women rose by 0.9 percent to 29.9 percent, while the figure for men fell by 0.3 percent to 28.2 percent (see Figure 4a).20

But women still earn less than their male counterparts. The most recent figures available show that average hourly earnings, excluding overtime, for full time women workers are £10.56, compared to £12.88 for men. A government commission on women and work stated that the average pay gap between women and men was 17 percent in 2006. For average weekly earnings, the gap is wider—at 24.6 percent—partly because men are more likely to receive extra payments such as overtime, shift pay and bonus payments. The Equal Opportunities Commission estimates that, over a lifetime women’s gross individual income is on average 51 percent less than men’s.

You cannot talk about the growth of part time work without talking about women. Women make up the bulk of part time workers—and the vast majority are mothers or wives (the proportion of women involved in part time work is 44 percent compared to 8 percent of men21). Their jobs fit around their family commitments and very often around the demands of childcare. Many part time jobs are permanent and crucial to the economy. Today part time working accounts for just over a quarter of all paid jobs.22 The percentage of women part time workers in trade unions or staff associations is 22 percent, while for men it is just 12 percent.23 The one point you can make is that it is possible to unionise part time workers—the only thing required is for unions to organise serious recruitment drives among them.

Figure 4a and 4b

Migrant workers

Low paid cleaners and their supporters stormed and occupied the central London offices of the global investment bank Goldman Sachs last November. They carried placards that read ‘Goldman Sucks!’24 Wealthy bankers, who usually ignore those who clean their offices, were forced to take notice for a change. It could have been a scene from Ken Loach’s film Bread and Roses. But it wasn’t Los Angeles; it was London. The protest was part of a campaign for decent pay by cleaners employed by the ISS who clean the offices of some of the world’s most powerful and profitable companies. The TGWU union official involved in the dispute claimed that the workforce was made up mainly of migrant workers.

There seem only to be two stories concerning migrants in the British press—criminal activity and sponging off the state. There are a large number of migrant workers who are forced to work illegally in Britain. For obvious reasons these people eke out a living and find themselves on the fringes of society. Estimates vary that there are between 500,000 and 2 million illegal workers in Britain. The government suggests that 13 percent of UK GDP can be accounted for by the so-called black economy. Many of these poor people find themselves working in terrible conditions without any protection and in fear of being deported. The tragic death of the Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay is the most obvious example of the dangers and conditions many of these people face.25

But migrants have been active in the labour movement since the beginning. Irish labour was a prominent feature of the Industrial Revolution and the trade union movement. Irish names can be found in the list of strikers in the Bryant and May match workers’ strike in 1888. Following the Second World War migrants from Italy and Eastern Europe joined those from the Commonwealth in plugging gaps in the labour force.

The pattern of migration since the 1950s has produced a number of distinct ethnic minority populations in the UK. In 2001 the majority of the population in Britain were white British (88 percent). The remaining 6.7 million people (or 11.8 percent of the population) belonged to other ethnic groups. Of these smaller ethnic populations, ‘White Other’ was the largest (2.5 percent—this is bigger now with the addition of at least 600,000 Eastern Europeans), followed by Indians (1.8 percent), Pakistanis (1.3 percent), those of mixed ethnic backgrounds (1.2 percent), Black Caribbeans (1 percent), Black Africans (0.8 percent), Bangladeshis (0.5 percent) and the remaining minority groups accounting for less than 0.5 percent of the population.26

People born outside the UK now make up more than 12 percent of the workforce.27 But even that doesn’t give the complete picture. The proportion of ethnic minorities and migrant workers in the workplace is even greater. There is an obvious reason for this. Most people uprooting and moving to another country tend to be young and certainly of working age (government statistics show that Black Caribbeans have the largest proportion of people aged 65 or over, reflecting their earlier migration to this country).28

The impact of migrant workers is much greater in some areas and some industries than others. A third of all the people living in London were born outside of Britain.29 According to the Greater London Authority, 300 languages are spoken in London.30 The CWU union membership department claims that two major London sorting offices have workforces that are made up of 60 percent non UK born workers.31

The percentage of migrant workers is growing rapidly. According to official figurers published by the Home Office 427,095 migrants from new European Union countries came to Britain to work between May 2004 and September 2005 under the Worker Registration Scheme.32 For a breakdown of their country of origin see Figure 5.33 Figure 6 shows that migrant workers are found in many areas of the country and not just London and the South East.34 One of the many myths surrounding these migrant workers is that they only work in low paid and low skilled jobs. Of course many do and those jobs are vital to the economy, and as a Home Office press statement made clear they have no impact on the rate of unemployment. But also, as Figure 7 shows, many work in key well-organised sections of the working class.35

Overall, black and Asian employees are slightly less likely to be in trade unions (black and Asian density stands at 26 percent) compared to white workers (density of 29 percent). However, that comparison really does not capture the wide range of union densities found among different ethnic groups, ranging from a high of 35 percent (black African women) to a low of 18 percent (Pakistani men). The table below sets out the union densities for different ethnic groups and is also broken down by gender.36 A less detailed survey was conducted by the DTI in 2005 and it also found that black or British black employees had the highest union density and union membership rates were lowest among Asian or British Asian employees—it is worth noting that this gap is decreasing.37

Finally, we are also witnessing a number of strikes by migrant workers or in defence of migrant workers. A few years back there were several strikes and union organisation drives in companies like Price Check, Noons and JJ Fast Foods. More recently we have seen a dispute over parity pay rates for Polish ground staff at Luton airport, which was successful. Unions representing construction workers on the 2012 Olympic site in east London have signed a deal that guarantees conditions and pay for all workers regardless of nationality. There has been a series of strikes and protests by migrant workers in the fruit picking industry in East Anglia, and protests by low paid cleaners in the City of London and Canary Wharf.38

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 8

A class in itself

The first part of this article has demonstrated that the working class is going through a period of transformation. It is worth repeating that this is not a new phenomenon. I also believe that the working class in Britain has lost none of its essential characteristics—it is far from being the sort of flexible workforce predicted by many. The numbers who work in manufacturing industries may have shrunk, but those who remain still represent an important and powerful sector of the economy. Secondly, the working class has been supplemented by the massive expansion of the white collar and service sectors. The people who work in these sectors are just as working class as any manual worker. They are forced to sell their labour, and suffer the hardships that manufacturing workers face. They have also created their own organisations to defend themselves—they have joined unions and taken strike action.

Finally, the working class in Britain is being enriched with greater numbers of women workers, workers from ethnic minorities and a new wave of migrant workers who are also entering the workforce. Far from representing a threat to ‘traditional’ working class organisation they are playing a more central role in trade union life. There are no objective reasons as to why the unions have to a greater or lesser extent failed to stop the neoliberal assault being pursued by the bosses and the New Labour government. The problems are subjective. Overcoming them is the key test for socialists and the trade union movement.

Life in Blair’s Britain

Soon after Labour’s 1997 election victory Peter Mandelson, now the EU’s trade commissioner, said New Labour was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’.39 Never a truer word has been spoken by a New Labour minister. Under a Labour government the gap between rich and poor continues to grow at a shocking rate. The poorest 10 percent of the population in Britain receives the lowest share of national income in Europe, while the richest 1 percent owns nearly a quarter of marketable assets, a higher share than almost anywhere else in Europe. As many as 7 million workers in the UK earn less than £6.50 an hour and a third have no pension provision. Two in five workers work more than 40 hours a week (twice as high as all major European countries). And three out of five workers fear losing their jobs. Insecurity, long hours and low pay are endemic in British society.

The picture of resistance inside the working class is a complex one. On one hand, there is a very high level of political radicalisation in Britain. The Stop the War Coalition has created one of the most powerful mass movements this country has ever seen. You can’t measure the impact of the anti-war movement on trade unions in terms of industrial militancy. The key impact has been the radicalisation of the political culture inside the union movement. It has also had the effect of galvanising the opposition to Tony Blair and posing the question of the need for a socialist alternative to Labour. So far two of Britain’s smaller unions, the RMT and FBU, have disaffiliated from Labour. Even the pro-Labour union Unison withheld its financial donations to the Labour Party in the run up to the elections last May.

This political radicalisation was also demonstrated in November last year when around a thousand trade unionists attended an unofficial rank and file conference hosted by Respect. Delegates debated the question of political representation in the unions, and the need to link up the different campaigns resisting Labour’s attacks, and agreed to organise a series of regional ‘Fight Back’ rallies linking up the various struggles.

On the other hand, unions are still attempting to recover from the huge haemorrhaging of members and strength that took place under Thatcher in the 1980s. The latest figures show that trade union membership stood at 6.8 million in the autumn of 2004, a decrease of 36,000 (0.5 percent) on the previous year. Between 1995 and 2004 the number of male union members fell by 13 percent, whereas over the same period female membership rose by 7 percent. This was mainly as a result of the decline of manufacturing jobs that has hit male workers harder.40

Likewise the level of class struggle remains very low. In 2004 there were 905,000 strike days in the UK, twice the number in 2003 (499,000).41 The 2004 total is higher than the average number of strike days in the 1990s (660,000), but considerably lower than the average for both the 1980s (7.2 million) and the 1970s (12.9 million). In my pamphlet The Awkward Squad I wrote:

The pattern of industrial disputes over the past few years has been shaped by both the new militancy and a lack of confidence which is a product of years of defeat. So on one hand we have seen explosions of anger, some of which have generalised widespread support inside the working class—Rover and the firefighters’ dispute are two obvious examples. This has been followed by periods of relative quiet.42

I believe the picture I painted then still remains true today. You can now add the dispute at Gate Gourmet and the public sector one-day pensions strike last March to that list. Without wishing to overstate the fact, many of the industrial ballots that take place show that a large proportion of members are prepared to take strike action and when and if those disputes materialise they are very well supported by the rank and file. There is also a whiff of the anti-capitalist mood around many of these disputes—the cleaners’ lightning protests and the NHS campaigns being obvious examples.

There are several other problems facing the union movement. The trade union leaderships today are too male, pale and stale.43 Women and ethnic minorities make up a large proportion of today’s trade union movement. Yet you can count the number of women and ethnic minorities running unions on the fingers of one hand. Women workers now make up something approaching two thirds of the membership of unions like Unison and the PCS. Over the coming years I predict we are going to see a growing number of unions run by women general secretaries.

But the biggest problem facing any recovery of the working class is the trade union bureaucracy. Their timidity in the face of employers’ attacks is depressing. Several years ago things looked like they might be changing. Union general secretary elections saw a new generation of younger officials winning major posts. They supported left wing movements and by and large supported a more robust form of trade unionism. They named themselves the ‘Awkward Squad’. However, after several industrial defeats—the firefighters’ dispute and the pensions debacle being the most obvious—the Awkward Squad is no more. The timidity of the union leaders in the face of employers still remains a major problem.

All that said, the trade union leaders find themselves in a tight spot. Of course the bureaucracy remain wedded to the Labour Party, for they fear the only alternative is the return of David Cameron and the Tories. Yet at the same time it is a Labour government that is implementing vicious neo-liberal policies. Many in the union movement hoped that the removal of Blair would spell out the end of Blairism. But instead Blair’s legacy will continue under the leadership of Brown. Brown is, after all, the economic architect of Blair’s policies and as far as the war in Iraq goes it is very much business as usual. That creates anger and bitterness in the rank and file. The heckling of Blair when he spoke at this year’s TUC conference shows how deep that goes.

I think we are entering an interesting and possibly exciting period. In the last few months there have been dozens of marches involving close to 100,000 people against the cuts the government wants to impose on the NHS. From Truro to Carlisle we have seen a coalition of trade unionists, health campaigners and patients take to the streets. Billy Hayes, the general secretary of the post workers’ union the CWU, said, ‘It feels like the poll tax rebellion.’ An exaggeration maybe, but I think the sentiment is right. Health unions are planning on calling a national demonstration in March 2007.

The PCS is launching a discontinuous strike ballot involving 250,000 workers in defence of their pensions. On top of this there have been a number of strikes on buses, and the pay campaign for low paid cleaners is picking up steam. All of these disputes will involve large numbers of women and ethnic minority workers. It is pointless trying to predict the outcome of these strikes, or their ability to break through and generalise. The key is for socialists to get involved and support them.

Today the low level of class struggle means that shop stewards and reps generally do not have the confidence to go on the offensive. The recovery that is taking place inside the union movement has everything to do with the political situation and the anti-war movement. Socialists and trade union militants need to practise a form of political trade unionism. By generalising from the political, socialists and trade union militants are beginning to gather around them the best political activists. These groups can become the nucleus of any fightback that might take place in industry in the future.

The question being posed is how do the unions recover? Just approaching the trade union question from the level of class struggle will not do. There are many who judge the revival in trade unions purely on the basis of the number of strikes, membership levels and density of membership. These statistics are an important tool, but they present a static and two-dimensional view of what is going on.

I wrote in this journal:

Any debate about the nature of class struggle today in Britain has not only to discuss the economic situation but also look at the political and ideological dimensions of the struggle. There are many on the left who argue that an industrial upturn will come about out of a slow rising tide of trade union militancy. Industrial relations academics in Britain often cite the development of trade unions in car plants from the mid-1950s until the mid-1970s as an example of this. Of course this is one model of how an upturn has taken place, and of course this could happen again. But most industrial upturns have not developed this way. For example the upswing of class struggle in Britain in 1889 and 1910, the sitdown strikes in the US in 1934-36, the May events in France in 1968 and the Italian hot summer of 1969 were a product of sudden explosions of anger.44

In most cases these revolts were led by groups of workers who had until that point failed to show their potential strength. It is in the process of huge political and industrial struggles that the working class can begin to transform itself from a class in itself to a class for itself. This time round the working class is enriched by its greater diversity and by the deepest political radicalisation seen in society for decades. The working class is still the only social force in society that has the potential to challenge capitalism and bring about lasting change.


1: Newsnight, 15 November 2005.
2: A Gortz, ‘Reform or Revolution’, in R Milliband and J Saville, Socialist Register 1968, p111. Also see Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, (London, 1994), pp413-415.
3: Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (Beijing, 1988), p41.
4: G E M de Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the ancient World (London, 1981), p43.
5: Mori finding on numbers agreeing with statement, ‘At the end of the day, I am working class and proud of it’, 16 August 2002, at
6: Manifesto of the Communist Party, as above, p36.
7: ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’, in Karl Marx, Collected Works vol 1 (Moscow, 1977), pp210-211.
8: Office for National Statistics, Social Trends 2006, p57.
9: ‘What Happened to the Car Industry?’, BBC News, 21 March 2002, and for the most recent figures for car production go to
10: Author’s interview with GMB shop steward in June 2006.
11: Interview with housing worker in central London, May 2006.
12: IDS, Pay in the Public Services (London, 2006), p21.
13: There is a brilliant website called call It is a diary of a call centre worker and gives a superb account of the drudgery, monitoring and management bullying that take place in one of Britain’s biggest call centres.
14: Socialist Review, December 2003.
15: Guardian, 30 June 2006, p29.
16: Interview with the author at Marxism 2005.
17: ‘Asda Distribution Workers Strike Over Pay’, Socialist Worker, 6 August 2006.
18: Social Trends 36 (2006 edition), p50.
19: Employment Relations Research Series, no 56, How Have Employees Fared? Recent UK Trends (2006), p7. Available at
20: As above, p4.
21: ‘Today’s Trade Unionist’, Trade Union Trends Analysis of the 2001 Labour Force Survey, p7.
22: Employment Relations Research Series, no 56, as above.
23: ‘Today’s Trade Unionist’, as above, pp6-7.
24: Financial Times, 29 November 2006.
25: For a moving and sympathetic account of the Morecambe tragedy and illegal working in Britain you can do no better than read Hsiao-Hung Pai and David Leigh’s account in the Guardian, 13 January 2004.
26: Census 2001, Office for National Statistics; Census 2001, General Registar Office for Scotland.
27: Social Trends, no 36, 2006 edition, p12.
28: As above, p13.
29: Evening Standard London Lite, 13 November 2006.
30: This figure comes from a survey of 850,000 children in London schools carried out by LEAs in 1998-99.
31: Information given to author by the CWU press office. An interesting survey was conducted by the Working Lives Research Institute on the London Bus Industry.
32: Figurers released by the Home Office, 22 August 2006.
33: Breakdown of country of origin of Eastern European workers gaining entry to work in Britain under the worker registration scheme. Home Office figures and table compiled by the Daily Mirror, 23 August 2006.
34: As above.
35: As above
36: ‘Today’s Trade Unionists’, as above, p9.
37: DTI, Employment Market Analysis and Research, March 2006, p10.
38: For accounts of these disputes see the Socialist Worker archive at www.socialist
39: Andrew Rawnsley, Sunday Observer, 17 September 2000.
40: Social Trends no 36, 2006 edition, p64.
41: As above, p66.
42: M Smith, The Awkward Squad (SWP, 2003), p12.
43: I wish I had thought of this little saying, but alas I did not—it is borrowed from Gregor Gall, who I am sure will be very happy that I use it!
44: Trade Union Struggles in Britain Today: a debate, International Socialism 105 (Winter 2004), p113.