A review of Nothing to Lose But Our Chains: Work and Resistance in Twenty-First-Century Britain, Jane Hardy (Pluto, 2021), £19.99
A typical protocol for a book review is to begin with an outline of its purposes and structure, to proceed to a critical evaluation of its content and theoretical and empirical contribution, and to conclude with a verdict on its overall merit. For Jane Hardy’s Nothing to Lose but Our Chains, I dispense with this convention and place the verdict here, upfront. This is an important book that deserves to be read, studied and discussed widely by socialists, trade unionists and activists of diverse backgrounds and campaigns—indeed, by all those urgently resisting and collectively organising against the brutal effects of neoliberal capitalism on workers. A thoroughly accessible text, it struck me that it might form the basis for reading groups of activists thirsting for knowledge: to better know the dynamics of the system of exploitation; to understand the precious but neglected history of past workers’ fights that can inspire action in the present; to deepen knowledge of the structure, composition and potential power of the contemporary working class; to help navigate and organise on a contradictory terrain and within the structures of trade unionism; and finally to learn from recent important struggles. These include the stunning “David and Goliath” victories, partial successes and missed opportunities that Hardy so sensitively reconstructs.
Nothing to Lose has a compelling logic, unfolding sequentially around four themes that move from the more theoretical, structural and objective towards the concrete: the dynamics of struggle (distinctive in each case study), worker and union agency, oppression and the workplace, and the lived experiences of workers. Amid this, there are dominant leitmotifs: the reaffirmation of the potential power of the working class, and the actuality of struggles that reasserts the central importance of the combativity and self-activity of workers’ organisation from below.
Precarity and the changing working class
The first theme challenges mainstream narratives of British capitalism, contesting myths and challenging received wisdom. These include the global hyper-mobility of capital that ostensibly renders workers powerless, the disappearance of the collective working class, and its fragmentation into individualism and the entrepreneurial self. Political and economic change wrought by the emergence, consolidation and dominance of neoliberal capitalism are refracted through the particularity of Britain, which plays a pivotal role in recycling surplus value through its de-regulated financial services sector. The cost-reduction strategies of privatisation and outsourcing that eviscerate worker’s terms and conditions, not unique to Britain but certainly excessively implemented here, are dismembered.
Hardy marshals impressive statistical evidence in support of her arguments about the structure of present-day employment in Britain (chapter 3). Along the way, sacred cows—including the “weightless economy”, the impending annihilation of jobs by automation, the death of manufacturing, and Guy Standing’s preposterous bifurcation of the workforce into the “precariat” and “salariat”—are slaughtered.1 Shibboleths are summarily dispatched. Nothing to Lose reminds us how capitalism’s inescapable imperative to accumulate transforms and relocates production, ceaselessly making and re-making the working class. The passages on the blurred distinctions between manufacturing and services are important, even if they can do no more than reflect on debates within Marxism on, among other topics, productive and unproductive labour. Hardy’s notion of dispersed surplus value is apposite, focusing on the interconnectedness of workers throughout the productive process and recalling Marx’s concept of “labour power socially combined”.2 Britain remains a major locus for manufactured goods and the fourth-largest producer of cars in Europe. Hardy highlights an important conceptual point—chains of economic activities that “result in the production of tangible goods” integrate workers of different types, so that “surplus value is dispersed throughout” the work process.3 How else should we view the estimated 1.3 million contact centre workers in Britain, connected upstream and downstream to economic activities and other workers throughout the economy, other than as workers contributing to the creation of surplus value or its realisation? How else can we understand the growing legions of logistics or warehouse workers?4 The “post-Fordist worker” is a glib generalisation indeed.
Evidence-free speculation on automation and artificial intelligence, and associated dystopian and utopian fantasies, such as Aaron Bastani’s “fully automated luxury communism”, are dismantled.5 Historical perspective is utilised to critique the assumption that this technological wave will eliminate jobs like no other.6 Behind the allegedly “immaterial” and “weightless” are a mass of largely invisible and routine workers. The term “ghost work” captures the essence of poorly paid pieceworkers who repair glitches that automated tools cannot solve, ensuring that mobile phone apps, websites, and artificial intelligence applications work.7 The internet is only “smart” because of this labour. The irony is that at the very time, according to the “automatistas”, that some job elimination would surely have occurred, the employed labour force in Britain reached unprecedented levels.8 Of course, as Hardy spells out, many of these jobs are badly paid, insecure and part time; nevertheless, their existence confounds apocalyptic predictions.
In an excellent critique of Standing’s massively exaggerated and politically problematic “salariat”-“precariat” binary in chapter 4, historical engagement helps frame the contemporary growth of zero-hours contracts and the gig economy. This history includes the “lump” system in construction, the “butty” system in mining and the casualised labour market in docking prior to the creation of the Dock Labour Scheme in 1947. It also includes the match girls of the late 19th century who fought appalling conditions and organised as part of the “new unionism”. One difficulty today is that diverse kinds of “atypical’ work”—part-time permanent, temporary working, agency temping, gig work and zero-hours contracts—are enrolled into a uniform category. Notwithstanding the fact that a majority of the workforce remain on full-time permanent contracts, atypical work has increased, even if the proportion in temporary work has remained relatively constant since the 1980s.9 Audits of Scottish contact centres reveal a long-term decline in temps in the workforce from more than 25 percent in 1997 to five percent by 2011.10 Employers’ needs for a trained and stable labour force is a countervailing factor to the cost-reducing lure of atypical employment.
Nevertheless, one consequence of labour market reconfiguration following the 2008 financial crisis was that two-thirds of net employment growth in the following decade was in atypical categories. Additionally, as Nothing to Lose acknowledges, there are the swollen ranks of the “bogus” self-employed. This practice was investigated by the toothless 2017 “Taylor Review”, but its limitations were also starkly exposed by successful legal cases pursued by unions. These included the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) case against City Sprint, which won employee status for couriers, and the Supreme Court’s ruling on Uber, subsequently upheld by the High Court.11 However, despite these victories, zero-hours contracts continue to be concentrated in particular sectors, notably hospitality, social care and education.
One of Hardy’s strongest arguments is that workers of all kinds, whatever their contractual status, “are facing new forms of insecurity and precariousness—in terms of both falling living standards and their experience of work”.12 In-work poverty has doubled over two decades, food banks have mushroomed and pitiful statutory sick pay, now £96.35 a week, compelled millions to work through Covid-19.13 Hardy’s succinct conclusion is “all work is precarious under capitalism”, whether the endemic low pay of care workers and cleaners, the short-term contracts in further and higher education, or the extraordinary levels of stress experienced by public sector workers. Indeed, the Health and Safety Executive reported 828,000 cases of work-related stress and depression in 2020-1.14
Reinforcing Hardy’s preference for “the notion of precariousness”, I would add the following to Nothing to Lose’s insightful discussion of neoliberalism in the workplace. She correctly emphasises a central feature of workers’ lived experiences: the intensification of work, where workers are cajoled and coerced into working harder and the “pores of the working day” are progressively closed. Gaps between tasks are necessary for workers’ bodies and brains to at least partially recover before the next task. My evidence and others’ demonstrate that intensification and speed-up predated 2008. It was partly a consequence of the previous dot.com crash, plus fierce sectoral competition and cost-reduction. Pre-austerity public sector budgetary constraints, crisis and austerity accelerated intensification, massively ramping up the effort demanded of workers.15 Workers have thus faced an employers’ offensive on several fronts.
Occurring across industries, occupations and grades, this managerial offensive was composed of several elements but experienced by workers in combination. Work intensification is inextricably entwined with the diffusion of lean working practices, extending far beyond its origins in Toyotism and the car industry.16 These practices now permeate the economy, reconfiguring clerical, services and retail work, higher education, and manufacturing. They have penetrated the private and public sectors alike.17 Hardy’s important observations of the structural blurring of manufacturing and servicing are underlined by experiential similarities of all kinds of workers. It is here that the baleful effects of new information technologies are felt. It is not automation as such that confronts workers as the greatest peril but the imbrication of digitalised controls, measurement and monitoring within work routines. It is not financialisation in general that brings the clampdown, but rather the actual or anticipated market signals (with state budgets acting as a public sector surrogate) that translate into organisation-wide “key performance indicators”. These cascade down through managerial levels to “front-line managers” and “team leaders”. Ultimately they are inflicted on individual workers as targets: call-handling times in call centres, the “average-timed jobs” of British Telecom engineers, care workers’ platform-driven tasks, civil servants’ hourly whiteboard scores and the inhumane picking times displayed on Amazon workers’ hand-held tracking devices.
Digitisation and lean working combine to generate ubiquitous metrics, deliverables, dashboards, (unachievable) achievables and “stretch targets” that underpin punitive performance management systems with disciplinary appraisals at their core. The arbitrary outcomes that force supposedly underperforming workers onto “performance improvement plans” are a source of the blight of the precariousness Hardy describes, creating intolerable stress. Harsh sickness absence management practices based on dubious metrics compel unwell workers to attend; a pervasive presenteeism exacerbates illness and mental distress. Moral panics about workers taking duvet days and swinging the lead can be dismissed with one statistic—the British sickness absence rate fell to 1.8 percent in 2020, the lowest recorded level ever. It is imperative that socialists and trade unionists act to protect themselves and colleagues from the “corporeal consequences” of neoliberal work, as Covid-19 has highlighted.18 This frontier of control requires collective contestation.
Workers’ hidden victories
The second theme of Hardy’s book is an explanation of the institutional response of workers to exploitation, namely trade unions. Chapter 5 delivers a historical periodisation of strikes in Britain, encompassing the victories of the early 1970s, the defeats of the 1980s and beyond. The important point is that an evaluation of the combativity of the organised working class focused solely on strike statistics, though undeniably instructive, is nevertheless incomplete. Evidence gathered from diverse sources underscores the significance of ballot votes demonstrating workers’ preparedness to strike prompting employer concessions.19 Ralph Darlington’s research on the RMT union on the London Underground and Len McCluskey’s address to the 2018 Unite policy conference are cited.20 Nevertheless, concessions can also be won through union strength in collective bargaining without ballots. Hardy’s fascinating review of Unite’s pay deal database in 2016 reveals that bargaining units in several sectors won above inflation raises. In some cases these were double the rate of inflation. A recent, classic example of a union leveraging its potential power in an advantageous bargaining position is a dispute among distribution centre workers at nine Tesco sites organised by USDAW, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. Votes for industrial action of 72.5 percent and 83.7 percent, with turnouts of 60.8 percent and 73.3 percent, forced the company to make a significantly improved pay offer.21
Many gains are not broadcast more widely than the sections directly involved—though they should be. For example, in the civil service, the most pernicious aspects of the performance management system, introduced by cabinet office minister Francis Maude between 2010 and 2012, were subject to a long guerrilla campaign by branch officers, reps and members. They appealed individual cases, collectivised grievances, and exposed the system’s costs and how its discriminatory practices contravened the Equalities Act 2010.22 In 2018, the widely hated system was withdrawn.
Below-the-radar resistance takes many different forms. As Richard Morgan has highlighted, ballot votes are important for galvanising and organising members; “get the vote out” strategies have become familiar to many trade unionists, particularly those in the University and College Union (UCU).23 Balloting is even more of an organising imperative following the 2016 Trade Union Act, which requires unions to meet the 50 percent threshold. If approached in a bureaucratic manner, it is unlikely to succeed.
Then there are the continued outbreaks of unofficial strikes that go unrecorded. Dave Smith has documented and analysed unofficial action in the construction industry, where rank and file activists and their networks play key roles in organising site walkouts. He challenges representations of these actions as spontaneous.24 Details continue to filter out of walkouts and other unofficial actions during Covid-19. Hardy rightly acknowledges the significance of the actions by members of the National Education Union (NEU), who protected themselves and others by ensuring homeworking and preventing a return to hazardous schools at decisive moments during the pandemic (March 2020, May 2020, December 2020-January 2021). The story of the NEU’s livestreamed online meeting on 2 January 2001 that was viewed by 400,000 people needs to become part of the collective memory of the labour movement.
Chapter 6, “Opening the ‘Black Box’ of Trade Unions”, delivers a valuable and succinct analysis of the contradictory nature of unions within capitalism—seeking to defend and improve the terms and conditions of workers, but not to end the exploitation at capitalism’s heart. This is familiar territory for experienced socialists and activists, but Hardy’s lucid explanation of these essentials will be invaluable for those new to unions and encountering these ideas for the first time. Trade unions’ structural characteristics—the distinctive sets of interests of full-time officialdom and lay members—are clearly articulated, and I particularly enjoyed being reminded of a passage by Hal Draper.25
Hardy provides a nuanced treatment of the tensions and dynamics within unions that are not reducible to a crude “heroes and villains”, “rank and file versus bureaucracy” duality. She recognises that differences between left and right officials can be relevant and that officials in higher echelons differ in function and role from others at local, sectoral and regional level. Differences between unions also matter. In the British Airways Stewards and Stewardesses Association (BASSA) leadership and negotiating roles were elected by members and remained employed as working cabin crew, generating greater accountability and democratic participation than a corps of full-time officers would.26 As Hardy emphasises, the distinction between paid officers and lay reps and stewards is materially significant, not least because the latter work alongside and share the same conditions as the members they represent. Reps and stewards have been dubbed the “non-commissioned officers” of the trade union movement. Additionally, lay branch officers often play decisive roles in generating workplace resistance as Hardy brings out in later chapters, for example, in her study of disputes in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.
Hardy succeeds also in her treatment of the so-called organising model associated with author and former union official Jane McAlevey and its distinctive approach as compared with the service union model. Full acknowledgement is given to the importance of McAlevey’s No Shortcuts: Organising for Power in the New Gilded Age, which has inspired activists and organisers in the NEU, Unite hospitality workers and Unison care workers in Birmingham.27 McAlevey’s approach has strengths, but a weakness is that this organising model can become overly “prescriptive, linear and mechanical”. Most significantly, it can understate the unexpected dynamics of struggles, which make it impossible to identify in advance what McAlevey calls “organic leaders”. I have challenged elements claimed to derive from McAlevey in the UCU’s approach, questioning why achieving a “supermajority” in advance of struggles is necessary. Why also are examples drawn from the United States rather than learning lessons from British disputes, such as Liverpool University UCU’s victory in their fight against compulsory redundancies in 2021?28
Hardy also gives a balanced account of alternative strategies towards the union bureaucracy, the strengths of rank and file traditions and movements, and the recent emergence of new breakaway unions such as IWGB and United Voices of the World (UVW). IWGB and UVW have been involved in some spectacular wins, organising among workers commonly perceived as unorganisable. Also discussed are both the potential and the limitations of community unionism and cyberunionism. Chapter 6 succeeds in its objective of “teasing out the dynamics between leaderships, paid officials and rank and file activists”. It concludes appositely with the oft-repeated position of the Clyde Workers Committee: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.”
Oppression and the workplace
Nothing to Lose’s third central theme is locating women and migrant workers in the changing composition of the working class and acknowledging the persistence of gender pay gaps and discrimination. Chapter 7 commences with a historical overview of women’s struggles, from the match girls and the 1910 Cradley Heath chainmakers’ strike to the Ford machinists epic struggle for equal pay in 1968. Hardy then takes us through the militant 1970s, including the strikes among Leeds clothing workers in 1970, at the Trico factory in 1976 and at Lee Jeans in 1981.
These historical accounts prefigure the chapter’s two recent case studies: first, the Birmingham care workers who took 82 strike days before the city council withdrew its plans for restructuring, redundancy and attacks on conditions; second, the equal pay campaign, strike and stunning victory by women working in Glasgow’s city council. It is impossible to capture the import and dramatic narrative of these struggles—my advice is simply to read Hardy’s account itself.
Similarly, Chapter 8 presents a judicious selective history of migrant workers as a reserve army of labour, their fights against racism and their organising efforts. Momentous struggles are documented, such as the 1963 Bristol bus boycott and the strike among female Asian workers at Grunwicks in 1976-7, which generated enormous class solidarity. Defeat born of racist division, notably during the 1974 Imperial Typewriters dispute in Leicester, is not skirted over.29
One quibble is with the account of how the tide against racism in the 1970s was turned. Of course, it is absolutely correct that the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) and Rock Against Racism played decisive roles. However, mention should also have been made of significant struggles against the National Front, such as when the Asian community drove them out of Southall and black and white unity defeated them at the Battle of Lewisham in August 1977, paving the way for the ANL.
Hardy brings to this chapter her detailed knowledge of Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, and documents attempts to organise migrant workers from that part of the world in Britain. She concludes with the injunction that, in the present climate of scapegoating, Islamophobia and populist racism, the unity of the working class cannot be taken for granted but must be fought for continually.
The fourth theme is the lived experiences of workers and the “microcosms” of struggle captured in chapters 9-12. Hardy conducted primary research for these sections, interviewing rank and file activists, branch officers and union organisers “close to the workers” involved in struggle. This is an appropriate culmination of the prior chapters, bringing to the fore the unique dynamics of each of the documented fights. Hardy explores the particular experiences of precariousness of diverse groups of workers: their grievances, discontents and petty humiliations, which are the tinder for explosions of struggle. Also examined are the challenges and methods of organising, the internal dynamics of trade unionism, and tensions between union officialdom, lay reps and the rank and file.
Hardy examines the cases of the cleaners’ actions at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and SOAS and Senate House at the University of London in chapter 9. In these disputes “recruitment, mobilisation and involvement of workers from below” and “the zeal and willingness to take strike action” by migrant workers were key to victory. As a counterpoint, chapter 10 details the organising campaign at Sports Direct’s Shirebrook depot in Derbyshire, where she uncovers the lessons of a missed opportunity. Chapter 11 analyses the transformation of the UCU by a wave of strikes in 2018, 2019 and 2020 about pensions and the “four fights”: equality, casualisation, workload and pay. These disputes threw up new layers of activists, reinvigorating branches and leading to the election of a left-wing general secretary. Finally, chapter 12 evaluates the attempts to organise workers in the games, fast food and hospitality sectors, as well as couriers and sex workers.
Nothing to Lose does not exaggerate the current balance of power between labour and capital. However, it does emphasise “the historical potential of workers to bring about fundamental political change from below”. Despite the current trough of struggle, the book gives glimpses of how “even under the most challenging circumstances, workers can fight and win”.30 In sum, this book contributes hugely to describing where we are now and how we got here. Yet, it is also a book for now that can educate and help us to agitate and organise. These are vital tasks, for, in the words of Rosa Luxemburg, “Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must they be broken”.31
Phil Taylor teaches work and employment at the University of Strathclyde. He is co-author of Cabin Crew Conflict: The British Airways Dispute 2009-11 (Pluto, 2019) and Fighting Fire: 100 years of the Fire Brigades Union (New Internationalist, 2018). His research over three decades on industrial relations, workers’ health and safety, globalisation, trade union organising and the labour process has all had the purpose of strengthening union organisation and worker self-activity. He is a UCU activist, a member of the Stop the War Coalition and co-founder of the Call Centre Collective.
1 Standing, 2011.
2 Marx, 1976, pp1039-1040.
3 Hardy, 2021.
4 Contact Babel, 2020.
5 Frey and Osborne, 2017; Bastani, 2019.
6 Howcroft and Taylor, 2022.
7 Gray and Suri, 2019.
8 In December 2021, there were 29.5 million employees in the UK, up 409,000 from pre-pandemic levels in February 2020—Office for National Statistics, 2022.
9 Choonara, 2019.
10 Taylor and Anderson, 2012.
11 Taylor, 2019.
12 Hardy, 2021, p63.
13 Health Foundation, 2021.
14 Health and Safety Executive, 2021.
15 Taylor, 2013; Green, 2006.
16 Stewart, Richardson and others, 2009.
17 Carter, Danford and others, 2011.
18 Hardy, 2021, p46.
19 Hardy, 2021, p84.
20 Darlington, 2009.
22 Taylor, 2013.
23 Morgan, 2016.
24 Smith, 2020.
25 Hardy, 2021, pp88-89.
26 Taylor and Moore, 2019.
27 McAlevely, 2016.
28 Thorp, 2021.
29 Anitha and Pearson, 2018.
30 Hardy, 2021, p208.
31 Luxemburg, 1971.