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What's behind the current strike wave?

The media is desperate to discredit them, but what are the strikes by the railway and postal workers really about?

The media are trying to discredit the rail strikes by implying that it is just a cynical manoeuvre by rival pretenders to the crown of RMT general secretary. An internal TUC document was leaked to the London Evening Standard, in which one official opined that Bob Crow, the Leftist contender, "believes that strike action raises the class consciousness of the rank and file" (10 January), thus adding a "Red Scare" to their anti-striker arsenal. Unfortunately for the Evening Standard both they and "Red Bob" are wrong; workers do not go to the lengths of striking just to please machiavellian union bosses.

Sociologists studying unions have frequently commented upon how it is the type of industry that can determine the level of union organisation: the turnover in workers, the relations between workers in the workplace, the importance of an identifiable group of workers within the labour process.

Both the postal workers and the rail staff confirm this. They work in industries which involve mass co-operative human labour (relations in the workplace), which are technical enough to prevent them being easily casualised (turnover of staff), and which are social monopolies (key industries) which work stoppages are able to immediately shut down (being services, rather than commodity producing industries). Such factors put workers in a stronger bargaining position, which has itself caused the assaults on working conditions which have provoked the current wave of industrial struggles in reaction.

It is the essential nature of the services in these industries which has led to their being associated with state control. Arguments about state ownership and control over these areas can be traced back centuries (indeed, Adam Smith discusses this issue in his Wealth of Nations, and, indeed, favoured the "regulated market" approach which Blairites claim to be an innovation of the Third Way). These services have to be paid for somehow, but to allow them to be run on a totally free market basis would mean that their monopolistic power could lead to them charging at levels which would be detrimental to the interests of other capitalist firms. On the other hand, in order to attract investment they have to make sufficient return to make it worth investors' while.

Failure of nationalisation
In 1945 the railways were nationalised, after twenty or thirty years of the capitalist class agonising over how to deal with the railways, and as a necessity of post-war reconstruction (See Socialist Standard, November 2000). This had the advantage of securing the existence of the railways, and bringing them within the system of "planning" that characterised immediate post-war capitalism. It also had the, unfortunate for the capitalist class, side-effect of concentrating the workforce into one huge unit. This effectively meant that the unions in those industries had the power to shut down the entire national system in support of their demands.

Along with two other factors, this led to "inefficiency" within the rail and postal industries. The first of these other factors was the nature of nationalised industries. Although they were in effect simply giant corporations in the usual mould, they had one significant difference. Unlike publicly quoted corporations, they were not subject to take-over. If a capitalist firm is run inefficiently, that is when the amount of profit it produces is low relative to its total capital, its share price falls, and other capitalists are able to buy its assets for a relative song. This spurs management on to keep the productivity of the workforce in line with its capital value and standard rates of industrial profit; and it also acts as a spur to investment in capital.

This lack of stimulus was linked to the nature of political control of the nationalised industries. Given that all parties were chasing working class votes, to hoodwink them into supporting capitalism, the political masters of these industries were reluctant to overtly lay-off workers from the nationalised industries. The tendency was, rather than increase the rates of exploitation, or attack workers conditions, to opt for the more politically expedient way and close down rails, coal mines, etc. when they became "uneconomic" (i.e. capitalistically inefficient).

What this meant was that, over time, whereas it had been expedient for capital to hand these industries to the state, eventually nationalised industry became a detriment to their interests. Firstly because inefficiencies due to inadequate investment in new capital in transport and mail were cutting into the profits of other sectors of the economy. Secondly, because the relative strength of the workers and their conditions had wider consequences of working conditions and labour discipline throughout the whole of the economy. Finally, these asset-rich industries were ripe for someone to make a profit from.

When privatisation did come, as a part of the Tories' turning away from the "post-war consensus", they moved to undo the disadvantages for capital of national pay bargaining. Part and parcel of the break-up of nationalised industries, was the introduction of trade union legislation banning support strikes in firms not directly involved in negotiations. This was necessary from the capitalist point of view, so that the huge unions which had amalgamated due to necessity faced with the concentrated power of national employers, could not strike across firms in order to protect their members. This was coupled with the deliberate breaking-up of national institutions (including the NHS) into smaller bargaining units, effectively paving the way for long term attacks on workers conditions.

Get rich quick
The other consequence of privatisation, especially in the rails, was the asset stripping of the industry. Since the amount of capital in the industry (especially land) had not been used "efficiently", it proved to be a cheap source of profits for the new investors. Indeed, for the first few years, the amount given out in share dividends to the owners of Railtrack et al. were equal the amounts realised in sales of land and stock. Rather than realising profits from improved service provision and investment, the new owners sought profit in the easiest form they could (much in the same manner as the asset stripping of the former Soviet Union's industries).

Alongside this, "overmanning" was attacked, that is, the new management tried to increase the rate of exploitation. Mostly, this involved laying off staff wholesale, leading to a big decrease in the number of signalling staff, as well as drivers. Many of the staff were transferred into subcontracting firms, which subsequently clouded the chain of command with regards to maintenance, but which in the short term allowed workers' conditions to deteriorate.

These cutbacks have led to a desperate situation. Arriva trains in the Northeast have found themselves short of sufficient drivers to meet their commitments. As has been shown in Scotland, a simple overtime ban has been sufficient to cripple service there. Across the country, the rising wages of drivers relative to other rail staff has been the immediate cause of the South West Trains dispute (leaving aside the disciplinary grievances). It is hardly surprising, then, that the state is offering to come to the industry's aid, by subsiding the training of drivers with a new academy, to take this cost of their labour off their shoulders, and restore the level of drivers needed.

This short sighted increase in the rate of exploitation did not, for several reasons, lead to an immediate increase in profits. Firstly, the big bulk freight contracts declined along with the demise of the coal and steel industries, a situation not helped by the second factor, which is that successive governments have consciously followed a policy of preferring roads to rail (after all, the car industry needs propping up). Rails need more maintenance and manpower to keep running that do ordinary roads, so in competition between the two the latter comes out better (especially when its costs are disguised into general taxation).

Transporting labour-power
The most important commodity carried by rail at present is labour power, in the form of commuting workers. This aspect remains vital for many capitalists, particularly in London, since housing prices within the city prevent workers from dwelling near their workplaces. What this does mean, however, is that transport prices feed directly into the price of labour in many areas, and any rises in transport prices cut the profitability of the firms who rely on the rails for labour delivery. Hence why transport becomes such a key issue, and the capitalist class is so willing to countenance state intervention in the rail industry.

The fact remains, though, that the unions remain strong enough within these sectors to resist attacks to a certain extent. Despite being hampered by law and the break-up of the industry, the big unions can co-ordinate their campaigns, and exploit political embarrassment to try and get their way. The problems are such that the rail operators may soon decide it is worthwhile giving national bargaining another try as a way of keeping workers under control. Likewise, the Post Office, now ridiculously renamed "Consignia", may have to think again about their proposed mass sackings of workers, in the face of a concerted union resistance.

Given, though, that the capitalists have used the issue of nationalisation or privatisation as the grounds for their alteration of policy over industrial relations and an attack on working conditions, it is understandable as to why many workers will see the debate in those terms, and their own interest lying with nationalisation. Hence they may be willing to believe that people calling for nationalisation represent their interests. The nationalisation debate, however, is simply one that occurs due to the incapacity of the market system to contain the contradiction between the need for ever more integrated social labour, with private property and market relations. Re-nationalisation will not remove the question of investment costs and running of the railways that have led it into such a parlous state, and will just lead to a repeat of the centuries old story.

Likewise, success through striking may well encourage other workers to stand up for their rights in the workplace more. A group of workers' strength, however, will continue to be determined by their position within the capitalist economy, and their victory a partial one within the market system. Only by looking to the political situation, the reality of class ownership and power within capitalism, and organising to make themselves a party to the political battle in the name of common ownership for their mutual needs, will a general gain come to workers, and an end wrought to the need for these sectional battles. Otherwise, the ultimate result of the strikes will be the need to strike again in the future.