Wage-labour and capital: The case of Grunwick

A year ago few people had heard of the dispute at the Grunwick film-processing laboratories; today, the effort of the strikers to win union recognition has become a national cause célèbre. The events surrounding the dispute have been obscured by the press, which would have us believe that Grunwick is some kind of elaborate game in which one side tries to drive a bus through a gateway and the other side tries to stop them. The principle involved is lost amid reports of how many policemen were injured and how many demonstrators arrested. It is also difficult because socialists, while seeing the trade-union struggle as necessary, also recognize its futility in terms of the revolutionary political action we call upon workers to take.


Members of the SPGB have attended the Grunwick demonstrations in order to sell literature and distribute a leaflet putting the Party’s view on the dispute. The first paragraph of that leaflet states:


The dispute at Grunwick will come to an end . . . but the class struggle will go on. The Socialist Party of Great Britain believes in the urgent need for workers to join together, not simply for the defensive right of union recognition, but for the purpose of organizing for social revolution—NOW. The need for class unity for Socialism is the pressing task of the age.


That, above all else, is the message of the SPGB. To abandon it would be to abandon our claim to be socialists.


So what’s Grunwick really all about? The strike began over a year ago when one of the employees at the firm walked out as a result of an argument about overtime. She persuaded fellow-workers to go out on strike with her. A majority of the workers from the mail-order section of the factory in Chapter Road, Willesden, walked out. They were disgusted by the conditions in the factory where managers shouted at and abused the workers, where they had to put their hands up before they could go to the toilet, and where employees were instantly dismissed for disobedience.


The owner of the factory, George Ward, dismissed them for going on strike. They took their case to Brent Trades Council (the representative body of local trade unions), which referred them to APEX. For months they picketed outside the factory, demanding higher pay and better working conditions and union recognition. Nobody listened to their case. In June this year the TUC was persuaded to take it up. Trade- unionists from all parts of the country came to support them. Mass picketing has now gone on for some months, so far without resolving the dispute.


What do the Grunwick strikers want? One thing they clearly do not want or even know about is Socialism. They want the opportunity to belong to a trade union, and for their employer to recognize it and reinstate the workers who were sacked for joining it. Without being organized in trade unions, the working class would be in an even poorer state than it is now. Trade unionism alone, however, will not solve the problems capitalism throws up for the working class. Union combination can improve wages and conditions only in accordance with the economic anarchy of the profit system. It cannot be stressed too much that if workers want an end to exploitation, it is political action to capture the state and establish Socialism they must be committed to.


Nevertheless, disputes like Grunwick demonstrate the inherent problems of capitalist society. First, it shows clearly the role and the immense power of the state. Why are thousands of police brought to guard the property of one man? Because the state is the executive committee of the ruling class and is bound to protect capital against wage-labour. In private, representatives of the state try to persuade Ward that he’s swimming against the tide and should recognize the union; but in public, the workers must be blamed.


Second, it is interesting to note who is in control of the state on this occasion. Not the Tories, the traditional representatives of private property and freedom to exploit, but the party of the trade unions and Clause Four: Labour. No doubt more Labour ministers are sentimentally attached to the unions than their Tory opponents, but when their commitment is put to the test they prove far more concerned with the right to exploit than with the right to strike.


Third, the fact that most of the workers at Grunwick are Asian immigrants means they are more easily intimidated, more desperate for work (immigrant unemployment is much higher than the average, especially in this area of London) and that they are less experienced in trade-union organization. The main reason for Ward’s employing them is that they will accept worse pay and conditions than other workers. Similarly many of those involved are women.


Socialists are not concerned with the “rights” and “wrongs” of the Grunwick dispute. We do not see the class struggle in terms of moral injustice. Under capitalism everything, including the prevailing morality, is loaded against those who are forced to sell their labour-power. To see George Ward as the root of all evil, as the Left has done, is to create the illusion that the defeat of Ward is more important than the defeat of capitalism.


What of Ward’s supporters? There is the National Association for Freedom which represents the more backward and reactionary section of the capitalist class. The Conservative Party is divided over Grunwick. The division is an index of the attitudes within the ruling class towards trade unions. The “right wing” of the Tories, represented by Sir Keith Joseph, stand for the traditional Tory attitude that the capitalist should be the sole master of his business, answerable only to the demands of profit and in no way to his employees. The other Conservative view, represented by James Prior, Shadow Minister for Employment, is based on the so-called “free market” in which trade unions are free to negotiate with employers and reach settlements without state interference.


That was the view taken by the Scarman enquiry which was set up to look into the Grunwick dispute:


The company by dismissing all the strikers, refusing to reconsider the reinstatement of any of them, refusing to seek a negotiated settlement to the strike and rejecting ACAS offers of conciliation, has acted within the letter but outside the spirit of the law. Further, such action on the part of the company was unreasonable when judged by the norms of good industrial relations practice. The company has thus added to the bitterness of the dispute, and contributed to its development into a threat of civil disorder. (Our emphasis.)


Clearly it is in the interest of the ruling class to strike a balance between excessive exploitation and threats to the smooth running of capitalism. That is why they reject open hostility to trade unions in favour of “enlightened capitalism”.


What of the Left at Grunwick? As usual, they have confused the issue. They have vastly overestimated the importance of it. It is not, as they claim, an attempt by the capitalist class to destroy trade unions. In fact, trade unions are of use to employers (especially when reformist hacks like Ray Grantham are in control of them). In our leaflet we told workers to reject leaders:


Whilst the organized labour movement accepts reformism they are happy—it is time to reject their leadership and organize independently. THE EMANCIPATION OF THE WORKING CLASS MUST BE THE WORK OF THE WORKING CLASS ITSELF.


The Left, far from telling people to reject leadership and organize democratically, naively call for yet stronger and more militant leaders. These are the people who see themselves as the vanguard of the working class, who are going to lead us to the barricades. They have been conspicuous by their silence when members of the SPGB have been arguing the socialist case to people at Grunwick. They have been seen standing in the background selling newspapers and muttering something about “traditional demands” and “the need for action”. Perhaps it is because these self-appointed leaders share Lenin’ belief that workers are too stupid to understand Socialism—far better have them shout slogans at a bus-full of confused workers. As our leaflet said:


The enemy is not those still working at Grunwick. We must unite to persuade them to the side of their own class interests. The enemy is not the police. They too are members of the working class. When the movement for Socialism grows they will stop doing the dirty work for the parasite class who give them their orders. THE REAL ENEMY IS THE SYSTEM OF SOCIETY WHICH PUTS PROFITS BEFORE PEOPLE AND PARASITES BEFORE WORKERS. We must unite to abolish the cause of the sickness of society, not just fight against the symptoms.


Marx argued the case for a future society without buying and selling, wage-labour or capital. That alone is the object of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. We urge all readers to involve themselves in the struggle for a world in which trade unions will be unnecessary because the buying and selling of useful things, including human energy, will be a thing of the past.


Steve Coleman