1980s >> 1982 >> no-936-august-1982

Observations: Turning the screw

Among the more eager practitioners of the Falklands-style militancy in industrial relations are the management of British Rail. The determination with which they stood their ground in the battle with the NUR and then with ASLEF was an inspiration to all employers who are seeking, in slumping capitalism, to degrade workers’ wages and conditions.

Even more notable has been the policy of the associated sea ferry service Sealink. Faced with declining traffic and mounting competition, they have simply imposed wage cuts and threatened to close their services down if the unions resist.

This worked for Sealink in the case of the ships running from Newhaven, where the seamen accepted the cuts. But in other ports there has been resistance. Sealink assert that their aim is to reduce wages by some £28 a week in Harwich (which is bad enough, when prices are still climbing week by week) but, according to the Guardian of 9 July, the cuts are more like £40, or even £80. a week. A Sealink spokesman has spelled out the situation: “. . . this is the only way we can make the service pay. If the NUS do not accept it, there will be no service”.

It is doubtful that there will be cries of anguish in the media about the suffering caused to passengers by the closing of the service by the management — the kind of protests they make when a service is disrupted by a strike. Cuts made in the interests of defending profitability are regarded as common sense while those stemming from workers’ defence of their standards are put down to bloody- mindedness.

There is an equally enduring lesson for workers to learn in this episode. This militancy is being displayed by the management of a nationalised industry; and all in the interests of economic operation — of working in such a way as to make profit, or at least not to make a loss.

This is exactly the kind of situation which the advocates of nationalisation assumed would be eliminated by a state take-over. Real experience has exposed the fallacy of those hopes. State owned industries have to be run in basically the same way as their private predecessors. The profit priorities of capitalism continue; the interests of the wealth-producing workers are low in the order of concern; the privileges of the non-producing owning minority are paramount.

For the ruling class, nationalisation can be a good deal. For the workers it is a fraud.

Pats and kicks
After all their hard work preparing the ships for the Falklands Task Force, the dockyard workers at Chatham and Portsmouth thought they deserved a pat on the back from the government. They were very upset when in fact they got a kick in the teeth.

Before the war in the Falklands. the government had decided to reduce Portsmouth drastically and close Chatham. As the first ships left Portsmouth for the South Atlantic, they were waved away by 180 workers who had already had their redundancy notices. In all, about 13,000 were to be sacked. But during the war, the yards were working night and day to prepare and convert other ships for the fighting. Some people did literally work night and day; perhaps it was overtiredness which led them to think that the government would be so impressed with the speed and quality of their work that they would be rewarded for a job well done by changing the planned cut-backs.

Now the Falklands war is supposed to have proved that this is a government of inflexible resolve, that Margaret Thatcher is always right, always eye to eye with reality. The post-Falklands “Defence” Estimates revealed that there was to be no change of plan, although John Nott subsequently promised some slight adjustments in the case of the yards at Portsmouth. Chatham will close, as planned. So the dockyard workers were very angry, sick, rejected — and jealous of the workers at the Devonport yards where, they grumbled, they don’t make the killing machines half as efficiently.

Any workers who think they arc employed as a favour, or as a reward, are gravely misunderstanding the facts of capitalist life. Labour power is a commodity — something to be sold — wherever and however it is expended. If it is not economical to buy it, workers will be laid off; factories, mines, dockyards will close.

The armaments industry has an economy with some distinctive, even peculiar, features but these do not allow it to evade the basic laws of capitalism. The very fact that they expected a pat on the back means that the dockyard workers deserved the kick in the teeth.

Charity is cold — official
In case anyone ever had doubts on the matter, it has now been officially announced that charities are completely helpless to ease the problems of capitalist society.

Amnesty International recently took the Charity Commissioners to the High Court after they had refused to register AI as a charity. Amnesty International, of course, busy themselves with battles against what they call injustice; they sponsor prisoners of conscience, they struggle for “prisoners’ rights’, whatever they may be. But Justice Slade was not impressed. “The elimination of injustice”, he droned, “has not ever been held to be a purpose which qualifies for the privileges accorded to charities by English law.”

Following their victory, the Commissioners issued some “guidelines”, presumably hoping to deter any well-meaning bunch who think they are doing something about some of the world’s ailments and that this deserves to make them a charity. But the Commissioners are quite clear on the point. They will not register any organisation which:

  tries to influence any causes of poverty which are lying in the social, economic and political structures of a state;
brings pressure to bear on governments to change their policies on issues like land reform, trade union rights;
tries to abolish social, political or economic injustices.

What this means is that charities have to exist in a society in which there is is poverty and “injustice” of all kinds and which imposes repression on organisations like trade unions.

Now the fact is that there is only one way in which to rid the world of problems like these and that is to organise for a democratic revolution to abolish the social system which causes them. That aim is far beyond the scope of any charity. The tragedy is that its achievement is hampered by many obstacles, one of them being the delusion that capitalism can be transformed by charitable acts. Well, now we know. Let alone abolishing the problems, charities can not even claim to protest about them. There has always been a hollow note to the rattle of the collecting box; it is the note of futility.