Alighting from the tube at Waterloo, I met up with the other 25,000 teachers for the march to Hyde Park. The number of people present was impressive: “the biggest staff room in the world”, a friend remarked. The demonstration was part of the industrial action in the teachers’ pay dispute. Fifty years ago. the idea of teachers engaging in this sort of industrial action would have been unthinkable to many teachers, who saw themselves not as “workers” but rather as part of a sociological group usually dubbed “the middle class” who were somehow outside the skirmishes of the class struggle. In fact, anyone who has to seek a livelihood by selling herself or himself for a wage or a salary is in the working class and the only significant difference between a teacher and a dock worker is a snob social value and not a difference in economic class. It is partly due to their earlier reluctance to engage in concerted union action over their wages and conditions that the teachers’ necessary relative poverty in the wages-system has so clearly worsened.
Despite the popular left-wing image of the working class as comprising of mostly people who work in factories, mines and docks, the composition of the workforce in capitalism has undergone considerable change during the last half-century. The majority of workers today are employed in the service industries. In 1983, for instance, the number of employees working in manufacturing industries totalled 5,748,000, compared with a total of 12,906,000 employees working in Education. Health. Finance, Transport and Communications. Public Administration, Distribution and Catering. (An Economic Profile of Britain 1984. Lloyds Bank Group)
When people suffer a contradiction between their prejudices and their daily experiences, it is experience which is ultimately the stronger force. There was for a long time a pressure for workers in jobs like teaching to avoid taking militant action in unions to improve their pay and conditions; Keith Joseph recently referred to teachers as “normally a model for moderation and civilised values”. Nevertheless, despite being told to refrain from the messy business of campaigning for higher pay and despite being told to be content and proud to be wearing a “white collar” (even if there is a economic dog-lead between it and the employer’s hand), experience cuts deeper then snob values; the rent, after all. has to be paid. In recent years, industrial action by civil servants, teachers, bank workers and journalists has shown that such workers have not been conned into believing that they are in an economically privileged position aloof from the class disputes of their fellow workers. There must be many executives and managers now with one eye on the lengthening Professional and Executive dole queue who realise the relative weakness of workers who, because of the work they are doing, are not organised in unions themselves. although even unions are relatively powerless to stop unemployment in a recession.
The claim of the teachers is for a substantial pay rise as there has been a 30 per cent reduction in their pay in real terms since 1974. Teachers carry out a wide range of tasks outside their contractual hours like preparation, marking, conferences, meetings and organisation of activities which if taken into account mean that teachers are having to exist on an even worse level of poverty than can ordinarily be expected in capitalism. Teachers usually end up by working a fifty hour week for forty weeks which is the equivalent of a forty hour week for fifty weeks. The position of all wage and salary slaves is one of relative impoverishment. Whether we are paid a low wage or a high wage, it is the fact that we do have to exist in this manner — being hired by an employer with just enough to get by with, so that we may return the following week or month in the continuing relationship of subservience — that is significant.
When we use the term “exploitation” it is to refer to the relationship between the small minority who own the means of life and the great majority who produce all of the wealth and live in poverty. We are not out to quarrel about the varying degrees of poverty suffered among ourselves. So long as that is all that workers are doing — arguing about whether a teacher should get more or less than a civil servant or a transport worker — the wealth owners will be laughing all the way to the bank. The wages system is really a form of institutionalised robbery whereby the rich get rich by paying the wealth producers less than the value of what they produce. In return for a price (a wage) the boss buys the labour-power of a worker for say a week. During that week the worker produces or helps to produce goods worth greatly more than they could buy back with their wage. That is the nature of exploitation in capitalism. The price of the labour power of a service worker. like a teacher, is calculated with reference to such factors as how much on average needs to be spent in the training of the worker and roughly what standard of living needs to be enjoyed (or suffered) by that worker in order for him or her to be in the right sort of condition for the demands of the job. Also taken into account is the need for money to be available for workers to rear another healthy generation of geese to lay more golden eggs. But this last factor is progressively being taken account of less as females have entered the workforce more prevalently and two incomes have almost become an expected prerequisite (from the employer’s view) for having a family.
As Karl Marx observed, capitalism exerts a constant downward pressure on the living standards of workers as the owning class try to get the best screw from the wealth producers as possible:
Such being the general tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did so they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation. (Value, Price and Profit)
As a employee, with all the insecurity that entails. I am obviously better off united with fellow employees in an organised union than I would be facing my employer on my own. Nevertheless, there are two sorts of drawbacks with trade unionism one minor and one major.
The minor drawbacks of trade union campaigns arise from the fact that because most of their membership is not yet socialist, unions sometimes put forward arguments that socialists reject. A strike, for instance. on racist grounds is not something that socialist trade union members would support. One of the lines of argument advanced by the teaching unions as part of the demand for higher pay has been the comparison between the current levels of pay of teachers and the police. After six years of service, a teacher can expect to earn £7,734 whereas a policeman after the same length of service can expect £12,282. This sort of observation does help to highlight the priorities of the profit system but for the owning class the utility of the police force (and the anti-social aspects of their job) is so intrinsic to the social system based on class that it is really nothing but an unobtainable moral request that says that the rat race should be made equitable and meritocratic.
It may well be small change to the wealthiest man in Britain . . . However, as one of his colleagues on the family trust said yesterday it is the principle that counts.(Guardian. 24 September 1985)
The father of a four-year-old girl on the waiting list. Mr Peter Maguire said: “How in God’s name can you put a price on a child’s life?”(Guardian. 20 September 1985)
They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of these effects . . . that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that with all the miseries it imposes on them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto. “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword. “Abolition of the wages system!”(Value, Price and Profit)