1980s >> 1985 >> no-975-november-1985

Striking lessons

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.

 

Capitalism is a world wide social system which is founded on the fact that a small minority of men and women and governments own and control society’s means of life. The social conflict engendered by the antagonistic interests of the wealth producers and the wealth owners means that a police force is needed in the same way as the competition between rival factions of the owning class create wars and the need for the most murderous weapons with which to fight them. These needs are endemic to the social system and you can no more have one without the other than you can have a war without casualties. Today the owning class pays an Army General (an expert in mass murder) in one year the amount that it pays for five nurses (experts in preserving life) but socialists are not in favour of trying to equalise the pay of killers and life-savers, we want the majority of men and women to change the basis of society so that there will no longer be a social need for war and its workforce.

 

The reason for the 30 per cent reduction in real terms in the pay of teachers is the successive acceptance, over the last ten years, of pay “increases” which were below the rate of inflation; in other words the acceptance of pay cuts. So the desired result of the current pay claim is really nothing more than restoring a standard of poverty that was enjoyed ten years ago. Even so, while the government has rejected this claim it has not been slow to award generous increases to a strangely feudal sounding group it calls “top people”. A naive observer might be forgiven for believing this term “top people” to refer to those members of society who perform the very difficult and highly useful skilled jobs like nursing, mining, engineering and so forth. But this was not the sort of person the government had in mind. Their “top people” included characters like the Lord Chief Justice. Lord Lane, who will receive a rise in two stages from £64.000 a year to £75.000 a year for wearing an 18th century court costume and using Latin phrases to ruin people’s lives. Others at the social pinnacle were the professional killers, the Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces whose rise will be from £51,000 to £75.000. The man who presented the pay recommendations to ministers for approval was Sir Robert Armstrong. Perhaps to congratulate himself on having the idea of improving the position of “top people” and as a mark of his own self-esteem he set his own rise at 48 per cent bringing his income to £75,000.
The major drawback of trade unionism is that at best it is really nothing more than running up a down escalator. Not only will it not put an end to the system of exploitation but when engaged in without seeing capitalism as a social system, it can actually help to strengthen the ideas that hold up the wages system. The point is that class-divided society does not, and cannot ever, work in the interests of the majority. In the week that teachers decided to intensify their industrial action we learned of one of the problems of a member of the ruling class. Gerald Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster, (a man. incidentally, with one “O” level to his name) said to be worth £2,000.000.000 started a case at the European Court of Human Rights. He has this problem with his rent: he is disputing the loss of £2,529,918.51 from reforms compelling the sale of freeholds to certain long-term tenants at prices well below the going market rate.

 

  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)

 

Meanwhile it was announced that liver transplants at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge would have to stop because “money is running out”. About a dozen patients. both adults and children, are on the waiting list and the unit’s transplant co-ordinator. Celia Wright, warned that some may die.

 

  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)

 

This sort of ugly contradiction between the problems of Gerald Grosvenor and Peter Maguire are a feature of a society that operates on minority ownership of wealth. The pay dispute of the teachers should be seen in this social setting.

 

Under capitalism, education is used to indoctrinate workers to be obedient and acquiescent wage-slaves. In an open letter to teachers, the Education Secretary. Keith Joseph, recently made this clear: “We are building bridges between school and work to prepare young adults better for the world of work.” (Times Educational Supplement. 27 September 1985)

 

The public schools, on the other hand, teach prospective parasites how to be “superior” and patronising.

 

In a socialist society the process of education will not be, as now, a sequence of disagreeable events undergone between the ages of 8 and 16. It would not involve the development of “the habit of obedience” to authority, learning how to do the accounts for the boss, the history of kings and aristocrats and how to say “I went to Frinton for my holidays” in two European languages. The word education developed from the Latin verb “educare“, to lead out, and in a democratic society education will become a continuous process for all those who wish to learn about anything at any stage of life. Teachers will not have to spend their whole lives being “teachers” because people will be liberated from the constraints of wage-slavery and will be able to be creative and to participate in society as well as imparting their skill and knowledge to others.

 

Teachers and all other workers should recognise the very modest and limited aims of their union. As Karl Marx again pointed out:

 

   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)

 

As the biggest staff room in the world dispersed at Hyde Park after the rally, one thought struck me in particular: the impotency of the politics of “please”. Thousands and thousands of teachers gathered to plaintively address Keith Joseph with their case for the rather modest claim for a lifestyle of poverty that they had in 1974. Please Sir. So long as the social relations of class-divided society are tolerated by the majority then workers can only demand things from the powerless position of the dispossessed. Socialists are not in the political arena to negotiate with the bosses for a few more crumbs. We want a majority to democratically take over the bakery.

 

Gary Jay