1980s >> 1986 >> no-983-july-1986

Between the Lines: Their crisis; our lives and Our history

It is now almost a cliché to state that capitalism is in a crisis. Less easily grasped is the effect of that abstract notion, “an economic crisis”, on the lives of workers. Panorama (BBC1, 9 June, 9.30pm) attempted to show just how far the current economic mess is affecting the lives of workers in Cleveland in north-east England, described as being not so much of a black spot of unemployment as a black hole. In Cleveland, where ten years ago the council was making films about the industrial growth of the area, one in four workers are on the dole. Seven homes each week are repossessed because the inhabitants cannot afford to pay for them. Six thousand workers in Cleveland each year have their electricity cut off – that is one in every two hundred of the population. In the youth club, lads of twenty spoke of how they would never expect to get “decent” work – several admitted that stealing was the only course open to them. Some were prepared to take any job going, such as back-breaking potato-picking for £8 a day: even here they were often being undercut and put out of work by children who were prepared to stay off school and do the job for £4 a day. Suicides in Cleveland have increased sharply – a doctor told of a forty year-old man who had sat in his surgery and told him that he would kill himself rather than exist in dire poverty: what could the doctor do for him? The system is the disease. With all of its sickening moralising about “The Family”, the capitalist system breaks up family life. The programme showed a family where the man had to travel for months to Surrey where he could earn a wage building luxury houses for the rich. His wife and children had to live without him. Another man’s family lost him as he was sent to economic exile in Nigeria, to earn enough to stay out of extreme poverty. The illusion of capitalism is that, bad as the crisis is, it will be soon be over and better times are ahead. This crisis will end, but capitalism only offers more misery and new crises for the working class. The workers of Cleveland have no future to look forward to except the new social system of socialism, where human beings will give according to their abilities and take according to their needs. How urgent that social revolution is was, unintentionally, well-demonstrated by this documentary.


Our history
It is a rare treat for TV to offer viewers a documentary about the history of our class –  the workers who produce the wealth but do not possess it. Union Maids (C4, 5 June, 11.25pm) was a fine programme about the much-neglected topic of American labour history. The women interviewed were pioneer trade unionists in the USA in the 1930s who took on themselves the task—begun by the Wobblies some years earlier—of organising black, women and unskilled wage slaves into trade unions. Their descriptions of the struggles reminded us of the tremendous resistance which workers are capable of once they have started to perceive their class interest. At least one of these women possessed an understanding of socialist ideas, pointing out that nothing which currently exists in the name of socialism is socialism. The documentary was made even better by the inclusion of some excellent Joe Hill songs (some of the greatest music to come out of the workers’ struggle) and so we could sing along to such favourites as The Union Maid and Solidarity Forever, the latter containing the verse:


In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold;
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold;
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old;
For the Union makes us strong.


Steve Coleman