What do these strikes mean?
The media of late has been filled with reports of strikes: impending, looming threatening things, lurking over the horizon to cause inconvenience and “misery” to their teeming readers and viewers. For them, strikes are automatically a trauma, a rupture in the social fabric, something to be regretted. The dominating question being: “How can this strike be averted?” The underlying tone is always: “Don’t rock the boat, puh-lease!”
Such has been the tone of reports regarding the firefighters’ action over pay. The questions flew thick and fast: will the firefighters cross the picket lines for a disaster? What will happen if someone dies during the strike? The pundits and commentators in our masters’ pockets would never stop to condemn, say, a parts manufacturer for fire appliances, if they refused to deliver their goods for less than the going price.
Indeed, going on strike should, logically, be supported by the partisans of Thatcherism and ultra-capitalist ideologues. Their vision of pursuing “rational self interest” at all costs, of putting a price tag and profit motive over everything should include the idea that firefighters owe no higher duty than to their pay-packets. After all, these people are the first to declare that directors of big firms deserve their half-million pound salaries and all the perks and “incentives” that such important “wealth generating” positions require.
The pundits never do raise the question of how many die because food is not delivered nor drugs manufactured to combat treatable diseases, solely because the price demanded is higher than those who may need it can afford. To them, this is merely the workings of some impenetrable impersonal process called the market, and we must all accept that you have to pay the market rate if you want to get things done. That is, you must get the market rate, unless it is the market rate for workers’ skills.
Skills for sale
The skills market is different, however. The thing being sold is human capacity to perform labour. The only way for it to fail to be sold is for the human being possessing the skills to withdraw their labour. That is, it is a manifestly conscious decision by a human being, not an apparent effect of autonomous price signals on a market. This is further compounded by the nature of this commodity. When a supplier sells their nuts and bolts they are sold once and for all, until the next batch is available. When a worker sells their skills, they are in effect selling a fountain of energy that remains forever within their person, and thus needs to be continuously sold and re-sold week after week.
Employers cannot directly lay hands upon our labour; they need to keep us around with our innate capacity to work at their disposal, in order to get hold of the fruits of it. If the person walks away, so too does the fount of labour. The living existence of the workers is a reminder of the human consciousness behind their labour, likewise their irksome capacity to consciously place demands to their purchaser that no other commodity can make. Thus, what is apparently natural for the purveyor of objects is intentional wickedness in the purveyors of ability.
This difference in appearance is exacerbated by the needs of the employers. They need workers to prostitute their skills to them in order to produce their profits. When workers, collectively, lay out their energy and skills for their employer, it is transferred into their products. As Karl Marx (and many of the early writers on economics) pointed out, these products are then exchangeable on the market in a ratio to the average amount of human energy and effort needing to be invested in commodities of a specific type. This is so, they reasoned, on the grounds that human effort is the one constant feature of objects that are handled by human beings with goods to trade.
Of course, workers are not paid according to their effort, but according to their capacity to work. This can be seen in several ways. Workers who sweat themselves rotten, such as firefighters or nurses, doing essential and difficult work are paid substantially less than, say, chief executives or economics professors. Cleaners often work for the minimum wage, and yet without them the academics would cease to function. Instead, what is paid for, as anyone who goes into a job centre and has to tick the boxes of jobs they are looking for rather than their preferences of employers or industries to work in knows, is the type of work the worker can do.
If a particular job requires a great deal of training, then the wage of the worker doing it will have to reflect the costs of that training. Likewise, workers need to have enough food to maintain the accuracy of complex work. They also need homes, clothes, enough money to keep a family and to travel to work. In short, they need enough to maintain and reproduce (mentally and physically, in terms of offspring) their willingness and capacity to work. The factor of willingness thus introduces a social context also to their wages, in that workers expect to maintain a standard of living comparable to that of their fellows.
Direct conflict of interest
The amount of human effort it takes to provide for these needs and requirements is generally less than the amount of effort each worker lays out. This means that when employers sell the product of that labour for a price proportional to the amount of human effort placed in it, they are able to make a profit out of the difference between that price and the price of their workers’ skills. That is, whatever is left over after paying for the cost of materials, parts, transport and labour, is profit, which is then divided between capitalist interests through such forms as rent, interest, dividends and taxes.
What all this means is, that there is a direct conflict of interest between the employers and the employed. The greater the share of the social product going to employees in the form of wages, the less there is to share between the members of the master class. Thus, they have an immediate and direct interest in wanting to make strike action taboo, and to keep the industrial peace.
This applies across the whole production process, whether specific employees are employed directly to produce commodities or to provide services. The public sector employees at the heart of most of the current disputes do not produce an immediate profit; their wages are paid out of the taxes levied on the sum of profits of a specific national capitalism. That is, the extended wages pool comes out of the sum of profits made by the system as a whole, rather than that of a specific branch of the capitalist system.
In practice, then, one of the major determining factors on the level of wages and wage disputes is that of employment levels. When unemployment is high, there is more labour available (across the system), and thus employers are able to find workers willing to take lower wages to escape the poverty of unemployment, under-cutting their fellows. Conversely, when unemployment is low, workers can combine much easier to force wages up. At the moment, unemployment is comparatively low (at around a mere one million) compared to the last twenty years.
This, then, is one of the causes of the upswing in militancy among unions–rather than a mere sea-change in the mood of union members. Faced with a capacity to flex their muscles, they are taking advantage. On top of that, there are pressing issues with regards to the price of their members’ skills: namely, an increase in the cost of housing.
Recently the state has granted Metropolitan Police Officers a London weighting of £6000 over and above their basic salaries, to reflect the increased costs of living in the capital. Our masters never were ones to stint on paying for protecting their property, and thus readily agreed to meet these necessary costs. Workers in other public sector jobs saw workers with comparable skills getting a rise to cover a cost they themselves were experiencing, and thus began to agitate for a comparable rise in the London weighting (typically around two and a half grand for most public sector staff). Thus, local government workers struck earlier this year (successfully) for an increase in their London weighting, and now Higher Education staff and teachers are following suit.
The most high-profile claim of all, the fire-fighters, is based on a comparison with the totality of police salary, not just the London weighting. This is partly based on the concept outlined above that wages reflect a cultural factor, on the identification of the appropriateness of a certain wage via comparison with similar types of labour and skills.
This is a factor recognised by the propagandists of the capitalist class too, who try to undermine the fire-fighters by comparison with the angelic nurses, who receive lower wages than both the fire-fighters and the police. If the fire-fighters win, they falsely imply, there won’t be enough money to pay the nurses properly. Nurses are raised up as saints who selflessly do their duty, rather than pursuing Thatcherist pay increases. An image of nurses undermined by the survey published on the Royal College of Nursing website that a majority of nurses are prepared to take industrial al action to pursue their pay interests
Indeed, in 1997 the RCN actually voted to change its constitution to allow for industrial action, as a part of a pay dispute it was engaging in then. Also, as we noted in the Socialist Standard (“National Nonsense”, March 2000) nurses in Ireland actually did go as far as striking. That is, the nurses recognised implicitly their position in the wages market, and their need to take organised action to promote and protect their interests, in the same manner as their fellow workers.
Then, as now with the fire-fighters, the hypocrite ruling class were prepared to use the fact that they are human beings, not merely commodity objects, to apply moral blackmail to appeal to their sense of human duty, rather than their Thatcherist self-interest in pursuit of wages.
Socialists recognise the necessity of workers’ solidarity in the class struggle against the capitalist class, and rejoice in every victory for the workers to assert their economic power. Both raising and defending of workers’ wages affects the amount of time and resources at the disposal of workers for control of their own lives.
We also recognise the conflict this causes between the inhuman commodification of pursuing the logic of the wages system without regard to anything else and the human desire to help our fellows. We claim, though, that there is a way to reconcile the our human concern and our conflict with our masters, which is to build on our economic and social power and organise collectively and politically to end the dangerous madness of the market system once and for all, rather than trying to beat the capitalists at their own game. Then, instead of our mutual needs being a tool in the hands of capitalist propaganda, they would be a banner around which all workers could unite.