2000s >> 2003 >> no-1181-january-2003

Editorial: Another Winter of Discontent?

Recently the news media has been dominated by one story – the wave of strikes that have occurred across Britain, and more particularly, the firefighters’ strike. Most newspapers have been supportive of the government in their attempt to hold down pay increases, especially in the state sector – and that includes some newspapers that traditionally claim to be part of the “liberal press” and therefore generally on the side of the workers, such as the Observer. The justifications given by the supporters of the government for this are varied – though the notion that giving in to the firefighters would be “setting a dangerous precedent” is a common one, this being allied with the idea that pay increases for wage and salary earners are somehow “inflationary” and will wreck the economy.

The way in which the government and their friends in the press have set up convoluted arguments designed to frighten people into turning against “militants” and “troublemakers” in the trade unions is an example of history repeating itself. The last Labour government under Jim Callaghan in the late 1970s did exactly the same thing, when the bogeymen of the press were the workers at Ford, striking state sector workers in local government and the hospitals and – interestingly – the firefighters. They were all, so it was said at the time, out to pursue their own petty interests without consideration to the impact they would have on others. Margaret Thatcher went further still in railing against these supposedly inconsiderate wreckers in the unions, famously calling the striking miners in 1984-5 “the enemy within”.

Given this, if one thing should be crystal clear from the recent history of British industrial relations, it is that whichever government is in power – Labour or Conservative, Left or Right – their observable tendency is to resist attempts by the organised working class to increase wages and salaries and improve conditions. No matter what they may say at other times, governments are there primarily to defend the interests of the owners and controllers of wealth in society – the people they call the “wealth creators” but who in actual fact merely accumulate the wealth and riches that are created by others, namely the working class.

When governments talk about safeguarding the economy, they are really talking about safeguarding the people who own the economy. In a way, this is all perfectly sensible, as the capitalism system can only run on the basis of a minority owning the bulk of the wealth and getting the rest of the population to work for them: in the market economy there is no other way. When the profits of the owning class are hit, the system ceases to function efficiently.

This is the problem with big pay claims. The government (or at least some members of it) might ordinarily claim to be on the side of the workers, but when it comes down to it, they have to protect the interests of the owners and controllers of wealth, as that is one of the inherent functions of government. Their entire language is skewed that way too.

When the firefighters make their pay claim, we are told that is going to be “inflationary”. And that will mean higher interest rates and then falling property prices, apparently. But, funnily enough, when share prices go up and dividends go up, the government breathes a sigh of relief all round. In distinction to wage and salary rises, they are apparently good news and a sign of a buoyant economy. In other words, not inflationary at all. It is a peculiar function indeed of the wages and salaries of the working class that they – and they alone – appear to be the only form of income received by people in society that have the peculiar and harmful effect of pushing up prices. That, in itself, is something which rather gives the game away.

As we explore in our main feature article this month, governments actually cause inflation, not workers. From the point of view of the working class, there is no reason to shy away from supporting other workers struggling to improve their conditions and pay (or in some cases, just struggling to make sure things don’t get worse). We are all in the same position regarding pay increases and towards the end of a boom – when profits have been high – is historically the best time to force the issue.

Forget all Blair’s guff about a harmonious, classless society in Britain – recent weeks have been vivid demonstration of the fact that there is a class war going on, and there comes a time in all our lives when we have to make a decision about whose side we are on, ours or theirs.

Whose side are you on?

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