From the March 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
It has been the proud boast of the Labour Party that they are better at governing because of their "special relationship” with the trade unions. This means, in effect, that they claim to run capitalism better than the Tories by keeping the greedy working class in its place. Now, as the Callaghan government staggers to the end of its term, we witness one of the most remarkable wave of strikes that anyone remembers. Railwaymen, lorry drivers, dustmen, hospital porters, school caretakers, are all getting in on the act — and at the time of writing the miners haven't even come on the stage yet.
What has happened has been that a government has imposed wage restraint which, with greater or less reluctance, the workers, led by their stooge union bosses, have swallowed for a year or two. But. like trying to restrain the tide, it really can't be done. Wages are the price of the workers’ energies and skills and when, thanks to government-primed inflation, all other prices shoot up. then wages/prices will assuredly follow (though of course less assuredly in places like Warsaw or Cairo where the prices go up and the workers themselves go down — under a hail of bullets). And if the tide has been dammed for a period, then it breaks forth with even greater violence when the dam bursts. It is ironic that just at the time when the government of Labourite twisters needs the help of their fellow twisters of the TUC, the latter have to let them down by ending the so-called social contract. They realise that their sheeplike followers are rather displeased at their lowered standard of living and might well start biting their shepherds.
Unfortunately, the term "sheeplike” is all too apt. A lot of members of the working class have the ludicrous idea that whereas they themselves ought to have a “decent” wage and might even have to strike to get it, other workers and other unions are greedy and aggressive and in general are letting ‘‘our" grand old country go to the dogs in a welter of strife.
STIFF WITH COMPLAINTS
Meanwhile, the class solidarity of the workers, even at a time like this, is shown to be rather a sick joke. The letter columns of the papers have been stiff with complaints from workers who make it clear that other workers have got a damned cheek to try to grab higher wages. So the lorry drivers think they have a tough job and are entitled to a basic of £65, do they? Well, what about us ambulance drivers? Our basic is nearer £45 than £65. Ambulance drivers don’t know how well off they are. How would they like to manage on the wages that we hospital cleaners get? And it is worth spending a moment here to look at some of the figures detailed in an article in the Guardian of Jan 17 headed: How Do They Get By On £40 a Week? The short answer is that Mrs Penny Hibbins (her parents knew what they were about when they christened her), a domestic worker at a hospital in Devon, a divorcee with four young kids, has £5 left after rent, rates and what they call food.
Does the mind boggle? Well, let it boggle a bit more. "Indeed, Mrs Hibbins agrees that she is one of those doing comparatively well”! We hear all the time that things are nothing like as bad as they used to be. Times change all right. But the more they change, the more they stay the same. And another point is worth stressing here. In the old days, the Labour Party used to say it was all the fault of greedy private capitalists. Let‘s nationalise things and the benevolent state will make all wage slaves happy.
In the bad old day the Labour Party would rant and rave against mean bosses. Now that they are in power, they rant and rave against "rogue elephants” — bosses who have the unpatriotic cheek to pay their workers too much! Callaghan threatened to punish Ford's for the crime of paying their strikers more than the 5 per cent which he had decreed was good enough for slaves of the conveyor belt. Absolute cruelty to bosses. They honestly didn’t want to pay their workers more than the 5 per cent. If the workers could get by without eating, they would be quite prepared to pay them nothing at all — and even Callaghan couldn't ask for greater patriotism than that. Ford’s only paid the 17 per cent (or whatever) because their awful workers went on strike. It’s sheer injustice to punish the bosses for paying over the odds.
And of course the nationalised concerns, National Health Service, miners. British Rail, will all have to breach the ludicrous 5 per cent with an inflation rate of twice that much. So will Callaghan impose sanctions on himself for breaking his own rules? (No Tory MP or media pundit caught him out on that one. How lucky to have opponents who are as thick as yourself).
Mention of British Rail makes it clear that the workers who think that all the problems are caused by other workers wanting too much are not just housewives in the supermarkets or teachers writing in the press. The class war in British Rail is of the kind to make old Karl tear his beard off. Abolition of the wages system? Someone must be joking. The guards on some trains were given the job of issuing the tickets. So they wanted a bonus for it. So BR said well, we’re saving on ticket offices so we’ll give them a bit of the loot. But these were NUR men. This was, of course, noticed by the ASLEF men, a smaller union but, being composed of people like the drivers, rather important. And, come what may, no engine driver can stand idly by while guards and porters get wages which creep nearer to their own princely salaries. So all drivers out; all workers who had to crawl to work in traffic jams in the blizzards (trust god to add a freeze-up to all your other miseries) cursed the selfish drivers.
Did anyone see any sign of any body of workers, or union leaders, or newspapers (and for this purpose let’s call the Morning Star a newspaper) suggesting that the workers should take a little time off from worrying how much more the other workers are getting and asking why it is that they are all exploited for the benefit of the capitalist class and their toadies like Callaghan? In the first place, only by such things as strikes and the threat of strikes can workers defend their living standards under capitalism. If the workers were docile, the capitalists (including the State) would see to it that Mrs Hibbins had even less than her fiver.
Papers like the Guardian publish learned articles by useless academics working out that after a strike, the workers usually take years to catch up with the wages they lost in the struggle. These fools don't begin to notice that without strikes their standards would be more like the life in Russia, where strikes are criminal and workers are ground down accordingly. But what is true is that all this strife and struggle is just one endless treadmill. And the truth is that workers can actually decide to get off the treadmill.
Let Gentleman Jim have the last word. Looking at the chaos all around he bleats: "What kind of society do we want in this country?" What kind of question is that from our "socialist" Premier? It almost makes you think he's not a socialist, doesn't it? If "we" means the electorate, then we must want the society we vote for; where we are exploited while Callaghan and his ilk live in places like his magnificent farm in Sussex.
L. E. Weidberg