Editorial from the February 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard
One thing you can be sure about within capitalism is that the antagonism between those who own and control our society and the majority of us who don’t, will not go away. The ongoing industrial disputes by rail workers are a high-profile example of this and currently university staff are being balloted in a pay dispute based on their claim that their real pay (taking inflation into account) has fallen by over 20 percent since 2009.
The capitalists who own the means of living in society derive their wealth from the unpaid labour of the working class, that is, the amount of labour produced over and above the labour time that they pay for in workers’ wages and salaries. Thus it is in their interests to extract the maximum amount of this surplus labour. In the early days, they attempted to achieve this by lowering wages to the lowest level they could get away with and extending the working day for as long as possible. Women and children were drawn into the production process and were exploited ruthlessly. To resist this encroachment of capital, workers combined to form trade unions. Strike action and collective agitation were their weapons. In the nineteenth century, agitation by British workers successfully forced the government to concede the reduction in the working day to 10 hours and later on to 8 hours. The historic examples were the East End matchmakers’ strike of 1888, the London dock workers’ strike of 1889 and the UK General Strike of 1926. In more recent decades there were notable strikes by the UK coalminers in the 1970s and 1980s and currently we also have the Gilet Jaunes movement in France that has been making the headlines.
With the increasing application of technology to production, capitalists have been able to increase the productivity of workers and extract more surplus value without extending the working day. Although the workers work shorter hours on average and have seen improvements in their living standards, they still, in many ways, come into conflict with their employers over pay and conditions. Public sector workers have also organised strikes against their employers, the state. We have also seen the struggles of more marginalised workers – women, ethnic minorities and gays – against discrimination and for greater equality.
Socialists support workers being organised in trade unions to defend their interests. Many gains have been achieved by collective action, but they do not alter the position of workers as an exploited class within capitalism. Trade union and other collective activity cannot eradicate the problems of poverty, unemployment and homelessness. Moreover, gains may be reversed over time; in the 1960s, British banking unions successfully secured the ending of Saturday working, only to find it being reintroduced years later.
For workers to end their exploitation and secure real freedom, they need to take the next step and organise for socialism, a worldwide society of common ownership where there are no employers or employees and everyone can participate equally with free access to what they need.