Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Turning the screw (1984)

From the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Three years ago the company I worked for announced it was closing. It was part of an ailing industrial giant which was itself finally sunk soon after when the banks withdrew their support. During the three month run-down period rumours that a "consortium" of managerial staff was trying to buy the place kept our hopes alive. Those of us who had been kept on to finish outstanding work knew that if the consortium didn't employ us then we would have little chance of a job anywhere else so we worked like we've never worked before. That deal fell through but an American multi-national moved in and bought the company. We soon learned that not everyone still working there would be employed by the new owners so each of us redoubled his efforts in the hope of being offered one of the available jobs.

A week after the old company finally closed some of us, the lucky ones, started work for the new company. A few days earlier we had been interviewed and the terms of employment had been spelled out to us. The wages would be increased by a few pounds but there would have to be "flexibility" which meant doing work previously done by other workers, and although there was to be no anti-trade union policy there would be no closed shop either. This last part didn't bother me, for workers who have to be forced to join a union are no asset to it and may actually be a source of weakness.

None of us will ever forget the first few months of working for the new owners. If we had been going like the hammers of hell before then it was nothing compared to what we now had to go through. The management, obviously wishing to impress their bosses, hounded us from clocking on till clocking off. No longer did we dare linger over our newspapers for another minute after starting time, take an unofficial cup of tea in the afternoon or wash up five minutes early. Some of us, even though we had a job, were applying for every job we saw advertised in the press, even if it meant working away from home. Nothing, we felt , could be worse than this.

Around this time government ministers were crowing about how the growth of unemployment had produced a different climate in industrial relations. "There is a new sense of realism among workers today" they said, and added that because of this productivity in Britain was rising. If what was happening to us was typical of the rest of the country then no wonder!

Frequent reminders of what job prospects were like outside were provided by former workmates whenever we met them. "It's hopeless" they told us. "I've been everywhere and there's nothing doing". On top of this we were hearing of other places in our line of work having redundancies or even closing and so increasing the supply of labour on an already glutted market. In the circumstances the management could walk all over us and we just had to take it, even when the heating was left off as an "economy measure" during the bitter cold at the end of 1981.

As time passed the pace became less frantic and gradually conditions changed to something approaching sanity, although we still had to work harder than any of us had been used to. At the end of the first year we had a 10 per cent rise without any haggling and the order book, we were told, was full enough. More men were being taken on and extra machinery installed, so the future was looking more secure. We should have known better.

Then last month came the visit from "the Yanks". The place was spruced up for these representatives of the parent company and they duly paraded through the factory wearing safety helmets, protective ear-muffs and big smiles. It was noticeable that the works management who accompanied them weren't smiling. All week we heard stories that the visitors were less than impressed with how things were going and that harsh words were being spoken.

On the following Monday afternoon the shop stewards were sent for. When they returned they called a meeting of all the hourly-paid employees and broke the news that there would be ten redundancies. The men were stunned. How could this be?, they asked. There was plenty of work now and for some time in the future. No matter, the visitors had decreed that the work must be done with less employees. The factory, they had said, was still only breaking even and would have to become profitable by mid-1984 when the situation would be reviewed. The ten men to go (plus one from the office) would be told next day and everyone at the meeting began to look around and calculate how much better or worse his chances were compared to the others.

Inevitably, the usual divisions between the workers emerged. The factory personnel raged because only one office staff was to go. "Bloody ridiculous" they said, "we're producers, not them". National prejudices also had an airing. It was the greed of those "Yankee bastards" that was to blame, as if British employers would have acted any differently in the same situation. My workmates, like most other workers, haven't begun to understand that their jobs are only provided on the basis that they will produce a surplus over and above their wages. Some of them even claimed that they have "a right to a job" which also must mean that employers have a duty to employ them whether they need them or not. Investors put their cash in order to make a profit, not to keep workers in jobs. There is no other way in which capitalism can operate. Next day at two o'clock the foremen broke the news to the chosen ten and told them to collect their money and go. Within twenty minutes they had gone with two weeks plus two days pay. The rest of us were shocked at this treatment but there wasn't a lot we could do about it.

Next day our foreman gave us a little talk. What it boiled down to was that the arm and leg we had given the new owners still wasn't enough and we would have to do even better in future. Apparently, the company have a factory in America which makes the same product as ourselves and the visitors claimed that the American workers are making it faster than we do. The implication was obvious enough but it doesn't stretch the imagination too much to picture those American workers being told that it is we who are the danger to their jobs because we get paid a lot less.

What about my workmates, what are their ideas and how have they been affected by all these experiences? Like most other workers they aren't in the least interested in politics. In fact some of them don't even have a reasonable trade union consciousness and blame nearly all their problems not on the capitalist system, but on other workers. A few weeks before the redundancy I overheard one of them saying "What I'd like to see is a wee bit more money for us and a wee bit less for them". Curious, I asked him who "them" was. "The unemployed" he said. When I asked him why, he replied "because there's not a big enough differential between what I get and what they get". He shared the widely-heard belief that people on the dole receive huge payments, although this didn't prevent him being terrified later on when he thought he was to be one of the ten. Luckily for him he wasn't.

Almost all of my workmates buy tabloid newspapers like the Sun which reflect, rather than mould their generally reactionary ideas. The talk at tea and lunch breaks, besides being about the usual subjects like football and gambling, often resolves around pet hates like the English, "poofs" and blacks. Our shop steward even refers to the latter as "jungle bunnies". They have experienced living under Labour governments and they know what life is like in the "communist" countries, so none of them sees any hope that things could ever be different. They imagine that the present social order has always been and always must be. I do my best, but where else do they ever hear anyone arguing the case for a world of production for use, without wages, prices, pensions, privileges and bosses? Because I am on my own I can be dismissed as a political flat-earther.

And yet, I know that they, like me, felt anger and humiliation at having to scramble for a job. Nor do they enjoy the feat of the sack whenever we hit a "quiet patch" or having to jump if the foreman or one of the "big shots" appears. And they worry, not only about their own futures, but of those of their children. The only thing wrong with the socialist case is that is has too few adherents and because is this socialists are unable to take advantage of the massive working-class discontent which exists.
Vic Vanni

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