March 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
If the hollow rantings of the media are to be believed we are currently in the midst of a serious crisis. Our lives are being disrupted by their ruthless trade union action; our economic stability is being undermined by their pay demands; our needs are unfulfilled because of their greed. Newscasters bring us the latest tales of violent picketing and malicious damage by men and women who have the cheek to put their wages above our convenience. Political pundits debate the effect the ‘industrial chaos’ will have upon civilisation. Phone-in presenters invite simpletons to air their views on how ‘we can get the country out of this mess’. The Sun printed a headline gloating over the fact that a worker on a picket line was shot. The Daily Express has invited readers to form strike-breaking squads. The Archbishop of Canterbury has issued a statement saying, in effect, that enough is enough.
The cause of all this fuss is the miserable failure of the Labour Government’s 5 per cent incomes policy, the first consequence of which occurred before Christmas when the petrol tanker drivers came out for more money. They were followed by the TGWU lorry drivers and then ASLEF train drivers. Sewerage workers in the north of England were the next to come out, followed by NUPE, the union representing relatively low paid workers such as hospital ancillary staff, ambulance men, refuse collectors and gravediggers. When these workers are doing their jobs they are portrayed as duty-motivated public servants, but as soon as they ask for more than the pittance they are paid they are pictured as ‘mindless militants’ who are no longer part of the public.
There is nothing new about incomes policies not working. Legal enactments or ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ cannot override the need of trade unions to try to obtain better wages and conditions for their members. Jim Callaghan, posing as an avuncular headmaster, has always claimed to be the man who can work with the unions, just as Labour has claimed to be the party of the working class. But such alliances have little effect when it comes to the struggle between the workers demanding enough money to live on and the capitalists, both private and State, who have always to place profits above the social interest. Despite the failure of Labour’s voluntary incomes policy. Peter Walker, a member of Heath’s 1974 Tory Government, argued in The Guardian on February 5th that
What is needed is a consensus that Britain needs some kind of pay policy until its inherently inflationary collective bargaining system is replaced by something better.
Walker is clearly not a believer in learning from past errors. Neither are the trades unions. The sterile repetition of the incomes policy — wage demand — strike — return to work-cycle has done nothing to change the fundamental position of the working class. Demands for a ‘fair wage’ or a ‘decent standard of living’ simply demonstrate that trade unionists are captives of the ideology of the wages system. Hugh Hubert, in his report from the TGWU strike headquarters in West Bromwich in The Guardian (31 January) stated that
The West Midlands men don’t seem to want or expect (the strikes) to alter anything but the contents of their wage packet.
The current wave of industrial action has brought out Callaghan and Thatcher at their anti-working class worst. Callaghan, in case readers should forget, is leader of the Labour Party which was formed at the turn of the century to speak up for the trades unions in Parliament. Speaking up about them recently in the Commons he said he would be quite happy to break through a picket line — and he and his ministers have done so, thus showing their contempt for one of the basic principles of trade unionism — and that workers who go on strike are engaging in ‘free collective vandalism’. If Callaghan is playing the part of uncle, Thatcher seems to be auditioning for the role of mother as she warns the ‘militants’ that she will not stand by while the old and needy suffer the hardships following from industrial action. What sickening hypocrisy!
These upholders of the profit system accept as an inevitable everyday occurrence that old people receive inadequate food and warmth because of the expense of providing them, that workers have to wait months for vital hospital treatment while money to the NHS is cut back, that families dwell in filth for the lack of money to live comfortably. But when members of the working class can be blamed for these things, then they become unacceptable and indefensible.
The Left has reacted in a predictably hysterical way to the ‘industrial crisis’. Confusedly, they see trade unionism as class consciousness. Organisations like the Communist Party and Socialist Workers’ Party see wage demands as the best that the working class can aspire to without their political leadership. In 1974, when the Heath Government was in a similar position, the Left predicted an upsurge in revolutionary consciousness. Their advice to the workers then was to elect a Labour Government. Sadly, that advice was taken.
How long will it be before the working class realise that the wages system can never work in the interest of those who sell their labour force for a wage or a salary? The media preaches to workers about The National Interest. There is no common interest. The trade union hacks repeat the demand for ‘A Fair Day’s Wage for a Fair Day’s Work’. It is time that workers, inside and outside the trade union movement, recognised that their future does not lie with the prosperity of the British capitalist class, nor upon the size of their wage packet. The upheaval caused by the worker’s recent protests has shown the power of the working class When that power is used, not to merely decrease exploitation but to abolish the wages system, then the fruits of victory will be worth having.