The Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions is currently waging a campaign with the declared object of reducing the working week to 35 hours from, typically, 39. This would probably lead to a 4-day week, although there is clearly scope for flexibility here. This campaign is part of the continuing struggle which the working class must wage under capitalism to defend and where possible improve its living standards against the encroachment of capital.
The CSEU has not called all its members out at once but has instead targetted certain firms for action in the hope that successes there will have a beneficial knock-on effect. For instance at British Aerospace, whose Warton Unit covers three sites in the Preston area, at Warton. Salmesbury and Preston itself, strike action took place at Preston only. This meant that members still on full pay were able to give financial support to the strikers, reducing the drain on union funds which providing strike pay inevitably entails. Compromise settlements have been reached with a number of firms, but other firms are now being targetted in the continuing action.
As Marx points out in chapter 10 of volume I of Capital, which deals with the working day, the more capital succeeds in prolonging the working day the greater the amount of workers' unpaid labour it can appropriate, all other things being equal. He went on to show that during the 17th and most of the 18th centuries a 10 hour working day was normal in Britain, but that during the Napoleonic Wars this had increased to as much as 18 hours. Marx gave a lot of detail on what this meant in terms of human misery, and also how the employers found ingenious ways of getting round legislation designed, at least nominally, to curb their greed.
Then, as now, any reduction in the working day or any increase in wages was represented by the capitalists as destroying their competitiveness. An hour's reduction, according to them, would take the hour in which all their profit accumulated! Hence workers were discouraged from taking any action to improve their lot, being told that if they did so they would finish up with no jobs at all. In fact working class action, helped as Marx points out by divisions in the ruling class, led to a considerable reduction in the working day during the Victorian era without profits suffering. Technological advances, and other means of increasing the "efficiency" of labour enabled as much profit as formerly to be wrung out of the shorter day. Without in any way detracting from these efforts by the working class, it has to be pointed out that the very long working day of early Victorian times was in many cases beyond the limit of human endurance and simply had to be curtailed in the longer term interests of the capitalists themselves.
Once this exceptionally long working day had been reduced, at least in the more advanced industrial countries, further reductions in the working week have been much slower. In an article in the Times (28 May) Clive Jenkins pointed out that the manual unions had won the 40 hour working week fifty years ago but that currently, with overtime, a 41 hour week was being worked on average. A nominal reduction in working hours has frequently been seen as an opportunity for an effective wage increase via increased overtime payments rather than as an increase in leisure time.
The struggle at British Aerospace
In the case of British Aerospace, the initial reaction of the employers was the typical one that nothing could be conceded. A step was taken that is becoming increasingly common: top management circulated all employees by post and over the heads of the unions. The first of these came from the Chief Executive, who pointed out that the union claim was for “35 hours without strings", as indeed it was originally. He then stated that:
A 35 hour week will force costs up and reduce capacity. This will damage our competitiveness and we will lose our market share. That means reduced orders and fewer jobs.
He went on to say that the company had decided to "stand firm on a policy not to reduce the working week". A few days later the General Manager of the Warton Unit put more flesh on to this by giving details of particular orders considered to be especially at risk.
Clearly workers have to take some risks or nothing would ever be achieved. In this instance one fairly small order was lost but if was not clear whether it was correct to blame this on the dispute. In the more publicised case of the halt in production of Airbus wings at Chester, where Airbus Industries made a few disgruntled noises, it would have been very difficult for this to have been moved elsewhere without at least as much delay as actually occurred. All parties were therefore virtually committed to accepting the situation. Generally speaking, this sort of talk from the capitalists is just scaremongering, and it was ineffective.
Strike action commenced at Preston on 30 October last year and continued until March. British Aerospace twice unsuccessfully tried to obtain high court injunctions. Shortly before the Christmas holidays, the company, in an effort to keep production going, started bussing in workers to Warton from the other two sites. Workers who refused to do this—the great majority of those asked—were suspended. Nevertheless this ploy was a flop. Provocative management statements continued on the projected loss of contracts and jobs. The unions responded by pointing out that this had not happened at firms on the Continent where shorter working weeks had been won, and that this had in fact, in the opinion of many economists, led to more jobs becoming available.
At the end of November, after attempts by the CSEU and the Engineering Employers Federation to obtain a national agreement had failed. British Aerospace Warton management offered, in the words of yet another circular letter to staff, “a reduction in the normal working week from 39 to 37 hours, in return for an agreement on offset measures to protect capacity and cost”. It is clear that management had this compromise in mind from an early stage, despite the earlier rhetoric. While a good deal of hard bargaining was to come, particularly on the “offset measures to protect capacity and cost", this formula was the basis of the eventual settlement.
The actual settlement provided for an immediate reduction to 38 hours and to 37 in 12 months time, but there was no mention of any further reduction later. Equally there is no question of the settlement being without strings, as the unions had earlier insisted, and this is typical of the terms achieved at other targetted firms and hence will obviously be the pattern for future settlements in the continuing series of actions. The most contentious part concerns tea breaks where the agreement states clearly:
The practice of stopping all production for formal tea breaks will be replaced by the practice of taking refreshments as and when required, but at a time which will not impair the efficiency of work in their department.
By gaining this point, the capitalists may well have clawed back all the production which might have been expected to have been lost. Indeed it is questionable whether a reduction in hours in such circumstances is a gain for the workers at all. At the sister British Aerospace plant at Kingston, also targetted by the unions, the dispute was prolonged to almost six months over this issue, with the workers maintaining—rightly—that the tradition was "an essential break which helped them to cope with the pressures of the job".
Reductions in hours and increases in wages are countered by the capitalists intensifying their efforts to get more surplus value out of the workers during the time that they are at work. More advanced machinery is installed, where previously this was uncompetitive as the more labour intensive methods were cheaper. Now that the very long working days of earlier times have largely gone, further reductions in hours can be seen more and more openly as a mixed blessing if accompanied, as they clearly have been in this instance, by a greater intensity of work during the shorter week.
A sour note crept into the end of the struggle at Preston where there was only a small majority in favour of acceptance at the mass meeting. The loss of the traditional tea breaks was the main bone of contention, with many feeling that they had been sold out by the negotiators. As happens sometimes when a vote on a show of hands is close, there was a reluctance to accept it. and some violence occurred. When the non-striking workers at Warton and Salmesbury were asked to vote on the settlement, initially they rejected it. The CSEU weekly update (no. 14) of 12 March attributed the reluctance to accept the deal to a lack of understanding of its true nature and to a disruptive influence by non-union supervisors, but this is scarcely convincing.
The available evidence is certainly consistent with management having been assured by the officials that the package could be sold, without these officials having adequately sounded out grass roots opinion. This must be taken as yet another warning on the dangers of leadership. Workers must not sit back and allow “leaders" to do all the work, but must try to participate as fully as possible in order to keep their spokesmen adequately briefed on their opinions.
Besides this need for workers to back up the basically democratic structure of the union movement with active participation, this dispute illustrates that when capital is forced to give ground in one area it will try to take it back in another, in this case by intensifying effort during the reduced hours of work. This poses the wider question of whether further reductions are necessarily in the workers' interests unless they are obtained genuinely "without strings''. But above all it demonstrates the never-ending necessity under capitalism for the workers to defend their living standards, and hence the ever pressing need to abolish the capitalist system itself.
E. C. Edge