In Early Days of capitalism employers, in there pursuit for maxim profits, were able to act with almost complete ruthlessness in their treatment of workers. They could take advantage of every rise of unemployment or the inflow of immigrant workers to reduce wages to a bare minimum, using the lockout if necessary to starve workers into submission.
They imposed excessive hours of labour and ordered temporary extensions of normal working hours without giving any overtime pay.
They employed workers in overcrowded and insanitary factories and workshops, and exposed them to frequent accidents from dangerous machinery. They introduced new working processes and machinery at will, often replacing men by lower-paid women and children. Factory discipline was like that of a military force, and workers who ‘mutinied’ could be sacked and, by arrangement with other employers, blacklisted, so that they could not get work elsewhere. Employers accepted no responsibility for payment of wages during sickness, and workers sacked or disabled had to rely on their own resources.
And so against such a background, and this is only part of the story, for Trade Unions were formed to resit these and other pressures. The basic idea was that, by combining together, workers could get better terms, protect individuals against victimisation and provide payments out of funds during strikes or lockouts.
So with that quick history lesson out of the way I now turn to our modern British Trade Union Movement, which through its own combining meets annually as a congress. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) opened its proceedings yesterday in London, and for the first time since since 1902 at its London base Congress House.
It meets at a time when there is hanging around like little green apples about to drop, an enormous degree of uncertainty; uncertainty surrounding the global economy, and for us an uncertainty in Britain, an uncertainty of what will be the kickback from the eurozone economy, and of countries like Greece whose banking system crisis intensified yesterday as fears mounted of default soon. And with other economies hitting the canvas floor I personally think in terms of world depression on its way. Britain’s dominant services sector saw growth slowdown at its fastest pace since the 2001 foot and mouth crisis”.
Just to mention the US, were things are in an advance state of decay and yet like over here the media, the establishment would prefer to have people think that the worse of the recession is over even though in its aftermath new records of the wrong kind have been set.
Well-nigh 1 in 6 American workers have lost their jobs, this is the highest job-loss rate in the last 30 years, and add to that the 1 in 9 college graduates that have lost jobs. Three years after the recession began, the economy was still 7.7 million jobs short, this has led to the $447 billion jobs plan that President Obama outlined last week to a joint session of Congress in a desperate attempt to keep the support of unions, liberals and Democrats - elections next year.
What an irony then that an hour south of Wall Street, where bankers can be heard complaining about how hard it is to survive on a million dollars a year, other Americans are having to make do with less.
Tent cities reminiscent of the famous “Hoovervilles” of the Great Depression have been springing up in cities across the United States, the official fingers given for homelessness is 700,000 but I find this hard to accept considering the vast size of the country. Then add together the 40.8 million people or 13% of the country that live on food stamps I think that I am able to depict the way the world is looking this week as our very own trade unionists meet in deliberation; and so I thought the following should be considered and I would very much welcome others impute and ideas.
One of the proud boasts of the more advanced capitalist states is that we are democratic. In fact, government leaders hardly ever stop going on about it. Certainly in the more liberal countries, legal rights provide for freedom of expression and political organisation. In Britain, these were won after long, bitter struggles against the predecessors of present Tories and Lib Democrats who resisted the growth of democracy sometimes with ruthless state violence. But they will be the last to let these facts of history stain their present dedication to the democratic ideal. We are all democrats now – or are we?
Do the freedoms won in Britain mean that we live in a democratic society? Far from it. We may be able to promote political discussion, put up candidates and vote but what about our participation in decisions which directly affect all our lives such as what goods shall be produced, and how they should be distributed? Our lives depend on these decisions but where is the democratic participation? There is none. And then again, most of us spend most of our waking hours either at work, getting ready for work, or recovering from work. But how many of us have any say in how the places where we work and the work itself is organised?
What say do we have about how the real resources of labour and materials should be allocated to solving our problems. We have no say in any of these decisions.
September sees this Annual Conference of the TUC whose founding members in the 19th century were in the forefront of the movement for democracy. But that was some time ago and a lot of people would say that since then the TUC has rather lost its way. The TUC now gives the impression of being part of the status quo and as a result no longer seems to have a progressive role. Should the battle for democracy be content with our right to elect governments to rule over us when a truly democratic society would involve all people in the important decisions affecting our lives? Socialists can suggest how trades unionists can recall the early struggles for democracy and rejoin that battle. In doing so, they would re-capture their vision of a better world and play a constructive part in working for it.
In the past many trade unionists looked to nationalisation as a means of building a democratic society but this has been a diversion that led nowhere. For example, in the case of the coal mines it was believed that under nationalisation the miners would run the mines for the benefit of the community. In fact the Coal Board replaced the mine owners and the miners went on being exploited. In its worst forms nationalisation subjected millions around the world to the brutalities of state capitalist regimes which suppressed democratic rights. Foolishly, some people still believe in nationalisation but experience shows that we should now put that myth behind us and make a proper distinction between nationalisation and common ownership.
A recurring complaint of the TUC and others is that the world is now largely under the control of the multi-national corporations who are able to move production to sources of cheaper labour plunder natural resources and corrupt local politicians and officials. All this is true but where are the practical ideas for bringing it to an end? In fact, the entire organisation and running of factories, offices and services is under the authoritarian control of boards of directors and their managers. These are the hierarchical structures from which the great mass of people are excluded.
Within this authoritarian structure it is true that trade unions do the best they can to protect the interests of their members but their struggles are mostly defensive and as a result they are compelled to fight the same battles over and over again. The time for the trade union movement to break out of this narrow defensive role is long overdue. An organisation like the TUC, with its research departments, is well placed to conduct discussions with socialists on how production and the work place could be democratically organised. With common ownership, control of production by boards of directors and their corporate managers would immediately cease. The exploitative operations of the multi-nationals would be brought to an end. This would leave workers with the job of carrying on with the useful parts of production and services and for this they would need to be democratically organised. At this point control of all units engaged in production and distribution, services such as schools and hospitals, and useful parts of the civil service and local administration etc., would switch to management committees or councils elected by the workers running them.
Unlike boards of directors and corporate managers, works committees would not be responding to the economic signals of the market. They will be responding directly to the needs of the community. In this way, the links connecting production units and services in socialism will be far more extensive than the buying and selling that connects capitalist units with their suppliers and market outlets. One immediate difference would be that access to information throughout the world structure of production would be unlimited. There will be no industrial secrecy, copyright or patent protection. Discussion about design, materials or technique will be universally open and the results of research will be universally available. As well as having access to world information systems, production units will operate in line with social policy decisions about priorities of action. This would indicate the ways in which particular industrial and manufacturing units would need to adapt or possibly expand their operations. This would require some units to take on more staff and this again could be administered by elected management committees
As well as sorting out the environment and energy supply we can anticipate now that possibly the biggest job in socialism would be to provide housing together with essential services like water and electricity plus furniture and equipment for all people. No doubt the most urgent task will be to stop people dying of hunger but the supply of comfortable housing will require a vastly greater allocation of labour than any necessary increase in food production. This means that a great surge of required materials and equipment will flow through the units producing building supplies. A structure of housing production that is generally adjusted to the market for housing under capitalism, which is what people in socialism would inherit, will in no way be able to cope with a demand for housing based on need. So, within the wider context of a democratically decided housing policy, in which questions of planning and the environment would have been taken into account, the job of implementing housing decisions would eventually pass to the committees or works councils throughout the construction industry.
What we would see in these arrangements is not just the replacement of corporate management with democratic control, we would also see the liberation of the community’s powers of organisation and production from the shackles of the profit motive.
For many years now the TUC and the trade unions in general have languished in a role which provides little scope for action beyond preparing for the next self-repeating battle with employers. They tend to be bogged down in bureaucracy and run by careerists and timeserving officials for whom the future means little more than their pensions. It has to be said that this does present itself as a sterile accommodation with the capitalist system.
But in fact the unions could bring a great deal of experience to bear on the question of how a new society could be organised democratically in the interests of the whole community. Certainly in the developed countries they have organisation in the most important parts of production. They have rulebooks that allow them to be run locally and nationally in a generally democratic manner and they also enjoy fraternal links across the world. All this is already in place. By setting their sights beyond the next wage claim and by becoming part of the socialist movement, once a majority is achieved, they could so easily become part of the democratic administration of industry that would replace the corporate bosses and their managers who now organise production for profit.