Workers as Agents of Economic Change

Under the pressures of attacks on precious social gains – public services, jobs, employment rights, indeed everything that gives life some dignity – trade unions have understandably become defensive, tending to see workers as victims.

But what if workers began thinking of themselves not as helpless casualties of forces beyond their control but as the source of the creativity needed to find solutions – solutions based on ways of organising economic affairs that would move us away from financialised capitalism towards an economy fit for human purpose? Imagine if, instead of responding to job cuts with demands for better redundancy payments, workers occupied factories and insisted on ‘socially useful production’.

Or if public service workers faced with the threat of privatisation, instead of negotiating only to defend their terms and conditions with the new private bosses, proposed ways of improving the capacity of the public service to meet its users’ needs and make public service jobs more satisfying in the process.

I suggest this not simply as a mental game but because actual historical experience of both such approaches inspires me greatly. And at a moment when financialised capitalism has brought us to an impasse and worse, it seems logical to learn from actual experiences and take seriously the practical possibilities of labour as the source of real, social productivity.

What adds to the urgency of finding new directions for production is that financialised capitalism is leading literally to the destruction of labour. I have just returned from Japan, where the corporate pressure to restore productivity has led to an estimated 1,000 deaths from overwork in the last year.

It’s not surprising in this context that sources of new inspiration are being discussed. I shared two examples at a workshop with trade unionists, academics and political activists in Yokohama last week.

One was an initiative in the UK in the mid-1970s by a factory-based organisation in engineering. It involved every group of workers, from highly skilled designers, through skilled manual workers to those who swept the factory floor. They faced closures and job losses as their company, Lucas Aerospace, responded to the intensification of international competition, like many British companies, by cutting labour. The trade union committee’s first instinct was to follow the example of other workers at the time and resist job cuts with occupations. But they felt that for this tactic to be successful they needed a strategy for how they, the workers, would run the factory differently.

At the same time, the Labour government’s industry minister, Tony Benn, discussed with them what they wanted for the future of the company. The Labour Party manifesto had committed the government to nationalising parts of the aerospace industry. Benn asked them how workers saw the future of the industry. What were their plans and proposals for which they would want government support? The possibility of nationalisation or government subsidies would be a source of bargaining power in support of the workers’ proposals.

To cut a long story short, the Lucas Aerospace workers’ leaders (‘shop stewards’ as they are called in the UK) agreed on the idea of involving the whole workforce in drawing up proposals for how their skills and machinery could be used for ‘socially useful production’. The logic behind this idea was that, against management’s attempt to declare workers ‘redundant’, the workers were insisting that their skills were not superfluous. There existed many needs – for transport, environmental and health equipment, for example – for which they had the capacity to design and manufacture.

And they proved their point by creating prototypes, feeling confident in their tacit knowledge and capacity to create. The management dismissed the proposals, seeing them as a threat to their prerogative. The government, under pressure from private business and finance, and in practice closer to management than to the workers, removed Tony Benn from the Department of Industry and did nothing to pressure Lucas to enable workers to produce useful products rather than join the growing ranks of the unemployed.

Across manufacturing industry in Britain, however, the Lucas Aerospace Alternative Plan for Socially Useful Production became a beacon of possibility and an inspiration that other groups of workers imitated. Taken together and with ideas about local democratic public investment, they suggested an alternative future for British industry. A future that would have saved the waste and social destruction caused by Margaret Thatcher’s insistence on ‘Tina’ (There is no Alternative).

Two decades or so later, the new threat to workers’ dignity, and to that of the community, was privatisation of public services, especially in local government. A classic case, which I documented, was the decision by Newcastle City Council’s Labour leadership to sub-contract – i.e. privatise – its IT system and related services, including collecting tax and providing citizens with information about council services. The international telecoms company British Telecom was the favoured bidder.

Again cutting a long story short, the local union branch refused to accept the idea that a private company would provide the best service. It decided that defensive industrial action such as strikes would be insufficient to stop the process. So it resolved to organise ‘away days’ during which workers from every part of the IT and Related Services Department took time off their normal jobs to share their ideas about how to improve the service. This process built workers’ self-confidence in a public service alternative. It also fed into a political campaign under the slogan ‘Our City is Not for Sale’ that made keeping services public an issue for the whole of Newcastle.

The end result was a worker-driven and eventually manager-supported public alternative to British Telecom’s bid for the services. The union’s detailed alternative for transforming the public management of the services built up such popular support across the city and inside the council that the pro-privatisation politicians were defeated and the public alternative, based on workplace democracy and a supportive rather than command-style management, became the preferred option.

Struggles against privatisation in which alliances of unions and citizens press ideas for improved and democratised public services have become increasingly common – for example, in fighting water privatisation in Uruguay, Brazil, Peru, Italy and elsewhere, and in resisting privatisation of municipalities in Norway. I call it ‘transformative resistance’. It holds out the possibility, as did the Lucas Aerospace workers’ plan, of a form of public ownership of production – services as well as things – in which the creativity of labour is realised for the good of all, rather than continuing to be alienated, whether for purposes decided by a public bureaucracy or by private owners.

The success of this transformative resistance to privatisation in various countries is in contrast to the ease with which private corporations have pressured the once-powerful social democratic parties of Europe to acquiesce in de-regulation and privatisation. This leads me to examine critically the understanding of labour underpinning the policies of these historic parties and the unions that have supported them.

My conclusion is that the policy-making and campaigning of these parties, reflecting the traditions of the majority of trade unions, were not organised around the idea of workers as knowledgeable and creative producers of (to use Marx’s concepts) use value but as wage earners producing exchange value from which employers extracted their profits. These parties, again representing their union base, believed that workers could get a fair share of the price at which the fruits of their labour were exchanged and that the taxation of employers’ profits should fund the public services that ensured the reproduction of workers’ capacity to labour. The idea that these parties should be allied to workers as creative and potentially autonomous agents of economic development and wealth creation was not on their agenda.

Consequently, they depended on private management, subordinate to private shareholders, for the creation of wealth. In government, therefore, despite their historical commitment to the interests of labour, they were vulnerable to the profit-maximising investment strategies of private companies and their tendency to move funds away from production towards financial speculation, making money out of money.

This restricted conception of labour was not inevitable. A complex of historical factors explains these relationships between politics and production. A general problem is that the social democratic parties, and the trade unions with which they were allied, reproduced the separation of politics and economics typical of liberal democracies. They saw themselves as representing labour as a sectoral interest – as wage earners and their families – within the existing relationships of production.

An urgent task now, as workers and citizens across the world desert the defeated and exhausted parties of social democracy and explore new political strategies, is to strengthen these political strategies with conceptions of labour that recognise its creative productive character and give political support to the autonomous, self government of this capacity. I will explore this in my next column. In particular, after considering different ways to rethink and reconstruct ‘the social’ in ways that are not monopolised by the state – though acknowledging that a new kind of state has a necessary role – I want to consider whether labour has the capacity to create what could be usefully understood as a ‘commons’.

A good starting point for this ambitious idea is the words of the writer and activist on the commons, Tomasso Fattori, an effective campaigner to defend the public management of water in Italy against attempts at privatisation. He traces the shared characteristics that make the framework of the commons useful for understanding the character of diverse phenomena, without artificially squeezing them into a category implying homogeneity.

In an article reflecting on the wider significance of the successful struggle for the referendum vote in Italy to defend water as a commons (‘a political and cultural revolution on the commons,’ as he describes it), Fattori says: ‘The commons are what is considered essential for life, understood not merely in the biological sense. They are the structures, which connect individuals to one another, tangible or intangible elements that we all have in common and which make us members of a society, not isolated entities in competition with each other. Elements that we maintain or reproduce together, according to rules established by the community: an area to be rescued from the decision-making of the post-democratic élite and which needs to be self-governed through forms of participative democracy.’ (Fattori 2011) Could not this apply to the human capacity to create? And what would be the practical implications?

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