BEYOND SOCIAL PARTNERSHIP
BY CHRIS FORD
Hobgoblin 2 2000
Can Britain's unions seize the moment? The Trade Union Congress has put this question before the labour movement in the document entitled Meeting the Millennial Challenge. TUC General Secretary John Monks writes that it "sets out the challenges we face and aims to provoke a fundamental debate among unions about the future of our movement". Despite Monks claim to want the "widest possible debates at every level in the movement", in reality union bureaucrats have done their utmost to stifle such a discussion. Nevertheless these questions are of crucial importance and rank and file trade unionists need to generate discussion on these very questions. Whilst the bureaucrats have attempted to narrow the issue to one of membership levels, what is integral to their efforts to "reverse our decline" is the re-defining of the goals of the movement; to re-shape the movement itself. This is a reflection of the fact that today's crisis is very much a crisis of the mind.
Monks defines the movement's purpose as being a "crusade on equality and social justice". This retreat from socialist "goals" is not a product of some "downturn" in class struggle and accompanying sell out by the bureaucrats; rather it is a response to the potential threat posed to capital by labour. The pro-partnership Involvement & Participation Association states; "To win the case for partnership there must be a powerful business logic to the argument".
The true essence of the drive to partnership is not so much based on a "crusade for equality" as the logic of capital. Social Partnership was adopted by strategists at the European Union in their 1997 Partnership for a New Organisation at Work, and the bureaucrats have swallowed it wholesale and turned it into the actual goal of the labour movement. In order to do so they have entirely accepted the legitimacy of bourgeois social relations, in The Business case for a union voice, the TUC declares that: "Modern unions do not want adversarial relations with their employers. They realise that despite their different roles both managers and employees have a joint interest in the success of their enterprise." To justify this goal union leaders, such as in PCS, peddle the myth that the EU initiative is a "rejection" of the "worst aspects of Human Resource Management". But it was always integral to HR theory that the independence of workers interests, through their union, would continue to provide the rationale to challenge the management's 'aims and values'. The HR theorists argued the way round the problem was either to break the unions or co-opt them; with the aim of replacing "adveserial industrial relations", the idea of 'them and us' with the notion of 'us'.
To accept such theories is to presume there is after all, as Thatcher said, no alternative. Tony Blair in line with his Third Way philosophy reassures the TUC accordingly; "The class war is over, but the battle for equality has only just begun". As if the struggle of oppressed social classes and the objects of social equality have ever been separate. But in the face of history Monks states that the unions are now "more white collar, middle class, and suburban", and distinct working class interests are replaced with a "shared commitment to the success of the enterprise" and "adding value" to the workplace. Yet for all this talk of the "enterprise", the world of work has been reduced to such an abstraction that the "Modernisers" may as well be addressing the crew of the Starship Enterprise rather than the real human relations in the workplaces of today.
TODAYS WORLD OF WORK
The restructuring that industry went through in the 'Thatcher Revolution' brought no fundamental change to the social relations of society. Human beings have no control over the goods and services they produce or the distribution of the wealth created. The return in wages workers receive is way below the full value of what they create. Despite worker resistance it is overwhelmingly the bosses who determine the conditions of production and the working environment. We have a world of work where those who produce are estranged by the very process of production itself. Karl Marx, writing on 'fetishism of commodities', speaks of those for whom "a definite social relation between men& assumes in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things."
The "human resources" of management-speak is but our reduction to human capital; our labour power a commodity with price tag. Amongst those who armed the advocates of partnership were journals such as Marxism Today and New Times basing themselves on post-Fordist ideas. It was argued that under Thatcher a qualitative change within the very character of capitalism took place, replacing mass production with "flexible specialisation" utilising new technology; a new form of capitalism characterised by consumerism and individualism. But the Fordism of monolithic mass production industry never existed in the manner they present it - small scale enterprises have always played a role in the system. And the conditions of white-collar workers in the new technology industries are no less a life of alienation than for blue-collar workers in those manufacturing industries destroyed under Thatcher. It is important to single out the 1999 strike in the BT call centres as highlighting true life for the 21st Century worker: "like working in a slave galley", a CWU picket described it. These strikes were not about wages but the type of labour human beings are doing, and their working environment. New technology, rather than being a liberating agent as painted so gloriously by New Labour, has shown itself to be a further means for sucking in living labour as capitalised, estranged, dead labour. The further domination of living labour by dead labour, whether on the production line or at a VDU remains the same. The BT strikes brought into question all the talk of partnership and "adding value", for call centres are exactly the type of technology based "flexible firm" the EU has set as the future organisation of work. Workers in England already work the longest hours in Europe, stress remains the highest cause of work-related illness and bullying is rampant. Contrary to some bureaucrats belief that the "flexible firm" will replace "out-of-date authoritarian management techniques and rigid divisions of labour in the workplace", it is precisely oppressive management that has achieved such flexibility.
DIALECTICS OF DEFEAT
The policy of partnership as drafted by the rightist leaders of the AEEU states that "there can be no return to the days when conflict between employees and employers dominated the industrial landscape". Similarly Monks blames old "tactics that got us to where we are now", implicit in this is the rejection of a trade unionism of solidarity action, flying pickets, mass strikes and scab free workplaces. The bureaucrats draw a line at 1979 when "trade unionism reached a peak. Since then we have been in decline". This selective account of recent history sees Monks assure us: "This generation of union leaders clearly wants to hand over to the next generation a movement in better shape than we found it". Integral to the capitalist counter-offensive to stem economic decline was the reassertion of capital authority over resurgent labour. At first the union leaders, driven by rank and file labour opposed the anti-union legislation of the new Tory government.
Despite millions of members unlike the Thatcherites the TUC did not recognise that the power of ideas can be decisive, and in this the movement was utterly inadequate. Unlike the present period of ideas of class collaboration arising from defeats, the capitulation to capital ensured the defeats as the initial opposition after 1979 collapsed. The leadership's outlook aided Thatchers ability to confront workers one by one without the strength of solidarity from others. The TUC asked for co-operation in the 'national interest' and set a course to adapt the labour movement to the new requirements of capitalism.
NEW HIERARCHY OF CONTROL
The necessity of a hierarchy of control is something fundamental to capitalist social relations arising from the antagonism between labour and capital. Raya Dunayevskaya wrote that: "The despotic plan inherent in capitalist production reveals itself in a form all its own - the hierarchic structure of control over social labor. To keep production going on an ever-expanding scale, to extract the greatest amount of surplus or unpaid labor, requires a whole army of foreman, managers, and superintendents. These all work for the capitalist with one aim and purpose: to force labor out of the many laborers". It did not need the theorists of human resource management to discover this reality; what was new in HRM was an expression of the capitalists' need to remould this hierarchy. A key element in the restructuring was "team working", Total Quality Management, "empowerment" etc. During the 1990s it manifested itself in an array of forms as it was deployed across the public and private sectors. By no coincidence HRM tended to be practised in unionised rather than non-unionised workplaces where as opposed to destroying organised labour it impacted on a weakened movement on the defensive. The crucial result of this was not only that capitalism's restructuring changed the hierarchy of control but also it changed the shape of labour movement itself. The capitalist offensive undermined the concept of solidarity, as the focus shifted to the unity and needs of the enterprise rather than fellow workers. Tory Minister Norman Tebbit stated, "I believe that management's and work forces will have to come closer together, seeing that their common interest is in the firm - not the national union".
The supposed maturity of the "new industrial relations" over the last twenty years has been presented not only as a "humanisation" of production relations but as the realisation of a new "workplace democracy", even though they its opposite. As Marx warned, co-operative production which is not under the workers own control would be "a sham and a snare".
Against an eighteen-year decline in union membership and influence many ex-socialists have failed to see the restructuring and new hierarchies of control as the problem, instead the bosses; theories have been accepted by the bulk of union leaders as the solution. Recognising the antagonism between the needs of capital and labour Robert Taylor in The Future of the Trade Unions, commissioned by the TUC, advises us: "Trade unions offer a way out of this apparent contradiction...Here, in embryo, are the makings of a democratic bargain or social pact that can reconcile the demands of innovative employers with the workplace rights of their employees. A shrewd mixture of Human Resource Management theory and liberal political thought could help in the revival of British Trade Unionism". As if "liberal political thought' played any role in the birth of our movement! Partnership, the goal of the leadership is an idea whose philosophic underpinnings is the product of the retrogression in thought that afflicts the whole labour movement. Monks summed up the thinking behind this goal when he said:
"The debate on the centre-left is no longer about socialism versus capitalism, it is about different kinds of capitalism". This complete abandonment of any concept of an alternative to the capitalism, even of radical reformism, is an expression of the Third Way philosophy dominant in the 'New Labour' Party and its intellectual appendages. Amongst the pillars of this retrogression is Blair's "favourite intellectual" Anthony Giddens and his Third Way. Giddens views the renewal of radical thought as being dependent on the acceptance of the "death of socialism", that we are at an historic conjuncture characterised by the "final discrediting" of Marxism and the changed world of capitalism in the "global age". We hear that: "Marx's basic position came to be shared by all socialists, no matter how sharp their other differences. Socialism seeks to confront the limitations of capitalism in order to humanize it or to overthrow it altogether". (The Third Way, The Renewal of Social Democracy) Giddens argues that:"capitalism can be humanized through socialist economic management" and says that for "Marx socialism stood or fell" by a society which created more wealth equally distributed. Giddens claims that: "If socialism is now dead, it is precisely because these claims have collapsed", citing the failure of "socialist planning" West and East. The Third Way holds that capitalism has proved itself superior because the "economic theory of socialism was always inadequate, underestimating the capacity of capitalism to innovate, adapt and generate increasing productivity".
Marx's vision of human liberation was in fact the complete opposite of the Third Way distortion of a "humanized " capitalism whose realisation was through "socialist economic management". It is only by restating the Great Lie of the 20th century that state-capitalism - West and East - was actually socialism that Giddens can conclude that: "With the demise of socialism as a theory of economic management, one of the major division lines between left and right has disappeared. No one any longer has any alternatives to capitalism - the arguments that remain concern how far, and in what ways, capitalism should be governed and regulated.".
As opposed to the Third Way contributing towards a radical philosophy, which could rejuvenate the labour movement, its central theme is poignantly described by Giddens as "Philosophic conservatism". Viewing no distinction between the "radicalism" of the New Right and the "old Left", the Third Way seeks a reconstitution of radicalism by incorporating the ideas of capitalism. This is encapsulated in notion of 'modernization' espoused by New Labour, whose ideas are in fact drawn from the radicalism of the Thatcher/Reagan led capitalist offensive in 1970's and 1980's. It is this radicalism which is being continued by Blair and which the Third Way is but a philosophic underpinning for further attacks on the working class. Thus when John Monks suggested the unions could claim a stake in the management of enterprises New Labour soon distanced itself from any such "radicalism".
THE AMBIVALANCE OF THE LEFT
We cannot afford to simply dismiss these ideas as the "buzzwords" of a "gang of middle-class politicians" who have "hijacked" part of the labour movement - or that it is, as the Trotskyists argue, just another aspect of the 'crisis of leadership'. In fact there has been a seismic shift in the ideas and goals of the movement away from any meaningful change in the relations between capital and labour. The ascendancy of these ideas cannot be blamed simply on the bureaucrats, this retrogression has been assisted in no small measure by the Left itself. In the face of the New Right attacks on socialism which they deliberately equated with state-ownership, whether in the communist bloc or the public sector, the Labour left and the communists continued to espouse these 'false-socialism's' - even after the 'collapse of communism'.
For the mass of the population Marxism, as misrepresented in this distorted form, is precisely what collapsed in 1989 and to date no new alternative has filled the vacuum. Whilst the unions remain mass bodies of organised labour the influence of trade union Left is at an all time low. In response to the bombardment of the movement with pro-partnership literature the opposition has been woefully absent. The pull of retrogression has impacted on the traditional left's ideas as well as numbers. Under the blows of the capitalist offensive the pull on many activists was not projecting a socialist reconstruction of society, but in the words of Arthur Scargill to maintain "tolerable conditions of life" within the confines of capitalism.
Out of the real movement of history - the struggle of the last twenty-one years under Tory and New Labour governments - no new unity of theory and practice has brought about a renewal of socialism which could have a rejuvenating on today's struggle's. The arid landscapes of English socialism can be seen in the inadequate response to the goals of industrial partnership. Incredibly, some on the Left see Social Partenership as an opportunity to come in from the cold. Despite Tribune's criticism of the Third Way it can see no correlation between this philosophy and the class collaboration of social partnership. Within PCS for example, the Socialist Party "agrees" that the governments "policy in favour of partnership in industrial relations& can bring benefits." The positive attitude towards partnership arises not from any ambition for a new society but from trade union routines and politics as the art of the possible - possible within the industrial relations parameters set by of capital. This ambivalence of the Left is most clearly expressed with regard to the New Unionism initiative of the TUC, which it links to the "goal" of Industrial Partnership. Ironically the bosses' mag, People Management, reports a study of 'Militant and Moderate Trade Union Orientations' which concluded militants have a greater success rate than moderates "possibly because they pose less of a threat to management decisions." Socialist Worker rejects this "one sided partnership" and advocates "a return to fighting unions". The question is fighting for what? This declaration of the necessity to fight holds true, but it is not (and has never been) enough. The response to social partnership, which is underpinned by a "philosophy of conservatism", has also revealed the conservatism of the Left towards philosophy. Marx's philosophy of liberation, which he described as a "thoroughgoing Naturalism or Humanism" transcending both capitalism and communism, was rooted in the German philosopher Hegel's concept of self-movement through the "negation of the negation". Marx saw the transcendence of "estranged, alienated labour" by such forces as the proletariat through reaching for this second negativity, what Raya Dunayevskaya described as "absolute negativity as new beginning".
Whereas Marx saw the realm of labour relations as crucial to human emancipation as "the whole of human servitude is involved in the relation of the workers to production"; post-Marx Marxism and radical Labourism are trapped in first negation. The response of a return to "fighting unions" as a negation of partnership is simply to give expression to the existing conflict between capital and labour; whilst setting amelioration of the condition of labour as an end in itself. This historic conjuncture calls for an alternative to industrial partnership that views the reassertion of our struggle as a means to transcending these "new industrial relations" and sets as its end free human relations.
SELF-GOVERNMENT IN INDUSTRY
In the Millennial Challenge Monks talks of "rediscovering some of the lost traditions of our movement" and prefaces this with a caution that our history can "sometimes obstruct new thinking". Instead of our history being left as a museum exhibit it shows itself as an unfolding struggle for freedom, as Hegel wrote: "It is this final goal - freedom - which all the worlds history has been working". A real means to this end, which has repeatedly asserted itself in the history of the labour movement, is the cry for workers control. This "lost tradition" has challenged bosses and bureaucrats, Fabian's and communists alike; as not only a negation of existing industrial relations but through the movement of the negation of the negation, a means of humanising labour by what Marx called the "self-government of the producers".
Marxist-Humanists assert that in response to Industrial Partnership we should not to be limited to breaking out of this straightjacket to improve life within capitalism. Capital is not a thing but a social relationship which we seek to abolish, whilst on its own self-government is not an end in itself we cannot break free from the imperatives of capitalist production without its self-realisation. We do not single out this specific aspiration to be our distinctive hallmark as some new radical sect, on the contrary; we do so to reject the view of the workers as objects - "the members" - whether of "the party" or "the union". This view as opposed to the worker as reason has been one of the greatest obstacles to the realisation of the goal of freedom. We single out workers control for the same reason as Marx once said of the abandonment of utopian sects, "not because the working class had given up the end aimed at by these utopians, but because they had found the real means to realise them".
A NEW VANTAGE POINT
Raya Dunayevskaya once wrote: "The Grand Illusion, however, that all the capitalist ideologues, including Volckner, have created about this nuclear world with its robotized production was achieved by them through forgetting that Alienated Labor is the irreplaceable foundation, essence and universal form - the creator of all values and surplus-values". It is precisely by such amnesia that all the industrial sociologists, HR theorists and columnists-turned-advisors to the bureaucrats can reach their conclusions. When we view the situation from the standpoint of the struggles of alienated labour we begin to see what is important is not the 'New Industrial Relations', but new workers opposition. For class struggle has continued to disconcert every new management technique, anti-union laws and Third Way spin doctors alike. Deny or ignore it capitalism cannot change its fundamental reliance on "alienated labour", and as such labour has continued to find old and new ways to respond to our predicament, as Andy Danford writes:
"To put this another way, class struggle from above maybe accompanied by class struggle from below. If the new management initiatives constitute rational capitalist attempts to intensify rates of labour exploitation then we must expect workers resistance, including traditional collective forms. At Car Press for example, despite a pervasive fear of management, despite an ineffective and uncertain union leadership and despite the impediments against taking official forms of industrial action, the implementation of new working practices was attended by intense rank and file struggle against the employers' objectives". (Capital & Class No.61)
According to the HR theorists the success of much of their strategies relies upon the trust and co-operation of the workforce underlining the importance of 'hearts and minds' campaigns and acquiescent union bureaucrats. Whilst the balance of power shifted over the years it would however be a mirage to conclude the capitalists have succeeded in pacifying labour. Whilst the Workplace Employment Relations Survey reveals team-working techniques in 65% of workplaces the actual amount which involved "autonomous teams which manage their own product or service" plummeted to only 5% of workplaces. Over time this system of co-option has revealed itself for what it is - part of a new hierarchy of control. As one Shop Operator noted: "All changes have been forced through in an atmosphere of threats and intimidation and above all, fear. All talk of team-working, co-operation, etc., has proved nothing but empty rhetoric".
When we listen to voices from below we can see the new forces of opposition, conscious of their true position, already beginning to stir from the years of defeat. Will the corrosive influence of social partnership be yet another barrier to new forces of emancipation? Advocates such as AEEU senior steward Derek Warren inform us that "facts rather than political theory" show the benefit of partnership. An examination of this theory in practice however shows a different reality compared to the rhetoric of class collaboration. At Blue Circle Cement a pioneer of partnership the AEEU swallowed the "economic rationale" of capitalism with boasts of "significant benefits". The facts are a rate of job losses 10% higher than non-partnership equivalents; worse pay and conditions. And as for "full union input" the company bosses report "they now have significantly fewer dealings with the unions on a daily basis". The true rewards of industrial partnership are reaped by the capitalists as the rate of profit per worker increased by 50% whilst non-partnership rivals stagnated.
STRIKE WHILE THE IRON'S HOT
England may have experienced the lowest levels of industrial action since records began in 1891; however, there are some signs of revival. Not only did the recent action in BT challenge the soul-destroying drudgery of the call centre, but also of equal importance was the 'unofficial' actions of the 6000 electricians who confronted the values of the bureaucrats and bosses. Without the help of a party-to-lead either in a reformist or revolutionary guise, the rank and file organised themselves on construction sites from the Millennium Dome to Newcastle. As Sir Ken Jackson leader of the AEEU told the TUC that social partnership heralded a "strike free Britain", thousands of AEEU members defied the anti-union laws in a series of strikes. What is new is not that unofficiall action secured a victory but that this was the first major proletarian opposition to industrial partnership. A one striker Jim Thatcher said: "Instead of the bosses taking all the profit, we have made sure the workers get a fair share. It wasn't partnership that won us that". Neither the union or the even radical press has articulated this aspect, but nevertheless as one shop steward said they did "strike while the iron's hot", showing the ability of workers themselves to blow partnership out of the water completely. - Christopher Ford
Hobgoblin #2 2000