• theleftberlin

The Nature of Work

by Ralph A Tebbutt

Image: Abhijit Bhaduri. Source: Flickr Creative Commons

A recent item in the Daily Telegraph (Britain's leading Right Wing newspaper and Government supporter) suggested that when the present crisis brought about by Covid19 came to some kind of end, many workers would find that they had no jobs to which to return.


This in spite of the Government’s decision to pay 80% of the pay of workers put on furlough (soon to be reduced). This decision was made, not to support workers but as a way to try to safeguard the economy so that it could eventually recover.


This item chimed in with thoughts that I have regarding the future. Two things worry me. The first is this question of jobs. The second is the question of money.


Future of jobs

First, to deal with the question of jobs. In my lifetime, there has been a massive change in the nature of employment, not only in Britain but throughout the world. I well remember that when I applied for a scholarship to study Mining Engineering in the early 50s I was entering a profession that promised me a job for life, before my university course had ended, the signs were already present that coal mining in Britain was no longer secure.


Written in 1950, the study of ‘The Authoritarian Personality’ by a team led by Theodor Adorno has the comment that “the production process is more complex , organised and impersonal; specialisation and mechanization threaten the individuality and job satisfaction of workers and managers” (p166/7) and later (on page 236)

“It must be recognised that in modern industrial society the capacity of the individual to determine what happens to himself has actually decreased”

Even before the pandemic struck there was much discussion about the effect of newer technologies on the patterns of work, with many of the areas of employment, which have grown in the advanced economies, being under threat from these newer technologies.


On the Left, there has been a strong tendency to oppose this type of prediction, stressing that labour will always be an essential factor of life. This is undoubtedly true, but we have to understand the developments that make such ideas prevalent.


What has become very clear (to those who are not deliberately blind to facts that cut across their entrenched beliefs and political philosophy) is that jobs that have in many ways been almost despised, are the essential jobs. This is not so true of the various medical professions of consultants, surgeons, doctors and nurses - but it is certainly true of cleaners, bin men, bus drivers those operating the tills at cash outs and those caring for the old, infirm and needy. Those are the jobs that are actually the essential ones to enable society to exist.


In a society that measures the worth of individuals by the amount they are paid for their work, these professions, as indeed with the cases of nurses, come well down the order of meritocracy.


The most noise seems to be coming from those who employ mainly migrant labour to pick fruit and vegetables. This is interesting from two aspects, the need for short term labour, and the value of migrant labour. After all the attacks on migrants over Brexit and other issues with the associated racism, we suddenly find that migrant labour is a necessity.


This also links with the realisation that our health services depends to a great deal on doctors and nurses whose parents, or even grandparents and indeed themselves, came to this country from past colonial countries or from countries in Europe.


The exploitation of racism in order to achieve political ends is one of the worst features of life in modern Britain. There has been a criticism of people who have come to work in this country on the grounds that they are taking our jobs. A spurious argument used to further right wing agendas.


It is worth looking at the nature of employment in agriculture in relation to the picking of fruit and vegetables. The history of Kent and London is linked by the tradition of hop picking. Working class women, with their children would come down from London to pick the hops. A more local tradition was for working women in Medway to organise themselves into gangs in order to travel to local farms to pick fruit and vegetables.


This was of course seasonable work. It would maybe last for two or three months. It did not provide an income on which one can live. Condition are very different now and this work is mainly done by migrant labour and these older traditions belong in history. But the principles of short term expedience rather that providing along term income still applies.


The question of money

There is an important issue here which needs to be explored further. One aspect worth noting is that in certain professions, high wages are considered 'necessary' because of the fact that work cannot always be guaranteed or may only be possible over a short period of ones life (a simple example would be artists and footballers).


Such considerations are not applied to working class jobs. What we are now seeing is a massive increase in what is described as ‘self employment’ which is in fact contract labour but so organised that it is called upon as and when required by the employer. The extreme situation being the zero hour contracts which provide precarious work for mainly working women.


I am reminded of my time as a student. Part of my degree requirement was to work underground in the coal industry for six months. I spent each Christmas and Summer vacation working at a colliery in Leicestershire.


On one occasion I was working with the underground fitters (they were mechanical engineers, their role was to install machinery, lay the track for the coal and supply wagons which were drawn by ponies). There were days in which we had little work to do and I had difficulty in filling in the record of work that I had to complete each day.


One Saturday we were working on installing a conveyor in a new roadway, we were working hard and it was getting late. On the overtime working on a Saturday, as soon as the colliers on the coal face had completed their work, the shift ‘rapped out’ the onsetter indicating to the winding engine driver that men were about to ascend the shaft out of the colliery. We were still working well into the mine and ended up running along the moving conveyor belt to get out as soon as possible.


The point I wish to illustrate is that, in those days, it was recognised that the tempo of work was not uniform, at times slack, at others extremely hectic. It was accepted that workers would be paid in the slack periods, and that workers at other times would do what was necessary.


I also remember, some years ago, major battles in the construction industry over what was known as ‘the lump’. Workers were being expected only to work as required, a situation to which they objected and over which they took action. They were an organised group of workers and used that organisation to defend their working conditions.


Sadly, nowadays, it seems that such an approach to labour has become accepted. It is, of course, in the interests of the bosses to only employ people when they need them. This is more efficient, more cost effective and more profitable. However, it is totally against the interests of workers. It is important,in a money economy, to have a regular income and this means regular work.


This brings us back to the question of ‘furlough’. This of course was not brought in to help workers. If that had been the aim of Government they would first have dealt with the issue of payments of social security and ensured that everyone had enough money for their own and their family life.


They were not doing this before the pandemic and have made no attempt to rectify the situation. The priority of Government, in their support of the business, commercial and financial interests that they serve, is to maintain the system in place.


This in turn leads to the question as to what will follow when there is some kind of end to the crisis. The Government, in these interests, is determined to end the lockdown as soon as possible, and will in all likelihood end it before it is right to do so (this process has now started).


However, as the Daily Telegraph has suggested, things will not return to normal. It is a possibility, or is it a probability, that things will become much harder for people especially for those who were previously in a precarious position. Many companies will have ceased trading and manufacturing.


There is a view, not openly expressed but undoubtedly held by some, that the virus will serve a purpose in removing surplus individuals and unnecessary productive units thereby restoring capitalism. Part of the process of capitalism is to periodically remove weaker aspects in order that the more productive areas can increase their profitability.


This is certainly not a view that we on the left would share in any way. Our approach is to demonstrate that these recent events illustrate the truth of what we have been arguing over the years, that private enterprise capitalism cannot deliver the type of society that meets the needs of all the people.


The only way forward is through a socialist/communist society that is organised in a co-operative planned manner which puts the needs of people and of the wider natural environment as the only concern.


Our Tasks

Our task is two fold. We have to resist the pressures from the right to give precedence to the economy, and to continue our campaigns against all the consequences of right wing government around the world, such as racism and excess greenhouse gas emissions.


We must however be doing our own planning for what is to follow. I mentioned at the beginning two concerns: the nature of work, how do we restore a society that provides a means of livelihood for all the people on the planet; what do we do with regard to money.


I heard an interesting explanation about quantitative easing and how Governments were trying to ensure that money flows throughout the system. But this was concerned with the banks and financial institutions. What is of far more importance to my mind is how do we ensure that people have a means of obtaining those things like food, clothing, shelter that are the basis of life.


These are fundamental questions which we need to ask and for which we need to find answers. Life will not the same now as it was; it will be very different in the future. We have an idea of what we want that life to be but precisely what that idea is has not been worked through.


Would we want to restore the type of money economy that we had previously? Should we be demanding that rents be abolished? Should we demand that all debts be cancelled? Should we demand that everyone receives a basic income?


We should certainly be demanding that all the means of production and distribution should be publicly owned on a democratic and co-operative basis. All health and social care should be free and available to all.


Whilst we challenge the economist's idea of globalisation we should look towards a universal world community in which an injury to one is an injury to all and in which according to ones needs and from each according to ones ability are the basis of all our actions.