Britain: A tale of two Britains

For a tiny few at the top Britain is really booming…

For a tiny few at the top Britain is really booming. When the Sunday Times first published its Rich List in 1989, the combined wealth of Britain’s 200 richest people was £38 billion (£80 billion today). By 2013 it had increased to £318.2 billion.

For the rest of us life in Britain is very different. Real wages have fallen further than almost any other country in Europe – at least 6% since 2010. Only the devastated economies of Greece and Portugal, alongside the Netherlands, have suffered a greater fall.

But this only tells part of the story. Unemployment and underemployment have left millions unable to earn enough to make ends meet. 1.45 million people work part-time but want a full-time job. Many work just a few hours a week. In addition there are a million on zero-hour contracts who do not know – from one week to the next – how many hours work they will get.

As Larry Elliott pointed out in the Guardian (4 August), ’this is a new incarnation of "the reserve army of labour" described by Marx 150 years ago’. Just as Marx described, the bosses are attempting to increase their profits by driving down the share taken by the working class. The threat of unemployment, and the desperation of the unemployed and underemployed, is used to frighten workers into putting up with low pay, little or no employment rights, and insecure jobs.

Larry Elliott correctly says that: "These were the sorts of labour market practices that gave rise to trade unions in the first place. Back then they had a name: exploitation." The name remains the same today. The general trade unions in Britain were forged at the end of the 19th century when – in mighty struggles – the predominantly young unskilled working class on the docks, in the gasworks and match factories, got organised and fought back.

Unity is strength

The ground is being prepared for a similar uprising today: it is urgently needed. Retail workers, caterers and cleaners will be central in the coming struggles, alongside traditionally organised industries.

The millions of workers that took part in the nineteenth century strikes – called ’new unionism’ – understood that unity is strength. Bosses know that, as long as the working class remains divided, they can get away with intensifying exploitation.

In one of countless examples, Labour’s Chris Bryant has highlighted how Tesco moved one of its giant distribution centres in Essex and told existing staff they could only work at the new centre if they accepted a pay cut. Under pressure from Tesco Bryant seems to have retreated from this claim; but even the local Tory MP confirmed that Tesco workers at the centre faced a ’choice’ between redundancy and a pay cut of up to £10,000 a year. Bryant has pointed out that some of the staff in the new distribution centre are from Eastern Europe; brought over by Tesco.

This is a deliberate strategy by Tesco – which made over £3.5 billion in profits last year – to drive down wages via ’divide and rule’- throwing existing workers on the scrapheap because they won’t accept massive pay cuts.

This is a global phenomenon: big business are maximising their profits by driving down wages. Production is moved to countries with cheaper labour or workers are moved in the hope they will accept lower pay and conditions than the existing workforce. This is the ’race to the bottom’ which can only be bad for the working class worldwide.

As long as we have capitalism, driven only by the need to maximise profits, the bosses will use every means possible to increase exploitation. The solution is a democratic socialist society, where the major companies are brought into democratic public ownership in order to plan the economy for the benefit of society as a whole.

But Bryant’s Labour which, in power, kept all the Tory anti-trade union laws, says not a word on the need for a fighting trade union movement to defend workers’ rights. Labour’s position differs little from that of 19th century Liberals who spoke platitudes about ’exploitation’ while in reality backing big business. That is why a new mass party of the working class is needed.

A clear warning

Meanwhile workers can still fight back against exploitation under capitalism. There is an urgent need for the trade union movement in Britain, and indeed worldwide, to organise a huge campaign in defence of pay and conditions.

In 2009 workers at Lindsey oil refinery successfully stopped the bosses from using workers from Italy to undercut their pay and conditions, by winning the rate for the job for all workers, British and Italian.

The trade unions nationally need to urgently launch a serious campaign of action to demand a living wage and secure contract for every worker, whether they are young or old, black or white, or originate from Eastern Europe or Essex. This would sound a clear warning to the government and big business, that workers in Britain are no longer prepared to accept being trampled into the dirt.

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August 2013