Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day: Notes on the TUC's new jobs report

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The TUC’s new jobs report marks the first time that the august trade union body has indicated willingness to accommodate, rather than resist, some of the new political possibilities put on the agenda by automation and the changes work has been subject to since the end of the Second World War.

The Trades Union Congress has been dropping bombshells lately. Hot on the heels of its (contested)decision to endorse the idea of a peoples’ vote on the final Brexit deal, they’ve released a major new report on jobs, technology, and the future of work. This document has managed to generate some buzz despiteits somewhat clumsy title: A Future That Works for Working People. In it, we find something more or less unprecedented in modern British trade union history: a major acknowledgement of the role that automation could play in introducing greater leisure into the lives of working people. The TUC recommends that businesses, unions, and governments collaborate in order to move to a four-day workweek by 2100. This puts them in the company of their fellow unions in Europe. In their words:

“[We should] ensure that the gains from … productivity are shared with workers, setting out an ambition to move to shorter hours and higher pay. The commission should see moving to a four-day week with no drop in living standards as an ambition for the twenty-first century.” [6]

The report also includes other, more familiar-sounding recommendations: skills training for workers whose jobs are under threat from automation, measures to improve productivity, and so on.

But the significance of the four-day workweek should not be lost sight of. This report marks the first time that the venerable trade union body has indicated its willingness to accommodate, rather than resist, some of the new political ideas put on the agenda by modern automation. This is immensely important for the socialist movement, rooted as it is in a critique of the material conditions of production, which have been profoundly shaped by innovations and transformations in the field of mechanisation. The TUC’s report enters the discourse just after a major Guardian interview with Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, in which he declared that advances in automation and artificial intelligence are moving us towards “a more divided society”. This is a widespread concern, but the fact that Stiglitz - who knows a thing or two - shares it shows that anxiety about automation is not unrealistic.

However, the 21st-century gloss Stiglitz and many others have applied to words like automation and AI should not obscure the real historical sweep of the conversation that the TUC’s report allows us to have. Automation is not synonymous with sci-fi predictions about the total “end of work”. Automation has been shaping and re-shaping the landscape of labour(and its politics) for generations, especially since the post-war period where unions in traditional industries began to be weakened by advances in industrial technique. Since the end of the Second World War, it has become possible - indeed, for workers, essential - to revisit the old progressive agenda represented by demands to shorten the working day without diminishing quality of life.

In an age when manufacturing employment can no longer support an expansive industrial working class, and when increasingly scarce service-industry work over which workers must compete intensely has come to dominate the economy, the socialist movement and the trade unions can once again find common ground by calling for less work and more life. This marks a major change from the trade union culture of the last century, in which growth, expansion and economic development always took priority over the free time necessary for workers to develop themselves into something more than workers.

Make no mistake: the shift in consciousness that the TUC’s new report might represent means nothing less than a wholesale re-evaluation of the historic priorities of the workers’ movement. To understand why, we need to understand more about the TUC and its politics, looking back almost a century.

The TUC is emblematic of a form of labour politics in which the guiding star is the idea of work, pure and simple. Theirs is largely a form of socialism in which work is treated as an inherent good. This producerist ethos finds its home in language about “job creation”, “good jobs”, and so on. Instances are too numerous to count, but TUC Chair Frances O’Grady has made more than enough definitive statements to make it clear that creating jobs, good jobs, is the mantra of the Congress. People have a tendency to tune such language out due to its over-familiarity. “Jobs” is one of those words that starts to sound meaningless when you hear it endlessly looped.

This glorification is total. In the 21st century, we have largely ceased to hear work celebrated even in partially conditional terms. Work is no longer the noble burden shouldered so that one’s children can have “a better life”, different from that of their working-class parents. Even such minimally-complex language contains the implicit assumption that what workers are actually working for is a future in which people do not have to “work” in the same way their forerunners did. There is an inherently visionary element in this notion, and if developed further, it could point beyond the old-style politics of labour of which the trade unions have historically been emblematic.

It is no wonder that such an idea can be frightening to some. Anything that might transcend the world of labour could potentially undermine the whole basis for having a professional bureaucracy within organised labour exist at all. This need not necessarily be the case, of course. The kinds of work that children of 20th-century working-class parents have largely gone into since the rise of the service industry also makes space for trade union politics as we know it. But the fact remains that whenever a political hint of something more than work for works’ sake is dropped, trade unions have in-built special interests which cause them to respond with unease.

Visionary ideas have always posed a threat to the trade union consciousness in which work and the condition of being a worker are considered timeless, natural, and good. In the 20th century, the trade union bureaucracy was regularly on the front lines of political struggles waged inside and outside the Labour movement against radical elements which tried to push workers into make more sweeping demands of their employers and their governments. While such radical forces may not always have been able to boast of having any more critical a perspective regarding work, trade union leadership has always exhibited a generally more conservative attitude regarding the proper place of labour and the labourer in society.

We need only recall how the trade union leaders of the “Triple Alliance” balked, in the unrest of 1919, at the prospect of taking over the governance of a country gripped by a nation-wide labour rebellion. In January of that year, a general strike was autonomously declared by workers in Belfast and Glasgow. This spread throughout the country. At the heart of the strikers’ demands was a call for a strict 40-hour limit on the working week. This measure was partially meant to increase the availability of jobs for returning WWI veterans, but it was also meant as a rebuke to the employers who wanted to impose longer hours. It thus formed part of the broader movement for an eight-hour day, which had always been conscious of the benefits of such restrictions for employment, alongside the broader aim of limiting the extent to which work intrudes on the workers’ existence. The dream of a life lived for itself, and not for the circulation of profit, has always been at the bottom of the workers’ movement, and this is shown whenever and wherever workers express themselves in an unmediated fashion.

During these events, which sadly coincided with large-scale race riots, tanks were deployed against strikers in Glasgow, and a police strike gripped London and Liverpool. Thousands of soldiers across the country also rebelled, especially Canadian soldiers awaiting repatriation in brutal camp conditions. An estimated 34,969,000 working hours were lost, making it one of the largest strikes in UK history, despite the lack of historical attention paid to it.

As Aneurin Bevan recollected in his memoirs, In Place of Fear, the Liberal government of David Lloyd George recognised its own powerlessness over the army and appealed to the innate conservatism of the trade unions in order to get the strikes called off. In a meeting with union leaders at Westminster, Lloyd George made these remarks:

“Gentlemen, you have fashioned … a most powerful instrument. [I]n our opinion we are at your mercy. The Army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. [I]n these circumstances, if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us. But if you do so have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country … For if a force arises in the state, which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state … Gentlemen have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?” [41]

Confronted with the full scale of workers’ fury, and unable to imagine a role for themselves beyond that of genteel dispute resolution specialists in a static economic landscape wherein labour and capital stand timelessly opposed to each other, the Triple Alliance erred on the side of caution. Miners’ union leader Robert Smilie went away from that meeting with Lloyd George with the conviction that “from that moment on we were beaten” [28]. This despite the fact that the whole thrust of Lloyd George’s argument rested on the admission that the momentous conflict between capital and labour posed by the strike had essentially already been fought, and won by the workers. All that remained was to carry this to its logical conclusion and establish some kind of progressive, socialist order. But the unrest was cancelled.

Labour rebellion re-emerged in grand style during the General Strike of 1926, but the TUC ultimately backed down from this confrontation as well. The 1926 strike was the largest in UK history, but thanks to the TUC’s premature abandonment of it, the least effective. Sympathy strikes were henceforth banned, putting severe restrictions on the workers’ movement. No other major strike in the 20th century similarly failed to win the workers any actual gains.

To this day, only children under 18 are guaranteed the 40-hour workweek that the strikers of 1919 fought for. No major industrial action since has directly addressed the subject of working hours. The legal limit of a workweek in the UK is technically 48 hours, though people can “opt-out” of this - which means there is really no limit at all. The TUC rightly celebrates its role in establishing an eight-hour workday, but as we have seen, it has largely allowed itself to rest on the laurels of that battle. It has taken almost a hundred years for the idea of shortening the working day to re-emerge within the TUC.

But this is no place to litigate the successes and failures of the early 20th-century Labour movement. There is no point casting blame on anyone or deploying the language of “betrayal”, as many on the Labour left do when they look back on the past. The unions were presented by Lloyd George with a concrete political dilemma, not an abstract one. Taking on the “functions of the state” at that time would have been a choice made in the shadow of a very similar process going on at the time in Russia: the Bolshevik revolution. Russia, Germany, and the central European countries then living through uprisings would have made the real stakes of the moment abundantly clear. The trade union bureaucracy was faced with the question of whether direct political rule by representatives of the working class - socialism in its most naked form - was really possible or desirable in that time and place. They evidently did not think so, and we can only speculate as to whether they were right or wrong.

One thing is certain. What the TUC has endorsed with this report is connected by a political thread to some of the most radical demands made by the workers’ movement in struggles past. These demands were often made autonomously, against the will of the official trade unions. In accepting that the role of the union is to help diminish working time, not merely to negotiate the terms under which it is carried out, the TUC has taken a dramatic if tentative step away from its old ideology and towards that of real workers’ class-consciousness.

True consciousness cannot rest easy with awareness of the workers’ status as worker. Alongside that basic realisation must be a consciousness of the fundamentally alienated character of being a worker. Under capital, the labourer is always sacrificing irretrievable parts of his or her life to the false life of the marketplace. The young Marx put it best almost two hundred years ago:

" … the less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public-house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save — the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour — your capital. The less you are, the more you have; the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life — the greater is the store of your estranged being … " [Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, pg. 119, 2007]

Any form of class consciousness which takes the existence of a “working class” as a problem and not as the solution to a problem(posed by people who would cheat this class out of its “fair share”) will necessarily be a consciousness with direct political implications regarding the length of the working day. This is why the demands issued by the strike committees of 1919 and the ideas presented in the TUC’s report are part of the same continuum. This is true even if the TUC only partially recognises work as a problem. And the same connection illustrates the dire limitations imposed on the old workers’ movement by the traditional politics of trade union leaders and those right-leaning socialists who support them. In such politics, wage increases and improvements to conditions took the place of demands to shorten the working day. In the future, all these demands will have to coincide, rather than compete.

A truly socialist Labour movement will take the condition of being a worker not as the end-point of our political imagination, but as its beginning. It will affirm that work is not something to recklessly seek out more of, as grandees of economic development left and right would have us believe. It will affirm that work as we know it is something human beings, in order to reach their full potential as free, autonomous individuals, must overcome. This has precisely nothing to do with any kind of lethargic, inactive vision of life. What workers want is not idleness, but activity which allows for true self-realisation. Labour under capital systematically pushes self-realisation aside. Activity carried on for profit, simply to survive, cannot fulfil the inner demands of real people. The basic psychology of motivation has repeatedly demonstrated this. And the whole history of the labour movement from 1919 to today shows that this desire still lives beneath all the ruin which the 20th century heaped on top of it. This, and no other reason, is why socialism is ultimately a quest to abolish classes - including the working class - and create a classless society. Trade unionists who mistake an increase in privileges for certain strata of the workers for the material abolition of class relations have forgotten this principle, which goes back to Marx.

Those who doubt the extent to which socialism has always affirmed life, not just labour, would do well to remember what Eugene V. Debs said in 1890:

“Does someone ask what has been gained in 88 years of agitation? We answer, four hours a day to each workingman, or for 300 working days 1,200 hours, equal to 120 days of ten hours each. Are there those who begrudge these hours of rest and relaxation to the toiler? Yes. Find them, measure them, analyze them, and when the world knows what they are, humanity will blush crimson for their degeneracy.” [3]

So why has the TUC adopted such a position on work now, rather than before? If the workers’ movement has always been about loosening the chains of work - as 1919 shows - then what were the limits which trade union leaders of that brutal year felt confronted with? And what has set the limits of trade union consciousness in all the years since?

It may be that moving to a four-day workweek has only become feasible in recent decades. In 1919, capitalism had before it many more years of growth. Technological innovation at that time was still creating whole new markets which had yet to be fully explored. The economic explosion of the 20th century was powered by the creation of new consumer markets in areas like housing, automobiles, personal electronics. The role of the unions in bringing workers into the “middle class”, such that they could participate in this process as producers and consumers was essential. But it would not have been possible for capitalism to develop so broadly without the maximum possible utilisation of its workforce.

It was only after WWII that innovations like containerisation and new methods of automation started to permanently chip away at traditional industrial employment. During the regime of slow economic growth which has prevailed since the 1970s and shows no signs of stopping, societies have had extensive historical experience with the limitations of traditional ideology. After the dot-com boom of the 1990s and the subsequent explosion of the tech sector, it has become clear that highly-paid professional work will not take the place of low-paid service-industry work for the majority of the population, due to the inherent limitations of a capitalist economy. The market really only needs so many skilled professionals per capita. Automation is already making huge inroads into the service industry - the death of the high street due to online shopping has been widely remarked on. With the rising threat of automated services and the increasing encroachment of automation into what remains of manufacturing employment, the TUC’s report comes at a historically appropriate juncture in a way that similar demands in the past, when viewed from a coldly economic standpoint, may not have.

Of course, despite this forward movement, the TUC still exhibits its classic conservatism, even in this potentially radical political realm. In an age where the average UK worker spends 42 hours a week working, while German workers - not known for being lazy - are striking for 28 hours, it seems strange to put the deadline for a four-day week at a year so distant as 2100. It is obvious that the TUC’s report merely represents a opening - however important - that genuine socialist politics will have to pass through. As the Autonomy think tank wrote, the report does not possess a fully thought-through political vision of how the four-day workweek might actually be achieved. Such a clearly articulated vision might reveal ways in which the 2100 mark can be brought much closer. Political visions of this kind must be the necessary object of socialist political imagination in the 21st century. And it will be up to the rising generation of young trade unionists to carry to its logical, political conclusions that which the TUC has put on the agenda in the realm of theory.