It was interesting to read the latest in the exchange between Daniel Randall and John Cunningham (Solidarity 367).
Over the last few years it has often seemed to me that exhortations to rethink our fundamental ideas have come from many quarters and not resulted in much. They are in a similar vein to the person who sits in the campaign planning meeting saying “we need to be more creative,” but when you drill down into what they actually mean it doesn’t go much further than “have a Twitter” or “sit in a shop for a bit.”
There is a real historical crisis of political social democracy which is occurring due to the reconfiguration of the labour market, the death of manufacturing jobs and all the rest of it. The irony is that the trade unions will probably, in the long run, ride this out much more successfully than the Labour Party will. Of course our call centres and warehouses are not post-industrial in any sense, as workplaces.
My workplace, a university, is larger than most factories were even in Britain’s industrial heyday, with a workforce similarly divided by job roles and different craft, professional, and union attitudes. Workplaces should in and of themselves be no harder to organise than they ever were.
I think there is a real issue, though, in a lack of the sort of cultural and social infrastructure that helps sustain the labour movement. While workplaces haven’t fundamentally changed since the high industrial era, working class communities have. We don’t live within a stone’s throw of our place of work. We don’t go drinking with our colleagues (well, I don’t), and our kids won’t marry our colleagues’ kids. There will be (and are) many call centre workers in unions, but there’s unlikely to be a Durham Call Centre Workers’ Gala.
Industrial workplaces still exist, but tight-knit industrial communities don’t. I think it’s the conflation of these that has led many people in recent years to the conclusion that the workplace should no longer be the premier site of struggle against capital. A serious effort to rebuild the socialist infrastructure which we have lost is long overdue. Imagine if, for example, TUSC had opened workers’ advice centres or education centres in two or three towns instead of frittering thousands of pounds away on lost deposits.
Wouldn’t something like that be more valuable in the long run, to augment, sustain, and give a political edge to our ongoing industrial work?