The balance of power

TWO STORIES in this week’s paper highlight extreme opposites in the balance of power in the major contradiction in human society in our era — the battle between capital and labour, between bosses and workers.

The first is the parliamentary inquiry into affairs at Sports Direct, which has thrown up a list of horrors in terms of pay and conditions at the company’s Derbyshire warehouse where workers who were seriously ill were forcing themselves into work for fear of losing their jobs.

The scandals only came to light when the local ambulance service complained that there had been 110 ambulance call-outs to this warehouse in just over three years. Workers suffered chest pains, stroke, injury, and five births or miscarriages — including one woman delivering her baby in the toilet. This led to an investigation by the Guardian and then by the union Unite.

But this was the first involvement of any union in a situation where workers were utterly at the mercy of their boss. And it would have been incredibly difficult for a union to organise there. The vast majority of workers are from agencies — and different agencies. So although the distribution depot had one boss there were umpteen petty sub-employers to deal with.

The workers were mostly on zero-hours contracts and desperate to ensure they got in enough hours every week to ensure a living wage. They faced a regime that automatically sacked workers guilty of six misdemeanours — which included taking too long in the toilets, talking, being late and not working fast enough.

The boss’s power was backed up by equally draconian benefit regulations, meaning that any worker who quit or was sacked would be blamed for making themselves unemployed and would probably get no Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) for months.

There comes a point in this titanic struggle where trade union economic power is not enough. A political fight must be made when improving wages and conditions involves a head-on fight with the Government and the whole system.

Mike Ashley, the company boss, walked the shop-floor every week — but still claimed to be surprised by the terrible conditions that exist there.

This is a return to the relations between bosses and workers that prevailed before the growth of trade unions at the outset of the industrial revolution. And there are many other companies like Ashley’s that are taking advantage of agency workers, zero-hours contracts and restrictions on unemployment benefit.

Outsourcing employment to agencies diffuses responsibility. Zero- or short-hours contracts guaranteeing only 336 hours a year keep workers under control. If you complain, there’s no need for disciplinary procedures: there may just be no more hours for you.

In the United States, Oxfam has recorded further indignities now being imposed in mainstream meat factories, where assembly lines run so fast that even a short toilet break disrupts production. Staff are meant to signal for a “floater” or relief worker to take their place before leaving to go to the toilet, but they told researchers they are often denied a break, so some have taken to wearing adult nappies in case they need to urinate or defecate whilst on the line.

The other story revealing the complete opposite is that Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has been floating the concept of a universal basic income (UBI) for all adults, regardless of whether they are in work. It is posed as a remedy for the contradiction in capitalism that the increasing involvement of technology in all aspects of production is creating rising mass unemployment.

A UBI would tidy up all the confusion of pensions and benefits, and acknowledge that human beings need to live even if there are not enough jobs to go round — and that the wealth created by the machines should be shared more fairly.

It is a lovely utopian dream, where workers could safely refuse to work unless the pay, terms and conditions suited them. Labour contracts would be an equal-sided bargain. The fear of destitution would no longer render us as wage slaves. Employers would have to woo workers with good pay, terms and conditions. The boot would absolutely be on the other foot.

The ruling class, the tiny greedy one per cent, would hate this; they would see it as an attack on their power and wealth and react accordingly. Then we would see them using the power of the state they created to defend themselves moving to crush such policies.

This utopia cannot be reached without a complete defeat and rout of the ruling class and its state — a socialist revolution. But it’s a nice dream to keep in our heads as we educate, agitate and organise for that revolution.