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Nothing to Lose but Our Chains is a historically informed and wide-ranging discussion of work and resistance in the present day, finds Lindsey German

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Jane Hardy, Nothing to Lose but Our Chains: Work and Resistance in Twenty-First-Century Britain (Pluto 2021), pp.272.

There are far too few books written about the working class, the conditions under which it organises, its successes and failures, and the hopes and fears of those who try to challenge the priorities of capital. Jane Hardy’s is, however, one of those books. It is written from a point of view of sympathy with working-class people, and its subtitle, Work and Resistance in Twenty-First-Century Britain, sums up both the content and the approach of this study. Where there is work, there is also resistance, sometimes in unexpected corners. And sometimes in places where we may not be looking.

Resistance at work is as old as capitalism. In the Marxist view this stems from the fundamental antagonism at the heart of that system: the way in which the wealth that workers produce is taken from them by the process of exploitation, leaving them alienated from the products of their own labour. However, this resistance takes many forms, sometimes expressing itself in individual actions which are often unquantified, such as going sick, working slowly, or petty theft, but often taking a much more collective form through strikes, overtime bans, working to contract, or public protests. Indeed, working people have repeatedly aspired to organise collectively since the early days of industrialisation, and this process continues around the world.

The book’s narrative is strengthened by the numerous interviews the author has undertaken with those involved in these struggles. There is a lot of attention paid to women and migrant workers, which reflects some of Jane Hardy’s past work and political interests, but is also absolutely essential to any understanding of work and resistance in Britain today. Women are actually now more likely to be union members than men, a big turnaround in the past twenty years. However, any work like this has to explain why British trade unions remain much weaker than they were forty years ago and why the level of industrial action, despite recent signs of revival, is still so low.

Trade-union struggles

Jane Hardy gives us a brief history of how we got to this place. She looks at the high point of modern industrial struggle in Britain during the 1970s and why it has declined. The rise in industrial struggle from the late 1960s onwards is a remarkable phenomenon. Strikes were called ‘the British disease’, and only Britain and Italy had such high levels of struggle then. Those who sold their labour power found themselves in a seller’s market for the period of post-war boom. Wage drift, full employment, the strengthening of shop-stewards’ organisation, increasing living standards, and a growing young and militant labour force who hadn’t known war and depression, all contributed to this situation.

It was to deal with this that first a Labour government and then the Tories attempted to weaken ‘the power of the unions’. At first they were spectacularly unsuccessful, forcing the abandonment of Labour’s ‘In Place of Strife’ plan, and then placing such resistance in the way of the Tories’ Industrial Relations Act that – in the form of the second miners’ strike in two years – it led to the fall of the government and an election where Labour was victorious.

However, the following years were bitter, as Labour, working hand in glove with the left trade-union leaders, forced wage restraint under conditions of economic crisis, leading eventually to the victory in 1979 of Margaret Thatcher, who systematically used the law, state repression, and the salami tactic of taking on one group of workers at a time in order to defeat the unions, most dramatically in the year-long miners’ strike of 1984-85.

British workers paid a heavy price for their defeat, and were collectively weakened by the losses of the dockers, printers and other well organised workers (mostly men) in several set-piece disputes. The trade-union movement has still not recovered. Union membership is around half of what it was in 1979 at its high point, and the level of industrial action is still very low, though recovering. Jane Hardy records all this, and also puts forward reasons why and how it can be overcome.

Her emphasis is very much in the tradition of rank-and-file activity and organisation, and she makes some cogent criticisms not just of individual actions by trade-union leaders at various times, but about over reliance on a bureaucracy whose social role is to mediate between capital and labour. Whatever the positive roles of some trade-union leaders, the need for strong independent workplace-based organisation is crucial, even if usually some distance from reality at present. Union organisation in Britain tends to develop in leaps, and has been very closely connected with increases in class struggle. This question will take on extra urgency when that happens.

Organising workers

Jane Hardy also takes up the various theories put forward in recent years about how unions should be organised. She takes the view, I think completely correctly, that there is no necessary fixed or permanent ‘vanguard’ in union organising, but that precisely the unpredictable and spontaneous nature of class struggle means that people move into struggle who had never previously thought of doing so, and in the process change their ideas. In some situations their consciousness moves ahead of some of the established union militants.

She makes some criticisms of Jane McAlevey’s organising model, very popular with sections of the left in the trade unions, and which as Hardy says, at its best codifies the kinds of practice trade-union activists should and often do follow. However, she also argues that it ‘is in danger of tipping over into a prescriptive, linear, and mechanical approach to struggle, particularly when it involves mapping workplaces by classifying members according to their propensity to become active.’ I agree: the McAlevey model can rely heavily on mechanisms like indicative ballots, which have their place, but an actual ballot does the same job and can lead to action; and its fixed view of the membership can lead to underestimating all sorts of people, perhaps especially women, who may not always play a prominent role.

Women’s strikes are often bywords in spontaneity. Jane Hardy describes some of the history: the women in Cradley Heath who were chain-makers, or those in Bermondsey in docks related industries, like jam, biscuit and pickle making, both of which groups struck before the First World War as part of the ‘Great Unrest’; the Dagenham ‘equal pay’ strike of 1968; the Leeds clothing strikes in 1970; Trico in Brentford in 1976; Grunwick in 1976-78; and the Lee Jeans factory occupation in 1981.

I was involved in organising round the latter three and remember vividly the enthusiasm of the picket lines at Trico and Grunwick, and the role of some very young women in Lee Jeans in the west of Scotland. Their role increased and their confidence rose, as the whole working-class movement rose. However women’s participation in the workforce grew just at the time that the movement was under attack, and they have often been in sectors with weak unionisation, such as retail or finance. My own belief is that female workers will play a really important role in future strikes and struggles, especially since it is becoming even more apparent in recent years that working women still suffer massive discrimination both at work and through their role in social reproduction.

Precarity

There are a couple of issues about the nature of work raised in the book about which I am not convinced. One is to do with what is often termed precarity under neoliberalism, the lack of secure or standard work, and so on. Jane polemicises against those like Guy Standing, who see this as the main feature of present work, and suggests that this is very much exaggerated. She cites figures which show that, for example, the level of temporary work has not grown massively. This is an important corrective to the many theorists who discuss work today as though it were all precarious. While she is right to be sceptical about Standing and others like him, we also have to look at quality as well as quantity, and about context.

So, there has been a high level of part-time employment in Britain since the 1950s and 60s. Much of this work, often done by mothers of dependent children, is highly stable, if low paid. There is a big difference between most temporary workers now, and the young women who worked as ‘temps’ in the 60s and 70s. They worked for agencies, often as shorthand typists, earned more than their permanent counterparts, could stop whenever they wanted, and would do this until they found a workplace that they liked, when they became permanent.

In addition, while precarity is clearly not the main experience of millions of workers, we should also consider another question, which is what impact does the existence of precarious workers have on other jobs? I would argue that it has helped to worsen terms and conditions of permanent and secure work in many areas. That is seen in the recent spate of ‘fire-and-rehire’ cases, where employers try to force their existing workers onto worse contracts.

My other argument is over the designation of sex work as work, which I think is problematic. This is not a question of morals but of politics. The normalisation of sex work hides the huge levels of coercion and violence that goes on, and the fact that so many women are in the most desperate situations when they take part in it. Jane points to the existence of ‘survival sex’, where women turn to sex work temporarily when having benefits cut or suffering other straitened circumstances. Surely, however, this underlines the difference between selling labour power and selling sex. Neither is this new: women being sexually harassed at work and having sex with managers or employers, or exchanging sex for rent they cannot pay, have always been part of working-class life, at least for some.

The debate between decriminalisation and the ‘Nordic model’ is a very limited one. We should defend anyone under attack, criminalised, or scapegoated because of prostitution or other sex work. While it is important to realise the economic and social reasons why women turn to sex work, we should also argue why it should not exist, both because it is degrading, but also because it raises a barrier between those who sell and those who buy sex, weakening working-class solidarity.

Neither of these points is, however, central to the book and these sorts of debate will continue. There are many issues not covered in this review: the role of migrant labour in twenty-first century Britain, the development of new unions, and campaigns like ‘Better than Zero’, the horrendous conditions at Sports Direct, and organisation from care workers to cleaners to university lecturers. These experiences are often told directly through interviews with the workers concerned.

The conclusions point to a hopeful future: the potential for organisation, the resilience of trade unions, despite the many attacks and some of the worst restrictions anywhere in Europe, and the rank-and-file organisation in workplaces developing round the Covid-19 pandemic. Jane argues that activity and action build union strength. As we enter a period of increasing class struggle – in a more favourable labour market than many workers have seen for a long time – this is an invaluable book to arm us for the many challenges and opportunities ahead.

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Lindsey German

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

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