12 Dec 2018 01:43pm

Debate: is worker solidarity meaningless?

Debate: Worker solidarity is meaningless when systems work to the advantage of the elite

Caption: Is worker solidarity meaningless when systems work to the advantage of the elite?

Dr Ben Warwick

Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham

With the rise in precarious working, zero hours contracts, real-terms pay cuts, a persisting gender pay gap, and gross racial inequalities in the workplace, it is hard to keep the faith and see the value of solidarity. That is, until you focus on how well it works. Even in the face of a neoliberal economic system that rewards individualism and seeks to isolate workers from one another, there have been significant wins because of worker solidarity.

“Solidarity doesn’t work? Tell that to the workers who won a pay increase from Amazon and highlighted its dangerous working practices. “Solidarity creates a “them and us” that damages public support? Tell that to the Deliveroo and UberEats workers who have put the issue of job insecurity on the public and political agenda.

“Think workers’ solidarity is an old-fashioned notion? Tell that to the 20,000 Google employees who walked out over the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims. “Solidarity might not be the answer to all of the systemic disadvantages faced by workers (and especially those less privileged workers), but its successes are far from meaningless.”

Javier C Hernández

China correspondent, The New York Times

“We interviewed Yue Xin, the Chinese #MeToo leader, before she was detained. ‘#MeToo and worker activism go together,’ she said. ‘Female workers are faced with both patriarchy and capitalism’.”

Richard D Wolff

Professor of economics emeritus, UMass Amherst

“Slavery worked best for masters. Feudalism worked best for lords. Capitalism works best for employers. With a transition to worker co-ops, we finally get an economic system that works best for a majority.”

Peter Tatchell

Human rights campaigner

“Britain is an economic dictatorship. A rich and powerful elite makes all the key workplace decisions. One person, one vote has been won in the political sphere but not in the realm of economics. “Employees – without whom no wealth would be created and no institution could function – are powerless and disenfranchised. This lack of economic democracy alienates the workforce. They have no serious stake in the future of the institution that employs them.

“Democratise the economy, with one-third elected employee and consumer directors on company boards, to defend the interests of staff and the wider public. This would enable employees to take their grievances direct to the top and get them resolved. Employee and consumer representatives could act as watchdogs and whistle-blowers against corporate irresponsibility, helping to prevent a repeat of scandals like Carillion, Northern Rock and RBS.”

Larry Elliott

The Guardian’s economics editor

“Seen in the simplest terms, the story of political economy over the past four decades is a class war between capital and labour, which capital has won hands down. The battlefield is littered with evidence of labour’s defeat: nugatory pay awards, precarious work, the collapse of collective bargaining, and cuts in public spending.”

Siôn Whellens

Calverts director, member of the Worker Co-operative Solidarity Fund

“I conventionally define ‘workers’ as those depending on wages or salary, not having meaningful capital; the ‘elite’ as those owning or managing large-scale capital and rent bearing property. The ‘system’ comprises the sub-systems which the elite deploys to perpetuate social domination. Worker solidarity, in its two broad expressions, is the humane and inevitable product of this system. “The system produces worker solidarity. It could even be called its life force. If worker solidarity is meaningless, then the system is itself meaningless, and so is the concept of the elite.

“Convincing workers that solidarity is pointless, because in fact there is no system, is an ideological goal of the elite – as it tries to fade into the mist, while running towards the end of history and its own destruction.”

Elizabeth Warren

United States Senator for Massachusetts

“The #GoogleWalkout includes fighting for a worker rep on the board. My Accountable Capitalism Act would give employees at big American companies the right to elect 40% of the board.”

Janet Williamson

Senior policy officer for corporate governance at the Trades Union Congress (TUC)

“Worker solidarity is essential to put more power in the hands of ordinary people. Workers come together in trade unions for a simple reason – by speaking with one voice, they are stronger and can better challenge the inherent imbalance of power between a worker and their employer.

“Unionised workplaces are safer, better paid, with better work-life balance, more paid holidays and better training provision. Worker solidarity benefits all workers. Unions have been at the forefront of fighting for the minimum wage and greater legal protection for all workers.

“And our solidarity does not stop at the workplace. Trade unions have fought for justice and equality here and around the world and were at the forefront of fighting Apartheid in South Africa, aiding the post-Arab Spring transition to democracy in Tunisia, and promoting peace in Northern Ireland and Colombia. “Worker solidarity is essential to challenge elites and promote a fair society. If unions didn’t exist, we would have to reinvent them, fast.”

Roy Rickhuss

General secretary of universal union Community

“There is clear evidence that trade unions have and continue to make workplaces safer, smarter, greener and more prosperous. There are many challenges the 21st century brings in the modern world of work. These include ensuring systems work fairly for everyone and not just the elite.

“There is no doubt the legacy of worker solidarity and the achievements of trade unions are under threat if we fail to step up to those challenges, which will be felt well beyond the UK workplace. However, if trade unions do step up to those challenges, then a new generation of workers will have a voice, with the chance to ensure we have an economy that works for everyone, not just the elite.”

Bill Cimbrelo

Former candidate for US Congress

“As long as we continue to do the rich man’s work at poor man’s wages, we are all doomed. Unrestrained capitalism is a failure and must be reined in. We must fight for a geo-indexed #LivingWage.”