Jamie Woodcock: The Working Class in Britain Today

The aim of this short essay is to start a discussion around the shape of the working class today. The intention is to outline the broad changes that have taken place, while suggesting how further research can move beyond analysis of large scale statistics – not discounting the necessity of studies which interrogate such statistics further – to focus on the conditions of workers in the UK today, and on the forms of resistance and organisation that can play a role in their transformation.

What do we mean by class?

The official statistics are not the best source for reaching an understanding of class, but they can provide important insights. A Marxist approach, by contrast, can allow us to move beyond statistics. Yet applying Marx’s theory of class to a contemporary analysis encounters another problem, namely, he ‘did not set out his conception of class in a systematic form’ (Bottomore, 1991: p10). Althusser and Balibar (2009: p193) sum up the difficulty when they write that ‘the reader will know how Volume Three [of Capital] ends. A title: Classes. Forty lines, then silence.’ It is therefore necessary to ‘reconstruct a coherent account of class from Marx’s writing’ (Callinicos, 1987: p51). Geoffrey de Ste Croix’s definition (1981: p43) provides a useful starting point:

Class (essentially a relationship) is the collective expression of the fact of exploitation, the way in which exploitation is embodied in a social structure. By exploitation I mean the appropriation of part of the product of the labour of others.

This understanding of class is based on it being ‘an objective relationship’ (Callinicos, 1989: p6), unconcerned with subjective opinions, i.e., whether an individual considers himself to be in a particular class or not. This definition can be combined with Erik Olin Wright’s insight (1978: p73, 63) that ‘workers cannot be defined simply as wage-labourers,’ but rather as ‘wage-labourers who also do not control the labour of others within production and do not control the use of their own labour within the labour-process.’ This allows us to understand how a layer of workers, engaged in supervisory or management tasks, occupy ‘objectively contradictory locations within class relations.’

A brief survey of the statistics

The census statistics provide a broad outline of employment by industry. The statistics include the total number of people who sell their labour, but also those who control the labour and the exploitation of others and, therefore, would not form part of the working class.

The first trend that can be identified is the large reduction in employment in Manufacturing from 1987 to 2012 – a drop of 46%. This has been accompanied by employment drops in Agriculture, forestry & fishing (-15%), Mining & quarrying (-64%), and Electricity, gas, steam & air conditioning supply (-46%). The category of Public admin& defence; compulsory social security also decreased by 15%. However, all other categories saw significant increases. In particular the largest numerical increases, by 2012, were in Human health & social work activities (increase of 60%), Administrative & support service activities (93%), Professional scientific & technical activities (94%), and Education (45%). These notable categories manifest a growth of service work between 1987 and 2012.

These statistical trends point towards significant changes in society. Yet they also obscure important details. Firstly, manufacturing is much more productive in 2012 than it was in 1987. Thus, although the total number of people employed might have changed, the relative importance of the sector may not have changed as much. Secondly, the categories themselves are far from homogenous. For example the Skilled Trades Occupation category could include a variety of different class positions, covering ‘foremen, the manual self-employed, and small businessmen.’ This is important because it ‘embraces groups of people whose interests are different from – indeed in conflict with – those of manual workers, however skilled, who depend on the sale of their labour-power for their livelihood’ (Callinicos, 1989: p4). The same can be true for other occupations. For example, within the Sales and Customer Service Occupations, there are various layers of supervisors which control and supervise the labour of other workers. This means that there can be workers – to use Wright’s (1978: 63) terminology – occupying ‘objectively contradictory locations within class relations’. Although they sell their own labour they form part of the role of capital, and therefore, they have two opposing class interests.

The growth of service work is a central trend. What would it mean if a worker is now more likely to work in a supermarket or a call centre, rather than in a factory or a coal mine? This kind of employment can indeed be subjected to similar methods of control and supervision originally developed in the factory. The technology used to control the labour process in call centres is perhaps analogous to the technician in a white coat with a stop watch on the factory floor. The success of Taylorian scientific management, Harry Braverman (1999: p60) argued, was that now ‘work itself is organized according to Taylorian principles.’ The application of Taylorianism outside the Fordist factory was anticipated by Braverman (1999: p79), when he argued that mental labour, after being separated from manual labour, ‘is then itself subdivided rigorously according to the same rule.’ The purpose of this is ‘to cheapen the worker by decreasing his training and enlarging his output’ (Braverman, 1999: p81).

Impact of neoliberalism

The statistics from 1987 and 2012 capture a period marked by the rise of neoliberalism. Its advances has brought attacks on the terms and conditions of work; on the welfare state, through the reduction of government spending; on the development of public services for market forces (Harvey, 2007: p12). These structural changes have been forced through with a series of defeats from the organised working class. The process has intensified with the current coalition government’s austerity agenda. It has exposed increasing layers of society, without organisations or traditions of trade union membership, to the experience of precarious working conditions.

This can be seen in the statistics for trade union membership, providing an estimate of the current institutional level of working class organisation. Like census statistics, however, such statistics obscure certain dynamics within working class organisation. The headline statistics for 2011 show that there were 6.4 million employees who were members of a trade union, with an overall density of 26%, showing a downward trend from 32.4%. The figures are based on the Labour Force Survey series, begun in 1995. The membership is divided between 3.9 million in the public sector and 2.5 million in the private sector (Brownlie, 2012: p7). Union membership density in the public sector stands at 56.5%, whereas in the private sector, it is only 14.1% (Brownlie, 2012: p11). This division is exacerbated by the fact that ‘the education and health and social work industries each account for over a fifth of union members but only for 7.6 and 11.5 per cent of non-union members respectively’ (Brownlie, 2012: p11). It is therefore possible to say that these areas have a hugely disproportionate representation, or rather, that there are other areas lacking any significant union organisation.

The phenomenon of workplaces without organisation and precarious conditions has been the focus of recent debates about work. At one extreme Guy Standing (2011) argues for the emergence of a new class, the ‘precariat’, providing little empirical evidence in support of his claim. Kevin Doogan (2009), conversely, argues that although there is a ‘broad public perception of the end of jobs for life and the decline of stable employment’, such a perception operates alongside ‘the rise in long-term employment’, and should therefore be rejected. This is emphasised in the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1998: p95-9), where he argues that ‘précarité’ is a ‘new mode of domination in public life . . . based on the creation of generalized and permanent state of insecurity aimed at forcing workers into submission, into the acceptance of exploitation.’ Yet precarity is not a new phenomenon; many types of employment have suffered from precarious conditions until the workers affected were able to organise successfully. The key question is: what forms of resistance emerge in these contexts? Upon which organisation can be built, and what existing organisations can learn from, the new experiences of struggle?

Towards an inquiry

Statistics on employment by industry and institutional figures of union membership form only one part of the picture of class struggle in the UK. As George Rawick (1969: p23) has previously pointed out: ‘Marxists have occasionally talked about working-class self-activity, as well they might, given that it was Marx’s main political focus.’ There needs to be an understanding that behind observable institutional phenomena, there are actions of an actually existing working class. Rawick (1969: p29) argued that it was also necessary to examine:

The figures on how many man-hours were lost to production because of strikes, the amount of equipment and material destroyed by industrial sabotage and deliberate negligence, the amount of time lost by absenteeism, the hours gained by workers through slowdown, the limiting of the speed-up of the productive apparatus through the working class’s own initiative.

This highlights how the different kinds of quantitative data can provide only a limited insight into class today. It is necessary to search for a method to understand the realities of struggle, from the perspectives of workers that are engaged in it. The choice of what sources of statistics to use is loaded with political implications; taking only the official statistics from union-sanctioned industrial actions could obscure a significant part of the reality. In a sense, what Rawick argued for is an attempt to discover the unrecorded or difficult to excavate figures of class struggle. This attempt is perhaps analogous – if it is possible to discard the negative connotations – to the distortion created by unreported figures in official crime statistics, referred to as ‘the dark figure’ by Coleman and Moynihan (1996).

Marx attempted a novel approach to uncover statistically invisible struggles in his call for a workers’ inquiry, published in a newspaper in France in 1880 (Marx, 1938). The introduction explained the aim of the survey:

We hope to meet in this work with the support of all workers in town and country who understand that they alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes from which they suffer, and that only they, and not saviours sent by Providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills to which they are a prey.

This perspective points towards a method of research quite different from a census or a sociological study. It explicitly links the construction of knowledge to a political project. It takes as its starting point that those interested in conducting such surveys: “Must wish for an exact and positive knowledge of the conditions in which the working class – the class to whom the future belongs – works and moves.” (Marx, 1938: p379)

The postal survey aimed to collect information, but crucially, it also intended to make contact with workers. Marx (1938: p379) states that ‘it is not essential to reply to every question’ – after all, there were 101 questions. He emphasises, furthermore, that ‘the name and address should be given so that if necessary we can send communication.’ This potential role of a workers’ inquiry as an organisational tool is important. It is difficult to build any forms of organisation without an adequate knowledge of the conditions of those affected. Thus these forms of knowledge production are, in a sense, part of trade union organisation. What is novel about this outline of a workers’ inquiry is that it is laid out in a formal manner. However, there are no records of the results that were gained from the survey, nor is there a discussion of either its successes or failures.

The idea of conducting workers’ inquiries received a renewed interest in debates within the Trotskyist movement, concerning the analysis of Stalinist Russia as a degenerated workers state. Of particular interest are the Johnson-Forest Tendency in the USA (Dunayevskaya, 1972), the Socialisme ou Barbarie group in France (Kessler, 1978), and the International Socialists in Britain, which did not solidify into a group until later (Kuper, 1971). One particularly interesting example is the study produced by the Johnson-Forest Tendency called The American Worker. It is a two part pamphlet by Romano and Stone (1946), which aimed to document the conditions and experiences of rank-and-file workers in an American car factory. The first part is a workers’ inquiry written by Paul Romano, who worked in the car factory; the second part contains the theoretical analysis.

The method of workers’ inquiry is rooted in the understanding of the specific standpoint of the working class. This builds on the arguments put forward by Lukács’ (1971: p21), according to whom ‘the Marxist method, the dialectical materialist knowledge of reality, can arise only from the point of view of a class, from the point of view of the struggle of the proletariat.’ This viewpoint was further developed by Italian Operaismo in the 1960s. Their inquiries formed the basis for an understanding of the new contexts in which the workplace is organised; in which it requires an investigation of current conditions, upon which new forms of organisation can be built. Mario Tronti (1964: p9) forcefully argued that ‘theoretical research and practical political work have to be dragged – violently if need be – into focussing on this question: not the development of capitalism, but the development of the revolution.’ This new method of research is to be linked, like the inquiries of the Johnson-Forest Tendency and Socialisme ou Barbarie, to the organisation of ‘a new form of working class newspaper (Tronti, 1964: p10).’ This political component of the method is summarised by Romano Alquati in a useful way: “Political militants have always done conricerca. We would go in front of the factory and speak with workers: there cannot be organization otherwise.” (quoted in Roggero, 2010: p3)

This statement is further clarified by Roggero:

Alquati taught us that the problem is to grasp the truth, not to describe it. For the capacity to anticipate a tendency is not an intellectual artifice but the compass of the militant and the condition for the possibility of organization (Roggero, 2010: p4).


It is necessary to conduct further analysis to interrogate the nature of class today. The relative decline of manufacturing has seen an increase of service work, including increases in the forms of labour involved in education, health care, or emotive work. There needs to be an investigation of what these shifting forms of labour mean for the possibilities of resistance and organisation. Although the public sector remains a bastion of trade union membership, there are large sections of the working class without significant institutional representation, often employed in conditions that present obstacles to building organisation. The question of what these changes mean has to be connected with a project of understanding the struggle of workers themselves and of attempting to inquire into what forms of organisation emerge in resistance to new conditions.

One proposed method to further the analysis is a workers’ inquiry. This should not only be viewed as part of an epistemological project; it contains, within itself, a potential political moment of organisation. By conducting inquiries where we work ourselves, where we already have contact with workers, or where we want to make contact with workers, it can form part of a political project that actively engages with the changing world around it. This is not to say that it is necessary to shift the focus away from the political. Yet the question of whether the workplace can be a focus for collective and sustained projects for the radical democratisation and transformation of society needs to be posed and answered. •

Jamie Woodcock is an activist and PhD student at Goldsmiths University.

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