In Australia it’s the evening of May Day, though as it falls on a Sunday we will (in Queensland at least) celebrate it with that great Australian institution, a long weekend. Last year, I went on the march, this year I ran a triathlon instead. My somewhat confused attitude is, I think, pretty characteristic of the position labour movement more generally.
I’m a worker and a union member, but on a higher income than many employers, and (thanks to research grants) effectively an employer myself. Where Marx and others in the 19th century foresaw a sharpening of the divide between capitalists and proletarians, the actual outcome has been that the lines have been increasingly blurred. A term like ‘working class’ is more of a cultural and occupational label than a statement about economic position – I read somewhere that ‘working class’ households in the US have about the same average income as households in general.
At the same time, there clearly exists a boss class which has become increasingly self-assured (in fact, bossy) over recent decades and is grabbing a steadily growing share of the economic pie. The top 1 per cent of income earners receive something like 25 per cent of total income and Paul Krugman has pointed out that 10 per cent of all capital gains in the US accrued to just 400 individuals. The recent attacks on public sector workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere reflect the political power of this class, and the resistance to those attacks reflects the possibility of a more general movement to protect the interests of workers against the claims of the bosses.
Given the decades of retreats and defeats we have experienced, it seems somewhat quixotic to call for a revival of traditional trade unionism. On the other hand, there is no apparent alternative, and unions have managed to carry on the struggle with at least some success (for example, the defeat of WorkChoices in Australia).
The debate over austerity provides one possible way of linking these issues. The demand for austerity has been pressed primarily by the same financial corporations that caused the crisis in the first place. They, and not public sector workers, or workers in general, are the ones who should pay. But only with strong unions and a political movement openly supportive of workers against the top 1 per cent can this be achieved. The political case is there, and would, I think attract plenty of support, but the political movement is not.
I’d welcome suggestions of a way forward, pointers to positive developments around the world and so on.
Update. Commenters here and elsewhere have reminded me that much of the labour that used to be done by the working class in developed countries is now done in factories in China and other developing countries, along with the same oppression and class conflict and at least some of the resistance we celebrate on May Day. In this context, can I give a plug to Labourstart, which links to labour struggles all around the world, and links today to a great collection of May Day songs.
fn1. Most Australian states celebrate Labour Day on a different day, usually commemorating the achievement of the eight-hour working day in the 19th century. In the subsequent hundred years of so, we managed to whittle that down to 7.6 hours, and get Saturdays off, but for many, the reduction in the standard working week has been snatched back since about 1990.
fn2. 1:32 for a sprint (750/20/5) – not competitive, but a personal best
fn3 The fact that the “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” in this instance is by far the world’s largest and most politically successful communist parties is one of those ironies that make history a depressing study.