Monday, September 29, 2008

Should workers cooperate with employers to make their firms successful?


Should workers cooperate with employers to make their firms successful?

In times of economic difficulty or recession employers frequently turn to their workers and say something like this: ‘Times are hard; we all need to tighten our belts and sacrifice a bit at the moment, but if we all pull together the company will soon return to prosperity and that will benefit us all in the long run’.

This is an extremely popular argument which virtually unanimous support – among employers. In fact I doubt there is an employer on the globe that doesn’t claim to want the cooperation of its workforce.

This is hardly surprising. Oppressors through out the ages have urged their victims to cooperate. Doubtless the Egyptian Pharaohs were pleased when their slaves cooperated in hauling the vast stones that built the Pyramids. The slave owners in the Americas showed their appreciation of cooperative slaves by making the ‘house’ slaves and granting them small ‘privileges’ relative to the ‘field’ Negroes. The SS secured the Jews’ cooperation in boarding the cattle trucks by not telling them their true destination.

The problem with the ‘cooperate with company’ argument, however, is that it is widely accepted not just by bosses (and their allies in government and the media, of course) but also by many workers. Evidence for this can be seen in the way trade union officials so often bend over backwards to appear ‘reasonable’ and to stress that it is the management who are being uncooperative. Indeed the argument can be made to sound like simple ‘common sense. Let us confront it in its strongest form.

Company X, which makes widgets, is in trouble. It has just announced huge losses for the last two quarters and the management admit they are on the verge of bankruptcy. It is a multinational company and there is also the possibility it will close its operation in South Korea and shift production to the Philippines where wages are lower. If, however, the workers will accept a pay cut of 10% and a no strike deal for two years, management pledge to keep the factory open and say they are confident of winning new orders. The Government is backing the deal and there are rumours, if it is accepted, of massive investment. Besides unemployment is high and if Company X closes its workers will struggle to find new jobs. Surely, in these circumstances, it makes sense to cooperate?

There are parts of this argument, which as any decent trade union representative will know, have to be challenged immediately. How real is the threat to move production overseas? Multinationals are always trying to blackmail their workers this way, when often the costs and disadvantages of relocation are prohibitive (which is why they are in South Korea, not the Philippines, in the first place). What guarantees are there for the promises about the future? What is stop the management from coming back in six months time and saying we are very sorry, we meant what we said at the time, but things have changed and now we are closing anyway, or we want another 10% cut?

PLUS what about management salaries ETC

However these points do not really get to heart of the matter. Let us assume for the moment that the employers are, broadly speaking, telling the truth, at least as they see it and as far as they can know it (I strongly advise against making this assumption in practice). Then let us ask what Company X being ‘in trouble’ and facing closure really means. Obviously it means not making a profit or not making enough profit and the most likely reason for that is either: there is another company, Y or Z, capturing the widget market by making them better or selling them cheaper; or there is a decline in the widget market, due to other companies or the public being less willing to spend their money on widgets; or some combination or variation on both these reasons.

Now let us assume that the workers of Company X agree to the 10% pay cut demanded. This will give the profits of Company X a boost and restore its competitive edge over Company Y. Now it will be Y’s turn to be in trouble and Y’s workers turn to face redundancy. Obviously the Y management will say to their workers, the X workers over there took a wage cut, you must do the same or we will be uncompetitive. But if the Y workers follow the example of the X workers, all it means is that the relative competitive positions of Companies X and Y will be restored with both their workforces earning less. This ‘race to the bottom’ has been the essence of neo-liberal globalisation adopted by ruling classes nearly everywhere in their drive to raise profits.

If we look back over this ‘workers should cooperate argument’ it is clear that workers’ ability to see through it is bound up with their ability to see beyond themselves as workers in one isolated workplace and look also at the workplace and workers down the road and ultimately round the world. For the only real answer to the bosses’ strategy, and it is a strategy as well as an idea, is for the workers of company X to link up with the workers of Company Y (and Z etc) and together reject wage cuts and redundancy. It should also be clear that workers ability to do this is a matter not just of their intellectual understanding, their consciousness, but also of their confidence and organisation. For workers the crucial question is not just the abstract argument, but the calculation: if we here at X resist will the workers at Y and elsewhere fight with us?

This why trade union organisation is so important, so that workers in one workplace, then across different workplaces, and ultimately across the class as a whole are linked to each other and can take action together.

It is also why a revolutionary party is vital. In practice in most workplaces there will some workers whose whole inclination is to accept the bosses’ cooperation argument and others who consciously reject it. Between these two poles there will be those, probably a majority, who are unsure. What actually happens, the course of the class struggle, depends on which pole is able to win over the waverers. The revolutionary party is simply an organisation of the rejectionists, in every possible workplace, across all boundaries, to increase their ability to win the argument against the collaborators and lead the majority of the class in struggle.

Thus we see that this single argument contains in essence the whole logic of the class struggle. Either collaborate with the boss and compete with other workers, or join with other workers to fight the boss. The first road leads, in the end, to racism, nationalism, war and fascism, i.e. to barbarism. The second road leads to socialism.

John Molyneux

1 September 2008