Labor “shortages”, trade unions and workers’ morality

28 September, 2021

Gas station in Britain yesterday
Gas station in Britain yesterday

In Britain, the shortage of drivers at the wages offered by companies is already affecting 30% of British petrol stations and the government is starting to mobilize military drivers. It is a striking case because of how it reveals the chaos created by this productive system, but it is far from being unique: the entire American and European press complains about an alleged labor shortage. But the British experience and the behavior of the unions throughout this speaks volumes and says a lot about workers, their ethos/morality and the alternatives we face.

Table of Contents

The labor “shortage”

Evolution of online job vacancies in major European countries
Evolution of online job vacancies in major European countries

We have already seen why, despite all the ideology about “the markets,” the absence of enough workers to fill truck driver jobs does not raise the wage offer of major trucking companies in Britain.

In the state capitalism under which we live the prices of both resources and labor (wages) are set from the top (the most capital-intensive sectors and monopolies) to the bottom (the small and l and medium-sized enterprises). … and the large companies with the most concentrated capital are not willing to accept a cost increase from their suppliers, which would be passed along the whole production chain and, given the current conditions, would cut their final profit margin.

More so at a time when capital’s entire strategy, from workday reductions to the Green Deal, boils down to forcing a transfer of income from labor to capital in order to restart accumulation.

But at current wages, at a time when large companies are hiring again, sectors that were already more precarious (agriculture, freight transport, hospitality) take a secondary place in workers’ employment priorities. Because of wages being pushed increasingly close to the minimum, workers prefer to wait and try their luck where working conditions are less precarious or simply quit their jobs or the hiring process without further explanation when they find a better offer.

Workers in “the market”

Workers at Amazon
Workers at Amazon

In the media’s portrayal of the situation, we workers appear as individual atoms propelled by external “market forces” over which we have no influence.

According to the way we are portrayed, when companies lack the capacity to exploit us all we become servile and submissive beings capable of working for anything and accepting any mistreatment; and when companies do not find enough candidates at the salary they are willing to pay we “take revenge” by ghosting the “poor” employment agencies.

Because, as isolated individuals in the job market, we are not even recognized as being able to say no to an offer or tailor acceptance to better conditions. At best we would ghost, disappear, like British lorry drivers, without saying a word or leaving proof of life.

They are right. As “individuals”, which is how they insist on seeing and representing us in order to convince us that this is what we really are, we are nothing more than inert, passive and desperate objects morally manipulated by some divine “market forces” under which “the owners of all this” hide when it is convenient for them to do so.

Instructions for being human

One of the first clandestine face-to-face assemblies -in the middle of the countryside- that are at the origin of this mass strike
One of the first clandestine face-to-face assemblies -in the middle of the countryside- that are at the origin of the mass strike in Iran

From an individual standpoint, we cannot be anything other than meat being thrown into the grinder or monsters that replicate and aggravate it in order to survive an anti-human and dehumanizing system. But our collective aspect appears as irrational, as utopian, when the only accepted prospect is that of capitalism’s eternity.

That is why the working class’ capacity to organize itself and its capacity to affirm a future in which the satisfaction of human needs prevail are intimately linked and feed each other.

To be human, “in our time more peremptorily than ever, is to behave revolutionarily“. And that today, means to wage simultaneously an organizational and moral battle -because this, and nothing else, is to assert the future.

Simultaneously because both are actually sides of the same thing: the constitution of the workers into a class, the passage from a cloud of atomized individuals, alone and desperate, with no other prospect than to survive from day to day while dodging complete destruction, into a class that affirms in its struggle universal human needs and in so doing evidences the possibility and necessity of a world organized around their satisfaction.

British truckers, unions and demoralization

Hoyer tanker truck, a company that organizes the supply of BP petrol stations in England.
Hoyer tanker truck, a company that organizes the supply of BP petrol stations in England.

Yesterday news began to appear about the movement toward strike action at Hoyer, the tanker company that transports fuel to BP’s filling stations. Immediately the press began to portray them as greedy blackmailers following the company’s own script. Of course, the Telegraph could not miss the coven, portraying the workers as anti-social saboteurs ready to spread panic by depriving even more petrol stations of supplies.

The interesting thing is that nothing has happened yet. Not least because Unite, the majority union at Hoyer is doing everything it can to neutralize the struggle. First, it has delayed the strike ballot until Friday, giving the British Army time to intervene in transport and ease the company’s situation. In addition, it has avoided even publicizing the imminence of a strike… lest it open up a discussion that could extend the strike beyond the company and the sector, which is key to leading the struggle somewhere useful.

To top it off, not all workers in the company are able to vote.. only union members. And even more importantly, according to trade union custom, the vote will not be in assembly or by raised hand voting. That is to say, it attempts to maintain at all costs the atomization of the workers by avoiding any real collective decision, i.e. a decision that would be of the workers as a whole, by instead having workers vote preset and undiscussed conditions in order to present the vote as a mere coordination of individual wills.

It’s not hard to understand the reason behind these tricks: it’s the way to keep the union leaders from being subject to the workers. It’s not their business to help the development of struggles. Their business is to mediate the sale of labor power, aiming to turn the organization of which they are professional cadres into one more monopolist within the great game of capital that determines prices and wages.

To be paid for organizing labor power in production is the same thing that any manager of any company does. The salaried manager is the characteristic form of the corporate bourgeoisie in the state capitalism under which we live. What is to be expected from the corporate… trade union bourgeoisie?

Thus, unions actually abort the organization of workers by corporatizing them in order to funnel their desire and need to fight into a terrain that in reality merely re-organizes the labor market, instead of a struggle for the universal needs of workers. As in the marketplace, in the union the whole set of possibilities is summed up to the outcome of supply and demand in a rigged game.

That is why the whole trade union experience of the last century can only be demoralizing: because trade unions are no longer tools for organizing workers as a class. And without class organization there is nothing but atomization – however coordinated this atomization may be – and demoralization.

How to break the vicious cycle of demoralization and atomization

Teachers from Chubut, Argentina, make an assembly in the street.
Teachers from Chubut, Argentina, make an assembly in the street.

Atomization generates demoralization and without moral affirmation, i.e. the affirmation of a possible future here and now beyond submission to “market forces”, the organization of workers becomes utopian because the struggle caps itself beforehand: the same market and the profit of the companies against which we have to organize to demand the satisfaction of our needs become its limits.

How do we break the vicious circle? By struggling to organize without “hiding ends and purposes,” without diluting in the message the affirmation of a future without which we are not and cannot be anything but ground into dust and atomizated over and over again.