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UK Flexploitation and Resistance Beyond Waged Labour

Ponencia for the 2nd Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, 25 July - 2 August 1997 in Spain;

for mesa no.1a, 'Our Lives Beyond the Economy: access to the means of production'

UK Flexploitation and Resistance Beyond Waged Labour

by fHUMAN London Committee, Dis-United Kingdom c/o BM-CRL, London WC1N 3XX, email


Since the 1980s, the UK neoliberal offensive has developed strategies for defeating, disorganizing and decomposing the working class. Labour has been flexibilized and casualized to intensify its exploitation; this 'flexploitation' imposes an insecurity, indignity and work discipline upon us all. Unemployed people have been required to perform work-like activities in order to receive state benefits. Recently the neoliberal offensive has been challenged by embryonic alliances of sacked workers, direct-action environmentalists, anti-workfare activists, etc.; new collectivities recompose class antagonism beyond waged-labour. Such forces have the potential to counterpose alternative ways of life, yet they remain largely fragmented and vulnerable to attack by the New Labour government, which is promoting 'labour market flexibility' at the national and European levels. Political imagination will be needed to build a resistance which encompasses many worlds, many futures.


1. Embryonic alliance of the quasi-employed 2

2. Flexploitation strategies: accommodations and resistances 3

2.1 Flexibilizing employment 3

2.2 Imposing quasi-employment 4

2.3 Refusing indignity 5

3. Liverpool dockers 6

3.1 Flexibilising the dockers 6

3.2 Management-government-union alliance 7

4. Other disputes over casualisation 7

4.1 Magnet Kitchens factory 7

4.2 Hillingdon Hospital 8

4.3 Further Education colleges 9

5. Future prospects: a resistance encompassing many worlds? 9

5.1 Prospects for Britain: linking the resistances? 10

5.2 Prospects for Europe: importing the 'flexible' model? 11

Internet Sources and Contacts 11

1. Embryonic alliance of the quasi-employed

On the 12th April 1997, thousands of people marched and danced through central London in the People's March for Social Justice. This event brought together diverse social forces, resisting neoliberalism beyond the sphere of waged-labour. It advanced an embryonic alliance, whose dynamic undermines the stereotypical categories of the Left (e.g. the trade-union movement, workers, the unemployed, etc.).

Nominally , the event was called in support of the People's Charter for Social Justice, a long list of demands by various constituencies. Although the turnout (10-20,000 people) was small by European standards, it was the largest anti-capitalist demonstration in Britain for many years. The march was initiated by the London Support Group for the Liverpool Dockers -- i.e. for the 500 dockers who had been sacked in 1995. Subsequently the group 'Reclaim the Streets' (RTS) announced an event 'to coincide with' the demonstration, starting from the same assembly point.

At the front of the 12th April march were groups of sacked workers (dockers, hospital workers, furniture makers, etc.). Further back, there were many trade-union banners, but generally with few people marching behind each banner; the major exceptions were those branches whose members are Turkish or Kurdish workers, from poorly paid sectors such as the garment or food industry. Curiously, then, 'the trade-union movement' was represented mainly by people who hold precarious jobs or no jobs at all. (Indeed, those categories continue to increase, as employers sack striking workers en masse and/or casualize their workforce.)

On the march, most demonstrators were grouped around banners of various political campaigns, or festive slogans ('They want to fight, We want to dance,'), or around no banners at all. With their music and dance, they transformed the Whitehall Tourist-land into a carnival space. Along the way, small groups took daring initiatives to challenge police control, and often others followed their lead, without any formal lines of authority.

At the end of the march, an RTS vehicle (with a hidden sound system) boldly overcame a police blockade in order to enter Trafalgar Square, a key symbolic site. A large crowd held a festival there for several hours, despite repeated attempts to remove them. This successful operation required various skills and collective planning by activists who have developed much experience in outwitting the authorities.

Although RTS is often called 'environmentalist', this group is unique for its role in transforming and de-privatizing public space. On previous occasions, its supporters have taken over main roads -- even part of a motorway -- to hold a festival which the police could not stop. The group has antecedents in the 1980s, when 'Stop the City' activists disrupted the normal economic activity in the City of London, highlighting the death and destruction which are caused by its investments.

An embryonic alliance had been started in summer 1996, when London Underground (metro) train drivers went on strike over the management's failure to implement a shorter working week, which had been promised a year earlier. Their strike was supported by 'Critical Mass' -- a cycling group linked to RTS -- by riding bicycles en masse to disrupt traffic. These activists linked environmental issues with the government policy to under-fund the public transport system, to privatize it, and to weaken its workforce.

In September 1996 RTS mobilized its supporters to join a Liverpool demonstration by the dockers there who had been sacked a year earlier. For the first time, activists from a trade-union and an environmentalist group reached a common understanding about how their protest would take over an urban terrain. Again they linked the class and environmental issues: the sacked dockers had previously blocked the import of toxic waste, and the dock management was now seeking to bypass that obstacle, especially because the company had directors in common with a waste-disposal company.

A few months later, on 20th January, dockers at ports worldwide blocked or delayed ships from Liverpool. Occupying a crane in the Liverpool port that day, Greenpeace activists highlighted the shipments of Monsanto's genetically engineered soybeans arriving in the UK and Europe. Dockers' leaders publicly acknowledged the environmentalist support and the wider issues about our food supply.

These various actions, which culminated in the 12th April event, are not simply tactics to pressurize the state and capital. They also create a new collectivity, displacing the commerce which normally dominates public spaces. These actions offer participants the opportunity to remake the urban environment and to unite diverse forces resisting neoliberalism, regardless of their 'employment' status. The embryonic alliance is less about 'uniting the employed and unemployed', than about drawing together people who are 'quasi-employed' in various ways. Let us examine where they came from. What was (or could be) their basis for unity? Advocating what future for work and life?

2. Flexploitation strategies: accommodations and resistances

As a vanguard of neoliberalism since the mid-1970s, the British state disorganized and decomposed the industrial working class which had characterized the Fordist-Keynesian era. It imposed that defeat by wielding several weapons -- e.g. decentralization, privatization, flexibilisation, criminalization, etc. Casual labour (trabajo precario) has become more common, especially in privatised parts of the former 'public' sector, by using subcontractors or employment agencies.

Historically, 'labour flexibility' has sometimes provided a bargaining weapon against capitalist work-discipline. Since the 1980s, however, labour was newly flexibilized to intensify its exploitation. This 'flexploitation' strategy seeks to impose a work-type discipline upon us all, thus blurring the distinction between 'employed' and 'unemployed' people. We are driven to work harder in a state of insecure quasi-employment, often without wages. In parallel, the government promoted a great increase in home ownership, resulting in a 'debt trap' which intensified insecurity and further discouraged worker resistance.

2.1 Flexibilizing employment

UK neoliberalism originated in 1976-77, when the Labour government implemented moneterrorist, austerity and criminalization strategies. Soon it faced working-class revolt and lost the 1979 election to the Conservative (Tory) Party, which resumed the task. During the 1980s large centres of unionized workers were broken up and/or weakened, e.g. by reducing state subsidies, privatizing state-owned industries or parts of public services, closing plants, etc. The labour supply was made more 'flexible' by casualisation -- e.g. fixed-term or part-time contracts, subcontracting, employment agencies, etc. A decline in waged jobs has been accompanied by an increase in 'self-employment', often a euphemism for self-exploitation and/or for evasion of labour-protection laws. These features have been extended to all areas of work, even to professional staff in universities.

Widespread unemployment has coincided with greater overtime by those who have jobs. Although some overtime is paid at premium rates, often it is not, especially for casual workers. Moreover, much overtime is entirely unpaid. Employers impose increased workloads by various means, e.g. by reducing the workforce but not the workload.

All those tendencies were reinforced by statutory changes which removed workers' protection against unfair dismissal, until they have held a job for at least two years. This rule particularly affects unemployed people: more than half who find a job lose it again within a year. The legal change gave employers an extra incentive to dismiss new workers within the two-year limit, thus avoiding redundancy payments and industrial tribunal cases. The consequent insecurity affects far more people than those who have fixed-term contracts.

Other 'employment' legislation imposed constraints and penalties upon class solidarity. Trade-unions have become liable to court actions by employers seeking to recover income lost due to strikes. Trade unions are required to hold a secret ballot [vote] before any strike action. Employers can legally sack all strikers en masse. It became illegal for workers to take 'secondary action' -- i.e. against a company that is not their own employer. Subsequently, employers found ways to split up their own companies and/or to subcontract their workforce, so that any solidarity action could be labelled 'secondary' and therefore illegal.

Some trade-unions have cited or used the 'employment' legislation to police their own members. For example, after Tory laws restricted the numbers who could legally picket a workplace, trade-unions issued armbands to a few 'official' pickets, thus easing the police task of arresting the unofficial ones. More recently, some trade-unions have accepted mass sackings of workers who had been on strike, as if they were no longer employees. They have actively undermined workers' resistance, in pursuit of an elusive deal with management. In effect, then, the Tory legislation has been more 'anti-solidarity' than 'anti-trade union'.

All these changes in law and practice, together, have served to disorganize and fragment working-class resistance. Some trade unions have accommodated and even reinforced the class defeat. Proclaiming a 'New Realism', they seek the role of would-be 'partners' with management. In many workplaces, even shop-stewards' organizations have lost their independence as well as their power.

Meanwhile, many employers have phases out long-established unionised workers (or their posts), and replaced them with casualized ones. At worst, the workers can be sacked, possibly after being provoked to strike. At best, they can be guaranteed secure jobs for a while, provided that new workers can be recruited on worse terms. In some cases, employers recognise a trade union on condition that a proportion of the workforce remains on temporary contracts, so that the latter are excluded from collective bargaining procedures; this arrangement internalises the 'reserve army' within the company.

2.2 Imposing quasi-employment

To flexibilise the workforce, the state has sought to flexibilise the unemployed too. They are kept busy in work-like activities, as a requirement for receiving state benefits. This pervasive quasi-employment pushes people to accept 'McJobs', i.e. low-paid, temporary and part-time employment. For those who are officially registered as unemployed, 'training' schemes have served to impose discipline, to cheapen their labour, to lower their expectations, etc. Increasingly, over the last decade, income support (unemployment benefit) has been withdrawn from anyone who refuses official 'training' schemes or a 'reasonable job'. Such measures discourage claimants from continuing to claim unemployment benefits, and thus expand the pool of quasi-employed people.

Since October 1996 the JobSeekers' Allowance (JSA) has required people to take any job in whatever field, even if temporary or ill-paid, after three months of unemployment. They can also be refused benefit if they study on courses (chosen by them) for more than 16 hours per week; this rule denies many unemployed youth the chance to improve their qualifications. In these ways, the JSA has imposed cuts in benefit levels, arbitrary withdrawal of insurance-based benefit from all those who have been unemployed for 6-12 months, and much stricter conditions about what claimants must do to remain eligible for benefits. Moreover, a 'work-for-benefit' scheme, Project Work, was introduced in some areas in 1996; the Labour government plans its expansion into a new workfare-style scheme (see section 5.1 below).

Thus the UK unemployment-benefit system has moved away from the Keynesian welfare model, towards the US 'workfare' model, which requires unemployed people to work for their benefit. By attacking the right to welfare payments, these changes intensify the work of 'job-seeking', intensify the competition among 'job-seekers', and so reduce their bargaining power.

2.3 Refusing indignity

Many claimants' groups have opposed the attacks on unemployment benefits. They have organized some short-term occupations of benefit offices or job centres, and they have supported civil servants who strike against the way the new regulations affect their work. But this solidarity has hardly been reciprocated; most trade unions have issued weak (or no) statements against the JSA, though they officially oppose Project Work.

The anti-workfare resistance attracts many youth who never had experience of permanent jobs, much less unionized ones. Many identify with socially useful activities outside of waged-labour; consequently, they depend upon unemployment benefits as a baseline subsistence for their oppositional activities or alternative ways of life. Thus workfare schemes threaten the basis of their social existence and identities.

Since the mid-1990s, more and more workers have revolted against the degrading conditions, intensity, indignity and/or lower wages which characterize flexploitation. London Underground train drivers struck in summer 1996 over the employer's failure to implement a shorter working week -- which had been promised a year earlier. Post Office workers struck for shorter hours and against employers' plans to intensify workloads and impose new 'work teams' to replace the existing ones. Food manufacturing and garment workers, many of them Turkish or Kurdish, had a series of strikes in north east London during 1996; the strikers opposed unpaid and compulsory overtime, while demanding written contracts and union recognition.

Even when workers are sacked en masse, some have successfully continued their disputes -- independently of their trade-unions, or even against them (see sections 3 and 4 below). In effect, they become full-time political activists who subsist on strike pay and donations; they often elude political control by their own unions. Although demanding the right to regain their former jobs, these ex-workers are fundamentally seeking a dignity which has been lost from flexibilized jobs.

Strikers have been supported by a Left core within the trade unions, as well as by various groups outside, e.g. anarchists, autonomists, and environmentalists (as described above). Although the latter activists may have jobs and perhaps even hold trade-union membership, their political identities lie in developing resistance and alternatives to waged-labour discipline. Even where alternatives are little more than individual 'survival strategies', they express aspirations to make our lives more creative. In these circles, some activists tend towards a voluntaristic austerity, which reduces political issues to individual moral choices (e.g. about what to eat, where to live, how to travel, etc). Such moralizing is often transcended, people grasp collective means to create new social choices.

In various ways, then, flexploitation strategies have inadvertently generated new alliances among various outsider groups, who are not 'employed' in the stereotypical sense. However, unity has been ephemeral. Strikers tend to repeat traditional Labourist language ('the right to work'), while their quasi-employed allies tend to regard 'work' as inherently degrading. These diverse forces lack a common language to express their aspirations for dignified lives, or even to describe the dignified political 'work' which they already do.

3. Liverpool dockers

Since they were sacked en masse, Liverpool dockers have set an example of how to globalize resistance. They have sent representatives to ports worldwide, persuading dockers there to block or delay ships enroute to/from Liverpool. In gaining international solidarity, they have inspired wider struggles against casualisation, in Britain and abroad.

Within Britain, solidarity efforts are coordinated by the London Support Group for the Liverpool Dockers, which organized national demonstrations in London on 14th December 1996 and 12th April 1997. The latter event was broadened by 'Reclaim the Streets' (see section 1 above). The Support Group coordinates a monthly newspaper, Dockers' Charter, which includes reports on other struggles in Britain and worldwide.

3.1 Flexibilising the dockers

The Liverpool dispute has its origins in 1989 Tory legislation which abolished the National Dock Labour Scheme. Previously this scheme had protected British dockers from casual terms of employment. Once that protection was removed, dockers' jobs were casualized at ports nationwide.

That general attack met organized resistance only from dockers in Liverpool, led by the Merseyside Port Shop Stewards (MPSS). Its port had higher stakes as a political showcase, because the management -- the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) -- was partly owned by the government. Together the owners devised 'local economic development' plans, designed to reduce and casualize the workforce. The government provided large subsidies, which in turn made the MDHC eligible to receive 'Objective 1' anti-poverty funding from DGV of the European Commission -- until a local Labour MEP protested.

In the early 1990s many dockers' jobs were casualized through an employment agency, i.e. a private contractor which was really a creation of the MDHC. Under this arrangement, the MDHC could declare, 'We do not employ casual labour', because the new agency instead handled the employment contracts. Regardless of their nominal employer, the dockers were required to be on call by telephone -- i.e., to be flexibly available for work at times convenient for management. With mounting grievances, the shop stewards asked the national T&GWU to organize a ballot for strike action, as required by the Tory laws; but the union refused, thus using the law to control its members.

The present dispute erupted in September 1995, when workers for the private contractor (Torside) struck against compulsory overtime for an inadequate rate of pay. They were instantly dismissed. MDHC employees refused to cross the picket line, and were themselves dismissed. When the dockers sought to return to work, they found that their jobs had been taken by casual workers at much lower wages. Later, some of the sacked workers were offered new individual contracts on worse conditions than before -- which they rejected. MDHC's ex-employees were offered large redundancy payments and rejected them.

3.2 Management-government-union alliance

The workers' own trade union (T&GWU) has given them financial support, while refusing to support actions against the MDHC. It would be illegal for the T&GWU to do so, under the Tory laws which prohibit 'secondary' action. Yet these laws also provide a convenient pretext for the union, which treats the dispute as a threat to its authority and to its interest in recruiting scab workers. The union has publicly criticized the sacked dockers for rejecting 'reasonable' negotiations, and has sought to undermine the solidarity actions by dockers worldwide. For their part, the dockers have not demanded that the union make the dispute official -- mainly because such a move would allow national union officers to control and end the dispute.

The sacked dockers have faced a management-government-union alliance, determined to break their resistance. Recently they have come under greater pressure to settle the dispute -- e.g. by accepting redundancy payments or by returning to work as casual labour. Since late 1996 there has been much discussion about how to establish a 'labour-hiring' system which could re-employ sacked dockers. Ultimately management and union paid financial consultants (KPMG) to devise a specific plan, which would offer to re-employ some dockers on 'self-employed', insecure terms. This plan would further institutionalize and legitimize casualisation, now with the union acting as a sponsor. According to the T&GWU, the sacked dockers are no longer employees, and the ex-Torside workers never were MDHC employees, so the latter could be excluded from a ballot to approve the scheme.

The sacked dockers convey various messages about what future of work is possible or desirable. According to the shop stewards, management needs a 'professional' labour force, which can be provided only by experienced (i.e. sacked) dockers, who therefore should be reinstated in secure jobs. At the same time, some suggest a more open-ended future than the past: 'Not many human beings would choose freely to spend their lives in the tumult of meaningless, unfulfilling and alienated work.... The struggle of the dockers in Liverpool is not to maintain the past but to protect the future', according to a shop steward. The outcome of this dispute will depend upon strategies for linking resistances and reciprocating solidarity efforts, towards a different future.

4. Other disputes over casualisation

Early successes by employers have emboldened more and more to casualise their workforce. Often they provoke a strike, then sack the strikers and replace them all. In general, trade unions have sought to accommodate the casualisation regimes rather than resist them. On the other hand, such attacks have over-confidently assumed that 'flexible' labour could be cheaply and securely provided; the consequences have proven more costly than anticipated, partly because of worker resistance. As described below, three disputes in particular illustrate the general strategic problems; the latter two cases illustrate attempts to privatize or marketize the 'public sector', as well as the ensuing resistance.

4.1 Magnet Kitchens factory

In September 1996 the Magnet Kitchens factory in Darlington (northeast England) sacked 350 furniture workers after they went on strike. The management had offered a pay rise to 60% of the workforce, but no rise for the rest (for the fourth consecutive year). Since the strike/lock-out, the company has spent more money on security guards than it would have cost to satisfy the pay rise which workers had demanded over the past decade. For the company, to disorganize workers' solidarity is more important than to save money.

The management replaced the strikers with low-paid scabs (strike-breakers), who soon became socially ostracized in the Darlington area. Later the scabs themselves were given new contracts with even worse terms than before. As the strikers now remind them, scabs 'demeaned themselves for Magnet' -- only for management to humiliate them even further.

The sacked workers have urged customers to boycott Magnet products, in their own interest: 'The high-quality, high-value Magnet kitchen you may buy used to be made by 300 highly-skilled workers with years of experience. Without skilled workers, can Magnet guarantee you the same quality?' The management has arranged subcontractors to provide the more skilled tasks, though this arrangement causes long delays in fulfilling orders and customer complaints about poor quality. The sacked workers have had the official support of the relevant unions, which thereby maintain the dispute within the narrow limits of the UK's trade-union legislation.

4.2 Hillingdon Hospital

The Tory government introduced 'compulsory competitive tendering' (CCT), which forces public-sector institutions to call for tenders for the running of specific services. This requirement encourages such bodies to throw their workforce into competition with external bidders, or to sack workers and replace them via subcontractors. One dispute in the National Health Service (NHS) illustrates the privatization of public-sector jobs and trade-union collusion.

In October 1995 long-established, unionised workers were replaced by cheaper, non-union staff on short-term contracts at the Hillingdon Hospital in the west London suburbs. Cleaners and catering workers there had refused to sign a new contract from an employment agency, Pall Mall. The contract imposed a large pay cut; it abolished pension rights, unsocial hours allowances, and employer sick pay. Pall Mall also humiliated the largely Asian workforce by demanding photocopies of their passports. After being sacked, their places were taken by workers from Pall Mall; few of the replacement workers joined the union.

The strikers maintained a daily picket at the hospital -- despite harassment, arrest and imprisonment. Their union, called UNISON, had attempted to discourage the strike and gave official backing only when the strike had become unstoppable. UNISON made little effort to support it at first or to recruit the Pall Mall staff.

In January 1997 UNISON announced that it would cease to support the strike, and recommended that the strikers accept redundancy payments. According to an internal document from Pall Mall, the agency sought to 'normalize relations' with the union. Apparently UNISON sought to reciprocate -- i.e. to recruit the scab workers and accept their casualized terms of employment. Consequently, the strike had become a threat to the union's expansion plan. Despite its nominal opposition to compulsory competitive tendering, UNISON accommodated its effects in the Hillingdon dispute.

After UNISON ceased its regular payments to the strikers, their subsistence became dependent upon donations. UNISON sought to dissuade its local and regional structures from helping to finance the strikers. Nevertheless they have continued their dispute, overcome their isolation, and attended various picket lines and political conferences around Britain and Europe.

Meanwhile Pall Mall has run into financial problems, and the company has been offered for sale. It showed virtually no profit in 1996, mainly because it won NHS contracts on the basis of low tenders but then could not reduce wages and conditions as much as expected. As this dispute shows, class resistance can disrupt financial calculations and so deter flexploitation strategies, even if the sacked workers themselves do not regain their jobs.

4.3 Further Education colleges

Britain's Further Education (FE) colleges have been increasingly important for many social groups: young people who recently dropped out of school, adults wanting to resume their education, refugees, etc.. Since spring 1997, several FE colleges around London have had strikes. Staff and students have been opposing new management plans which would further casualize, reduce, cheapen and discipline the teaching staff, as well as degrade the quality of education.

For example, the management plans would eliminate most Senior Lecturers, who generally had long teaching experience and good working relations with part-time teachers; these Lecturers would be replaced by full-time managers. The plans would also terminate contracts for part-time staff and replace some posts through an employment agency, the Educational Lecturing Services (ELS). Under the ELS regime, part-time staff would become officially 'self-employed', suffer a pay cut and lose their rights under employment-protection laws -- as a prime motive for the plan.

The management plans had several motives. The government was annually reducing the payment per student to the college. This gradual reduction put colleges under pressure to increase student numbers and/or reduce staff, simply in order to maimtain their previous income. Perhaps part-time teachers could be more readily manipulated by managers than by Senior Lecturers.

Another motive was a court ruling which mandated equal terms and conditions for part-time staff. As a management response, the ELS agency 'is a racket designed to enable employers to get round [evade] their obligations over pension and redundancy rights', according to the teachers' union. In some cases, directorships overlap between the college and agency, so fees paid by the college would be gained by another branch of the same 'business'.

The teachers' strike raised demands for 'no compulsory redundancies', no 'compelled volunteers', and for a single [uniform] contract for all staff. The lecturers' strikes gained support from students, who recognized that the management plans threatened their own educational future. Prior to these strikes, some classes had no teacher, mainly because the part-time staff were being casualised and/or made redundant. By default, some of their tasks fell to full-time lecturers. Given all these obstacles, students have had to work even harder to do their courses, obtain the qualifications and become a waged-labourer.

To pursue their demands, strike leaders emphasized a practical contradiction: The Blair government had undertaken to expand FE colleges as a key site for its 'welfare-to-work' programme; this would provide vocational training for unemployed people and so help 'trainees' to enhance their skills, or at least their credentials. Yet the new management plans would reduce staff numbers and quality, thus undermining the government's programme.

Although the government plans and FE management plans may well be inconsistent, they have a more fundamental consistency rooted in the funding system. Recently FE colleges have become more dependent upon 'payment by results' -- i.e. financially dependent upon the numbers of ex-trainees who subsequently find jobs. As their funding becomes less secure, colleges are driven to casualize their staff. Perversely, then, casualization complements the tendency to marketize, standardize and vocationalize the FE curriculum.

5. Future prospects: a resistance encompassing many worlds?

Despite an embryonic alliance, the various resistances remain fragmented, lacking a common language to express their aspirations or to understand their differences. In resisting the current neoliberal offensive, unity so far remains fragile. What are the prospects for linking resistances in Britain? As other European states adopt flexibilisation strategies, what relevance has the UK experience? How can a substantive unity encompass different aspirations, contain many worlds, and thus build an alternative future?

5.1 Prospects for Britain: linking the resistances?

As described above, various activists have begun to support each others' struggles -- not simply as a formal 'solidarity', but also as a social network and mutual identification. Having been marginalized from secure 'employment', fragments of the working class recompose themselves into networks of resistance. Having confronted the indignity of casualized waged-labour, they create solidaristic activities outside that sphere. At the same time, they support workers who demand reinstatement on dignified terms, though the latter prospect remains elusive. Such resistances have taken people into embryonic alliances, and perhaps beyond their previous political-economic identities.

Implicitly, such developments contradict the ideology of Labourist institutions, which have idealized an inherent 'dignity of labour' (or even a moral obligation to work). In organizing solidarity activities, however, many Leftists promote their fantasy of what the Old Labour Party and trade unions should have been. Also, they direct all hopes at the strikers gaining reinstatement, as if this were the only worthwhile outcome. This tunnel vision misses opportunities to generalize the resistance against flexploitation and to strengthen the sacked workers themselves.

The resistance deploys a rhetoric of credentials, which has a double-edged role. Understandably, as management seeks to design traditional skills out of the labour process, sacked workers seek to re-asssert the collective social value of their former work. However, the 'professional/skill' rhetoric conceptually divides up the workforce into its proprietary credentials, and may leave us vulnerable to management demands that we obtain yet more official credentials.

Paradoxically, sacked workers (and some supporters) still demand 'jobs' or 'the right to work', in a period when 'work' is being turned into a degrading, boundless obligation for us all. Now everyone has too much work, e.g. through overtime, workfare schemes, courses to obtain credentials, etc. Meanwhile sacked workers have no political language to express the dignified political 'work' which they are already doing.

For their part, many environmentalist and anti-workfare activists tend to proclaim, 'Fuck work!' Some have experienced trade unions as unhelpful or even as a disciplinary force. Having little experience of dignity in waged-labour, they regard work as an alien world of inherently unpleasant activity, or even as immoral. To bridge this gap, some activists have formulated a demand for 'the right to work less', though even this slogan begs the question of what we mean by 'work'.

We now face new threats, as the Blair government builds upon the neoliberal gains of its predecessor. Even before the May 1997 election, the New Labour Party promised to leave intact 'the most restrictive trade-union legislation in Europe'. Although Labour made few election promises, many of these are threats against us -- e.g., extending 'labour market flexibility' so that Britain can compete better on the world market; withdrawing income support from all unemployed youths who reject an offer to move 'from-welfare-to-work'; promoting 'individual responsibility' for employability, social welfare, pensions,etc; exercising 'zero tolerance' of homeless people on the streets; dismissing all 'incompetent' teachers; and closing 'failure schools'. Even if the government introduces a minimum wage, its benefits for workers will be undermined by workfare schemes which push youth even further into low-paid, quasi-employment.

New Labour overtly developed its neoliberal agenda during the last two years. Yet Left groups generally engage in 'militant wishful thinking', naively demanding that the Blair government does what we want. They offer no strategy for how to defend ourselves from the imminent attacks, much less for counter-power. Only recently have such groups and social movements begun to overcome their endemic insularity from Europe-wide resistance.

5.2 Prospects for Europe: importing the 'flexible' model?

The European Union has embraced policies which will flexibilize labour and weaken workers' rights. EU policy regards deregulation of labour markets as essential to reduce wage pressure, government budgets and inflation. Such measures are deemed necessary to meet the 'convergence criteria' for European Monetary Union (EMU). In this vein, Portugal's Socialist government has adopted policies for annualised hours, temporary contracts and multi-skilling; French public-sector workers too are losing their guarantees of job security.

Moreover, major EU countries are introducing workfare-type measures which will undermine labour-protection measures. France has been raising the proportion of welfare recipients who are required to seek work. Germany is creating new jobs at sub-normal wages for the unemployed, who must accept them or else lose benefit. Now the UK model is being promoted at EU level.

During the mid-1990s debates over the Maastricht Treaty, the Social Chapter provided a crucial legitimation for accepting the Treaty. Trade-unions and social-democratic parties emphasized the related measures on equal rights for part-time workers, family leave, consultation with employees and limits on working time. Yet the labour-protection measures of some major EU countries are now being undermined by the EMU project. Moreover, employment-protection measures are being evaded by employers, e.g. via subcontractors and unofficial overtime in the UK. In sum, the Maastricht Treaty promotes a flexploitation strategy which undermines the potential benefits of the Social Chapter and reduces it to a cosmetic apology for neoliberal policies.

Regardless of any statutory change, its material effects will depend upon the capitalist power to impose work discipline, and upon the counter-power to resist that boundless imposition of work. An effective counter-strategy needs to go beyond Left demands for 'jobs', 'full employment' and 'the right to work'. A more imaginative language will be needed to build a resistance which encompasses many worlds and expresses aspirations for many futures.

Internet Sources and Contacts

For more details on flexploitation in Britain, see an article by a member of fHUMAN London Committee: Anne Gray, 'Flexibilisation of Labour and the Attack on Workers' Living Standards', Common Sense 18: 12-32, Edinburgh CSE, 1995. The full text with references is available on a website,; a 1997 postscript is available on

News and documents from the dockers' struggle can be found in 'Mersey Docks Dispute (UK)' Home Page at The 'Liverpool Lock-Out' Home Page, run by the dockers themselves, can be found at

For direct-action environmentalists, see their magazine Squall, available on a website,

For dialogue with the authors of this ponencia, contact fHUMAN (for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism) London Committee, c/o BM-CRL, London WC1N 3XX, email

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