Issue 171 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
Part of the union?
'You're not trying to pass doctors off as part of the working class, are you?' Question at a recent SWP meeting.
Deskilling, narrowing pay differentials, increasing supervision and loss of autonomy, longer working hours, pressure on breaks and greater stress have been the hallmarks of every big transformation of the labour process since capitalism began. Handicraft workers in the domestic system were subjected to the fierce discipline of time in the early stages of the industrial revolution. Craftsmen in metal and most other mediums were deskilled by technical innovations throughout the 19th century and have continued to have their skills assaulted in the 20th. The privileged male commercial clerk was replaced by cheaper female labour, typewriters and adding machines. In the late 20th century computerised techniques have relentlessly undermined a whole range of skilled work in many different fields.
Whilst such processes have been a continuous feature of the growth of capitalism they have been intensified in periods of recession. Faced with a sharp decline in their ability to maintain profit levels, employers have tried to introduce organisational and technical innovation whilst reining in wage increases. Handicraft workers suffered massively in the first big depression in the late 1830s. Many skilled craftsmen had their conditions eroded in the great depression which commenced in 1873. The depression of the interwar years was a period of much experimentation in what was called 'scientific management'. Mass unemployment experienced by workers in slumps has been a vital weapon in the bosses' armoury.
The current recession has been no exception to this rule. Many groups of workers have been subjected to additional stresses, attempted cuts in real wages and displacement by new technologies and changed working practices in addition to becoming victims of overproduction. Relatively little attention, however, has been given to the manner in which changes in the labour process have struck at the professions, many of them occupying management or quasi management roles. They have been cushioned by higher living standards and generally better job security. They would hardly merit sympathetic responses from a working class somewhat shell shocked after more than a decade of attacks!
However, in the current decline and decomposition of capitalism, in a desperate attempt to hang on to profit rates, the system is even attacking elements which have helped to form the cement holding together gross inequalities. At different rates of implementation medicine, law, education and social work are all sampling practices previously experienced largely by industrial and low paid clerical workers.
In the new hospital trusts accountants and administrators are wrenching autonomy away from doctors. The campaign to reduce junior doctors' hours is largely a thinly disguised pay cut. Reduced hours are a sick joke anyway since increased paperwork means work is constantly taken home. A further twist is programmes to commit the life work of highly skilled specialists to computer memory. This should be a rational contribution to accessible medical knowledge. In the present market-oriented service it is likely to be used to deskill medical personnel and cut costs. In the health market managers are the new elite, their salaries and status having passed that of all but a small number of specialists. Absurdly, highly trained specialists now seek non-medical management posts in pursuit of money and status.
Implausibly, perhaps, similar things are happening to lawyers. The change of rule on legal aid, for example, is destroying small legal practices and producing the greatest rash of mergers ever. Giant practices are emerging in all the big cities, staffed by young salaried lawyers working very long hours with no hope of following the traditional route to partnership. And they are run by professional managers and accountants.
University lecturers are seeing their privileged existence slipping through their fingers. Appointed on short term contracts, their salaries are repeatedly pegged by administrators' cries of institutional poverty. They are subjected to larger classes and more of them and are driven to produce distance learning packs and computer aided teaching devices. The working day is extended and in the rush to semester programmes so is the working year. Like hospital doctors and many lawyers the only avenue to higher earnings is--to become a manager.
At the hardest end of the profession are school teachers. The features which are still only tendencies for most teachers in higher education are already in place in the schools. Especially significant is the massively increased level of supervision engendered by the following of national curriculum programmes. A young teacher in a first job can now expect to have to work on preparation and administration till past midnight five days a week. This represents a 20 percent increase in the working day in the past decade without any salary recompense.
Social workers too are bowing beneath the strain of increased workloads brought on by the 'care in the community' initiative which aims to turn them into the system's 'gatekeepers'. In certain areas (psychiatric and children) a social worker can expect to have to complete no less than 11 forms for each client. Supervision has rapidly intensified and the individual worker has had almost every area of personal initiative and choice taken away in the pursuit, by management, of bureaucratic routinisation.
It must be stressed that, although it is possible to discern a pattern in these attacks, their impact is different in different situations, and so are possible outcomes. At a general level it can be argued that, by attacking pay, conditions and status, the ruling class may be sacrificing one of its crucial bulwarks in a politically and socially reliable professional strata. Historically, shifts in the labour process have tended to produce resistance and organisation. Chartism attended the wrecking of the handicraft industry and its replacement by factories. New Unionism came out of the organisational and technological shake up of the late 19th century depression. White collar unionism grew partly as a response to the development of large enterprises in the depression of the interwar years.
The professions have a considerable legacy of privileged status. It is already undermined in the case of teachers and social workers who moved to unionisation decades ago. Differential conditions among doctors and lawyers, for example, could be enough to muffle anger and stifle militant tendencies. We might not want to argue that doctors are part of the working class. Nevertheless, something significant is happening among professional workers in late capitalism. Whilst it might not be the centrepiece of concern for revolutionary socialists it does demand our attention.
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