The widespread use of zero-hours contracts has produced hand-wringing in the press and phoney concern amongst politicians. There even seem to be claims that this is ‘news’ and ‘the levels are much higher than expected’. But these events must be seen in the cold light of our recent history.
Zero-hours contracts are a direct, predictable and intended consequence of every one of the attacks on organised labour. The trade union movement emerged in the 19th century to take on employers’ demands for a casualised workforce. Through organised labour we secured reduced exploitation, pensions, sick pay and holiday pay. Now, in a weakened state, we have been unable to retain even these gains, these inroads into the most exploitative aspects of capitalism and, for many workers, there is a return to the most pernicious of Victorian work practices.
The media cast around for a ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’ and enquire how we got here. A short study of the last three decades provides some clues. Thirty years ago every worker in Britain who understood the nature of capitalism’s attack on them recognised that Thatcher was the main enemy of that time and demanded ‘Thatcher Out’ – a simple slogan but one that carried with it a profound ideological message. Organised workers understood the nature of the threat she posed and realised that her removal by workers was the only way to defend manufacturing industry, retain public services and protect organised workers. Thirty years on papers recently made public under the ‘Thirty Years Rule’ show how right we were to take that view. These papers reveal her plans to attack the trade union movement and to close industries that were not compliant.
The direct line of political development from Thatcher’s attack on manufacturing, organised labour and everything publicly owned, continued through successive governments, through rampant privatisation and deregulation. Every government has deepened the attack. Now these attacks are enshrined in EU legislation. The Lisbon Treaty demands, in effect, that our remaining public institutions pass into the hands of speculators and profiteers. The same treaty will see further attacks on organised labour when publicly industries such as the postal service are broken up.
Zero-hours contracts are a necessary feature of modern capitalism – they are a symptom of its decline and our weakness. If we are serious about defending the remnants of manufacturing and public infrastructure then we must solve the problem of these contracts, and find ways to organise workers in some of the most challenging of circumstances.