I’m recovering from the latest weekend of lectures at Ruskin College. Once again we’ve been treated to some really fascinating teaching and discussions. On day one we looked at organising members in the informal economy, the spaces between unions and new emerging places of work. It got me thinking about how detached we can become from the products we make.
The old idea of alienation in capitalism concerned the transition to the industrial economy. With the industrial revolution came changes in production that created barriers between workers and the produce they created. Selling your own produce for survival and getting all the value from that is very different from selling your labour to a factory to produce the same article. In effect workers became alienated from the product of their labour and paid substantially less than the value of the work, the surplus becomes known as profit and goes to the owners of the factory.
With globalisation we see this in a startling new form. In our lecture we were told that a pair of Levi jeans can have work carried out on it in up to 12 different countries before being shipped out to wherever it will be sold. Likewise there are farm workers in parts of Africa working to provide the developed world with fresh flowers and items such as cocoa who never enjoy the fruits of their labour. Many cocoa workers have never tasted chocolate so they have little appreciation of what they are working for and why.
It is little wonder that so much work seems useless, repetitive and boring – well it is! This is because the urge for profits and further surplus value from our labour is strong in the people who rule and seek to control us. They are not interested in the joy of useful work because they enjoy the wealth of our toil. How we change that and challenge the prevailing direction is complex but involves us all resisting in whatever way we can.
Unions must find a way to organise differently, perhaps around products rather than trades. This is hugely challenging but globalisation mixed with neoliberalism presents us with such challenges. They are not insurmountable as they also provide a global structure. In finding ways to act in that emerging structure unions might find that they become the voices of the workers again.