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What's wrong with a job for life?

Andrew Calcutt thinks we should all be 'demanding the impossible'

'British Rail has repeatedly said that the unions are demanding the impossible - jobs for life. Jimmy Knapp, RMT's general secretary, rejects BR's claims.' (Guardian, 16 April 1993)

During talks to avert further one-day strikes on the railways, British Rail chairman Sir Bob Reid announced 'there can be no question of jobs for life'. The trade unions' response was to deny that they were asking for any such thing. The unions began by saying they only wanted a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies, but in the event they were prepared to make do with even less.

Reid wrote to tell Labour transport spokesman John Prescott that BR 'has no plans currently for any compulsory redundancies'. But, Reid warned, that could not always be the case: 'No employer can give such an unqualified guarantee on job security as no compulsory redundancies.' On this basis, Prescott judged 'there is no reason why an agreement should not now be reached'. The Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) duly went back into talks with British Rail and postponed plans for more one-day strikes.

It seems as if management, union officials and Labour Party leaders all agree that 'jobs for life' is an impossible demand. But they are the ones who are being unrealistic.

Being a railworker or any other kind of worker is not a lifestyle choice which working people can afford to give up. On the contrary, a wage packet every week or salary cheque every month of our working lives is the only chance most of us have of a half-decent existence.

It's a living

We go to work to earn a living. The reverse is also true. If there's no work to go to, we cannot make a living and we don't have much of a life. Life without a job is, to borrow a phrase, 'impossible'. Which suggests that the demand for 'a job for life' is eminently sensible.

The same authorities who now tell us that it is impossible for them to guarantee us 'a job for life' also insist that we must fulfil our own responsibilities 'for life'. Marriage is 'till death'. The only way most people can get decent housing is by accepting a mortgage as a 25-year millstone around their necks; are those who decry the idea of a job for life prepared to let us stop repaying our lifetime's debts?

Throughout our working lives, we are expected to make payments towards our old age pension. Are the employers who say they cannot guarantee our jobs willing to pay our pensions out of their own pockets? (It would be a start if we could get them to stop ripping off the money we have paid into our pension funds, Robert Maxwell-style.)

In these days of health and welfare cuts, looking after the sick and elderly is increasingly considered part of our life's work. What the Department of Health calls 'community care' is a strategy of piling more financial and physical responsibility on to the family, and especially on to women's backs. The financial costs of parenthood are also considered to be 'for life'. The inappropriately named Child Support Agency has been set up to track down 'feckless' fathers who do not regard the upkeep of children as a lifelong commitment.

These days we are always being told that there is no more 'something-for-nothing society', that we are permanently responsible for our own lives and for the welfare of those who are close to us. It seems as if the only thing that cannot be 'for life' is the job (and the wage packet) which is our only means of paying any of the bills associated with staying alive, keeping a roof over our heads, bringing up children or helping the aged.

True to type

Of course, there are people who don't want to earn a living. They are called capitalists. Their whole lives are devoted to exploiting the rest of us and living it up on the proceeds. Not only do they normally enjoy their 'wealth for life', but it is also carried over from one lifetime to the next. This is not regarded as an impossible demand; it is known simply as 'inheritance'.

The case against 'jobs for life' is woefully out of touch with reality. Yet in today's climate it is endowed with the status of unassailable truth. Why?

Sir Bob Reid was only being true to type. His invective against 'jobs for life' is what we should expect from capitalists in this era of slump, when the postwar commitment to full employment has long since been scrapped. The real problem is that the unions and the Labour Party front bench have completely conceded the case put forward by the likes of Reid.

If there is no counter-argument against the capitalists' point of view, their prejudices can readily be accepted as common sense. Anything which goes further then seems to be 'impossible'.

Acquiescent rump

The defensiveness of the old labour movement has had a cumulative effect. Every time the unions and the Labour Party back off from the argument, the government and employers take another step forward. In recent years they have managed to advance their arguments a long way, thanks to the collapse of the opposition.

Norman Tebbit caused shock waves when he told the unemployed of the eighties' recession to 'get on your bike' and look for work. A decade later, there were far fewer quibbles when chancellor Norman Lamont declared unemployment 'a price worth paying' for lower inflation. Now Reid's dismissal of 'jobs for life' as a fantasy has reduced all of our jobs to the status of temporary employment - with the acquiescence of the rump of the old labour movement.

It ought to be clear by now that expecting compassion from the employers or resistance from Labour and the unions would truly be 'demanding the impossible'. It is high time we spoke up for ourselves, and demanded jobs for life.
Some people just don't want to work

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993

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