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
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
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.
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'.
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.
people just don't want to work
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993