Defining workers and the working class

Posted on March 18, 2011


Who is a worker? And what constitutes the working class? These questions were thrown into sharp relief last month by a Cape Town reader, Tim Anderson.

In a letter to the editor he asked me to explain the criteria that distinguishes someone as a worker. And he introduced the element of trade unions, organisations that unite workers as members of a working class.

I have referred in the past to workers being anyone who sells their labour in order to survive; in other words, employees rather than employers. Broadly, this is true. But there are many sellers of labour who would be horrified to be labeled workers or working class.

And there are others, mainly within the business and academic worlds, who restrict the definition of working class to low-income unskilled labourers, usually paid on an hourly rate. This is one of at least eight different definitions of workers and the working class to be found on the internet.

The academic world has also thrown up some of the more bizarre definitions. For example, one Cape Town political scientist in years gone by decided that the dividing line between a middle class and working class family was whether or not their house had a front door mat.

But trade unions, almost without exception, accept that society is divided broadly into two classes with diametrically opposed interests and with several “middle” layers between the worker majority and the minority of capitalists. It is a concept with which I agree and this defines my approach.

But who is a worker and who a member of the working class is not a simple question; it is a question that has resulted in some of the more bitter arguments among academics and social activists.

The major problem is that divisions between intermediate classes can often be blurred because, while the labels remain static, the reality on the ground is always changing, and changes often precipitate different perceptions that individuals and groups may have of themselves.

These perceptions may differ markedly from what people actually do or even what they earn for doing it; some workers seeing themselves in the mould defined by John Prescott, the former deputy leader of Britain’s Labour Party who noted, in 1997: “We’re all middle class now.”

In objective terms he was wrong, since the majority of people in his country still had to get up each morning and go to work — to sell their labour — in order to pay their bills. He was also wrong about how British people saw themselves. A national survey in 2007 found that nearly 60 per cent of people in Britain defined themselves as “working class”, some on the basis of family tradition.

But just like levels of income, family background is a very inaccurate indicator of social class. A worker with skills in high demand will command a high salary and may be able to afford all the trappings — big house, car, overseas holidays — traditionally associated with the middle classes and capitalists.

Because such workers enjoy better pay and conditions than their fellows, they may regard themselves as superior — as middle class. However, if their skills become redundant or there is an influx of workers with the same skills, then once highly paid jobs disappear or wage rates drop as skills supply exceeds demand.

It is then that workers who once enjoyed job security and good pay and conditions can find their middle class illusions shattered. They cease being seen as a “labour aristocracy” a term used by pro-business campaigners to describe all unionised — and generally better paid — workers.

This term was also used by ANC secretary-general and former mineworkers’ union leader, Gwede Mantashe to describe what Tim Anderson referred to as “paid union officials”. These are people who do not put their pay and conditions on the line when they lead their members — whose subscriptions pay them — out on strike.

In the strict sense, they are still workers, but, as a bureaucracy that acts to mediate between workers and bosses, they are one step removed from the working class. As the radical Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci maintained, their positions rely on the maintenance of the status quo; they are therefore, objectively, a conservative element in society.

Tim Anderson also gave three examples of working people and asked: are they workers and, by implication, members of the working class? He listed a
shack-dwelling fruit and vegetable vendor, a self-employed plumber and an individual who runs a motor repair business.

Such individuals may, subjectively, see themselves as workers and members of the working class. But by being self employed and profiting directly from their labour, they are also potentially one step away from the working class.

They could also grow their businesses and employ — and make a profit from — other workers. So, to use the currently fashionable term, they qualify as entrepreneurs or, in the classic academic terminology coined by Karl Marx, petit bourgeoisie.

However, with the increasing casualisation of labour, of outsourcing and contract work, the distinction can depend on individual circumstances. For example, a family or worker co-operative handling outsourced work, remains working class, even while having the potential to change.

So, in broad terms, all sellers of their labour to bosses who profit from this, are workers and members of the working class, whether they be employed or unemployed and irrespective of income.

Some unions also admit managers — never employers — into membership, most do not. Because the attitude toward workers who become managers tends to be summed up globally by the old labour movement ditty: “The working class can kiss my arse/ I’ve got the got the foreman’s just at last.”

However, in South Africa we have two other vexed questions about workers and the working class: the unionised police and military and the rural population. Do we have workers in uniform? And are the rural areas the homes of peasants or the bases of a migrant working class?

They are worthwhile points to mull.

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