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Steve Jeffreys

Going up (Almost as Fast as Prices)

The terrible toll of factory accidents

(5 October 1968)

From Socialist Worker, No. 91, 5 October 1968, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A HUNDRED YEARS AGO Karl Marx put the problem that faces the boss when he tries to get more work out of his labour force in the following way:

“Where we have labour, not carried on by fits and starts, but repeated day after day with unvarying uniformity, a point must inevitably be reached, where extension of the working day and intensity of the labour mutually exclude one another.”

So at a certain point in the development of modern factory life, the capitalists realised that if they tried to lengthen the working day any more they would not get sufficient effort put in by the workers.

The bosses then decided that it would be more “economical” to allow the working class to work shorter hours – provided they worked harder during these hours.

In this way speed-up became more important to the employers than the 12-hour day.

The Price

What does speed-up mean today? Government figures never give the whole story but they can help us to build up the picture. They show that the price paid over the last 10 years for rising productivity (that is, speed-up) and for the shorter working week which it made necessary was more injury to the workers.

Productivity, measured by output per employee in all industries rose by an average 2.6 per cent a year between 1956 and 1966. Then, from the end of 1966 to the end of 1967 it rose by 5.5 per cent.

This greater intensity of work, together with pressure from the trade unions, led to a reduction in the length of the working-day. The average number of hours worked by adult men fell from 48.5 hours a week in April 1957 to 46.1 hours in April 1967.

The price paid for this greater productivity in shorter hours can be roughly worked out from the figures of industrial accidents. (The latest report was published at the end of September.)

These figures are not accurate. The Chief Inspector of Factories himself pointed out in 1967 that between 17 per cent and 32 per cent of accidents that should be notified are generally not reported. And for an accident to be classified as “notifiable”, it must keep a worker away from work for more than three days!

But even allowing for this understatement, the figures are still horrific. In premises subject to the Factories Act (which doesn’t cover agriculture and about half the industrial and commercial firms in the country) 304,016 accidents were reported in 1967.

This figure was 2.5 per cent higher than the number of reported accidents in 1966, and nearly 15 per cent higher than the total for 1964.

This is the real success story of the Labour government. Only prices have gone up so quickly.

The rise in industrial accidents has continued unchecked in the last 10 years. It is the direct result of speed-up.

The Daily Express congratulated the bosses because “only” 564 people were killed at work in 1967 as opposed to 701 in 1966, and conveniently ignored the underlying rise.

The Engineering Employers’ Federation starts its handbook Think about Safety with the words; “Managements do what is practicable to provide safe working conditions and methods of work”, but at the same time they introduce time-and-motion and speed-up which increase the pace and intensity of work and directly increase physical and mental damage.

Some workers hope that the Labour government will do something to improve conditions of work and safety. But how can they when they are doing everything in their power to raise productivity?

“The speed-up,” as Wilson and Castle would put it, “is in the national interest” – that is, in the interests of those who control the state and the government – the big bosses and the ruling class.

The Act

What does it matter to them (as long as the speed-up is introduced) that one in every 35 workers in industry in 1967 was involved in a serious accident at work?

The bosses treat their labour force as just another object they have to buy in order to get production going. If they could get away with it and it was “economical”, they wouldn’t allow parliament and the civil service to interfere in the factories at all.

But there is a Factories Act covering a minority of workplaces and a small team of inspectors. Why?

The answer to this is also the answer to the whole problem of speed-up and industrial accidents. The working class has forced the state and the government in over a 100 years of continuous struggle to make a show of intervention on safety matters in industry, and this same collective force could, in a socialist society, also end the dangers of speed-up.

A 100 years ago Marx was also considering why a Factory Reform Act had been passed and how limited and unsatisfactory it was in reality. In his major work, Capital, he wrote:

“What strikes us about the English legislation of 1867 is, on the one hand,the necessity imposed on the Parliament of the ruling classes of adopting in principle measures so extraordinary, and on so great a scale, against the excesses of capitalist exploitation; and on the other hand, the hesitation, the repugnance, and the bad faith, with which it lent itself to the task of carrying those measures into practice.”

So where the working class has fought for better conditions the state does make some show of reform. It gives the appearance of operating against the bosses and in favour of the workers, when in fact its activity on behalf of the workers is very limited indeed.

Any wide-scale interventions by the state in the interests of the working class can be ruled out. They would raise the whole question of ownership, control and decision-making in industry and society. The government and civil service, acting in the interests of the bosses, could never allow this.

The narrow limits within which the state can act on behalf of the workers are shown by the figures of prosecutions under the Factories Act and associated legislation. In 1966, only 1,471 firms or individuals were prosecuted.

They were fined a mere total of £62,277, an average of £28 10 each. In other words, there was only one prosecution for every 190 reported accidents.

Some people say that these accidents cannot be avoided in an industrial economy. This is wrong. Even the Chief Inspector of Factories believes that a lot could be done under the present capitalist system. Last year he wrote in his Report:

“There is very little evidence to suggest that industry is inadequately equipped to deal with the hazards which technological changes may involve; there is, however,abundant evidence to show that in some factories the most obvious dangers continue to be ignored.”

The Money

But he does not understand why these dangers continue to be ignored (or at least he does not say so publicly).

The ruling class ignore them because industrial accidents harm the workers, not the boss, and speed-up has to be introduced if British capitalism is to remain “competitive” and the bosses are to keep their profits. Factory workers often have to ignore the dangers because piece-work, time-and-motion and speed-up mean that they lose money if they don’t.

The failure of the Labour government to protect the workers who elected it to power is because it is wedded to support of this way of running things. The system forces a worker to run physical and mental risk and strain in order to take home a weekly wage-packet while the boss rakes in the profits.

The speed-up and its consequences – the rising trend in industrial accidents – are part and parcel of a broad attempt to regenerate British capitalism regardless of the cost to the workers.

The government’s three-pronged policy of “rationalisation”, “increased productivity” and “incomes policy” has nothing to do with socialism.

The first means mergers and rising unemployment.

The second means more accidents in industry.

And the third is aimed at the pockets and living standards of all workers. This is a policy in the interests of the ruling class.

Because it is the Labour Party that now carries the pitchfork, some working people find it difficult to continue the struggle. The answer is that it is the Labour Party and not the labour movement that is to blame.

Working people can and will unite to fight for better conditions.

Factory and other problems will only be solved by a new way of running things in a better system of society, set up and run by the workers – genuine socialism.

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Last updated: 22 October 2020