The problem of relative privilege in the working class

Image removed.

"Waterside worker', by Noel Counihan, 1963.

By Chris Slee

March 18, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In his article entitled “Is there a labour aristocracy in Australia? (published in the Socialist Alternative magazine, Marxist Left Review) Tom Bramble criticises the concept of the “labour aristocracy” on a number of grounds.

He says that the term “labour aristocracy” is ambiguous. Pointing out that different people have used it in different ways, he asks who is included: “Is it the union bureaucracy and the parliamentarians? Plus the skilled tradesmen? Or, indeed, is it the entire Western working classes?”[1]

The most common use of the term “labour aristocracy” is to refer to skilled workers in the imperialist countries, who are considered to have been bought off with a share of imperialist super-profits. Bramble argues that this theory does not explain the actual differences in political outlook among different groups of workers – skilled workers are not necessarily more conservative than unskilled ones.

He adds that the theory of labour aristocracy “exaggerates divisions within the working class and underestimates the potential for working class unity against the capitalist class”.[2]

I myself don’t much like the term “labour aristocracy”. I prefer to talk about “relative privilege”. There are many different forms of inequality within the working class. The term “labour aristocracy” seems inadequate to cover them all.

However, I think it is important to recognise that inequality within the working class exists, and that it can have a big impact on workers’ political outlook. The better-off sections will often defend their relative privileges at the expense of other workers (though this is not inevitable).

Inequality among workers

Capitalism develops unevenly, and produces very different wages and conditions for different sections of the working class.

The most obvious example is that average pay rates for workers in the advanced capitalist countries are many times higher than average pay rates for workers in less developed countries.

There are also differences within countries. As a general rule, skilled workers are paid more than unskilled workers. But there are many other differences:

  • Workers in predominantly male occupations tend to be paid more than workers in predominantly female occupations.
  • Workers with permanent full-time jobs are better off than those with casual or part-time jobs. In many Third World countries, permanent workers are a small minority of the population, with the majority of workers being in the “informal sector”, trying to survive on poorly paid casual work.
  • In the Australian Public Service, there is a formal hierarchy with multiple levels. The bottom rung of the ladder is called “APS 1” (Australian Public Service, level 1). It goes up to APS 6, then the terminology changes to EL 1 (Executive Level 1) and EL 2, then above that there are various levels of the Senior Executive Service. To add to the complexity, with the introduction of agency bargaining in the Australian Public Service about 20 years ago, the pay rates in different government departments began to diverge. An APS 3 in the Australian Taxation Office is paid differently to an APS 3 in Centrelink.
  • Workers in the mining industry in Australia are currently paid much more than those in most other industries (though their working conditions are very bad, and they could lose their jobs when the mining boom goes bust).
  • In China, workers with urban residency status are much better off than workers whose official status is “rural”, but who work in urban factories.

Inequality, conflict and solidarity

Material inequalities between different groups of workers can contribute to conflict between them. Often one group of workers will try to defend their position of relative privilege against other workers who are perceived as threatening it.

For example, the relatively privileged position of Australian workers compared to those in many other countries affects attitudes towards immigration. Many workers in Australia fear that migrants from poor countries will work for lower rates of pay, and will therefore take jobs from Australian workers and/or cause Australian pay rates to fall.

This was a contributing factor to working-class support for the White Australia policy in the past, and still affects attitudes to immigration and refugees today. It helps to explain the high level of hostility toward refugees arriving in Australia by boat. (Of course, this hostility is greatly exacerbated by politicians and the media, who deliberately set out to create fears about “boat people”.)

While recognising that inequality provides an objective basis for potential conflict among groups of workers, we should not view this as an absolute and unchangeable obstacle to working-class unity. There is often a political struggle within the relatively privileged sections of the working class about how to respond. Those defending the maintenance of privilege may be challenged by those promoting solidarity.

In the early 20th century, many Australian unions supported the White Australia policy. But the Industrial Workers of the World opposed the policy and tried to organise non-white workers as well as white workers.

The IWW was crushed by state repression during the First World War. But in subsequent years Australian unions have at times taken action in solidarity with workers overseas, with national liberation struggles and with Aboriginal people.

Similarly there have been debates within the unions about equality for women. For a long time the tramways union banned women from becoming tram drivers in Melbourne. In 1956 the union went on strike to oppose management’s plans to train female drivers. In 1973 the union imposed a ban on the route where training of female drivers was occurring. After a long campaign, the ban on women drivers was overturned by a vote of union members in 1975.[3]

Origins of inequality among workers

What are the reasons for inequality amongst different groups of workers?

Tom Bramble criticises the idea that the labour aristocracy gets a “bribe” from the capitalists, paid for out of imperialist super-profits. He says that skilled workers are paid more than other workers because their labour power is worth more.

He attributes the higher wages in advanced capitalist countries to higher productivity:

More generally, the notion that higher wages in the developed countries derive from low wages in the less developed, a central proposition of [Arghiri] Emmanuel’s version of unequal exchange, overlooks the fact that while wages may be higher in the former, the rate of exploitation – the proportion of the value created by the worker appropriated by the capitalist – is also higher. This apparent paradox can be explained by the fact that technique of production, and thus productivity, is usually far greater. Higher wages in the developed countries simply reflect the much higher value of labour power owing to the skills, training and cultural development of workers in such countries.[4]

But why does labour productivity differ so markedly from one country to another? In particular, why is the productivity of labour generally higher in imperialist countries than in Third World countries?

The reasons are complex. Part of the answer is that some of the wealth plundered from colonies was invested in the colonising powers, resulting in the development of the productive forces, and of labour productivity, in these countries.

For a long time the most advanced factories were built in the imperialist countries. In the 19th century, textile mills were built in England rather than India. In the 20th century, car factories were initially built in the United States, Europe and Japan, rather than Africa, Latin America or most of Asia.

In this situation, workers in the imperialist countries were able to win some gains in pay and conditions as a result of their trade union struggles. Because of the high productivity of labour, the capitalists were able to grant pay rises without affecting their profits too drastically (though usually they still had to be forced to do so).

In addition capitalist governments, aiming to alleviate discontent among their working class, ensure social peace and promote loyalty to the nation state, introduced some welfare measures (to varying degrees in different imperialist countries).

The outcome was a vast gulf between the pay, conditions and welfare rights of workers in imperialist countries and those in colonial or semi-colonial countries. The relative privilege of workers in the imperialist countries has been the material basis for working-class support for a range of racist and exclusionary policies, including the White Australia policy in the past and continuing anti-refugee policies in Australia today, the “Fortress Europe” policy and the attempts to restrict Latin American immigration to the United States.

This is not to say that racist attitudes will inevitably predominate among workers in imperialist countries. Sentiments of solidarity also exist, and can be further developed by good leadership. But it will remain a very difficult struggle so long as global economic differences remain as large as they presently are.

Changes in the location of industry

In recent years some high-technology industries have shifted to Third World countries, such as South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and more recently China.

In part, this is because technology makes it easier to organise production on a global scale. It has become easier to close down a factory in one country and replace it with a factory in another country.

A range of factors may influence decisions on the location of production, including closeness to markets, perceptions of political stability, the quality of infrastructure, and the availability of workers with necessary skills. But labour costs are a very important factor. Other things being equal, capitalists will locate their factories where pay rates are lower.

The shifting of some production to Third World countries (or the threat to do so) has weakened the bargaining position of unions in imperialist countries. This has contributed to the gradual decline of pay and conditions in these countries.

On the other hand, there has been a growth in workers’ struggles in some of the countries to which production has been shifted. For example, there have been many strikes in China in recent years, and Chinese workers have won substantial pay rises.

Nevertheless, Chinese pay rates remain far below those in the imperialist countries. Thus there is still an incentive for capitalists to shift production from these countries to China.

It is not just factory work that is being relocated. A lot of call-centre work has been relocated from Australia to India and the Philippines.

Union response

How should unions in the advanced capitalist countries respond to this situation?

The traditional response of Australian unions has been to call for increased tariff protection, or for subsidies to companies investing in Australia. Neither of these is a good solution from a socialist point of view.

A better approach is to try to assist workers in countries such as China to improve their pay and conditions. There have been campaigns to shame companies such as Apple over its treatment of workers in the Chinese factories that make its products.

Such campaigns have had a degree of success in some cases. It is hard to judge how big an impact they have had, because transnational corporations often operate through subcontractors, and it is hard to check on what is happening in all the factories.

In any case, monitoring by foreign NGOs is no substitute for the organisation of the Chinese working class in strong trade unions. Despite the militancy of many Chinese workers, the official trade union movement in China is very conservative and does not support strikes.

How should Australian unions react when companies threaten to close a factory in Australia and move production to another country (whether a Third World or another imperialist country)?

We should argue that it is the responsibility of the Australian government to ensure that there are jobs with good pay and conditions for all workers in Australia. This means the government should take over factories threatened with closure and run them as public enterprises, or else provide the sacked workers with alternative work. Public housing, public transport and renewable energy are some of the areas that governments should invest in and create jobs.

In support of these demands we should encourage pickets, factory occupations, street demonstrations, etc.

‘Guest workers’

Another issue is the use of “guest workers” (in Australia, workers on 457 visas). In this case, instead of shifting production to a country where pay rates are lower (which is not possible for some kinds of work, e.g. mining and construction), workers from poorer countries are brought in temporarily to work in a rich country on lower pay and conditions than those prevailing in the rich country.

How should we respond?

We should campaign for the abolition of the “guest worker” (457 visa) system, and demand that all people coming to work in Australia are entitled to permanent residency and eventual citizenship. Existing 457 visa workers should be offered permanent residency.

Unions should recruit the 457 visa workers, and ensure that they receive the same pay and conditions as Australian workers. This has been done in some cases.

Employer violations of 457 visa rules

Companies are only supposed to use workers on 457 visas if workers with the relevant skills are not available in Australia. In reality, companies frequently disregard this requirement. Unions have tried to limit the number of guest workers by ensuring that companies abide by the regulations, and have called for the law to be made stricter and enforced more rigorously.

Recently there was a picket in Werribee, an outer suburb of Melbourne, around this issue. Workers on 457 visas were being used on a construction project. Unemployed workers with relevant skills living in the Werribee area set up a picket demanding that they be given jobs on the site. The picket eventually dispersed after the police threatened to physically attack it.[5]

It may seem reasonable to demand that companies abide by the legal limits on the use of 457 visas. However this can create problems if the guest workers are already in Australia, because it may lead to them being sacked and sent home.

If employers have brought guest workers to Australia contrary to the guidelines, unions face a dual task. On the one hand they should try to recruit the guest workers to the union and defend their pay and conditions. But unions also have to support their unemployed members who missed out on jobs because of the employer’s actions. How to combine these two tasks is not easy.

One approach might be to demand that local workers be employed in addition to the 457 visa workers. The additional cost of employing two sets of workers would be a deterrent to employers who try to break the rules.

If the company decides to sack the guest workers and send them home, we should oppose this. If they are nevertheless sacked, we should demand that they receive redundancy payments equivalent to what they would have been paid if they had worked the expected length of their employment.


Such situations arise because of the highly unequal pay rates of workers in different parts of the world, which makes it worthwhile for bosses to either shift the work to another country, or move workers between countries.

One of our long-term goals should be to reduce inequality between workers in different countries, by raising the living standards of those in poorer countries. Pay rates should be leveled up, not leveled down as the capitalists would like.

Some gains can be made through successful struggles by unions and other social movements in Third World countries. Even bigger gains can be made through the coming to power of socialist governments, which can use their countries’ resources for the benefit of the majority of people, rather than local and foreign capitalists.

People in the imperialist countries should do what they can to help these unions, social movements and socialist governments in Third World countries.

But radical change is needed in imperialist countries too. A socialist government coming to power in an advanced capitalist country could give a great deal of aid to help develop the productive forces of poorer countries, enabling them to raise the living standards of their people.

The struggle between solidarity and the defence of relative privilege is part of the struggle for a socialist world.

[Chris Slee is a Socialist Alliance activist in Melbourne.]


  1. Bramble, Tom, Is there a labour aristocracy in Australia? Marxist Left Review, no. 4, winter 2012, p. 107
  2. Bramble, MLR, no. 4, p. 103
  3. See and
  4. Bramble, MLR, no. 4, p. 107.
  5. See and