Anger, confidence, fear and hope in the workplace

Ian A discusses fear, anger, confidence and hope in the modern workplace. This article appears in the first edition of the rs21 magazine.

Picture Credit: iStock/MHJ
Picture Credit: iStock/MHJ

Real wages down. Pension provision in tatters. A welfare system that is judgemental, cruel and inadequate. Public services privatised and decimated. And no end in sight to austerity and cuts.

People are angry and distrust of the establishment is high – yet there has been no fight back in Britain on a scale which could succeed. Our best opportunity – the public sector pensions dispute – was thrown away by union leaders after the magnificent 30November 2011 strike. They wobbled between pressure from members on one side and the pressure from the government on the other. How could they get away with scuppering this fight?

For decades we’ve talked about “anger but a lack of confidence” in the working class. But this kind of understanding doesn’t adequately equip activists. We need to think about what this phrase means, and understand how fear and hopelessness feed into this picture.


There are two remedies to lack of confidence. The first is victory. Nothing can match that for boosting confidence. So we can try to win more, and publicise our victories better. The second remedy is more ideological. Bluntly, it involves “important people” telling us we’re right. Working class people are taught to believe that we are stupid, that our views don’t matter, that what we do can’t make a difference. Backing from union leaders, politicians or celebrities alleviates this.

“Lack of confidence” has been our focus for years, but we can still sharpen our response. We can do much more to publicise our victories, whether it’s an everyday win in a workplace or the rarer big victories: electricians against BESNA, Hovis workers against zero hours contracts.

Leaflets, pamphlets, speaking tours, public meetings and workplace visits all help. But the most powerful tool is building solidarity before a dispute wins. Workers who donate to a strike fund, visit a picket line or meet a striker are far more likely to learn from and gain confidence from a win.

Ideas change on a mass scale through the experience of struggle. If you fight you may lose, but if you never fight, you never win. But winning a fight is much better than just taking part in one. So we always need a “plan to win” that we can argue for before and during the fight. We must prepare those around us to withstand (or at least learn from) our leaders’ wobbles.

Mark O’Brien [1] wrote recently about what an “orientation” on the rank and file involves, and how that differs from an orientation on the trade union bureaucracy. One view sees any work with, or inside, the bureaucracy as a means to build the rank and file. The other sees rank and file organisation as a means to pressure the bureaucracy.

Turning the tide of working class retreat will include bigger battles like public sector pensions and pay. But large strikes involve many workplaces and many unions, making it harder for the rank and file to retain control. A big dispute, and particularly one in the public sector with political dimensions, brings out the most conservative tendencies of union leaders. Such strikes are the ones where workers will face the greatest obstacles and find it hardest to win. We do workers no favours if we take shortcuts in our desire to ignite a fight back. Failing to prepare and equip workers on the upswing of a dispute, for the time when union leaders pull back, is dangerous.

Picture credit: iStock/alynst
Picture credit: iStock/alynst

A realistic approach to building confidence would emphasise building at a workplace level, encouraging self-activity and independence, preparing workers politically, setting up elementary building blocks of rank and file organisation: workplace democracy, stewards committees and combines. Confidence to act independently of union leaders goes hand-in-hand with confidence to stand up to employers. If you aren’t confident about standing up to your boss, you become fatally dependent upon union full-timers.

Britain saw a downturn in struggle from the mid-1970s, coinciding with the return of permanent mass unemployment. Today the Tories are cutting welfare and stigmatising the sick, disabled and unemployed to increase competition in the labour market. Fear of unemployment is real. And the worse the treatment of those out of work gets, the greater that fear becomes.

Moral panics and repression

The use of fear to influence behaviour is not restricted to the workplace. “People react to fear, not love,” declared former US president Richard Nixon. Politicians and the media encourage us to fear the wrong targets: “moral panics” over crime, drugs, migrants, lone parents, feral kids, stranger danger, dangerous dogs etc.

These take real concerns and redirect them to fit corporate, media and government agendas – often targeting scapegoats. Moral panics divert our attention from important issues we could and should act on. They encourage negative assumptions about other people and undermine the potential for collective action.

We face increasing surveillance in the workplace and beyond. Arrests are based on CCTV long after the picket, riot or protest has taken place mean that “ringleaders” are no longer the only ones who fear consequences of protest – even if you walk away on the day.

Workplaces communication now takes place electronically, subject to monitoring and sanctions. Open plan workplaces minimise opportunities for unsupervised conversations or activities. The trickle of sackings over Facebook postings or emails feeds this distrust and fear.

A 1989 joke about Romania’s then dictator Nicolae CeauÈ™escu noted that his extensive network of informants meant he was well informed about being overthrown. Our rulers are not all-powerful, but the barriers to disobedience have been raised.

A CIA torture handbook explains that “the threat to inflict pain can trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain”. So it is with workplace fears. Constant reorganisation creates insecurity, vulnerability and fear out of all proportion to the real threat.

Initiatives such as Unite’s community membership scheme can undercut this fear by helping those not in paid employment to stand up to the injustices of the welfare system – and showing those in work that it is possible to do this. Solidarity with people out of work strengthens those in work. It is not an act of charity.

The 1970s saw the return of viability arguments [2] – the fear that winning “too much” would make your workplace uncompetitive and leave you jobless. This fear doesn’t apply uniformly. Some jobs can be done elsewhere, or by other employers. Workers in this situation will feel more vulnerable than those in, say, monopoly providers of a local service.

Fears around viability are spreading into new areas through deregulation, privatisation, fragmentation and outsourcing. Until recently, hospital workers had no reason to fear their employer going bankrupt. That’s changed now.

There is a lot of talk about precarious employment. The category is a questionable one: statistics often lump workers with secure jobs alongside the most vulnerable. But we know that millions of workers in Britain are employed through agencies, umbrella companies, short term contracts, zero hours etc. Casualisation means insecurity and feeling powerless: not just for casualised workers but also for those on traditional contracts working alongside them. The fear ratchets up every time a casual worker “disappears” unchallenged.

Before the downturn we relied on collective, not legal, protection. But the defeats of the 1980s weakened collective organisation leading to unions becoming over-reliant on the law. There was no legal protection from unfair dismissal until 1971. So was everyone “precarious” back then?

Lean Times

Phil Taylor has examined [5] how performance management, sickness absence management and LEAN promote fear and stress in the modern workplace.

The principle of LEAN production is the elimination of waste – in terms of time, not just materials. LEAN is being applied in manufacturing and services, in the private and public sectors. Marx talked about the “porosity of the working day” – the small gaps and breaks when you wait for equipment, inputs or other workers. LEAN seeks to reorganise production to minimise this, intensifying work and removing the downtime that allows workers to recover, physically and mentally.

Taylor describes the effect as “workers on the edge”, continually held at the limit of their ability to cope. Organisations apply this to staffing levels. When someone leaves, management doesn’t replace them right away. The remaining workers are pressured to cover and cope, to see their employer’s problems as their own. Only if they don’t cope is a replacement hired.

LEAN would be less pernicious if workers felt confident to work at a sensible pace. But modern management cranks up fear using performance and absence management.

Performance management has a punitive dimension. Targets are set from above. Workers are told they are “underperforming” through a pseudo objective processes: “measurables”, “metrics”, “KPIs”, “deliverables” and so on. If too many people achieve targets, the targets are raised.

Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) are widespread. Taylor reported a bank where a third of the staff had been subjected to some form of “underperformance” action in the last year. Bell curves and forced distributions force managers into “bullying by numbers”.

Sickness absence management is rife, with Attendance Improvement Plans (AIPs) and warnings for those who are sick too often. Trigger points (e.g. Bradford factor) are used to force managers to put sick staff through the grinder. Once they’re in the “absence management” process, workers need to high attendance rates otherwise disciplinary penalties escalate. The predictable result is that people use holidays to conceal their sickness, or work when they are ill.

Absence management is counterproductive in its declared aims. Sickness absence is low. Even the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development admits that the cost of “presenteeism” [6] (coming in to work while ill) is higher. But stigmatising absence feeds fear and insecurity, which bosses value more.

The TUC estimates [7] that one in five workers regularly do unpaid overtime, averaging eight hours a week. Not all workers are motivated by love of their job or commitment to the service they provide. Many feel under such pressure that they think they are obliged to work for free. Unpaid overtime equates to over a million people out of work, feeding labour market competition still further.

Fear is justified where there is danger. But many fears are out of all proportion to real dangers. Fears about viability, precarious employment status, or being “managed out” reflect real threats – but these are exaggerated in order to subdue us.

So how do we help workers to overcome their fears, whether justified or exaggerated? We can prioritise campaigns that undermine genuine threats – insecure contracts, performance management etc. We can encourage individuals to demand the support that employers claim to offer to workers: training, coaching, reasonable adjustments for disabilities. We can encourage collective campaigning and sometimes industrial action.

Employers and the state depend on us accepting the legitimacy of actions such as surveillance of workers and criminalisation of protest. They rule by fraud, not just force. This “consent” can be undermined by solidarity campaigns with victimised workers and protest against surveillance and repression.

But we must tackle the ideological foundations of fear – the lies and exaggerations that make people more afraid than they need to be. Facts help keep threats in proportion. We can highlight how employers depend on workers and on our potential power [3]. We can challenge the myth that globalisation has led to employers can relocating on a whim. We can challenge, and inoculate [4] against, scaremongering about workplace closures.


Union organisers say that the steps to get someone to act are “anger, hope, action”. Being angry is necessary, but not sufficient. Workers need hope – we have to believe that things can be better and see a course of action with a chance of success.

Reformist consciousness involves rejecting the symptoms of capitalism but accepting the system itself. In the post-war boom this involved various blends of Keynesianism and Stalinism. By the 1970s both were discredited and reformist organisations gradually accepted neoliberal ideology: “there is no alternative” to market mechanisms. Even the financial crisis of 2008 didn’t shake them from this orthodoxy – they backed austerity and more privatisation.

The absence of ideological alternatives to the market in mainstream politics has consequences in the workplace. Workers were less afraid about workplace viability when a demand for nationalisation could get an echo from Labour and possibly even the Tories.

For much of the 20th century workers influenced by the left understood that the working class has a special role in history. We can emancipate ourselves and so liberate the whole of humanity. A small and selfish minority, the ruling class, stands in the way of this.

One of our rulers’ great achievements has been the widespread reversal of this view. “Business”, “the economy” and “the market” – in other words the bosses – are taken to represent the interests of society. Workers fighting to defend jobs and services (or worse, for decent pay) are the selfish ones jeopardising all this. Guilt substitutes for hope. This ideological dimension is one reason why “political trade unionism” – linking every workplace battle to a wider social agenda – is so crucial.

The “identifiable wealth” (not including bank accounts) of the richest thousand in Britain rose 15% last year to £520 billion. The market is not a supernatural force – it is a product of human action. Employers and governments have choices. Governments can intervene in markets to bail out banks. They can spend billions on wars. They can freeze or seize assets in pursuit of foreign policy objectives, or to prevent money laundering. Yet we are told that such actions are impossible when it comes to securing decent housing, jobs, services and incomes.

We have to popularise ideas that challenge subservience to “the market” in general. We cannot restrict ourselves to rejecting particular consequences of the market, or opposing one privatisation or another. This isn’t about “waiting for the revolution” – it’s about making propaganda now. The more widespread socialist ideas are, the easier it is for workers to fight and win.


Socialists have a small, but important, role to play in building and strengthening workplace organisation and the rank and file. We will be most effective if we do this while consciously trying to boost confidence, tackle fear and kindle hope.

To boost confidence we can deliver solidarity between workplaces and between those in and out of work. We can encourage resistance, plan to win and publicise victories.

To tackle fear we must both prioritise campaigns against the sources of fear and tackle the ideas that magnify fears.  Tackling punitive performance and absence management, opposing surveillance and repression and fighting casualisation are not enough.  We must challenge ideas that exaggerate our vulnerability too.

We need to challenge the market orthodoxy that underlies fears around viability and denies hope of any alternative.

Ideas will often be socialists’ biggest contribution to struggles – precisely because so few see their importance. Every struggle of working people shows that a society that puts human need first is necessary and regenerates hope and confidence that it is possible.



[1] “The problem of the one-day strike: a response to Sean Vernell”

[2] “The upturn/downturn debate: an introduction”



[5] Video here:

Report here:




  1. People do win things, week in and week out. We don’t win as much as we could or should. There’s no point waiting for a government to sort our problems out – they are part of the problem. Workers need to fight for ourselves.

  2. We are competing with slave labour and you just can’t win. Unfortunately it creates a society that becomes increasingly desperate. There is no labour loyalty because your employer would just as soon ditch you and have someone else do your work for less. Unless you have a government that designs and enforces policies that are for the people, things will only get worse. The 1% can have it all but they may not want to live in a society they have created. Charity is not the answer.


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