Can professionals be classed as workers?

Issue section: 
(441)

Re: “A right royal crisis prods dormant unions into life” (November SR). Nursing cannot be both an “all graduate profession” and also “a working-class job.”

Many people are confused about the role of the middle class and, therefore, who is middle class.

From a Marxist perspective, salaried professionals are middle class because they stand between the capitalist class and the working class, taking orders from those above them and giving orders to (or wielding power over) those below them.

The resulting class conflict is particularly sharp for service or “helping” professionals; their managers demand that they implement agency policies, and the people they serve expect their needs to be met. The professional conflict between serving as an agent of social control and as a helping advocate is reflected in the polarised opinions of service users who resent the control and appreciate the help.

The primary difference between workers and professionals is that workers are expected to follow instructions to the letter, while professionals have some discretionary power to decide what to do, and when and how to do it, so long as they stay within their mandate.

Professionals include doctors, nurses, lawyers, bankers, bureaucrats, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and teachers. Social workers can give or withhold services and remove children from their families. Teachers can pass or fail students, suspend or expel them, and call on police and psychiatrists to manage them. Workers have no such power.

Deteriorating working conditions, increasing alienation, falling incomes, and being organised in a union do not mean that service professionals have become working class. Regardless of their pay or working conditions, professionals retain the authority to make decisions that affect other people’s lives.

Certainly, the drive to standardise professional work has eroded the discretionary power of professionals, just as mandatory sentencing policies have eroded the discretionary power of judges. However, professionals cannot be classified as workers until they have been completely stripped of discretionary power and must do exactly what the bosses want and how they want it, without question. This is the plight of actual service workers such as hospital cleaners and school janitors.

The capitalist class cannot fully strip professionals of discretionary power, because they need the professional class to serve as a buffer between them and the working class. Nevertheless, the attack on professional working conditions undermines professional loyalty, which explains two things: the increasing number of highly-paid upper managers; and the increasing numbers of service professionals who are identifying as workers, joining unions, and going on strike.

Socialists encourage professionals to identify as workers. However, it is misleading to ignore the very real professional pressures that get in the way. Like everyone in the middle class, professionals must choose which side they are on. It does not serve our cause to pretend that there is no choice because they are already working class.

Susan Rosenthal
Canada