Class Power on Zero Hours

Submitted by SJW on 19 January, 2021 - 6:19 Author: Stephen Wood
Work slow!

The book is the culmination of six years of “getting rooted” in Greenford in West London. It documents in workers’ enquiry style some key jobs and the lives of the supporters and organisers of the Angry Workers of the World (AWW) have been doing while based in an area of West London that has an extensive history of class struggle, but not an area of London that is heavily populated by the organised left. It also seeks to lay down a kind of manifesto or programme for others to consider “getting rooted” as well. The editors even included this Trotskyist’s reflection on working in a library out in the “Wild West”. So while the book draws fairly different conclusions to us, reading about their experiences and their take has value for anyone attempting to organise in their workplace.

The AWW see their work as based on “workers’ self-organisation” without an absolute rule on what this means. Experiences within the book detail both times that some of the writers were active USDAW and GMB reps and their attempts to build a smaller, more militant, union using the IWW as the hook in a project to talk to and help workers organise at factories and units across Park Royal.

As well as analysis of their experience, the book has useful chapters on the nature of food production and distribution. In the section on working in a 3D printer factory, there are some further thoughts on automation and useful criticisms of fashionable “fully automated luxury communism” ideas.

AWW has a different view of the mainstream trade union movement from Solidarity, but we recognise many of the problems that the AWW have encountered when working in jobs that already have some union organisation. And we share a commitment to workplace activity, which a lot of the Trotskyist left have downrated. Like the AWW, we have a commitment to producing workplace industrial bulletins, and some experience in doing so.

Similarly while they distribute it for free, the Workers Wild West newspaper they produce has some common features with other publications of the left.

The book’s longest reflection on work within the mainstream unions are on the GMB in Bakkavor, a large food manufacturer, and on USDAW in Tesco. An activist’s experience as a GMB rep and forklift driver in Bakkavor is measured by the yardstick of how much they were able to inculcate a sense of militancy among the workers and generate demands on the union to do something on pay, safety, and hours, rather than in terms of responding to the campaigns the union runs, more or less in abstraction from any input by the members.

The AWW comrades in Bakkavor seized an opportunity when a new full-time organiser came in who was more sympathetic to the rank-and-file. At least he wanted to hold new rep elections.

Many of the workers the AWW meet in the workplaces and through their “solidarity network” find themselves stuck between the bosses, pressure from family and community leaders, and inability to get immediate results through their own self activity.

The AWW experience shines a light on how community links, often strictly hierarchical and patriarchal, affect how union “organising models” work. The factories of Greenford and Park Royal are dominated by migrant workers, often working in the same place but with job roles or grades separating them as well as language and culture. Young Romanian guys may be working alongside older Gujarati women but with little way of communicating between them.

The most vocal people, often best placed to play a leading role as “organic leaders”, are often also the people most likely to want to dampen down militancy or avoid anything that might rock the boat too much. An organising drive is built on shaky ground if it centres round self-declared spokespeople rather than less obvious “worker leaders”.

This is all the more acute for women workers and the chapter detailing different experiences of women at work is valuable. I was reminded of Woman in a "Man's Job": Memoirs of a Woman Building Worker but the CPOZH section details well how the combination of low paid work, high rents and poor housing contribute to making the burden of “family” fall to women.

The experience that allowed the GMB to open up for the AWW people is instructive. AWW take the fact that they were not entirely successful in getting a pay offer rejected, and countering obvious attempts to rig the vote, as proof of the failure of working in mainstream unions. It is hard to judge from the outside, but that initial defeat could have been the start of more fruitful work. After all the French group Lutte Ouvrière, who have worked especially hard on workplace bulletins, say they can’t assess how a workplace bulletin is going from anything shorter than two years’ consistent experience.

The previously inactive reps, close to management, were self-chosen leaders in the workplace. An example not in the book, but from a company AWW also has some experience with, is Alpha LSG, one of the largest suppliers of airline food to Heathrow. One of the supervisors there is also a Labour councillor and a well known figure in the Punjabi community in West London. He once told me in detail how everyone there is generally happy, and the union has a good relationship with management. He is of course one of the union reps, as well as a supervisor.

An issue that bears more thought is their call for more “solidarity networks” similar to the one they set up in West London. In short the network is a group of people willing to listen to and help working class people with problems with wages, visas, housing etc. To be uncharitable, a kind of radical Citizens Advice Bureau. The sections that deal with some of this work are some of the most enlightening. Setting themselves up in places that are accessible to workers, a supermarket cafe for instance, and doing a lot of postering in the local area, they get people coming to them. In some cases helping people write a formal letter or being able to put pressure on a rogue boss by signing off a letter from the IWW has some effect. On a couple of occasions they pick people up through this activity who go on to highlight other cases to them and who will help out at small demos etc. They note that the work of running the solidarity network is high. For a small group of people, all of whom are also working and not themselves experts on housing or employment law, individual actions can consume a lot of energy. And the aim to take things a step further in some instances, collectivising the actions is harder to pull off. As they note, when some people realised that they can’t just fix a problem like that, or the next move would mean a small demo outside the visa agents office or a workplace, that stopped any ongoing relationship with those who accessed the networks support.

It struck me when reading it, that the solidarity network model is admirable, but hugely time consuming for a small group of activists. The official labour movement could and does to a limited degree offer help and support in these areas. What they do not do is point so readily to the idea of collective action to solve the issues. I would be interested to hear more from the AWW as to what they make of organisations like ACORN and the concept of “base building” which has attracted some Marxists into doing more work focused on communities. The very real danger that this amounts to running a “revolutionary allotment” or becoming a less competent and legally more vulnerable CAB seems real.

Left communists, syndicalists and people who would identify more with autonomism have reviewed the book and taken up a range of different perspectives. It would be remiss in this review to not address the wider political project that the AWW have made a contribution to and that they are inviting others to participate in. A summary of that can be found here.

CPOZH starts with the outcome of the 2019 General Election and recognises that for a lot of people on the activist left, the defeat will have been a major blow, and lead to demoralisation. Although unlikely to rouse many Corbynistas their call to think seriously about revolutionary organisation is good. As you would expect from people from a broadly left-communist milieu they reject any work with the Labour party. And similarly they are opposed to an over reliance on unions as the structures that are available to workers in asserting themselves and taking actions.

“Workers need to build their own independent decision-making structures. Only with this as the fundamental basis can they assess their situation and use whatever tools and structures that get them to where they want to go. We can’t simply rely on ‘joining a union’ and expect miracles to happen. We might have to use the law at certain times but we need to have our eyes open: the union apparatus are fully-functioning, self-serving organisations. Anyone who’s had any experience dealing with the bureaucracy when things start heating up knows what we mean. You can spend your whole life trying to democratise these institutions, but ultimately, workers need to rely on and coordinate themselves.”

It is possible to agree with most of the sentiment there and still believe as I think their work in the GMB in Bakkavor has shown, that it is possible to relate and play a role in the actually existing labour movement as revolutionaries. But in the wake of Corbynism and Covid where “join and union” has been repeated ad-nauseum with no relation to what effective workplace organising is, is a useful shake up for anyone who did believe Corbynism represented a particular strengthening of the labour movement.

Activists in Britain are engaged in the trade union movement where there are millions of members and thousands of activists. Likewise the Labour party still numbers several hundred thousand, a large audience for socialist ideas that can neither be written off, or ignored to get to an imagined labour movement running in parallel to existing structures. The Labour Party is a bourgeois-workers party: a mass workers party with a pro-capitalist leadership. The AWW say that Labour is toast and the bread was already mouldy. It’a a good line, but not one backed up by reality. While Corbynism was not the transformative movement many of those hundred thousand might have hoped for, the Labour party remains an important site for class struggle now, and for the future emergence of the revolutionary organisation that is needed.

For AWW a focus on agitation particularly within the Labour party and to a more limited degree within the official structures of the unions runs counter to working-class independence but also takes activist energy away from workplace activism. Activist time is finite and there are many competing priorities. Those who attended a long branch meeting one evening to pass a motion calling for the repeal of the anti union laws and were then reluctant to be up at 4am to leaflet the factory gates is understandable, but it doesn’t flow that such energy is being wasted. The AWW accept themselves that they have with solid determination not chosen an attractive route for would-be revolutionaries. Get low paid often physically demanding jobs, away from the existing activist centres in London and without the potential supporter base that comes from mobilising students to support strikes in Bloomsbury to support a 5am leafleting in Hangar Lane.

Equally the AWW are a serious group of people who read, study and learn, and engage seriously and honestly with those they disagree with. The dominant culture in the labour movement is to do none of this! We exist to transform the labour movement into a democratic, fighting force for working class independence and liberation. We fight for a labour movement that embodies the highest standards of democracy, critical enquiry, solidarity and militancy.

The comrades can feel cut off from the actually existing movement, but it would benefit from a bit more of an orientation to them. Even a small shift in the outlook of the movement, or its culture can result in much greater political and cultural shifts within society at large, which creates conditions for even greater transformations and opens the gates for socialists. In his reply to the CWO Tod Hamer spells out what an intervention from a group like Workers’ Liberty into the Labour party is trying to do;

“A recent example of our approach is the Free our Unions campaign initiated by the broad-left Clarion magazine. Alongside allies within the movement, Workers’ Liberty activists are central to this initiative. The campaign has won a victory in getting Labour to officially pledge to abolish all anti union legislation. We do not expect this to mean a future Labour government will automatically come good on this pledge. We keep up the pressure. But if we win, we will have secured much more favourable conditions for workers struggle and the development of a mass revolutionary socialist movement. Even the very partial successes of revolutionaries within the reformist parties can generate broader trends of socialist transformation.

"Even if we do not win a complete victory, the process of campaigning in this way helps to organise the militant workers. Thousands of pamphlets have been sold during the course of this campaign. Our interventions are educative not just in the formal politics we advocate but also in the way the campaign exposes the democratic deficits of the party and the timidity of the leadership. It sorts the serious socialists from the careerists, bureaucrats and fakers. Simply raising the campaign, presupposes that members have democratic rights, that their votes matter and that they should take these issues seriously. Arguing out the issues stimulates further reading and study. The campaign results in events and action that need to be organised and moves members into political activity beyond electoralism. It hones the skills of our people as political persuaders and organisers and generates new activists. Though such interventions we aim to organise the most serious socialist activists into ever more coherent, educated and effective force.”

Class Power on Zero Hours is available from PM Press
Other reviews of the book and responses have been compiled here.

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