Workers’ inquiries: knowledge for power

Submitted by AWL on 20 April, 2021 - 6:02 Author: Editorial
Workers' inquiry graphic

A swirl of billions, and a trickle of pennies. A great effort of science to control Covid, with wildly uneven vaccine supplies and patents and production gripped by profiteering billionaires. Huge subsidies for some in the pandemic, while others lose jobs or have to try to self-isolate with no or little pay and in crowded housing.

Where are the billions going? Who’s left with pennies? We need to know. We need to inquire.

The Safe and Equal campaign, which Workers’ Liberty supports, recently exposed the fact that workers in the virus Test Centres had no right to isolation pay at all, or only Statutory Sick Pay of £96.35 a week.

It found that out not by social media, not from a mainstream newspaper, but by a campaigner talking with Test Centre workers when he went for a virus test.

Then another campaigner raised the issue in a local Labour Party meeting and got a Labour MP to make an inquiry with the Test Centre contractors which they felt obliged to respond to. The contractors admitted a general lack of isolation pay. The MP, Emily Thornberry, protested. On 29 March one contractor, Sodexo, wrote that the Department of Health and Social Care had “approved the payment of occupational sick pay for periods of self-isolation for all workers at Test Centres”, and that a commitment for occupational sick pay would be in all the new Test Centre contracts, starting July 2021.

Finding out and organising

We could win only because we organised. We could organise only because we found out. The Test Centre workers knew all along. They could win redress only if what they knew was made wider public knowledge and taken up by organisation.

At the other end of the scale, there are investigations which can’t be done by workers or campaigners inquiring within their own workshops or offices, but need to be made “workers’ inquiries” by the labour movement absorbing and scrutinising the results. Take the Greensill scandal, from which former prime minister David Cameron and some former civil servants now face official inquiries. Cameron brought the dodgy banker Lex Greensill into Downing St and later took a lucrative job with Greensill as an “adviser” (i.e. a go-between to help get deals for Greensill). A top civil servant, Bill Crothers, became an “adviser” to Greensill while still in his civil service job, and later a director of Greensill.

That came out because the big bank Credit Suisse became alarmed about Greensill and cut back credit, pushing Greensill into collapse. The scandal is part of the same culture in which the Tories have paid out billions to contractors for Test and Trace operations and for NHS supplies, without transparent tendering and with a “high priority lane” for government officials, ministers, MPs, and Lords, to make recommendations.

That became public because of the parliament’s Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. A number of think-tanks and NGOs have made public other undersides of capitalism in the pandemic. Recently, the Living Wage Foundation has found that 37% of all UK workers get less than a week’s notice of their shifts or work schedules. The percentage is higher in London (48%), among low-paid workers (on less than the Living Wage - 55%), among low-paid workers with children (64%), and among low-paid BAME workers (68%).

The Resolution Foundation has found that the rise in unemployment from the pandemic has hit young workers hardest. Between Q2-Q4 2019 and Q2-Q4 2020, the % unemployed among economically active Black 16-24-year-olds rose from 25 to 34%, and among economically active white 15-24 year olds from 10 to 13%.

Towards workers’ control

Leon Trotsky wrote in 1938: “The abolition of ‘business secrets’ is the first step toward actual control of industry... First and foremost, banks, heavy industry and centralised transport should be placed under an observation glass. The immediate tasks of workers’ control should be to explain the debits and credits of society, beginning with individual business undertakings... to expose the behind-the-scenes deals and swindles of banks and trusts... Only factory committees can bring about real control of production, calling in — as consultants but not as ‘technocrats’ — specialists sincerely devoted to the people: accountants, statisticians, engineers, scientists, etc.”

Karl Marx wrote a questionnaire for a “workers’ inquiry” in France 1880. The preamble argued that the workers “alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes from which they suffer... only they, and not saviours sent by providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills to which they are prey”. “Socialists of all schools... being wishful for social reform, must wish for an exact and positive knowledge of the conditions in which the working class — the class to whom the future belongs — works and moves... Statements of labour’s grievances are the first act which socialist democracy must perform in order to prepare the way for social regeneration”.

Limited inquiries done by socialist activists, Marx explained, could feed agitation to force the French government into official “far-reaching investigation into facts and crimes of capitalist exploitation” such as had been done by Factory Inspectors in England, on whose work Marx drew heavily in Capital.

By the “worker’s diary” column in this newspaper, modelled on a “diary of a steelworker” carried by the US socialist paper The Militant in the 1940s, we try to help workers to see their work conditions as “news”, as products of mutable social relations, and to know about and understand the conditions of workers in industries different from their own.

Another strand of “workers’ inquiry” is regular workplace bulletins, such as the Tubeworker bulletin which Workers’ Liberty Tube workers produce on the London Underground. Such bulletins make “news” out of workers’ weekly-acquired knowledge of the misdeeds and inefficiencies of their bosses, often individually petty but cumulatively heavy. By making that knowledge “news”, the bulletins can share it across different groups of workers, each immediately aware only of their own apparent “bad luck”. They can make it, over time, common knowledge embedded in trade-union and socialist organisation, thus something which be changed as and when workers can change the balance of class power.

The French socialist group Lutte Ouvrière, from whom we have learned a lot about the methods and norms of workplace bulletins, explain that it is vital that bulletins are written from meetings (not just by individual authors), and it is wrong to seek to tag a proposal for action to every bit of such “news”. To claim that “knowledge is power” is not quite accurate. Well-circulated knowledge woven into organisation is the foundation of working-class power. The organising creates the channels of communication to make workers’ individual “bad luck” into collective “news”, and to draw information from the think-tanks and the official reports; bulletins and other channels of communication become, in Lenin’s term, “collective organisers”.

Conditions in flux

There is a strand of socialist politics which, though it has produced some valuable material, tends to make something of a cult of “workers’ inquiry”. Individual accounts of experiences (sometimes quite short) in this or that job are glorified as “workers’ inquiries”, somewhat in a “peering-from-outside”, “wow! see! there’s a worker inquiring!” way, and with little connection to organising.

Yet with government pay-outs, jobs, and work conditions all in flux as the pandemic rolls on and lockdown eases (maybe temporarily? who knows?), inquiring, investigating, generating knowledge, making it collective, will be vital in renewing and rebuilding workers’ organisation.

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