A IWW comrade and researcher asked us questions about our local experiences and thoughts on working class organising…
Q: Do you want to give me a brief description of the group? What are your aims and how do you go about achieving them?
T: We are a collective based in West London, we moved here 5 years ago. We wanted to move to an area that was politically interesting for us, and this area was that because it has lots of workers, there are 80,000 workers around Heathrow airport, then Greenford – where we live – is a smaller area but it’s got lots of warehouses and Park Royal, which is where I currently work, it’s got about 30-40,000 workers. And it’s also a very migrant area. We are a bit on the outskirts of the ‘left’, so we thought we need to pick an area and basically get rooted there and take some responsibility for doing work there. And we also wanted to have some basis for our political work, because we felt that a lot of left- wing groups were doing a lot of campaigning but weren’t necessarily rooted in the class or had any connection to working class people’s lives. So we get jobs in the bigger local workplaces, and try to see if we can organise there.
We don’t have any set strategy for how we do that. We spend the first few months basically finding out what’s going on, talking to people, and seeing how things are operating. And then normally we put out leaflets and flyers about an issue that people are concerned about. And slowly build up a core groups of workers who want to do something. So we have an aim to set up workplace groups. And we also have a Solidarity Network group, where we meet every Monday in 3 local places around here, in a McDonald’s, in an Indian tea shop, and in the Asda café. We put up posters around, saying if anyone’s got a problem with their landlord or their workplace they can drop in. The problem with the solidarity network is that people come, they get something, and then they leave again. Which has always been a problem with solidarity networks. We are aware of that. At the same time because so many people live and work locally, you do try to keep in touch with them and they try and keep in touch with us. And its also a way of linking to other workplaces where we don’t work as people move around from job to job.
And then the third thing is the newspaper, Workers Wild West. The experiences of the Solidarity Network and the workplaces are talked about and discussed in the paper. What can workers learn from other people’s experiences, our own experiences, but also its got political articles in there, about what’s going on, Brexit and nationalism or immigration. And then the fourth thing, is having a bit of an international outlook and making links with international groups or groups doing similar things to us. So we go to meetings, we just got back from Greece and we just had two meetings there with comrades. It’s easy to get stuck to your daily routine and it’s so overwhelming- you become quite local, but actually if the aim is not to share those local experiences to the wider left and the wider class, then it’s not so useful.
S: Obviously organising always happens in a social context, and we have to say something about the wider context otherwise we can’t really address it. You can organise and organise and organise, but there are a lot of things outside of the immediate workplace that impact on the capacity of the class to act, mainly like Brexit, migration issues, the wider political atmosphere. So we try to have a discussion within the left. For example, it’s normally quite split between people who organise and they just do this daily day and continuous work where they are always focused on ‘more’ and ‘more’ organising, without really thinking about how their actions relate to economic crisis, or the general situation of the system. Then you got people who are writing a lot about political issues but don’t really relate it to the problems of day-to-day practice of the class. So we try to encourage doing both, which is difficult sometimes.
Q: So you have this attempt to unite theory and action. And also to use the experiences of action to inform theory and vice versa. Can you describe briefly what the situation is in these workplaces that you have gone into?
S: Yeah, let’s take Sainsbury’s as one example.
T: Generally, they are all low-waged sector jobs.
S: Yeah. They are what is called ‘unskilled’ or ‘low-skilled’ work. Actually 90% migrant workforce, half Eastern European, half Asian. People from Somalia as well, but mainly Eastern Europeans and mainly Asian. In Sainsbury’s distribution centre they distribute to all the small convenience stores in North London. That is done by Wincanton, a transport logistics company that has about 14-15 thousand workers in the UK. In the Greenford distribution centre there are around 500 workers in total. The permanent workers are always employed through Wincanton, but half the workers are through an agency.] They are on 0 hour contracts and only receive about 70% of the wage of the permanents. Half of the permanents are Eastern European and the other half are Nepali or Indian. And the agency workers are mainly Eastern European. They have a pick rate in the warehouse that is connected to your entitlement to shifts or your likelihood to get shifts the next day so…
T: Very competitive atmosphere…
S: Yes. So you have to pick 220 items, roughly, through the scanner. The scanner is a wrist-watch unit which tells you where and how many items you pick – you wear a little scanner tied to your finger. It makes you look like a budget Robocop. It’s just a normal surveillance. You can see your pick rate on the screen, you see the pick rate in a league table on the noticeboard in the briefing room and you get a text message on your mobile phone. If you are on the bottom third of the pick, then it’s likely that your shift gets cancelled. So they always try to have more workers than they need in order to build up that bit of pressure.
T: There is quite a high turnover as well, of agency people. Because it’s also very cold, and the pay is minimum wage, so it’s not much. If people do stay it’s because the incentive is to get a permanent contract. And then you get more money.
S: Yeah, good money. That’s also the problem, because permanents know that, since they are a bit older, they can’t get a warehouse job for that money easily. They would have to go to Amazon and Amazon doesn’t hire and is far away. They get over 10 pound an hour. That means that the difference between permanents and agency is kind of extreme.
T: Quite a lot of workplaces, the differential between temps and permanents is not that big. It’s like, normally the same, maybe there is a few pence difference. But then that similarity is maybe good to bring those workers together.
S: There is a higher turnover of the male workers, because they find something quicker. Female workers tend to stay longer, their English is often not as good. And yeah, we had some meetings, discussions, and we demanded that we have at least 3 guaranteed shifts per week. The point was to reduce the pressure from doing all of this hardcore picking. Later we discussed how to struggle to get the same wage as the permanents. So some people put forward the demand, and the company brought someone from the headquarters of the agency in Birmingham. So they brought managers from Birmingham, they brought all 80 people who worked on that shift in the chiller, individually, to talk to the big boss from Birmingham. So that had 2 effects. One was a positive one, workers saw that they take us seriously, when beforehand they thought that management would just laugh at us. The fact that they got the big bosses from Birmingham shows that we scared them. But on the other hand, it was also intimidating because everyone was in the meetings individually.
There is a union in the warehouse, it’s Unite…
T: And that’s another point, because a lot of the workplaces are low wage sector, I think people assume there are no unions, because it’s unskilled work it’s ‘ununionized’. Actually, in most places, there is a union, but it’s just that they don’t represent the temp workers at all. And it’s arguable if they’re even good for the permanents.
Q: So do you want to talk to me about that a bit more? So what are the unions doing, how do they communicate with their workers, do they care about the temps?
S: Let’s finish the Sainsbury’s story, and then we can talk about the unions in general. Unite in the Sainsbury’s warehouse, had a 2.5% pay increase deal every 2 years for the permanents. We could see that on the noticeboard 40 percent of the permanents voted against, 60% in favour, they know that the wages are already above average so they didn’t do anything. Most of the Unite reps were quality controllers, supervisors. Reps, in general, because they stay longer in the company, also become supervisors or managers. So that’s not uncommon. 70% of reps tend to be also supervisor staff, you know. So we joined Unite as only 2 or 3 agency workers, but they never approached us. Normally you could think, if you were a rep and agency workers join you, you think that ‘oh maybe, we can organise the temps’, but they had no interest whatsoever.
Then we put forward a demand, we tried to have a separate leaflet for the permanent workers and the truck drivers and say ‘this is happening’. We tried to say that ‘you have an interest that the agency workers don’t work for so low wages’, because it’s less likely that they are going to replace permanents with agency staff to save some money. The response was medium. The truck drivers were verbally supportive but nothing more. And then we did a slow down for one day. And the repercussions were that they call all 80 people individually into a room, until people gave names, so 2 of us got sacked. And we tried to get a disciplinary process, investigations, we tried to get representation from Unite, since we were Unite members, and they refused. The union said that we would get in trouble because it was an ‘unofficial industrial action’. Obviously they didn’t say that in writing, but like, we called the Heathrow office, we called all of the local reps in the warehouse, and they were not picking up the phone.
Q: So you went to the disciplinaries on your own?
S: Yeah. It is your legal right to be accompanied by a rep, but the Unite reps did not want to represent us. So, it was clear, from the beginning that they had the chance to sack us, because we were on a zero hour contract and the whole investigation was quite farcical. They did it in the end, a few people snitched, told them names.
T: Actually they went through that firing process by the book. I think that at that stage. They thought that maybe there was another big union behind what we were doing. Because it was inconceivable that we were just doing it ourselves, they thought that there was some big power behind it. So they went through the proper process to sack 2 of us. But then when they sacked me a few weeks later, they realised that there wasn’t a union there, so they didn’t go through any process. I literally just finished my shift and they called me to a meeting unannounced, fired me on the spot, and led me out. There was no process followed.
Q: Surprising for Sainsburys. You expect it from smaller businesses. Did you not try to, because you are also members of the IWW…
T: We weren’t then.
S: And there was a calculated risk. Most people leave the job after 3 or 4 months, we stayed there for 9 months already. And we just thought that we take the risk, we try not to get colleagues that really want to keep the job too involved, just like, ‘listen, keep your head down and work slow’, it was us who went around and told people…
Q: How was the response to this? How easy was it to organise?
T: The only reason it worked really is because mainly it was Polish agency workers. And because we were working with a Polish comrade at the time, she was able to talk to them a lot in Polish. We only had a half-hour break, but she stayed for an hour in the canteen in the few days in the run-up, she just talked to everybody and didn’t care that she was overstaying her break. And she made a point of trying to talk to everyone. It was quite difficult because they weren’t with it. I remember her saying she was talking to people and they said ‘yeah yeah, that’s a good idea’ but then they would also just accept things. So she would be quite critical of them to their face. She’d tell them that ‘oh you’re just all talk’ and, you know, she was not ‘nicey nice’ with them. And I think that kind of relationship, we wouldn’t be able to have. We were in quite a lucky position there. But the thing that ticked the balance was the argument that actually, if they worked slower, they would work longer hours, so they’d end up making more money. This argument is what worked for them.
S: But normally the trucks had to go out at the end of the shift, and if it’s even two hours delay, WIncanton would have to pay a big fine to Sainsbury’s. But then they got the permanent workers to work overtime, and they were happy to do that. So that was a problem. Although they knew that these agency guys are doing a slow-down, they still took the overtime. So that was a bit of a problem.
Q: Do you think that there is any possibility that Unite was happy to see the back of you? That they refused to represent you also because they thought that you were stepping on their turf a little bit?
T: To be honest, I think the main reason was that the reps were just very overworked and were apathetic. I remember when I was being led out of the warehouse, I saw the rep, and I was like ‘they’re sacking me!’. I was being escorted out, and she just didn’t know what to do. She had no idea.
S: Yeah, but they were scared that they would be seen as part, or supporting, unofficial industrial action.
T: Yeah, because they weren’t strong, and they were clueless. I don’t think it was kind of like, a malicious ‘oh we need to keep these people out’. They were just crap.
S: The same, on the other side of the road. There is Waitrose spirits warehouse, and the same agency, different conditions -way worse- and also a different union, USDAW. So it’s like, same logistics company across the road, different union, and no communication between the two. And they have also big wage gap between temp workers and the permanents. The temp agency announced a cut of the overtime bonus. It was a quite unusually high overtime bonus, 1.5, something you normally don’t get any more. They said ‘were going to cut that’, and because one of us was working there, we could react the next morning with a leaflet calling for a boycott of overtime. And then we had a park meeting, 15 people, 10 or 15 people, most of them drunk, and we said ‘no overtime from now on’, so the temp guys did no overtime. And then the USDAW union rep, who is also a bit of a supervisor and trainer, said ‘yeah yeah that’s good, so we pick up the overtime because they have to pay us so much’. So he kind of half-said we cost the company proper money, but what they were actually doing was scabbing because they were picking up the overtime. So they were doing double-shifts, 16 hours, and the union rep was supporting that. But they postponed the cut of the bonus for about two months or something, and then they cut it later. And then they didn’t have enough people for Christmas, so they had to introduce a bonus, an extra payment like, ‘if you do your full 5 days a week you get 60 pound extra’ or something. It was quite a substantial one because like, they felt that, you know, the guys might not work enough before Christmas where everyone wants their spirits.
T: It was the union rep’s largely being middle-managers or supervisors. In my place it’s also that they are related to each other and, yeah, so they…. I don’t know, there is all these kind of rumors about, are they getting paid from the branch- which they are not supposed to get paid if you are just a regular rep- and then they would just get the people that they want or who are related to them, keeping that power amongst themselves.
Q: And these are migrant workers?
Q: So, there is an unofficial connection between the union in that specific branch, the workers in the specific branch, and the communities that make up the workforce.
Q: Many times, in the literature for example, you see this idea of community unionism. That we need to put the communities, make sure that people are involved, that they control what they are doing and stuff like that. But from what you are saying that can also be a little bit counter-productive.
T: Yeah, yeah
Q: So, what sort of problems exist?
S: The main problem in the community is that, many of them, like, at the Sainsbury’s warehouse, the Polish had one manager, the Polish manager, and the Asians had one manager, the Asian manager and they were all talking in their own language. But the reference point was always, ‘we’ve got our own manager here’ or ‘we can get our group something’. It is similar with the union reps as well, they tend to believe ‘we are the spokespeople of that Gujarati’ or…
T: Caste and nepotism can play a role as well, they already have some kind of status or standing, within that community, which maybe means they are more closely related to the temple, or… like one of the guys, he was doing trade-unionism back in Gujarat or whatever, so he’s got experience, so he brings his family members into the rep positions, but then these kind of intra-community hierarchies just keep getting reproduced and not challenged, because from the outside it looks like, ‘oh well they have the same colour, the same interests’. But they don’t.
S: Yeah, the same with the Solidarity Network. In Southhall now, it is this big Punjabi area. Most of the older generation who came in the 60s-70s are often now shop-owners, landlords, managers, bosses. There is a kind of strata that is well established. They often exploit people who just arrived more recently, who have no English. So we have a lot of solidarity network cases where new migrants are paid below the minimum wage, which is not common in England, actually illegal employment is not very frequent, but there it is. And that is obviously covered up by the community. When you attack these bosses, they counterattack by saying ‘this guy betrayed us, he got these outsiders in, he betrayed the community…’
T: And there was an example from a few years ago, with this temple in Wembley. There is a Hindu temple there which is very ornately made, it’s all carved stonework, and they got specialist workers from India to come and do that, and they were employed by the temple for 37p a day or something! One of them eventually approached an external union…they found one construction union who helped them. So I was asking whether the ‘community’ who go to the temple, the local people, were supportive of the workers, because the temple management who were employing them obviously had power and contacts in the community. The union guy said that the workers did get community support but it was also a faction who wanted to take control of the temple, so…. people may support you but they also have their personal and group agendas, you just have to keep a distance from it.
S: On the higher level, you’ve got Ealing council obviously, also a lot of people who come from the 70s movement of Asians, active in anti-racism, and the Labour party became a bit like their career path. I mean that if you establish yourself as a community leader, then you can become a councillor, and right now, they also have a kind of network with all the possibilities attached of corruption. You might find this anywhere but having power in the community helps it, I guess. You can be backed and also defend and say ‘yes, but I am a community leader, if you attack me you attack the community’. So now, it’s negative, largely. And the left is very bad because they are outside this reality, and then with all the anti-racism proclamations they are easily, ‘oh the community this, the community that, the Muslim community’ and all that. That’s completely bollocks, I mean, largely.
Q: One thing I have noticed a lot in your publications is that youtry to promote self-empowerment of people, so like, ‘don’t let the union do it for you, don’t let your leaders, whoever they are do it for you, come and organise’ and stuff like that. What sort of concrete organising methods do you use other than just saying that? And second of all, have you seen any success?
T: So in my factory when I first started, we were putting in leaflets calling for workers to contact us and have a meeting outside work. Because we knew the people didn’t like the union in there, we were like ‘you have to do your own thing, contact us’. Some individuals did contact us, and we met them individually, but it was never that a group of workers would come together and say, ‘alright we want to do something’. There was not much to work with. So that’s the point where we decided to I go into the union and become a rep and try to use this space where people might feel less scared to come together. I mean not that there was much going on within the existing union structure, but because the reps were so inactive, I took the opportunity to do my own thing – so I organised meetings for specific groups of workers, tried to get them to discuss how they could use health and safety rules to put pressure on the managers, things like that.
In the last week though, there has been a group of about 40-60 workers in one department at one site who put in their own (i.e. without help from the union) pay petition and following that, staged a ‘strike’ on bank holiday Monday. We distributed one of our bulletins the week before this happened. Obviously we can’t say that it’s all down to the bulletin, but I think various things have come together: our bulletin is encouraging people to take action themselves; workers see a regular presence of ‘Angry Workers’ outside the factory; the union has an active and militant £1/hr increase pay campaign running; the union has shown itself to be more interested in workers’ involvement over the last year…So I think it’s not a total coincidence that things have gotten ‘hot’ now, the first time workers have ever done something like this in a more self-organised way.
And on a more day-to-day level, if someone comes to me as a union rep with a grievance or something and it’s an issue affecting lots of people, then I will write the letter for them, tell them they should go collect more signatures and then at least they have some ownership of it, and then make sure that at least one or two of them come with me if there is a meeting with management, just to make them feel like, ‘it’s your thing, I’m just helping you to do it’. But I am the only rep that does that, so it will take time to build up that culture.
Q: And is there any other movements, organisations or groups that you work with to promote this sort of empowerment?
T: We are members of IWW and we are reps of them as well. We did an organising drive with them last year, so for 6 months we targeted 10 different workplaces in the area, workplaces that were not already in the union. One of the places was a sandwich factory and they were the most keen, so we had like 3 or 4 meetings with them, and like, 30-40 workers would come to that. Our emphasis was for them to decide what they want to do and the union will support that, we are not going to tell you what to do. It didn’t really lead anywhere in the end though, and now I found out that actually the GMB is recruiting there, and they got like 40-50 members now. This isn’t too surprising though. It’s understandable that these workers would prefer a strong organisation to come in and take more of a leading role. Also because the workers didn’t really trust each other that much, and what we were asking them to do might have seemed like a lot to lay at their door all at once! Because we were asking a lot of them – to start pushing back on the shop-floor; talk to other co-workers; think about whether they wanted to go for recognition and the pros and cons… They had already done a joint petition, lots of people had signed it….
S: They did a walk out, because they weren’t allowed to take an extra break when they were doing overtime, after they had already worked 10 or 11 hours…
T: They all just clocked out at 9pm. So they had done some stuff together but the point was that they didn’t trust each other. They were like ‘oh the Goans won’t do this’ or ‘the Indians won’t do that’, that was very difficult. So, and then we came along saying ‘OK, we could go on strike but we’d need to go through these particular steps, or we could try and do more work-to-rule stuff, which means doing this, or we could fight this particular issue, meaning we would need these documents etc.’ We laid it all out. I don’t know if it was information overload or what. But, yeah, they kind of backed off. And I think it’s quite telling that they have gone to the GMB. And the GMB strategy is to focus more on developing individual people inside the factory on a one-on-one basis.
S: The main problem is that individually, people are in a weak position. You have migration issues for a lot of Asian workers, they have to have £18,600 pound a year that they have to earn in order to bring their spouse over, so they have to depend on overtime, they can’t afford to lose the job. But collectively they have quite a strong position. You look at food processing, warehousing, something like 60% of the food consumed in London goes through this stretch of London. But how do you discover that you have a collective power if you are not using it? Theoretically, maybe the workers know that quite a lot depends on their work, but they don’t really see it. I think the challenge is to get that initial kind of confidence, and do an action and see the result, and then there might be a chain reaction. Because workers here, they have worked in a lot of companies, so people have contacts, they know a lot of people. Where I work, a big warehouse, 1400 people, most of them have worked at Heathrow, a lot of their partners work in the food factory where T works, so it’s like, it’s all there, it’s just waiting to happen.
And if you look at the situation for example in Italy, where it happened, warehouse sector, logistics sector, rank and file union, no paid organisers really, they started with a few hundred, did a lot of individual support work and then got 1 or 2 successful strikes and all of a sudden 30-40 thousand people joined and did one strike after the other. But the way that it happened was that initially you only had a minority of workers inside the warehouse being willing to go on strike, but you had 200-300 supporters outside to blockade the warehouse. That is only possible because of having a strong left. And they also had already a few migrant workers who were on board. So the support, the solidarity network, if it worked properly and gained more capacity, would get you like an initial 50-60 people that you would need in order to support a minority strike, in order to get the ball rolling. But in Italy obviously, the migrants are mainly from Northern Africa, they were inspired by Arab Spring, and there are specific conditions in Italy with the labour law and things. We cant just copy it, but yeah, that would be the idea basically of how we can imagine something like that happening. The thing is, you can’t rely on the blockade, because you get more and more confrontations with the police, you have to get the ball rolling and then inspire workers to say ‘OK, there are so many things that you can do at work to keep on the pressure, now that you have a collective kind of confidence’. And yeah, people do it. ‘Work to rule’, is something that workers use semi-collectively and semi-consciously.
Q: You are advising the possibility of ‘work to rule’ a lot in your publications.
S: Yeah, food hygiene…
T: Because I work in a food factory, there are lots of possibilities of using health and safety to say ‘no, we’re not doing this because it is unsafe’. It can be an effective way of pushing back against increasing workloads, especially when management are always getting you to cut corners to get the food out on time. I have been working there for 2 and a half years and it has taken that long to actually get the small group in our department to start acting together. And I think one of the big problems is that people don’t like telling other co-workers what to do. And, especially if you are all guys, they get really defensive, like ‘you’re not my manager, don’t tell me what to do!’ So it’s very difficult to build up a kind of solidarity and just a set of minimum standards that you will all agree to work to. It takes a long time to do it. 3 of you can decide something and the 1 agency worker that they bring in, that you haven’t spoken to, he scabs or something. People get demoralised because if it doesn’t work straight away, they just think it’s not going to work and they give up. But you just have to keep going, try again and again. It’s taken time but now we are at a point where we use the health and safety rules to say ‘we are not going to do this’. And really the management are at a loss, because they don’t know what to do about it, they aren’t used to it, so they’ve backed off.
Q: So, from your experience, what do you think are the objectives of the big unions in these workplaces? Do they want to actually empower people, or do they just want to go through the motions to feel good about themselves? Why is it necessary for a collective like yourselves to fill the gap when these massive organisations already exist?
T: The main union model is about… well, by organising, they mean recruitment. So there’s very little actual ‘organising’ training, when they train you as a rep. I mean, there’s nothing about how do you build collectivity at work. It’s all about how you sell the union to get members. So that’s a model from the States that has been taken on wholesale by unions over here. There might be individual organisers, paid officials, who are more militant and they understand how to run campaigns, and to do that you need to involve your members. But lots of reps haven’t got a clue, they couldn’t organise their way out of a paper bag. But, generally, they have targets and their targets are about membership and getting recognition, so that is what they focus on.
S: Where I work, a big retail chain, it is a bit of a specific case because they got a partnership agreement. And, then, if you see it only from outside you will say ‘ok, these unions just want to be, you know, close to management, that is why they signed that’. There is no collective bargaining as such, it’s all done through a forum, 12 people decide what they pay deal of 200 thousand members. Can’t really vote on it, and you can’t go on strike. But they say that a lot of shopworkers in the stores are part-time students so ‘if we send out a ballot paper to vote on the pay deal, we will only get 10 percent of the papers back’. And then they say ‘this will look really weak’. So the company said ‘what do you want’, and we were forced into this partnership agreement, to just get the recognition. Obviously you could have had regular meetings in the store and voting in the store. That would get more than 10%, but the situation is that most of the union votes to implement the policy that the company already has, with some improvements, they help a lot with training, the company does a lot of ‘mental health week’, ‘financial health week’, ‘child care week’, and then the union can do their bit.
And the union basically does a bit of human resource management. The company allow them to do the induction, everyone has to sign a lot of papers anyway, the union guy comes in and is like ‘oh, it’s good to be in the union’, and their main argument, because they don’t have anything positive to say like ‘we need strong collective bargaining’ kinda position, ‘we might have to go on strike’, is that ‘you have to be in the union because of disciplinaries, you need a rep’. So they only have a negative motivation. And that is why they also depend on disciplinaries. So the boss, company management and union are happy with the disciplinary regime. Because management keeps the union busy, and the union can say ‘we do something for you guys, because they do a lot of disciplinaries here’. So that’s your only chance to get people in the union. It’s the fear. And that is how they operate and they get like, quite a lot of members. I mean it has gone down because they did some bad deals, but in the last kind of 2-3 years, membership fell from about 55% of 1400 to now 46%, so that’s quite a reduction. And yeah, people leave because of the bad pay deals, but they stay because, you know, you might need a rep during your disciplinary. As a rep you are caught between wanting to help individual colleagues and thereby betting to know them better on one side – and giving legitimacy to this disciplinary process by making it look like a court hearing, with you playing the lawyer. You really end up disguising that in the end it is all about power and that the whole process is a farce.
Q: So this connects to something else we briefly discussed outside the warehouses. You said that the unions only sell fear, not anything transformative. And this connects to something that I have experienced a lot in work and other people have experienced a lot, this idea of capitalist realism, to use a succinct phrase, where people don’t imagine something different. Do you see this in your workplaces, and if you see this, is there any way we can challenge this?
T: So yeah, our union got recognition about 10-12 years ago. And since then, the only wage increase that they’ve got is 10p more than the minimum wage. So there’s been all that time where the union has been ineffective, they haven’t engaged their members, they haven’t balloted for a strike or even done an indicative strike ballot, so I think that’s the background against which people feel there’s no alternative. But this can change quite fast. Since I’ve been there, some new people in the union have challenged the union election results that were rigged, the union has organised street protests outside the factory against something management has done, workers have rejected pay offers for being too low, and there’s now a pay campaign about asking for £1/hr more for all workers. More people are saying: ’we can win this pound’, ‘we can do it’, which is challenging this long-standing mindset of ‘nothing will change, nobody will do anything.’ It’s fair enough to have to prove yourself after the union has been rubbish for so long.
At the same time, the situation also needs the workers to be pushing the union to be doing something and getting more involved. I think these past bad union experiences, plus the fact that they are scared because of the general social situation and culture of fear and bullying inside the factory, mean they don’t want to do anything, they lack the energy. All of these things combine so that they kind of sit back. It is easy to blame the union, but at the same time if you had an angry workforce that was pushing the union, or if they were doing their own thing, you would have a different dynamic. The recent ‘strike’ action on the bank holiday shows that things have shifted slightly. For this small group of workers, at least the possibility to do something has emerged. The question now is how to build on this.
Q: So this is like, everybody is angry. But it’s mostly confined to the private sphere, you come home, you vent, you go back to work the next day.
T: Actually at my workplace, everyone is angry all the time. This is why there is a lot of bullying and stress, because I mean, that anger, it’s every day. And people don’t actually recognise it as stress, you know. They are swearing at each other, it’s really impolite, and that’s the general culture. But people wouldn’t necessarily say ‘this is a stressful workplace’ and relate to actually how the work is organised.
Q: Yes. So, a very hypothetical question, but how do you create, or would it be possible to create this leap from, dealing with your situation personally to making the connections and dealing with it collectively?
S: The avenue of the union is blocked, because formally you can’t do anything. They just do campaigning and they let you sign the petition and these kind of things. So it would be, discussion about work to rule, saying ‘ok, we put something forward to management in whatever form’, pay demands and such. Theoretically management can decide to pay us market supplement, which means that they can pay a bit more if they can’t recruit enough people, so, they could do that. Outside of the collective agreement that they have with the union, they could pay more. You have to have some discussions. Work to rule…
T: It would require a lot of discipline and organisation. In many workplaces that doesn’t exist. I think before then you have to at least get people together. When we hold meetings, people don’t come. But those meetings are important. I organised a meeting for the cleaners, who were on the lowest paygrade, and they were very pissed off about the last pay deal. So I did a meeting specifically for them, because it was possible for them to use health and safety a lot in what they do, they use chemicals, and they need special training. They did come for the first couple of meetings, but then they all kind of faded away. I mean, the point is, if you organise meetings you have to keep doing it and hopefully new people will come or you will get some kind of new energy from somewhere. And don’t give up on that. It is a good space for discussion. And people feel like they are affecting the trajectory of the union and union decisions.
And the social element is also one of the biggest things. The company will always do a yearly coach trip to the beach. Because a lot of these workers, they never go to the beach, lots don’t own a car, so to take their family on a day out is a big thing. And the company puts that on and everyone really loves it. The union hasn’t done that, so this year I want to organise a fun day, for people to see the local parks and people can bring their kids, and then hopefully more women will come because they can bring their kids to something. But it’s not like, ‘this is a union thing and we are discussing union matters’, it’s more just a kind of soft approach to kind of make people feel like they are in a union, and then maybe they will come to a meetings. You really have to start from scratch. The other thing you could do is maybe go into the temples and stuff, but we don’t wanna do that.
Q: So why don’t you wanna do that? It’s not a critical question, mostly just for information. Because like, in America they do it a lot, they go to religious organisations and try to work together and stuff.
T: Maybe it is a kind of prejudice, isn’t it? Abviously you get problems about, religious divisions amongst people. But also it is like, a lot of the…
S: It isn’t a social space…
T: It is!
S: You don’t sit around, chat…
T: You do! Of course you do, there is nothing else to do there… apart from pray. Cause you know, you eat there, it’s like, the women will cook there, there are women’s committees that are on the management board of the temple. There is a committee that runs the temple, and you get groups of women together doing that. Um, so it is a social space, but we are not religious, it would be a bit weird to just go there and pretend to be religious.
Q: It’s not about pretending. The way that it’s done, for example I told to S before about the workers centers in the US. It’s about collectives that have risen and risen until they have their own space, and so then is the issue of ‘how do we access immigrant workers’. So basically they are acting like a union but without being a union, and they sometimes go to churches of Latin American immigrants, and try to organize, help with labour issues etc. And then the pastors, whatever they are called, they present this alternative. So you have solidarities that develop outside of the strictly…
S: Yeah but I mean, they are not like, stupid. They like to be the managers of the flock.
Q: Of course, of course….
S: We know it from strikes in India, where these kind of local village council, the union also approached them, but they also like the companies, so they always kind of become the manager of the strike. Same thing with Sri Lankan pub workers in Paris, late 90s. They got some of the Sri Lankan religious leaders in them. They became unofficial strike leaders. They just wanted to kind of cement their own power in the community. So you can’t instrumentalise them very easily. If you use their space, they only let you do that at a high cost. We never tried this, it’s the same with going into the union. We are very critical of the unions and kind of, you can only do as much as your union boss allows you. Temple or church might be good to meet people maybe, but to address the hierarchy of the religion, to say ‘can you mobilise your people towards that aim’, I think it’s…
T: But maybe it would be, on a level below that, it could be, ‘could you just give us ten minutes at the end of your sermon to basically talk about what we are doing’, because it’s like, mainly people are religious. I mean, the Goans are very Christian and they will go to church every Sunday, and the Hindus, they love going. So maybe there could be a way of doing it where we are not just going through the priest or whatever.
Q: I understand that you are very cautious to giving a platform to the reproduction of already existing hierarchies…
S: Same thing with even IWW kind of stuff, you can talk something about this ‘organic leaders’, I mean that…
T: Yeah there is this Jane MacAlevey book, ‘Organising for Power’, she’s doing a critique of union organising in the last 50 years. And saying how this community organising model is very flawed. And that there, the trajectory of the unions has been quite on a more kind of campaigning side of things, more media focused rather than ‘deep organising’. Part of this deep organising model, we would agree with, is that she really emphasises this thing about having organic leaders. Which she says are not necessarily the most vocal people, and they usually the most resistant to join the union but once you bring them in, they bring everyone else. That is useful to have if you are an outsider, if you are doing cold organising like we did in that sandwich factory, we did rely on 2 or 3 of the more vocal workers. The people listen to them. We don’t work there, we don’t know what is going on really. But yeah, on the other hand when you work there you know that a lot of these so called leaders are also close to management, they become the middle men, they speak both languages, they represent, people rely on them, it’s more like a slow process of corruption.
S: But they are also patriarchal figures, and people don’t listen to them just because they are so charismatic, but also because maybe they can get you a better job in a different department, or maybe they can get you a loan from, I don’t know, some community charity…
T: Or get you your holiday…
S: Yeah, that’s also very short sighted but you know, widespread, this idea of organic leaders.
T: Yeah, because if you got loads of workers who just want someone to do something for them, it is not helpful that you are reproducing that by saying ‘we need to focus on these leaders’ who we just need to follow. Obviously long-term you can say that creates its own dynamic and once people see that something can change then more people might get more confident or whatever…
S: But the problem is also that the left is short-sighted. They don’t see how bigger strikes happen historically. Then, because they think ‘it can only happen if you do a lot of step- by- step organising’, they don’t see that a lot of things happen in big leaps. By having this kind of idea that it can only happen by small steps, you put some stones in the way of the next big leap. If you base your organising on these kind of organic leaders and community middle men, you think ‘yeah, we get one more person or two more people’. But you put them in the way of something that can come more organically and collectively, maybe what people call spontaneously. The left often helps to, basically, put up new barriers that seem in their little view like, ‘ok, these are small steps towards organising’, but in the long run they just become big stones that an actual spontaneous strike would just trip over. So, in that sense, you have to see everything in the long perspective. Do you create new illusions, say ‘yeah we can get this kind of councilor involved, or this kind of media person involved’? And on the small level that you are organising, ‘these workers are too scared’, its good to get like, John McDonnell or some kind of Labour Party person coming to speak since it gives them courage, but in the long run you just create another illusion. And you create barriers in the future. So, I think you have to bear that in mind when you are organising. It’s not like, everything that is instrumental in your next step is politically the right thing to do. You have to have a longer perspective.
Q: And there is like, organic leaders in that sense, for example, in the food factory the GMB reps have come from within the community but that doesn’t mean that they are actually helping the struggle…
T: Yeah, they definitely are not. Actively not helping.
Q: They are actively not helping. So you believe they want to maintain the situation as it is and the balance of power as it is.
T: Because they have to be seen to be controlling the workers, I mean, when there is some kind of spontaneous eruption or whatever, I have seen it, they take the people to the side and talk them down.
Q: Can you talk a bit more about that? This is obviously very important.
T: Yeah, there was a case where 3 ladies were moved from one department to another, which is quite a big deal because they were working for like 10 years in one department. You know everyone, and then to just be moved from one day to the next is really horrifying. And the management didn’t go through any process, didn’t involve the union. So the women were really pissed off, and they wanted to do something and kick up a fuss, but, I remember seeing them shouting and having a go at the main shop steward. He’s basically saying ‘I’ll sort it out for you, but you just need to calm down and let the union sort it out’. But it is also a way of deferring action, the reps often have no clue what to do, so they just say, ‘leave it with me.’ And workers are kept waiting around, expecting things to get fixed behind closed doors, but then getting frustrated that nothing is happening and then they cancel their membership.
When there were rumors of a walkout after two workers were suspended, the management approached the union, asking them to participate in the management briefing to condemn such action. In the past, I think the union would have done this, which is why management felt confident to ask. This time though, the union apparently refused. There are cases where diffusing the situation is important though, namely if there is a big chance of workers getting sacked which would cause demoralisation amongst all workers.
Q: There is also, another thing you said before, about how they are used to discipline the workers. How the union can play a dual function, not only of disciplining the workers, but also through these networks that have already developed, to discipline the migrants as migrants. How do you target that? OK, when I started this research, it was about barriers to migrant unionisation, because I was working in Bradford, and in Bradford, there are no unions in these places. Then I went to Glasgow and I was like ‘OK, it’s a bit more complex than that, but still overwhelmingly these places are completely un-unionised’. Now I’m seeing the situation here and I’m talking to you guys and it’s like, ‘OK, actually unionisation doesn’t mean that much if it isn’t effective’.
T: I think, in the process of getting union recognition, this is where, if you get it right, it saves you lots of problems down the road. It’s difficult, because in order to get you your recognition, you need like 3 or 4 militant workers, who will somehow lead that effort, take on more responsibility and galvanise other workers until you get a critical mass. But if those 4 people end up getting a union position, they get sent to this training, that training, spend less and less time doing their actual job, management offers you a promotion and the gap between you and regular workers gets bigger and bigger.
Q: So it is pretty interesting, the validity of what Bakunin said that even just a little bit of power will make you start thinking about how to maintain it rather than actually change things…
S: Unless you form a Slavic country…
Q: what happens if you from a Slavic country?
S: you are blessed! You from a Slavic nation…
Q: Hahahaha! Oh yes, yeah, that was when he was young though, that was when he was young. But obviously that’s a different story.
S: But about the leaders, you have to imagine a situation that you might find in other countries, you might find in history, when the working class was more on the offensive. At the moment it seems like we need these leaders because workers are so poor and victimised. But as soon as you have a strong movement going on, the first thing that management wants is someone to talk to, some leaders, someone that they can buy, they can crush, someone they can put into prison or put into a nice position, give them money, whatever. Just because our situation is so pathetic, we don’t want to support in the minds of workers that ‘you need leaders’, or ‘you need this kind of things’, because that is the tool of management. At the moment, it would be so good if you have these 3 women who would magically bring everyone with them, but like, you want to avoid that, and you want to undo this leadership. So, we find that if you look at any situation, in India for example -because there are a lot of wildcat strikes, because there are a lot of workers that aren’t represented by unions- anytime that someone goes on offence, management wants to bring the union in. So obviously you can just hide the situation.
We find ourselves in a difficult situation, obviously we come from a left communist tradition that is very critical of unions, we can find ourselves being union reps, but it is always a double strategy. You say ‘ok, workers, tell the union this is what you want to do’. If they don’t do it you have to do it yourself. So basically just keep your independence and just say, ‘ok, the union is still a social base, it is a formal representation’, and prepare the workers that at some point they will have to go a step ahead, prepare them already. That is how we deal with it.
T: It is also this balance, you need to set out what the illusions are, without being too pessimistic and negative. You want to encourage people, make them confident, feel optimistic and stuff. This is why it’s difficult, for example with the Adelie workers, we were trying to get this balance right. But I don’t think we managed in the end because they lost interest. Maybe we took things too fast, maybe we started about strikes too soon, maybe we set it all out too early, and it’s a difficult picture to get your head around.
Q: Based on your organising experience, what are the barriers to migrant empowerment? Obviously it is a very general question. Now it emerges that one key barrier is actually the unions. At least, in this situation. I am interested in, concrete things that are changeable through organising that we can slowly start targeting to unpick the layers and layers and layers of difficulties.
S: Get independence from all these middle class elements of the community. The bosses, the…. Obviously there is a material dependency, who gets you the job, who gets the job for your relative, this kind of thing, but get in a position to say that they are also part of the problem.
T: How would you relay that message?
S: For example, say that, these people, they help you, but they do that with a certain class interest. Yes they get your cousin a job, maybe, if your cousin doesn’t speak English, but they also make him work 50 hours, below the minimum wage. Otherwise, just don’t insist on the ‘migrant’ status. Sometimes, it poses a concrete problem, but it shouldn’t be an identity. It has many problems. Language, status, access to benefits, all these you should address these concrete conditions rather than saying ‘oh yeah, you are migrant’. Who cares? It is not the main thing. Same as any kind of background. Address the concrete issues rather than making it a category of workers. Same as agency workers. I would never say ‘ok, let’s organise as agency workers’. I would say ‘let’s organise as part of a workforce that has specific problems’, rather than saying ‘we are the agency workers’, ‘we are the cleaners’, because that’s quick like that, people try to use the special category…
T: To basically get a bit ahead of another category. So basically these cleaners, their whole argument was, ‘we should earn more money, we shouldn’t be on the base rate like the assembly line women, we work harder than them’. But it’s like, no! What kind of argument is that?? You don’t work harder then them, that’s a completely subjective point. At the same time, there’s an argument to be made for getting groups of workers doing the same job together so that they can discuss the specifics of their jobs and how to use the health and safety rules that apply specifically to them in order to put pressure on the boss. But obviously workers have to come together to bring pressure to bear from all departments, all fronts.
Q: When I started this research, I used the link ‘migrant workers’ because that was my experience. And then as I went and moved to Glasgow, I went to like 5 different places, I started noticing that in Bradford, the migrant thing might play a very big role, because there were very very strict distinctions. In Glasgow it’s more like, everyone is on top of one another and Scottish people are as precarious as migrants. But I would say that, in terms of the thing that T was saying, concrete conditions are crucial. Even though people are struggling as components of the same system, this economic system is designed to some extent in a way that makes it depend on migrant labour. With a lot of interfeeding factors, so, for example, the stereotype of the Polish plumber. People are pushed to certain jobs, then these jobs become associated with the populations performing them. At the same time, , legislation says that these jobs are low waged jobs and so they can maintain profitability and competitiveness, it’s like a cycle. So what I am trying to get at, is, how do you find, this is a pretty important question for the movement in general to answer, how do you find this balance between actually targeting concrete conditions- the reason that I am focusing on this part of the issue, ‘migrant workers’, is because I think as a movement we can create a lot of damage to the system in general if we organise workers in this specific sort of occupations- how do you maintain that balance of not being exclusive or, not falling into the trap of identity politics, but still addressing structural features of the system? Features that rely on migrant labour?
T: I.e.’ how do you deal with concrete situations where migrants are in a structurally weaker position in general in the labour market, and the fact that you don’t want to do it as a sort of identity issue’?
S: You would have to address local work. I mean, explain the situation. A lot of migrant workers who arrive here, be that from Poland, they don’t know the history of working class struggles here, they don’t know about struggles of Asian workers, maybe they don’t know the colonial past, there is a lot of things that come into the situation, they also don’t know how they are used by the bosses. And just kind of explain, this is the history, this is the context you are in. For example, when they sent these Polish agency workers into Gate Gourmet, you should have said ‘alright, you can shout ‘scabs’ at them’, but you can also say, ‘you guys come into these situation with these women from Punjab, this is the airline, this is the big picture and this is you, and you were just recruited from Poland, and that is the situation you are in, and obviously you have got your specific situation’, you would have to explain that to the local workers here- so these guys come from this country, it has been shafted over the last years, unemployment is so high, obviously they would work here for 7 euro’.
But that wouldn’t undo the clash of material situation. You say, ‘OK, in the long run, what are the commonalities’, what would be a common aim, and, you know, try to see a bit further down the road. How can you create a unity, but not just by saying ‘despite everything just unite’, because obviously there are different platforms, different positions. So the left would have to play that kind of role. And then, say like ‘OK, if you are in a weaker position, what does it mean? OK, you can’t go on strike because you don’t have the resources. OK , you have to take care of that’. You can’t expect everyone to take the same step. If you are established, you have a house, you don’t have to pay rent, you’ve lived here for 20 years, OK you can talk louder about striking for 2 weeks. If you just arrived, you spent 1000 euro to come here, in debt to the agency, you wouldn’t do that. So having an inquiry, research into the concrete situation and then say, OK, we have to address these material differences in order to create equal footing. A lot of things are in the way of that because the left operates with a lot of moral categories, but not really with inquiries into the material. They focus a lot on an ideology, rather than material research. It is fairly easy to shout ‘no borders‘, but much more difficult to actively try overcoming the problems and barriers – and unearth the potentials – that each wave of migration creates for local class struggle.
T: In the first meeting the new union organiser had with management, he called them ‘racist’ because they had said they were no longer going to speak to the incumbent union organiser (who was Indian). The real reason the relationship broke down was that this union guy was an aggressive bully who it was impossible to have a discussion with. Unfortunately, he also behaves this way to other union members and union reps. The new union guy started talking about racism because he wanted to make a bold first impression on management. The workers really liked liked that though, when he was labelling management as racist, because they could understand that, like, yeah, ‘they are racist, they are treating us badly because they are racist’. It’s an idea people instantly relate to. But it wasn’t the truth. So yeah, it was a quick win – workers were happy because they could channel their anger against the white management, and the management were put on the back foot. But the longer-term consequences are that the incumbent rep still gets to behave like a bully to everyone, he still has his job, the union haven’t let him go. And also, it puts forward a simplified version of events, you know. It’s patronising to workers. If you are actually gonna talk honestly with workers about what is going on, you can’t take that easy route.
Q: Yeah. In terms of the other thing that I mentioned, about migrant labour being used by the system. In these occupations you can broadly call them members of the working class, meaning like warehouse work, precarious work, whatever. Even if somebody was from a middle class background but has ended up in these jobs, for the purposes of this discussion, you know. However, you have a specific economic system that relies on a combination of like, material needs, legislation, stereotypes, as time passes people are associated with the occupations that they do, so you send them to that place, you send the other population to the other place, and the system relies on that to maintain profits. So how do you challenge that without invoking the migrant identity as the main, sort of, criterion? You have to do a lot of political education obviously, but like…
S: I mean, OK. There is one thing you can say that ‘there is racism’ where people just identify you by your skin color. Then there is institutional things, where you have a different passport so you get a different access to labour market or to flats or to benefits, ok. With this kind of idea of the ‘migrant’, all kind of things are bound up that not all migrants fit inside. There are some migrants that don’t look different, some migrants have been here for 15 years, they have the same status as British, and access to benefits. It’s a difficult category. I would say like, look at concrete situations, as I said here, a lot of the Asian community, would we still call them migrants if they are born here? Maybe, migrant background, but obviously they are often part of the exploiting class, so does it help if you call them? Migrants? I don’t know.
You have to address the concrete problems. Now, post Brexit, you will have another layer of unskilled workers coming in, getting maybe only 1 year work visa, no access to benefits, and you have to already tell people now that ‘oh you might think that’s really good because these guys want to take your benefits’ and things but, I mean, you might say to local people ‘listen’, the politicians tell the local people that yes, ‘there will still be migration, but we will only take those people that we really need and we won’t give them benefits’. But then you would have to say ‘yeah, but these guys will be even more under pressure to take any job and that will actually lower wages because they feel like they have to accept the new job without benefits as a backup’, so you have to find this special category. But that is very clearly defined as legal category.
Q: OK. That’s very interesting, and I would argue that what maintains the system in the US for example, is more whiteness as a category that allows people to split themselves, to identify as something different, and side with the oppressive mechanisms, perhaps more so than racism. Racism and whiteness are very connected to the system. So it is still something that needs to be targeted. But we can have a debate on that.
S: [inaudible] a lot of local white people who are working class, think that everyone has a community, the Muslim community, obviously they are also targeted but they also have support, there is Black Lives Matter, they have a community, and they think ‘just we don’t have a community’. This kind of idea is a defensive kind of situation, but if it is not addressed then it’s a problem. Actually, a poor white American, now they talk about opiate crisis, things, but it mainly addresses all these backward people. So it’s like, if you operate there, they also want to operate with this ‘community’ type of…. ‘we are also a special category’ or something, ‘represent us’, because communities always got representation and they will find right wing representation, because, obviously, the left, is also stuck in the community box but they don’t want to represent them because is an ugly community, so is kind of…
Q: OK, I have two more questions, and then, yeah, if you want to add something, I allow you [laughing]. So one of the things that is talked about a lot in like, radical academia and radical theory, and is one of the most hotly debated concepts is the concept of precarity. Everybody throws it around, it has given a lot of people jobs and a lot of people money. What is your analysis of that? What is precarity? If you care to answer, if you don’t, it’s completely fine. I’m asking people because everyone writes about it but nobody asks the people on the ground, doing the organising, about how they feel about it, you know?
T: It can mean lots of different things, doesn’t it? I think when people think about precarious worker organising, they think of agency or zero-hours workers, and it is more difficult to organise because these people are more transient and… it comes with its own problems. But in my work people feel precarious because even though they have a permanent contract they have worked for less than 2 years and they could be sacked. You could be working there for over 2 years but you still feel like you are in a precarious position, because you have to earn a certain amount of money to bring you kid over or your husband over. Precarity ends up not meaning much unless you are more specific about what you mean by it.
S: I would say that is a smokescreen that is mainly used by outsiders where you focus on the contractual side of things, whereas I would always focus on where you are situated in work process. For example, take Heathrow, obviously you have a lot of precarious work at Heathrow, but the potential from workers’ power point of view, not individual conditions, precarity means…. You want to solve something and give it a bit more stable kind of conditions. You focus on, kind of, the legal deficiencies or something, so your solutions are, ‘if the individual had a bit better contract’, but that is not our interest. The interest is workers’ power. And then you look like, you can have a zero hour contract in a vegan bakery and you think like ‘OK, is that the same category of work as a zero hours worker who is a baggage handler at Heathrow’? I would say it doesn’t make sense. Only if you say that both situations require the same type of organising because they focus on precarity you would say ‘please, give us both, we are victims’. So I would say that the main focus is always on how you cooperate with these other workers. And if you are a precarious baggage handler at Heathrow, then you cooperate with British Airways staff who have much better pay but who need your work, you cooperate with thousands of others of all kind of categories and you should take that cooperation as starting point of organisation and not the individual contract, because that leads you only so far. It is already integrated, it is not a form or prospect of organising that can lead to massification. At the same time, obviously, these are concrete….
T: It is such a big term that it can encompass anything from that to that….
S: Still, to describe the tendency in the class, contractual relations describe a power relation in the end. Say ‘OK, why do these conditions exist’? But is also the weakness to a certain degree of a system. The system cannot offer you pension, stable future, they know that their own system is in crisis. They can’t really plan your future for you for the next 40 years. So we can also say that there is a chance, because the worker will be less attached to a specific company. Not like ‘yeah I am a British Airway worker with special entitlements’, but ‘I am just a worker, I don’t have professional pride, I got no prospects’. That is more radical than all these kind of ‘I am attached to my stable future in this company’ mentalities. The left is always looking for victims.
T: I find you like immiseration theory [laughs]
S: No, this is massification theory! It’s just saying, that isa normal working class conditions, it’s saying that all we have from the 60s…
T: You are almost happy that everyone is becoming more precarious [laughs]
S: No, no, but it is the system. You shouldn’t make the system stronger than it is. It’s not like they just put us in precarity because, you know…
T: We’re all victims….
S: Yeah. But up until relatively recently, this was the normal condition. It changed in the 60s-80s, when full employment became an actual possibility that people strived for, when the economy became more stable in general, but that is not the normal proletarian reality. By labelling something as ‘precarious’, you are making it an exception, which it is not, it is the normal proletarian condition.
T: Maybe it came into existence when suddenly middle class became declassified, and suddenly teachers were not in a job for life, or university lecturers, and suddenly everyone loved precarity.
S: Yeah, I mean…
Q: I broadly agree with what you are saying. However, there is some radical theorists espousing the concept who say that the onslaught or the reimergence of precarity as opposed to Fordist security, presents opportunities… For example we were in a Mayday march in Leeds some years ago, and I was standing with a bloc that had a banner that said ‘Workers against Work’, and we got attacked by some old miners, because ‘how dare you say that, I am proud of my….’. And we were explaining, ‘are you proud for having fucked your lungs up?’, you know, but it wasn’t about that. So right now, the opportunities presented by ‘precarity’ is that there is a de-identification with the jobs, as you said before. Do you actually see that in your organising?
S: Yeah, maybe a bit. No one gives a fuck, but it’s not always good, is it?
T: I feel like people do want to be proud of their jobs, you know, it’s crap to spend all day on the assembly line, getting cramp or a bad back or whatever, and then you see half the stuff you’re making falling on the floor! Or you see, it’s so badly made that they’re going to chuck it, they’ll have cooked it, packaged it and then they’ll chuck it in the bin. And people vocalise that on the line, like ‘what, this is totally pointless’, what we’re doing. And then you either become more demoralised, or that anger spurs you to do something. But, as you can see, not a massive amount is happening generally. It is tending more towards demoralisation, but obviously it doesn’t always have to be that way and things can change quickly.
S: On one hand, in the 60s, they expressed a widespread feeling amongst the working class, all of this assembly line work, ‘there is nothing to identify with, it’s not something that you like doing, it’s not something that you would like to self-manage, the product you produce is just a car part’. I mean that they gave you a bit of freedom but in general a lot of stuff they produced, they didn’t identify with. So to say like, ‘fuck work’, it was a widespread collective feeling, and it was maybe more radical than the previous generation. But in general, young workers wanted to leave all of that, that life. And it wasn’t like previous skilled workers who thought simply ‘self management of the railway or construction’. Locomotives and you know, machines, they had specific skills and had an idea that work can be quite nice. But at the same time if you think about workers as not just being a mass of people who are nihilistic and say like ‘fuck all this’, but think like, ‘we are the producers in the end’. I mean, we have a shit wage but we produce everything from this table to…. And if we want to think about a different society, obviously the question is, it won’t just come out of thin air. It has something to do with the way we produce now. Some people, these kind of nihilistic, super-radicals say ‘oh completely break capitalism, there is nothing to do, the new system must be completely different’. I mean yeah, it has to be different but it still has to be based on, you know,
T: We have to produce what we need to live!
S: Yeah. Somewhere on the level of productivity that we have reached. A lot has to be modified and changed, but like… so to say, yeah, to kind of have this, this, it is quite an intellectual abstraction ‘fuck work’. Yeah fuck work, but…
T: Yeah, but it’s interesting that the miner said that, because, it also comes in the context where a lot of old people are saying ‘oh young people are just wimps, they don’t do anything anyway, we were doing all the work, and now they are just floating around, like, doing these media/computer things….’ So probably that has some part in their reaction.
S: They thought the same thing about the unskilled workers of the 60s, they called it ‘mickey mouse workers, you don’t know anything’.
T: That was more in context of ‘you’re never going to organise, because you are not skilled’.
S: I think it is important to talk to workers about their specific work, not just saying ‘it’s all crap’. Working for example making ready meals, is this good or bad? You don’t want to glorify sitting in your kitchen doing your every meal for you and your partner and your children, that is the basis of, kind of, a lot of bullshit.
Q: Yeah, nuclear family etc.
S: Yeah. Same time, you know, to have a hundred people producing food for 5000, yeah maybe not a bad idea, if it is not always the same 100 and if it isn’t done on an assembly line. But we have to think about, ‘OK, how do we socialise how we make food’, you know.
T: My experience is that the general drive of people is that they want to do a good job. They are not going in thinking ‘ah, this is crap, what I’m doing is crap’. You can’t last like that. And the frustration comes at the point where you can’t do a good job, despite your efforts, because you haven’t got the right tools, everything is falling apart, you don’t have enough people, and then people get stressed and take it out on other people. The initial compulsion though is: ‘I want to do a decent job, but can’t because of reasons beyond my control.’
S: There would be a strong criticism to make, because it is not external. To say like, ‘OK, management also says we are supposed to do a good job, quality and all that, but their own system of maximising productivity doesn’t work’. That is a concrete contradiction. If you talk about contradictions and class consciousness, these are contradictions that are, they are experiences, they are concrete, you don’t have to read a lot of books to understand quite fundamental contradictions of the system. So… in that sense, yeah, it’s important.
Q: But there is also a contradiction from the other side. To go back to the example of the banner, what we were meaning, I realise now that it was short sighted and not politically mature, but what I guess the people who made the banner were meaning was ‘We are workers and we are against alienating labour’.
T: Yeah. But that would have been a way longer banner [laughs]
S: Then the miner wouldn’t have said anything because they wouldn’t have an issue!
Q: Yeah, but, now, you have a sort of idea where many workers…. It is a contradiction, now alienating labour has been made worst by the experience of insecurity, compared to Fordism, to such an extent that some people actually want it. So for example, I remember a warehouse I was at. That permanent contract was like, you know, like a child that sees a huge ice cream from far away. You are going towards this golden, mythical goal. And it is much harder to organise against that, because if you are talking about the permanent workers, they have made so much effort to reach that status.
S: Yeah, people run after these kind of badges and whatever. Yeah, permanent might mean you are on 30% more. I can understand why people think, ‘ok, for a year or 8 months I just work very hard, don’t go sick, and then I’ve got a permanent job and earn 30% more’. For someone who just arrived from a country, that is a proper career step.
T: But on the flipside, you have people who have started as agency, they’ve been agency for like 3 years, and they don’t want a permanent contract now. They’re scared of being tied down, not having the chance to take a month long holiday to visit family back home. It has changed their relationship to work in that sense, they feel more acutely aware of the restrictions that work imposes on life.
S: But in general, who is dominating the discourse about work? It’s mainly intellectuals. And then you have, anti-worker type of discourse of the 80s. And then deindustrialisation. Then you have automation debate. Basically, the amount of just manual normal labour that is still being done is completely sidelined by modern debate. Even in the Left, they say ‘why should we talk about it, we will be automated anyway’. That’s bollocks. Just from capitalist dynamics, the investment rates are very low, they don’t invest into machinery. At the moment, why is there a crisis in full employment, nearly? Because they rather invest in £8 an hour workforce that they can get rid of rather than having expensive machines. So, if you, we did one pamphlet were we looked at, we called it ‘essential work’ in the sense that, something that produces services or goods that are somehow, keep us alive. And you can question it, whether we need certain things, products, but there are still about 14 million people in the UK who produce newspapers, or are nurses. Obviously a lot of them are not steel workers as such, but they are industrial manual labour. And that is not reflected in the left, and I would say, obviously a lot of ideas still come from academia, but the real knowledge that is there, to say ‘OK, we not only protest and ask for a different democracy, but we actually change things’, that will come from these 14 million people who do that every day. And they are not part of the discussion. Also, when it comes to climate change, it’s all like regulation, the state. At the moment, the debate is really like, either it’s experts and entrepreneurs, these kind of young green kind of people with clever ideas, or it’s the state do the regulation, but it’s not like….
T: Well apart from the minicab drivers, which is quite interesting, you know these people who are subject to this £12 charge to work within London. If they have a Diesel. It displays this tension between like, the Left position is obviously pro-environment, they don’t really know what to do with this. And I was speaking with one friend, she just didn’t understand what the IWGB were doing supporting these workers, because in her mind it is a good thing, it should be more expensive to drive those cars, you know, it is really bad for the environment. But then I think, you could obviously say ‘yeah well, but the state should then pay for this, you know, they should be able to trade in their car for a new one, they shouldn’t have to pay’.
S: Which is polluting the environment quite a lot. If you replace, because it is only 6 years old, with a new one, that is, just the production of a car, it’s just like…but anyway…
T: What’s your solution then, just keep on driving?
S: No, I am just like, I just state that when people talk about ‘oh, what to do with climate change’, its either this kind of ‘we need to ask the scientists and experts-’talk or this ‘the state has to intervene and pass the right laws’-talk, but there is not like, people who are actually, producing material goods that can talk about how all that is happening and where all the waste is, you know? It’s a bit, a sidelining of manual labour….
Q: I am finished, is there anything else that you would like to add, to discuss?
S: Organising for what? Obviously in America, there is a lot of debate about this base-building, coming out of more student circles, who say ‘yeah, all this kind of new parliamentarian politics may be fine, but what about getting rooted’, so they do this kind of base-building organising. Also a kind of Maoist kind of idea, we go to the people and we give them some food, and like, tenants union, so more like, what is organising, organising for what? And how? With what political aims? What do we, how do we see the day to day organising in relation to a class movement? Do we just see it as a continuation, do we see it as a role of an organisation, what is an organisation, what is revolution? Large parts of the left – from Corbyn-followers to Leninists to general strike anarchists – see organising from an instrumentalist point of view: we need the economic strength of the workers in order to put have clout for political change. Whereas we would say that the social production process and the form of how workers organise is the main political arena. It’s not mainly about pay and conditions – if we want a different society then the divisions and hierarchies between intellectual and manual labour, production and reproduction and so on have to be changed materially. This is political! And only a working class movement can bring about these changes. To sum up: you can organise people in campaigns for better pay and as a pressure group for political change or you can focus on building self-organised class power with the main aim – apart from better conditions – to undo management command and hierarchies within the class. As a preparation for an insurrectionist take-over and transformation of the means of production! Both strategies will talk about organising, but with quite fundamentally different form, content and goals.
[This interview was conducted in the course of Panos Theodoropoulos’s PhD research into unions, migrant workers and labour struggles in the UK. We are releasing it because we consider that this text holds some important ideas and discussions which can be useful contributions in the ongoing debates around issues such as organizing, trade unions, migrant workers, and political theory.]