In the first part of this review we look at the concepts of ‘workers inquiry’ and ‘class composition’ and how they are used in the book, primarily in the editorial. In the second part we exemplify some of our criticisms by going through each chapter of the book.
In recent years, ’workers’ inquiry’ and the concept of ‘class composition’ have become the toast of the academic town. Rescued from the annals of obscure workerist history, books like this one are reviving the concepts, and trying to apply them to the modern day contexts of labour organising in strategic industries. While we welcome this publication and encourage people to read the book, we think that there are two related, but not identical problems with the way that Ovetz and the nine authors approach these concepts.
Firstly, their largely academic approach means that we don’t really get to read ‘workers’ inquiries’, but academic texts based on fairly conventional methods of research. They get around this by using linguistic acrobatics (‘workers inquiries from above’ etc). Whilst there is a lot of useful information in the book, by shrouding the perspective in a bit of a fraud, it is far less useful than it could be. The writers’ external position means that they depend primarily on trade union organisations and officials as representatives of ‘the workers’. This, in turn, results in a partial view (the focus of most texts is the question of unionisation), and also a skewed perspective, as certain events are either misunderstood or misrepresented.
The academic mode of production also means that we are presented with rather random individual work, despite more ambitious claims:
“As a step towards carrying out a global workers’ inquiry this book offers inquiries from nine countries, representing in total about 70 percent of the global population on four continents. (…) This book is an attempt to identify newly emerging strategies used by workers and the lessons that can be learned from them and circulated globally.” (p.21)
The introduction claims that the book forms part of an ‘inquiry into the global class composition’, but it doesn’t appear as though the articles were chosen as a strategic way of demonstrating this. The only attempt to relate the various articles to each other is by a pretty random and unhelpful categorisation into three bigger themes, such as “Transport and Logistics”, “Manufacturing and Mining” and “Education, Cleaners and Gamers”. The article on union organising campaigns at DHL and UPS in Turkey has little in common with the depiction of a mainstream truck drivers’ union in Argentina. At the same time, the union campaign in Turkey is definitely not an example of the ‘most advanced’ workers’ struggles in recent times. Here it would have made more sense to compare, for example, the series of wildcat strikes in the car industry at Renault and the supplier factories in 2015, with the wildcat strikes in the automobile sector in India in 2010. We would have liked to see this book make more of a collective effort to put each contribution into a regional and global context, and to draw political conclusions from them. An effort to portray the differences in development between the global regions and the impact this has on struggles, would have also been useful. In the end, most of the articles written by ‘co-researchers’ don’t describe how the research work actually benefited the workers’ struggles they write about – although all articles emphasise this as the main feature of a ‘workers inquiry’.
Secondly, we can see that there is a certain ‘depoliticisation’ of the practice of workers’ inquiry and of the concept of class composition. This is only partly related to the fact that the research is done as part of academic work, as we find a similar tendency amongst trade union organisers. In most of the book’s articles, ‘workers’ inquiry’ is reduced to a more or less technical method to find ‘choke-points’ or to analyse the vulnerability of supply-chains and the production process. Class composition, in turn, is reduced to a sociological category, which can be applied at any limited level of capitalist organisation, for example, the ‘class composition’ in a particular company or sector.
When applied to a wider social level, class composition is presented as a kind of eternal ping-pong game between two subjects – the working class on one side and capital on the other. Here we have to maintain that, historically speaking, workers’ inquiry was, first of all, an effort to understand the opposite: how capital is not an external force that has the power to re- or decompose ourselves, but the product of our very own cooperation. This then raises the question of the specific capitalist nature of this cooperation, which brings us together and disappropriates us at the same time. In the way the editor and authors present the concept of class composition, there is no contradiction within the capitalist mode of production, just an antagonism. There is only a back-and-forth, but no tendency, for example, the tendency of concentration of capital or towards crisis, beyond being an immediate result of workers’ struggle.
“As capital plays its hand, workers regroup, alter their strategy, play their own hand, and take a win. In response, capital withdraws, regroups, alters its strategy, and then plays a new hand, putting workers on the defensive and perhaps even defeating them.” (…) “We call this understanding of the dialectical push and pull of class struggle the theory of class composition. To push the ebb and flow of that struggle back in favor of workers it is critical that we carry out a global workers’ inquiry to understand the strategies, tactics, organization, and objectives of capital and how workers are adapting their own strategies, tactics, and organization to achieve their objectives of responding to, defeating, and transcending capitalism.” (p.22)
The ping-pong game cannot explain why capital cannot just ‘decompose’ workers completely, while capital is forced to produce workers’ concentrations on one side and under-development on the other. To reduce everything to a relation of struggle cannot explain why capital is in crisis, even though workers’ struggles have also been at a low point. In this sense, Ovetz represents the ‘autonomist’, ‘American’ adaptation of the concept of class composition (we would include Midnight Notes here). Capital not only exploits us, but is also the way we materially reproduce ourselves. The ‘autonomist’ interpretation of workers’ inquiry dissolves this contradiction by introducing a clear cut division between workers and capital:
“Because we still live under what Cleaver (2017) calls the “dialectic of capital,” that strategy must be rooted in the refusal of work in the spheres of production and reproduction where capital is organized.” (p.24)
By refusing to look at the contradictory nature of production beyond being a sphere of struggle, the articles don’t mention the link between struggle and social alternative at all, or if they do,only in the vaguest terms in the introduction:
“It cannot be emphasized enough that the study of class composition is the study of the power of the self-organized working class to attack, disrupt, and transcend the bounds of capital by constructing multiple others ways of organizing life.” (p.29)
From how the editorial depicts the relation between workers and capital, it appears as if capital and the working class are on opposite sides of a social seesaw, on a balance of power, either one side or the other having the upper hand. If workers are weak, capital must be strong. We think that this picture is not adequate and that it ultimately leads into political dead-ends by cutting working class politics off from the productive and creative element of workers as collective producers inside the capital relation. Comrades have written about this problem before. 
By reducing the term ‘class composition’ to a research tool that is applicable to each and every limited dispute, the term becomes blunt. We think it is worth reconsidering the term as an effort to understand the unifying and revolutionary tendencies in a much wider class movement. Why were the skilled workers as an industrial minority able to recompose the class in the early 20th century around the councils, which were as much a weapon and organisational form of struggle, as an embryonic form of social alternative? How did this minority of workers relate to the wider class, which was characterised by artisanal and peasant work? How did the different political forms taken by workers autonomy during the peak revolutionary moment, namely anarcho-/industrial syndicalism, revolutionary councilism and the communist party form, express different regional stages in the relation between industrial core and hinterland? 
Here we see that the reduction of the concept of class composition to a question of ‘balance of power’ between workers and capital, disregarding the question of political autonomy and vision of the working class, leaves the door open to integrate the concept into all kinds of ‘external’ political projects. Through this reduction, ‘class composition’ can then be used as a ‘tool’ to analyse, for example, how workers’ struggles can gather enough economic clout to put pressure on or support a socialist (Corbyn, Sander) government, or to enforce ‘democratic changes’, such as trade union rights in China.
While there is no monopoly or clear definition of ‘workers’ inquiry’ and ‘class composition’, it seems to us that two crucial aspects are missing here: the collective dimension from and for workers, and the political dimension beyond ‘organising’.  The articles’ descriptions, always from above and from afar, are useful, but would have been more so if the changes in working class activity detailed in the book had been explained, simply and straightforwardly, by any of the participants. Then you would not only have descriptions of the changes in the outward forms of working class organisation, but you might also have got some insights into the changes in thinking that lay behind the events. Without these, simply describing the forms of organisational change are of limited use.
For example, the article on South Africa details workers leaving the corrupted official trade unions and self-organising in a non-bureaucratic way. But look at the Russian miners in the collapsing days of the USSR. Vast strikes took place across the coal fields, hundreds of thousands of miners staged sit-down strikes and turned their backs on the ‘unions’, demanding that the state negotiate with their vast mass meetings, without any representatives. Very good, they helped put an end to the regime. But within months, a new bureaucracy, as much in league with the authorities as the old unions, emerged out of these mass meetings. And in fact, this soon became so corrupt that miners returned to their old unions. So by itself, the emergence of new forms can mean anything – they are not intrinsically ‘progressive’ in the longer-term. Without an insight into the thinking of the masses and in particular those workers who are playing a leading role at any one time, it’s difficult to make any real assessment of events.
Overall we can also see that the ‘external’ view of academics vis-a-vis workers’ struggle leads to a certain inversion between struggle and consciousness. It seems some of the authors think that ‘collective planning’ and ‘overcoming of divisions’ is primarily a precondition for struggle, not something that can only be tackled once workers are in actual and contradictory movement.
“For Emery, as for the Italian, French, and American autonomist Marxists who rediscovered and reinvigorated Marx’s project from the 1950s to the 1970s, there should be no struggle before we know who we are, the conditions under which we work, how capital is organized, its weaknesses and choke points, as well as our sources of strength, power, and leverage.” (p.16-17)
However, the problem that we face is not a technical one. The main problem for workers is not to find ‘choke-points’ per se. The main problem is to find the confidence to lead and analyse our own struggles – but this happens primarily when workers are already in a collective struggle and confronted with material constraints that compel them to reconsider and analyse.
We don’t want to call the individual abilities and motivations of the comrades who edited and wrote this book into question. The problem is more general. The problem is the detachment of revolutionary (or at least combative) theory from everyday working class struggles, which academia reproduces.
We also don’t want to imply we have all the answers. We and our international political contacts haven’t managed to take on as big a task as research into the ‘global working class’, based both on collective debate and local insights. Our own debate is stuck. 
Similarly, although we managed to organise smaller actions in factories and warehouses in west London and formed deeper roots in the local working class, we didn’t establish bigger collectives of workers who would actually engage in a workers’ inquiry. 
This is not a technical problem of workers’ not seeing the benefit of analysing their workplace. It is a problem of reconstituting both a combative self-confidence and a political independence of the class.
In order to make our criticism more concrete we go through each chapter of the book.
*** Transport workers in Argentina
The historical part that dominates this article might be interesting, but is not really relevant for the question of the ‘workers inquiry’ into the transport sector. The description is almost exclusively a description of the truckers’ union, the various fusions and collective contracts it was involved with. There is no real analysis of the working class reality or of actual struggles. How did the truckers organise during the 2001 struggle when unemployed organisations blockaded major highways? How did they relate to this, also bearing in mind that the leadership of the union was close to the Kirchner government? How did the transport workers union relate to the fact that during 2001, the export and therefore transport of meat was booming, while domestic cases of child starvation skyrocketed? We also don’t learn much about whether this union is different from truckers’ unions in Chile or India, which includes small enterprises and which therefore, like in the case of Chile 1973, can also be mobilised by bourgeois forces. Instead we learn:
“During the cycle of “defeat,” the Camioneros managed to sign only 11 CBAs. [Collective Bargaining Agreements]” (…) “Between 2003 to 2011, the Camioneros signed 145 agreements which together make up the CBAs (Pontoni 2013: 144).” (p.73)
Consequently, while seeing legal documents such as collective bargaining agreements as a strength of the working class, the author presents ‘the law’ as the major weapon of state and the bosses:
“And now they are coming at it again, using the National Congress to eliminate the benefits obtained during more than 130 years of struggle, and in this way weaken the unions and decompose the working class’s power.” (p.72)
At this point, a real workers’ inquiry would be necessary in order to understand if and why a decree issued by a small circle of politicians is supposed to be able to ‘decompose working class’ power’ and its obtained benefits. The author writes that ‘having a strong leader’ was one ingredient of the trade union’s success story:
“Linking the whole trade union organization with the leader, Hugo Moyano. Earlier we highlighted the role of the charismatic caudillo in Argentine politics. Moyano is no exception and Peronism reinforces the point. The masses act and struggle but they search for a charismatic leader. The caudillo is central to Argentine culture whether in relation to politics, the unions, or soccer.” (p.75)
The text doesn’t mention that Moyano is very close to the political class, in particular to Duhalde and Kirchner and that he was charged with laundering over 100 million USD using the trade union’s account and assets.
*** Transport workers in Turkey
The author starts with pretty bombastic claims:
“This chapter concerns a case of class composition led by a Turkish trade union representing road transport workers called Tüm Taşıma İşçileri Sendikasi (TÜMTİS).” (p.78)
“To scrutinize this case of class composition, I use the power resources approach in a critical way.” (p.79)
We’ve already questioned the method of applying the concept of ‘class composition’ when dealing with a singular struggle. The problem with this article is that the union in question did not even organise any strikes, beyond symbolic pickets outside of company headquarters. We hear a lot about the organisational strategies of the trade union organisation, primarily about the decision to cooperate and accept the funding of the International Transport Workers’Federation (ITF). We hear about the union’s left-leaning leadership. There is no analysis of the actual workplaces and very limited information about actual struggles – perhaps because the struggles themselves were limited.
“During and since its organizing campaigns in large companies such as UPS, DHL, and Aras, TÜMTİS has never gone on strike in these firms either formally or informally. This is not only because a strike requires much larger funds.” (p.95)
But it seems the union is not only worried about their own funds, but also about the funds of the employer:
“In case of a strike no company which has a contract with UPS for delivery would say let’s wait for the strike to be resolved,” as one union leader put it. This would be devastating for the struck firm, leading to serious downsizing or even bankruptcy. Therefore, in its revitalization process since the end of the 2000s, TÜMTİS has exploited this power resource in a quite limited way, probably only as a threat.” (p.95)
At DHL Express, sacked workers picketed the headquarters for 20 months. This is what the author then calls ‘associational power’. It is quite clear that he doesn’t mean that workers form wider associations, but that, for example, the Turkish union links up with international federations. At Aras Delivery it took four years of legal battle to get recognised.
Otherwise we hear nothing from workers themselves, but a lot about the right kind of leaders:
“In neither an industry nor a workplace are workers’ interests naturally commonly expressed. A group of leaders is needed to create and maintain the perception that there are common interests (Hodson 2001: 204–9; Kelly 2002: 30–6). Intermediation comes into play at this point. A relatively high level of interaction between leadership and lay members functions as a form of intermediation that builds collective interests and identities.” (p.97)
The article does not try to situate the ‘struggles’ in logistics either in the context of overall struggles in Turkey – and there have been a few actual (wildcat) strikes!  – nor in comparison with struggles in logistics in other countries (e.g. at GLS in Italy).
“In this chapter, I have examined an extraordinary case of class recomposition led by a Turkish union, TÜMTİS.” (p.99)
To claim that these organisational tactics are a ‘class recomposition’ deflates the concept of any content.
*** Female logistics workers in Italy
The article on the women warehouse workers in Italy is better, as it describes actual struggles, but it is pretty much a recycled article describing a dispute in 2014. While there is a bit more flesh to it, it also operates with a lot of questionable concepts and phrases, which sound very sophisticated, but remain unclear and somewhat tautological.
“In the Mr. Jobs warehouses, work is organized by juxtaposing race and gender in order to subordinate and exploit the gendered and racialized workforce.” (p.108)
“Capital has historically turned race and gender into an extraordinary realm of accumulation, where racism and sexism have become indispensable dispositifs of capitalist development.” (p.109)
Rather than assuming that ‘race’ and ‘gender’ are some kind of ready-made tools and strategies that can just be used by the bosses, we would like to hear more about the process by which this actually happens. The author mentions a few concrete examples, such as the Bossi-Fini migration law or the sexual harassment from managers who can use the dependency of the migrant women workers in their favour. Does that justify inventing or reproducing a category as loaded as ‘race’? In what way is ‘gender’ a realm of accumulation?
When we met some of these same strikers together with male SI Cobas militants in Italy a few years ago, we had the impression that the male union militants made the decisions concerning the dispute. However, the text doesn’t explain how and to what extent the women workers organised the strike themselves. As far as we understand, the contact with SI Cobas was established before the strike started, not afterwards, like written in the text. We heard that workers were not able to overcome their minority position inside the warehouse and that, in the end, the strike was not very effective. This in itself doesn’t make the struggle less heroic or the experience less valuable. It just seems that there is a big gulf between the author’s praise for the initial round of struggles, primarily led by SI Cobas, and the rather veiled criticism of SI Cobas at the end of the article. We know that the political collective closest to the author retreated from engaging in the logistics workers struggle, but the process of ‘degeneration’ of the logistics workers’ struggle that led to that decision is not really discussed.
Unlike most of the other articles in the book, we think that in this case, the ‘engagement in the struggle’ came first and the ‘writing about it’ came later. It would therefore be even more important to understand what the author thinks the ‘co-researchers’ have contributed to the struggle, beyond their contacts to the political scene who could mobilise supporters or the media. What did the process of ‘workers’ inquiry’ actually look like in a situation where most of the warehouse struggles depended heavily on external blockades – rather than on actions within the work process?
*** Higher education in California
This article, which was funded by the College of Social Science, deals with the question of ‘strike threats’ and whether they are part of the process of ‘working class recomposition’. The idea that a credible strike threat can obtain material concessions is not wrong. And in some situations it might actually be an expression of workers’ collective steps. Still, most of these threats are rather an expression of trade union tactics than workers’ self-activity. In a way, the article portrays the same slightly skewed academic view that workers’ struggle is like a poker game between workers and bosses. Are workers clever enough to create a ‘credible strike threat’ that would allow them to wrestle concessions from their opponents without actually having to risk walking out? It’s easy to forget that in many situations, workers’ struggles are not an expression of some calculating ‘homo economicus’. More often than not, the urge to ‘go on strike’ itself is as much a part of the goal and motivation for workers as the raised demands.
The author himself presents good arguments why ‘strike threats’ are rather an aspect of ‘union vs. employer’ negotiation tactics than of class struggle:
“A 1985 ruling by the Supreme Court of California found that a credible strike threat can alter the balance of power preventing an illegal public sector strike from taking place. “Without the right to strike, or at least a credible strike threat, public employees have little negotiating strength. This, in turn, produces frustrations which exacerbate labor- management conflicts and often provoke ‘illegal’ strikes” (County Sanitation Dist. No. 2 v. Los Angeles County Employees’ Assn.). The court concluded that a credible strike threat can “equalize” power between workers and employers, raising the costs to employers of not settling, and reducing the incidences of strikes.” (p.125)
In the end then, it is often a question of ‘management’: how can you mobilise workers and cool them off, in order for the union not having to risk financial costs or legal repression?
The author then analyses the strike threat on 23 campuses of the California State University in 2016, a campaign in which he took part. The whole campaign seemed pretty top-down, with students being paid by the union to do door-knocking and other ‘campaign-style’ elements.
“The CFA announced on February 17 that “Strike Schools” were being held on the campuses to inform the membership of the strike plans. Online strike pledge forms for each campus were announced on February 24 and a single form for the entire system made available on March 2. (…) a hardship fund for members was created in March 2016, and members were asked to wear their red strike-threat T-shirts during the first week of spring 2016 classes. The strike was endorsed by the California Democratic Party.” (p.146)
Both strike threats remained threats.
In the end the author wants to use a Panzieri quote to bolster his thesis that ‘strike threats’ can be a sign of working class recomposition and autonomy, but to us, the quote reads like a criticism of the idea that workers can regain independence and power through ‘clever bargaining tactics’:
“As Panzieri observed, the class struggle “expresses itself not as progress, but as rupture; not as ‘revelation’ of the occult rationality inherent in the modern productive process, but as the construction of a radically new rationality counterposed to the rationality practiced by capitalism” (1980: 54).” (p.160)
*** Teachers in Mexico
Again the text starts with a pretty hefty claim:
“This chapter will analyze the class recomposition of the Mexican multitude.” (p.165)
Half of the chapter is a description of various incidents of state violence, which are all subsumed as part of the ‘neoliberal social war against the self-organised multitude’. It seems it has been written under the influence of Negri’s old kool-aid, mixed with some 1994 Zapatista tequila.
“This social war can be seen as part of capital’s “global civil war” to fragment humanity and consume nature which has intensified since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US (Berardi 2016).” (p.166)
This is a pretty questionable analysis of the mass killings in the drug wars in Mexico. Is it all just a plot of the neoliberal Empire? What about the fact that the violence and instability actually damages the ‘investment climate’ in Mexico? What about the fact that narco-traffic is part of a pretty profitable business cycle? What about the relation between large-scale under-employment both in Mexico and the US and the increased influence of mafia-type structures? Instead of analysing the contradictory nature of capital, we are presented with a rather condensed ‘autonomist’ view that the violence is a calculated act in a social war.
“…the multitude [is placed] as a networked body politic of antagonist subjectivity that embraces all the previous antagonist class formations.” (p.168)
“One of the main characteristics of the multitude, at least the multitude in movement, is its capacity for self-organization; that is, its capacity to organize autonomously at a distance from political parties, trade unions, non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, civic associations, and pressure groups that have become absorbed into, are functional to or dependent upon state power.” (p.169)
Again, this all reads fine, but what about the increasing influence of organisations, which seem crucial for the material (and ideological) survival of impoverished masses in Latin America, namely the mafia, the church and political rank-and-file structures of government parties, such as Peronism or the various welfare structures of 21st century socialism? Once we collapse the working class with its various productive, unproductive, developed and undeveloped sectors into a ‘multitude’, we actually give up on an analysis of ‘class composition’.
“One of the most important movements resisting neoliberalism, dispossession, and state terrorism is the cognitariat multitude of the CNTE dissident teachers’ movement.” (p.175)
The article continues describing some of the struggles of the teachers’ union movement, bits of it are concrete and interesting, although none of it seems to have originated from direct contacts with workers. While the author first claims that everything is ‘self-organised’ nowadays, he then has problems to explain why the ‘leadership’ of the CNTE was able to ‘betray’ the rank-and-file.
“This heightened the conflict with the Peña government, leading to the Nochixtlan massacre in June 2016, and the effective shelving of the reform thereafter. However, despite being an evident political attack on workers’ rights and control over the workplace, the reform also contained a plethora of neoliberal-type educational and technical changes, many of which have been incorporated into the new educational reform of September 2019 passed by AMLO, which returns to the previous state-union pact of yore and was supported by most of the Morena deputies close to the CNTE.” (p.180)
“In September 2016, following the Nochixtlan massacre, some state leaders of the CNTE made opaque deals with local state governments, after returning to work without having gained concessions from the government. These under-the-table deals were made over the heads of the CNTE members and without respecting the assembly and direct participation methods of decision making.” (p.186)
We also don’t hear about how the teachers’ mobilisations fit into the picture of explosive struggles, for example, of workers in the Maquiladoras in the US border regions, or the women workers’ movement against (gendered/sexual) violence. 
*** Platform workers etc. in the UK
This article reflects more of a collective effort and actual experiences, even if these experiences are limited to very specific sectors, close to the more academic milieu of the authors. We mainly read about higher education and student-y jobs. The attempt to draw a picture of the wider ‘class composition’ remains superficial, which means that we don’t get to understand whether the authors think that the struggles in the portrayed sectors have an impact on the wider situation of the class and what this impact could look like:
“Before getting into these different inquiries, it is first worth sketching out the overall contours of class composition in the UK. The UK labor market is marked, broadly speaking, by low official unemployment, low wages, and low productivity. This has even been remarked on with the emergence of a productivity paradox following the 2008 financial crisis. Despite the introduction of new technologies and more workers into employment, productivity remains low. Despite this, there remain large areas of absolute surplus value extraction— alongside the continuing dominance of global finance in London.” (p.193)
We also don’t really get a critical assessment of the strikes of delivery couriers or hospitality workers; the article largely operates on the level of description – and the descriptions are very much oriented towards the formal organisations involved:
“Across these different workplaces there were a range of unions involved, “from huge Labour Party and TUC [Trade Union Congress] affiliates Unite, to small Labour Party and TUC affiliates the Bakers Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU), to the syndicalist IWW and grassroots IWGB” (Cant 2018b). Each of these represents a different political composition, both in organizing practices and perspectives.” (p.202)
This makes sense given the shared, though perhaps not consensual outlook amongst the authors that for an actual political recomposition, ‘workers’ struggles’ need some form of political mediation or transmission via a parliamentary organisation, such as Labour under Corbyn.
Despite the authors’ participation in the UCU struggle, they chose not to report and reflect on the whole cycle of struggle in 2018-20. Yes, a new ‘activist’ slate was elected to the top of the union after the 2018 pension strike. But the 8-day strike in 2019 and the 14-day strike in the early 2020 showed that UCU, after years of peaceful coexistence with the bosses, was unable to rebuild itself from service-/campaigning type of a union into an organizing union with base structures across campuses. The cycle of strikes ended in defeat (inability to impose the demands of the ‘Four Fights’ strikes) as well as moral and financial exhaustion of the membership, especially those in insecure positions. This facilitated a frontal attack of many universities in 2020 on its most precarious staff, leading to the losses of thousands of jobs under the pretext of forecasted income losses due to the pandemic. Reflecting on this trend of academic proletarianization would lead to the uncomfortable realization that the UCU (let’s forget for now that the union is also internally skewed towards the conservative interests of the permanent professors) has been left out of touch with the fast restructuring of the higher education industry and the emergence of a new landscape of class forces. Everyday labour by zero-hours academics, researchers on short fixed contracts or contracted support staff and specialists from the private sector, is no longer marginal, and these workers have often got different interests and needs to the more secure workers who are the core of the union.
Still, together with the article from Italy, we can see that a closer relationship between ‘researchers’ and ‘workers’ also creates more insightful texts.
*** Workers in China
There is not too much to say about this article; it doesn’t portray any particular struggle or group of workers. It is largely a historical account of the changes between the state and workers’ struggles from a perspective that sees trade union ‘freedom’ comparable to the west as a prerequisite for a generalisation of struggles. The text is pretty contradictory, stating first that:
“Despite some modest labor gains in wages and social insurance benefits, workers’ ability to organize remains severely restricted by employers and by the government.” (p.213)
Only to mention the large amounts of individual workers’ strikes and protests:
“Following a brief decline, since 2011 the number of labor dispute cases has shot up annually, reaching an unprecedented 828,410 cases in 2016.” (p.219)
A crucial question for us is whether trade unions of the legal type are the best way to address the main shortcoming of most struggles, namely their limitation to a single company or region. This question becomes more pertinent when we see that the state itself wants to use ‘legal association’ as a form to contain struggles once they develop a certain dynamic:
“Officials seek to divert open protests and massive strikes into the judicial system by streamlining the legal procedures. The first national labor law was promulgated in 1994 and came into force on January 1, 1995.” (p.219)
We have seen many times that trade unions become the first vehicles of ‘democratisation’ (Solidarnosc, CC.OO etc.), by mobilising workers power into a new and ultimately more stable state form.
The article mentions a couple of alternative examples of ‘workers’ networks’, but it seems like an outsider view:
“In 2016, for example, two former Walmart employees took the lead to mobilize against the corporate implementation of a flexible hour system and a significant wage cut through online strategizing. They moderated an internet-based forum under the banner of the Walmart Chinese Workers’ Association, breathing new life into a self-organized network linking Walmart workers across multiple cities in China. While the momentum of the movement died down following a split over worker strategies, coupled with management attacks and government intimidation, the experience was not entirely negative. Walmart workers enthusiastically debated the timing and effectiveness of strikes, among other key questions over fundraising and coordination, demonstrating their active participation, reflexivity, and capacity to devise their own tactics, strategies, and organizations.” (p.228)
The other example in the book, about the Jasic struggle, is also depicted falsely, either because of the author’s distance or complicit position. This struggle was primarily a Maoist theatre act that instrumentalised workers and raised the demand for a free trade union as a political line of the intellectual leaders and not as a genuine demand of the actual workers. 
*** Mining workers in South Africa
In many ways this is the most informative article, given that the 2012 Lonmin mining workers strike is presented in a detailed fashion, although this has been done before.  It might have been more fruitful if the author had focused more on the actual practice of the Casual Workers’ Advice Office (CWAO) and Simunye Workers Forum (SWF) – the other main subject of the article.
“Hundreds of workplaces on Johannesburg’s East Rand now participate in SWF by sending delegates to its mass meetings held at CWAO’s office.” (p.250)
The picture of what the CWAO actually does remains slightly blurry. We hear about strike funds for casual workers and more or less traditional ‘campaigning’:
“In the last few years the SWF has been engaged in a number of new battles. A prime example has been the CWAO/SWF “Big New Rights Campaign,” which was instituted after the Constitutional Court ruled in July 2018 that labor broker workers should become the workers of only the client company after three months and must be treated “not less favourably” than the client’s other permanent workers. When worker groups engaged in coordinated pamphleteering in Johannesburg’s industrial areas, it “led to 117 new workplaces approaching the CWAO and SWF between August 2018 and February 2019” (Schroeder 2019: 1).” (p.250)
The impression we get is that the information is from a secondary source. The question therefore remains whether this text can be seen as a workers’ inquiry.
*** Car workers in India
We are able to see some of the limitations of academic research more clearly in this case study, given that some of us have spent some time in the industrial outskirts of Delhi, collaborating with local comrades around Kamunist Kranti/Faridabad Majdoor Samachar.  We have written about the disputes mentioned in this text extensively, namely the wildcat actions at Maruti Suzuki 2011 and 2012. 
The author is at least aware of the structural limitation of academic research that, “makes the relationship between research, working-class struggle, and organizing harder to build, and requires strong individual resistance to the marketization of knowledge production and research.” (p.261)
However, the methods of obtaining research information (using workers’ surveys to map working and living conditions) along with the content of the article (assessing levels of unionisation, describing the working conditions and peoples’ backgrounds and positions), begs the question: how would or could this ‘inquiry’ benefit the workers involved? They certainly know their own background and the reality in their factories so on these fronts, it wouldn’t be too illuminating. It would be different if the author would be part of a car workers’ collective from Europe that could actually share workplace and struggle experiences. Here we would have to go much deeper into the actual fabric of production and compare, for example, automation levels in body shops or line-speeds. The same problem arises when we look at how a report about a very significant struggle in India can be useful for workers in the global north. One problem is that the struggle happened already some while back; another problem is to figure out how an academic article would be circulated amongst car workers.
Another major issue is whether the academic mode of production itself enforces a rather partial view on the event itself:
“The access to more autonomous workers was possible only through independent labor activists.” (p.266)
“Firstly, the inquiry had a possible bias towards permanent workers, who were accessible through unions and risked less when filling the questionnaire.” (p.270)
Permanent workers’ perspectives were actually a minority of the workforce, and therefore an analysis from this position skews the perspective and misses vital concerns. The fact that the author used the trade unions to make contact with workers, who themselves only represented permanent workers, narrows the view further. Being dependent on information and views of trade union representatives and the Maoist leftist usual suspects, the foreign academic goes beyond portraying a skewed perspective on struggle, but actually writes factually wrong stuff about the course of events:
“The strike also inaugurated a period of fierce repression starting with a supposed accident on July 18, 2012, followed by a fire in the Manesar plant in which a human resources manager died.” (p.271)
In parroting the line of the permanent workers’ legal representatives on this issue, the author fails to mention that we aren’t dealing with ‘an accident’ here, but a mass riot of hundreds of workers who burnt down parts of the factory and beat up dozens of managers. It is clear that union representatives want to portray workers as victims, not as agents. But this comes at a cost of neither seeing or portraying a qualitative shift in workers struggles. When workers all over India saw workers in Maruti uniforms attacking their own factory, they knew something else was happening. These were seen as some of the best paid workers in the country. Millions of young workers in the hinterland want to become a Maruti worker. We can see that the system and its drive to casualisation is not just a ‘race to the bottom’, but it creates its own grave-diggers – yet again. The system is fragile.
Most of the recent struggles, from the Hero Honda occupation in 2006 and the wildcat actions at the car parts manufacturer Delphi in 2007, were actually driven by casual workers. In this regard the authors’ assertion that, “the large participation of contract/casual workers, struggling with the permanent workers, in an unprecedented display of solidarity” in the Maruti struggle is not so accurate.  In the case of the Maruti factory occupation, it was only under the (physical) pressure of hundreds of casuals that permanent workers actually rejoined the occupation. This was another important omission from the article.
Both the left – who are mainly composed of students and middle-class activists – and the academic comrades focused on the official demand of the struggle, the demand for an independent union. They failed to see, or chose to ignore, the deeper underlying reasons for the strike and its primary dynamic. There are therefore various problems with this focus.
Firstly, many of the Maruti Suzuki workers would not have been able to become part of the union, given their temporary status. In several disputes, management was able to use the fact that only a minority is part of a union in order to undermine struggles of temporary workers. For example at the Honda plant in Manesar, the management and union agreed to productivity bonuses based on an increased production output that could only be achieved by working the casuals harder. The actual line workers are predominantly casuals and therefore non-union members, while maintenance staff, supervisors and other workers who are not directly impacted on by the line-speed tend to be permanents.  What also didn’t come out in the article was the fact that this demand led to a struggle over the leadership of the new union, which divided the permanent workers depending on their region of origin.
Secondly, the demand for a company union undermined the potential to generalise the strike. The main issue that connects the Maruti Workers with tens of thousand of other manufacturing workers in the IMT Manesar industrial area are work-speed, low wages and shitty living conditions in the surrounding industrial villages. By focusing on a company-specific demand (a company union), the smaller core of permanent workers and their leftist supporters undermined the possible area-wide generalisation of the strike. This is not hypothetical, as we saw solidarity actions by Maruti workers for other workers during the strike days, e.g. when a group of 200 Maruti workers ‘visited’ management of a parts manufacturer to demand compensation for an injured worker.
So we can say that due to the academic mode of production, this article not only comes a bit late in the day, it is also contributing to a mystification – when workers’ inquiry’s prime goal was and still is the destruction of myths.
Instead of laying out a strict definition of workers inquiry, we want to look briefly at one of the historical origins of ‘workers’ inquiry’. The introduction and some of the articles mention the efforts of comrades in Italy in the 1960s, but don’t really go into detail. We want to stress that the workers’ inquiry at the time was conducted in a particular political tension. The old working class communist party (PCI) was integrating itself into the state in the post-war period, at the same time that capital was also undermining the traditional base of the communist movement, primarily its skilled workers. The PCI disarmed their most militant rank-and-file members – literally by taking the arms they still held after the Resistance; politically and spiritually, by endorsing tanks against workers in Hungary in 1956; and theoretically by using the official (Soviet Union style) Marxism, which advocated the ‘progressive nature of industrial development’ as a necessary step towards socialism.
At the same time, capitalist restructuring, primarily in the form of assembly line production, was undermining the traditional skilled workforce and threatening to replace them with a small number of ‘technicians’ and a large number of ‘uneducated’ migrant workers from the agrarian south. The comrades from the operaist tradition who conducted workers inquiries wanted to understand how the ‘traditional communism’ and power-base of the skilled workers would fuse (or not) with the more spontaneous anger of unskilled ‘mass workers’ who experienced work not as a something to be proud of, but something to despise. In order to understand the new factory reality, these comrades went ‘back to Marx’ – to resurrect and recapture his critical view on the production process, machinery etc. from the official Marxism and its praising of ‘technological progress’; – and ‘back to the workers’, initially addressing groups of already politicised workers. For an overview we suggest reading this article: https://libcom.org/library/renascence-operaismo-wildcat
Workers’ inquiry here became part of a political project to undermine the left’s belief in the ‘planning state’ being a necessary step towards socialism. They did this by focusing on the permanent chaos on the company level, which the top-level planning states and their bureaucracy could never solve in their top-down ways. Workers’ inquiries bring out the fact that it is the workers themselves that are constantly having to compensate and improvise to guarantee a smooth production process. The inquiry was partly about ‘finding the choke-points’ of production, but as much about demystifying the contradictory nature of capitalist production: the fact that it is a production process of use values, and a valorisation process to create profits at the same time. These two contradictory aspects create thousands of micro-conflicts which, seen from an individual perspective, appear as random or arbitrary. On the most immediate level, the contradiction expresses itself as a permanent conflict between producing ‘quality’ and being forced to churn out as many products as cheaply as possible. The proclaimed aim of producing ‘quality’ is used against workers to increase control over them, which in turn is mainly geared towards squeezing the most ‘quantity’ out of them. Management uses ‘quality aspects’, such as a monopoly over crucial information or the task to coordinate aspects of production, in order to justify their power to make people work harder. Machines themselves embody this contradiction. A machine is neither just a ‘rational apparatus’ geared towards effective production, nor a mere tool to control and subjugate workers. Capital applies machines when they promise profits, not when they can effectively reduce labour. Workers have to constantly compensate for the hiccups of machines that, due to their double-character of being both productive and control apparatus, might not work well.
To put it another way, ‘inquiry’ is a collective process of discovery of how capital depends on the knowledge, improvisation and cooperation of workers, but makes it appear as if these living relations were its own features. This is the contradictory core of capital’s command: in order to increase productivity a smooth cooperation between workers is necessary, but a cooperation that becomes ‘too close’ becomes a political liability. Workers who cooperate too closely and directly feel their power inevitably start to question the need to have bosses in the first place. Capital therefore has to hide workers’ cooperation from them, and present itself as a necessary precondition for production. Inquiry is a political process of critiquing the irrationality of the production process as much as it is a quest for collective power. This is what the comrades in Italy in the 1960s meant when they talked about the fact that they take the standpoint of the ‘collective worker’. They meant that the micro-conflicts and chaos within the production process can only be seen as part of a wider systemic contradiction from a perspective that goes beyond the individual worker. They meant that therefore our organisational steps cannot stop at the company door, but have to discover and involve all workers necessary to put the production process in motion. In Ovetz’s book, the concept of the ‘collective worker’ is reduced to the figure of an outspoken worker:
“In a sense, the South Africa workers’ inquiry closely resembled the early workerist practice of identifying a collective worker: a single, vocal, politicized individual, with deep knowledge of the struggle, who could embody and represent the experience of a mass of workers engaged in the struggle.” (p.259)
The political process of inquiry goes beyond sociology, it is not just based on Marx’s questionnaire, but on his general critique of political economy. In the ‘autonomist’ adaptation of ‘class composition theory’, such as Ovetz proposes, these contradictions between atomisation on one hand, and the necessary socialisation of labour on the other, are pretty much wiped out:
“On the shopfloor, in a particular firm, or in the national polity, capital’s strategy of decomposing workers into atomized individuals commonly includes the tactics of making concessions, cooptation, institutionalization, and repression.” (p.44)
The organisational question is oddly missing from the book. For the editor, ‘class composition theory’ by itself seems to answer the ‘organisational question. The idea is that if we just did workers’ inquiries everywhere, that that is enough to change the world. But this seems odd if we see how much strife there was around the question of political organisation between different factions who all claimed to speak in the name of ‘class composition’ in the 60s. For some it meant that only the traditional workers’ parties, primarily the PCI, could be the vehicle for a further socialisation of ‘workers’ control’; other comrades believed that in order to break out of the struggle’s confinement on the company level, a direct attack on the state led by a vanguardist Leninist party, such as Potere Operaio, was necessary. Another minority believed that the formation of a centralised network of political committees within the advanced industries was the main next task. These were important questions that went beyond ‘analysing the immediate production process’ in order to facilitate workers’ organising. It included questions of how to react to an increase of state repression, how to relate to the new ‘social movements’, how to tackle the question of global uneven development.
 https://libcom.org/library/global-working-class-wildcat-germany https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2020/04/07/revolutionary-working-class-strategy-for-the-21st-century-part-1/
We recommend to read this summary of the ‘new type of struggles’ written before the Maruti dispute.
Latest wave of wildcat strikes with a very systematic depiction of the process behind the demand for ‘union recognition’ in struggles shared by both casual and permanent workers: