(An up-date and a few programmatic points about the current series of defensive struggles. Pre-orders here)
Shortly after this book was completed, the first corona lockdown descended on the country. For the first few weeks, we followed social events through the distorting glass of social media, snuggled into the glass wool of our new social isolation. In ‘Class Power on Zero-Hours’, we describe our experiences during six years of political experimentation in food factories and logistics centres in west London, highlighting the central role of workers in the industries that will be essential to social upheaval. Before Corona, despite years of groundwork in our part of the city, we felt like ultra-left outsiders. Now, we made ourselves comfortable on stacks of our freshly printed but unread books, and watched the news as the general public asked the questions that had occupied us: how does food get on supermarket shelves, and why are they empty now? Who actually does ‘essential work’ and why are the conditions of that work so bad? This was at once frustrating and exciting.
In this sense, the lockdown was another push of social consciousness-raising. After the 2008 financial crisis, it was possible for the first time to talk broadly with colleagues about the weaknesses of a ‘system’ that they had experienced primarily as the ‘natural process of globalisation’ in previous years. With Brexit, many colleagues had to confront the question of which consumer goods and foodstuffs are actually produced in the UK and which are imported. As with the crisis of the monetary system and trade relations, the corona crisis deepened and broadened the perspective, and the central question of labour itself came into focus: who works in what, how and why?
Colleagues at the Tesco supermarket chain, whom you will get to know better in the course of this book, wondered more than ever why they should risk their health to supply millionaire apartments or financial offices – while supplying kindergartens or care homes seemed all the more important to them. Colleagues at Bakkavor, a complex of food factories that was a central site of our experience, took the national media stage during the first weeks of the lockdown. A colleague had filmed the manager of the ready-meal factory during a speech in the canteen, in which he threatened the assembled workers with redundancies if they stayed home on virus-related grounds in the coming weeks. This caused the usual one-day scandal in the bourgeois press – scandals that allow society a short emotional reaction of outrage which in turn makes it easier to forget about it all and go back to business as usual. The area around the factory, which had become our political home in recent years, topped the national charts for corona case numbers a little later. The predominantly migrant and female workers who live and work there face poor healthcare, overcrowded housing, packed assembly lines, and no sick pay – a fatal combination.
But we did not write this book to lament the fate of workers. Even during the first wave of corona, we tried to understand how we, as workers, determine the conditions at work. We interviewed dozens of colleagues in different industries about how the power relationship between workers and management changed. London Underground drivers told us about how they pushed for shorter shifts against the will of management. Midwives shared how they used internet forums across the country to make decisions about which home visits should still be made and which should not. We supported Pizza Hut workers in fighting for their wages after their boss fired them without registering with the government’s furlough scheme. During this dispute, brief but interesting connections were made with local neighbourhood helpers who had come together in the first corona wave. On a small scale, this confirmed the importance of the interplay between solidarity networks and worker collectives in workplaces, which we discuss in this book.
The lockdown had paralysed us initially, as it did many of our colleagues. We had many discussions with comrades in other countries, but it was the attacks on wages and working conditions as a result of the wave of ‘fire and rehire’ cases that brought us out of our winter torpor and made us active again. It became apparent that it had been useful for us to have both put down practical roots in a particular working class place and to continue political and strategic discussions and research. In the Spring of 2020, British Airways and Heathrow Airport in west London announced that thousands of workers would be laid off and rehired on worse terms. The union (UNITE) only had a theatrical patriotic campaign to counter this attack, complaining to politicians that British Airways had “betrayed Britain”. At the airport itself, UNITE disgraced its name by, for example, signing contracts that gave benefits to an (older) section of the workforce, while leaving the mass of workers out. We had gotten to know workers and comrades at Heathrow Airport thanks to our work over the last six years, which helped us intervene in the weak strike that followed. We knew workers who were working overtime in the airport’s cargo department during the lockdown to unload masks and other pandemic equipment from Chinese cargo planes. The union could have taken advantage of this boom situation in cargo operations to compensate for the structural weakness of the passenger strikes – but chose to sign a separate, and barely any better deal, for the cargo workers. It was not only because of the lockdown that it was difficult to build alternative or at least cross-union and cross-departmental networking during the short strike.
Our rootedness and contacts at Heathrow allowed us to look behind the official union press statements. British Airways and Heathrow were just the first stone in a domino chain of conflicts over wages and jobs. As a collective, we sought to understand whether the current social and global situation might give these defensive struggles a new quality, or at least the potential for radicalisation. We had the following questions for the new struggles:
*What tension is created when entrepreneurs in some industries try to use the crisis to attack our working conditions, while at the same time there is an acute labor shortage in many industries that the ruling class cannot simply fill through mass migration for political and Brexit-related reasons?
* Can struggling workers use their experience of rudimentary autonomy during the first weeks of the lockdown, when they had to provide ‘health protection’ at work themselves?
* How does this experience relate to the unions’ attempts to control the strikes and patronise the workers?
* How can mass layoffs and worse conditions be imposed in the current situation, when the ruling class has just opened the state purse to crisis measures, leaving aside ‘market forces’ and the debt fetish?
* Why do struggles remain defensive despite current public discussion that ‘essential labour’ is not only unequally distributed within society, but also relatively marginal, while most people are engaged in meaningless activities?
* Do workers continue to be fobbed off with the alternative of ‘unemployment or low-paid work’ when we are at the end of a decade of the ‘automation debate’ that promised a rosy future for humanity and its newly created artificial intelligence?
* Are we going to continue to be blackmailed so easily when thousands of workers saw during the ‘national vacation’ of the lockdown that the world isn’t about to end if all people aren’t at work?
* Given the apparent inability of both corporate management and the political class to organise social (re)production – currently expressed in both the lack of pandemic protection or supply crises, faltering global supply chains, and, not least, the dramatic consequences of climate change – is the self-confidence of workers growing?
This is the political field of tension in which we placed the current disputes. This was about much more than just defending the ‘poor workers’. Added to this was the global framework, as workers in the UK could see and compare how workers in other countries were dealing with the attacks, for example, during the threats of closure by the industrial company GKN. While unions in the UK begged for the site to be kept open, GKN workers in Italy were constantly holding meetings in their factories and allying with other workers. In Italy, this made it more possible to discuss factory closures as a general problem of our class, while in England it was about maintaining a “skilled workforce” and “British quality”. We had the hope that through more offensive forms of struggle a determined group of workers could have turned a defensive situation into an offensive one and become the focus and magnet of an organic communist program of struggle: we do not accept layoffs and wage cuts! We all work and work less! We do only what seems socially useful to us! We take what we need and support other workers who do the same!
This is not what happens as a result of big speeches, but through workers’ daily and unglamorous search for effective forms of struggle (a process they are forced to do), while discussing the worsening social crisis. We can only be revolutionary if we follow both processes closely. The left is of little help in this. In Britain, they had barely recovered from the shock of the change of leadership in the Labour Party (Jeremy Corbyn, the Party’s left wing hope, was voted out as party leader in January 2020) when the Tories’ new state interventionism during the corona crisis left them speechless. The left followed the official union line in defensive struggles and thus contributed little to the learning process within the class. There was no strategic discussion of what radical tendencies might lie dormant in the struggles and in their interrelationship with the social crisis. The left lacked both a social anchoring in everyday life and, thus, connections to workers, and a strategy.
Admittedly, there exists a large gap between our daily organising attempts and current defensive struggles on the one hand, and on the other, the scenarios of insurrection and self-determined production that we sketch out in the book’s concluding chapter. This chapter is an attempt to discuss revolution as a pragmatic measure of class, not primarily in relation to 1917, 1936, or 1968, but against the background of current class composition. Since the publication of ‘Class Power on Zero-Hours’, the three main class segments that could be vehicles for such a transformation have become more prominent, and with them the lines of division between them. We observed this especially in the example of the US, where mass protests and riots against police violence after the murder of George Floyd, smaller industrial strike waves during the 2021 lockdown and the so-called ‘Striketober’, and unrest among so-called tech or knowledge workers at Google, Amazon, and other companies succeeded each other in quick succession.
In this sequence we see the three essential elements of the revolutionary process: mass proletarian violence against state power and the blowing up of the private frame by coming together in streets and squares; the collective productive power of workers as a cooperating class; the resistant producer knowledge at the most developed level of the productive forces. This tripartite division is also reflected on a global level as a geographical tension. Mike Davis has already written that revolutionary initiatives today have to focus on three places that can be considered as the symbols of a certain class composition: the factories of Shenzhen, the IT offices of Silicon Valley and the proletarian neighbourhoods of Lagos.
But we also see how these essential elements are socially separated from one another, and how the left often helps to reproduce these divisions. Discussing the issue of police violence primarily as an issue of racism, and understanding the ‘black community’ in the U.S. not as a complex social group divided by class lines, but as stylised victims, only reproduces the actual ghettoisation of a significant portion of the black proletariat in the U.S. Treating the question of strikes as a union one, rather than as a productive form of violence and collective class self-discovery, contributes to limiting struggles to workplaces and industries. A left that conceives of society primarily as the accumulation of more or less privileged minorities, but is relatively blind to one of the historically deepest divisions within class, the division between manual and mental labour, can do little to overcome the isolation and paternalistic humanism of knowledge workers.
We have seen critical tech workers protesting the militaristic or environmentally destructive results of their work. We have listened to medical professionals rail against their government’s disastrous corona policies. But what we need is a direct exchange between marginalised proletarians, mass workers, and knowledge workers who, as part of a class movement, recognise their task of social transformation, overcoming material divisions and knowledge hierarchies within the class. Without such a project of taking over the means of production and social power, there is no reason why proletarians of diverse backgrounds should relate positively to each other. Here we lack a communist organisation in the original sense. Not a party project that tries to unify the class formally or through well-meaning demands, but an organisation that seeks out the unifying and disintegrating tendencies within the existing struggles. An organisation both of direct economic and political self-defence and of critical proletarian science.
Such an organisation does not come into being through programmatic recognition. We honestly do not know how such an organisation comes into being. Six years ago, we only knew that we had to dig outside the existing framework of the left and the revolutionary milieu. So this book is primarily about experimentation and trial: what can we do as a small group within the current class situation to support self-organisation and discuss the need for communism within the daily struggle? You won’t find blueprints for successful ‘organising’ necessarily, but plenty of useful experiences. Write to us and let us know if you can do anything with it.
For communism, and in memory of Dan Georgakas – comrade and author of ‘Detroit: I do mind dying’.
AngryWorkers, November 2021