libcom.org catches up with the excellent Angry Workers of the World to discuss their ongoing agitation in the West London warehouses and surrounding communities.
Some introductory comments from the Angry Workers of the World
Dear libcom crew,
Thanks a lot for inviting us to be interviewed! The answers to your questions are below, but before we start, we would like to take a moment to question your questions! They mainly focus on our collective from the point of view of AngryWorkers as ‘workplace organisers’. While this is one of the main things we try to do, it is not the only thing. We think this workplace ‘pigeonholing’ reflects a more general problem within the UK radical left: namely, a separation between ‘organising activities’ and ‘revolutionary debate or strategy. As a small collective, we try to bring these essential elements of working class organisation closer together by:
- gathering experiences and strengthening workers’ self-organisation in workplaces and in the area;
- reflecting on these experiences within the wider context of class relations, state politics, technological changes, crisis – as part of the research and debate about the changing class composition and the question of revolutionary breaking points
- trying to encourage both reflection of working class experiences and debate within the non-statist left on an international level, in our case through discussions around the ‘social strike’ with Plan C or with the IWW about Amazon organising
- taking a ‘local responsibility’ to circulate internationalist positions (e.g. on war and migration) and practical experiences of workers’ elsewhere within the area where we live and work. We try and do this mainly through our political newspaper, WorkersWildWest.
We take inspiration from groups like Big Flame and Solidarity in the UK in the 1970s, Potere Operaio in Italy and The Sojourner Truth Organisation and League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the US in the same period who, at the same time as ‘getting their hands dirty’ in working class jobs, used these experiences as a foundation upon which to have political and strategic debates and discussions. These discussions were based on real-life necessities of organising and class struggle experiences rather than beard-stroking pontificating. While we try to encourage direct actions at the workplace, we would not hide our internationalist or revolutionary outlook, but try to relate it closely to our workplace experiences.
Our day-to-day little steps within the industrial suburb happen against the background of a wider discussion about the changes in production and distribution and the re-emergence of bigger workplaces, e.g. Amazon, Walmart distribution centres etc. For us this debate was not sectorial, meaning, focusing merely on the logistics sector, but about the changing nature of the working class and work in general. We reckoned that the boundaries between production and distribution were becoming blurrier e.g. a lot of warehouses also process the goods they circulate. Companies like DHL are directly involved in manufacturing automobile plants. Workers involved cannot develop a professional pride based on individual skills, but largely rely on general social experiences: how to operate computers, electronic gadgets, how to cooperate and communicate with workers from all kind of migration backgrounds. Therefore we hope that struggles in this sector can develop power not only because of the size of workplaces and their strategic locations, but also generalise and affect other workers. We don’t struggle as a specific professional group, we all deal with minimum wages and zero-hour contracts, we all have the anti-migrant propaganda on our heads. We think that revolutionaries’ main task is to think about how struggles in the centres of exploitation (bigger workplaces, developed regions) can relate to more atomised areas of working class existence (the domestic sphere, crisis-ridden areas, unemployment) and mutually strengthen each other.
The explosive revolutionary contradiction of capitalism is the fact that an increase of social productivity goes hand in hand with mass impoverishment – but these experiences of high productivity and impoverishment are not evenly distributed within the global working class. Where and how does a class movement evolve that makes the two poles of the contradiction touch and blow things up? For this we need strategic discussions and revisions of old concepts, such as class composition or the theory of ‘uneven development’.
We also need a debate about ‘revolutionary transition.’ In other words, how can a working class in revolutionary situations:
a) Redistribute existing resources in order to level out regional disparities and
b) Undermine the division of labour between manual and intellectual workers, production and domestic workers, rural and urban, infantile and elderly workers as quickly as possible?
This is not a mental trick, this will require a trillion tons of metal to be shifted around and millions of walls to be torn down and rebuilt – a major logistical effort! Whoever thinks that in order to do that those workers who currently work in greenhouses, hospitals, factories, care homes, transport, energy, communications and demolition squads won’t play a specific and scientific role is either a dumb middle-class jerk or a Stalinist who thinks that the party state will solve all this, or both.
Some people will say this is all too speculative and pre-emptive, why talk of revolutionary moments now when we look around us and see that working class self-activity is at a low ebb? But without this strategic thinking, communism remains a pipe dream, something we have already given up on. Discussing these ideas in the context of our shop-floor organising efforts forces us to take a global and broader outlook, beyond the pay deal, to how different groups of workers, within the UK and beyond, can relate to each other. Our role of revolutionaries to facilitate this will then have some direction and vision beyond the ‘mobilisation for the next march’.
Political events or the wider crisis impact on what is happening at workplaces and vice-versa. So it makes sense to discuss these issues in relation to ‘on-the-job’ stuff and not see it as occupying a separate ‘political’ realm, which is distinct from the ‘economic’, so-called bread-and-butter issues of workers. We have therefore tried to encourage a debate about the current stage of crisis in the UK amongst militants of various groups, by visiting people in different towns and inviting them to a meeting in Liverpool in 2014. This seemed very difficult and somehow confirmed that ‘political debate’ and ‘organising activities’ are treated as two separate issues. If we want to figure out the revolutionary potential of our day-to-day organising, we need a clear view of the bigger picture: how strong is the enemy, how divided are our forces? In the UK the main dividing lines within the working class are evolving around a) home ownership and to what degree workers’ are included or excluded from the housing bubble and b) the question of migrant status and whether your access to benefits and to certain segments of the labour market pressure you into the low wage sector. These dividing lines are tested within the working class itself, but they are mainly influenced by ‘big politics’: the development of global real estate finance, the refugee crisis, the sclerosis of the EU. This just gives an example of why we think this debate about the crisis is necessary, also and mainly for ‘workplace activities’.
Within the radical left there is a certain intellectual laziness when it comes to discussing revolutionary strategy: some people retreat into a mystical insurrectionalism and find sophisticated philosophical excuses for it (large parts of the communisation folks); others hope that some technological leap and the ‘creative elite’ will lead us to communism (Mason, accelerationists) – one of us currently works in a 3D-printer manufacturing plant, we can only tell our techno-fetish friends: wake up, guys, the real future out there ain’t no playground, but bad precarious sci-fi!; others shy away from the question of how struggles can generalise by overcoming material barriers between them and instead propose old patronising-lefty formulas of ‘political demands’ (minimum guaranteed income etc.) or electoral tactics (Corbyn). In the face of this we can understand that people ‘just want to focus on organising’, on some ‘honest syndicalism’ without all this political mess attached, and some cry into their anti-intellectual beer, but that won’t cut it either.
Left debate is way more evolved in the US: people are discussing the relevance of Marxist (or other) theory in close relation to struggle experiences, be it within the IWW or the movements against racist/anti-poor police violence. Here we refer to groups and initiatives like, Re-composition Blog, Viewpoint Mag, Unity and Struggle, Insurgent Notes, Gathering Forces, various solidarity networks. We can say that they have had relevant struggles to actually reflect upon (Occupy, Hispanic workers’ strikes, prison uprisings, minimum wage mobilisations, street riots against murders by cops etc.), which are lacking in the UK. But by looking more closely at the experiences in the US and by starting to debate with comrades there, we hope to get discussions moving here, too. In this sense we aim at building some kind of international organisation that brings together working class activities and strategic debate.
So onto the actual questions!
1) Tell us a little bit about the warehouse sector in West London.
To answer this question we have taken some snippets from these two articles we have previously written.
Warehouses and industrial units occupy the western badlands in-between the A40 and the M4, 15 miles from Heathrow Airport and part of the west-London corridor, a massive industrial area that keeps London serviced and its shelves stocked. This is a centre of big money, with a high level of foreign trade involvement, with a heavily invested infrastructure. The area is a mixture of small processing plants and storage shed and big food factories and distribution centres. Park Royal is the biggest of these areas, covering 700 hectares and employs 40,000 people, mainly in production, warehousing, distribution, logistics and call centres. It’s one of Europe’s largest industrial estates. And it’s in zone 4 on the Piccadilly Line. The surrounding areas are a mix of suburban 50s housing and industrial/warehouse pockets. But the whole area seems to be a bit of a blank spot, despite the fact that about 60% of the food consumed in London enters via this western warehouse sector…Around here we can see the effects of new migration patterns and how capital is organising itself and us in this low-waged mass work that is the template for working conditions under austerity.
It is a largely ‘unskilled’ workforce. There are big daily and seasonal differences in workload because of just-in-time delivery systems. To manage the workforces within this context, bosses use lots of temp workers (so there is often a middle layer of agency bureaucracy and discipline) and shifts usually span 24-hours. It is largely a migrant workforce, with different backgrounds and statuses – but the main division within the workforce is between the temps and permanents Most workplaces have a mix of permanent and temporary employees. Often, there is not much difference between them in terms of wages – it is more a question of ‘job security’, which is largely an illusion in the sense that they can announce lay-offs at any time and with little warning. Temp workers are mostly on zero-hours, if not formally then in practice. Most people move around a lot, going from job to job, trying to jump ship to something better…
While the casualised workforce is largely un-unionised, there are unions operating in the bigger warehouses, only for the ‘interests’ of the permanent workers. They deal with small individual grievances, but they have little influence on general problems: wages, shifts, pick-rate etc. In the Sainsbury’s distribution centre where some of us worked union membership was low though, even amongst the permanents, with the common knowledge that they can’t do much anyway, not for the stuff that matters: as we have mentioned before, wages, shift times, pick-rate (the pace at which you have to work) is something they don’t really address. The monthly sub does not seem worth it to many. The unions don’t do much about the division between the permanent and temporary contract workers who do the same jobs but get different deals: at one warehouse, the permanent workers get over £9 an hour for the same job that a temp worker gets just over minimum wage for – meaning they earn 30% more. At another other site, new permanent workers get the same wage as the temp workers, the only benefit is guaranteed shifts. The older permanent workers with a better contract get over £9, so even among the new permanents there is discontent.
In other workplaces where there is a large and stable workforce e.g. Bakkavor (ready-meal factory), almost 100% of (largely female) workers are unionised. This hasn’t stopped management from paying minimum wages though, nor is there much sense that workers in general have some collective power, even through formal union structures.
The work is repetitive, deeply boring, stress levels are high as the managers try to squeeze more work out of us, knowing that we will shirk at most available opportunities. They always have to think of ways to keep the pressure on: how to get the most out of a workforce that gets shit money and can leave for another job at the drop of a hat? Employing a large, foreign workforce is one way for management to stay ahead. But keeping people working hard requires all their best efforts: from texting you every day about your pick-rate, to cancelling your shift if you don’t meet the target, to calling disciplinary meetings about your performance, to displaying productivity league tables every day so you can compare yourself to others, daily threats of losing your job if we don’t work faster or follow their rules, large amounts of managers’ time stalking us, telling people to stop talking and work faster, concentrate more, continually employing more people so that they can weed out the slower ones, arbitrary drug and alcohol tests…
One method they use to ‘motivate’ us is to dangle the carrot of the ‘permanent contract’. If we have a good pick-rate, we’re compliant, if we bust our balls to take extra shifts at their whim and generally take their shit, we ‘might’ get made permanent. This happens just enough to keep peoples’ heads down. Just about. The temp agency does the same: they decide who gets shifts and who doesn’t, they cancel shifts, sometimes as ‘punishment’ if you called in sick the week before.
People who work around here also live around here. Most agencies won’t take you on unless you are local, wanting to minimise the chances of lateness for early shift-times. It is a large Polish area, with a more established Indian population. There are also new Indian migrants, as well as workers from other Eastern European countries, Somalia (although not so represented in the workforce) and Nepal.
This also means that most migrant workers don’t come from regions that have seen bigger social movements. The Arab Spring definitely influenced the mainly northern African logistics workers in Italy; the popular movements in Latin America form an important background for workers’ struggles in the US, but also here in London. The square occupations and general mobilisations in Spain contributed to the militancy of migrant workers in Berlin or Brighton. However, in Poland fuck-all has happened since 1981 that could instill some hope in the collective attitude in workers. Too bad!
Low wages, mobility and migration experiences in combination with the housing crisis also question the usual family set-up. People have to share flats with strangers and find new arrangements e.g. for childcare. We could lament this, similar to the erosion of ‘professional skills and pride’, or see it as a potential: neither long-term jobs nor company pensions are able to integrate this generation of workers, nor the refuge of the family idyll. The result will either be increased individual misery (certain), the strengthening of repressive religious or national communities (not unlikely) or the resurrection of working class collectivity (definitely possible!)
We also shouldn’t forget about the working class history of this city’s ripped backside, “this west London militancy” and we are slow in unearthing it for ourselves: from the first strikes in Park Royal in the 1930s, to the early ‘Asian’ strikes and anti-racist actions in Southall in the mid-1960s and at Grunwicks in 1976, to the vanguard of workers’ self-management experiments at the Lucas plant in the late 1970s. We will write something soon on these unruly, haunting ghosts…
2) What has your group’s activity been?
In the last two years, we have:
1. Started up a local workers newspaper (WorkersWildWest) of which we distribute 2,000 copies outside various local workplaces when people are going into/leaving work. We have just published the third issue with the fourth planned for the summer;
2. Tried to meet local west London politically active people;
3. Organized monthly film screenings in a local community hall that we advertise locally;
4. Worked in a dozen or so jobs between us, writing work reports for our blog, AngryWorkersWorld and articles for WorkersWildWest;
5. Distributed leaflets and tried to engage workers in discussions if something has kicked off inside their factories e.g. Bakkavor (ready-meal factory where a couple of us have worked) has just announced redundancies, as well as the waste depot (where one of us used to work);
6. Tried to see what the potentials for organizing are in our different workplaces – finding out what the main issues are, distributing ‘provocative’ leaflets to encourage discussion inside the warehouses, seeing if people are up for doing something or getting involved in when other workers suggest action.
7. Took or proposed ‘action’ when we thought it might have a chance of success. For information about some actions we have been involved in, check out articles in WorkersWildWest: for example over-time strike at Waitrose, slow-down and Sainsbury’s, violent threats against an exploitative visa-agent or action for holiday pay at a temp agency.
We’re trying to do stuff on a number of different levels and fronts and there are just a few of us, who are also working at the same time. So things are not so easy on the capacity front. But then, we didn’t expect it to be easy. We have got to know some great local workers/residents so we don’t feel quite so isolated as we did at the beginning. But we’re still a long way off from things coalescing into something self-sustaining and with its own internal dynamic. If we had to organize an action we would have be able to call a mixed group of supporters together from across the left in west London, some loyal comrades in the east of London and friends we’ve made in our jobs – but let’s be honest, for a proper blockade of a warehouse, which would be necessary to encourage and organise workers in the current climate, we would need 100 plus people. We are still looking for the missing 70 to 80 folks!
It has been difficult to get people locally involved through public posters e.g. when we do our film announcements we try and post up around 60-80 leaflets in the area and we’ve also flyered and leafleted to advertise a general west London workers assembly meeting. But this has not been very successful – only around one new person comes per film session (although sometimes we get a good retail composition: Sainsbury’s warehouse worker, Ocado driver, M&S warehouse worker, Waitrose supermarket worker). We assume that this is because life outside work is difficult around here, when people are too exhausted after work or have family commitments that mean evening events that are somehow in the more ‘cultural’ realm are not attended. If we did the same in Ealing of Hanwell, we’d probably get a better response but around Greenford, we’re working with a tougher crowd!
3) What are the demographics of workers involved in your organising?
We don’t stick out. We are only four-five people – British/British Indian/EU migrants from various countries. The majority of workers in this area are from Eastern Europe and India, but there are white British working class people too (e.g. majority of the refuse collectors at the local waste depot), some from other central European countries, there’s a big Nepali community too.
Since our friend and comrade from Poland had to go back home, there is only one woman in AngryWorkers.
Probably only because some of us are from an Indian and Polish background were we were able to understand a bit better the tension between both groups of workers in this area: the racism amongst workers from Poland, mixed with mistrust towards Indian migrant workers who, over the last few decades, have made it into positions of middle-management, shop-owners or landlords – and ignorance of the historical background of migration from the subcontinent to the former Empire.
Similarly, sexism is quite an issue, not just between workers and in their relationships, but also as a management practice. Management only asks male workers if they want a forklift course. When I (a woman) was hired at the ready-meal factory, I was put on the moussaka assembly line, while our male comrade was taken directly to the tool-room. In that sense, with less than half of us being female we are not as prepared as we could be to counter the sexist division of labour.
Your question also raises a debate about the role of revolutionaries (who are assumed to be from white, middle-class backgrounds) in working class organising. Some ultra-leftists break out in allergic pimples just by thinking about this question! The debate in this discussion goes something like this: ‘outsider’ revolutionaries’ attempts at doing jobs beneath their educational status is ‘inauthentic’ and that workmates see this and mistrust us. We would say:
a) We are not from the outside of the proletariat, but can, to a certain degree, decide collectively and under political considerations where to get a job. People might criticise the ‘militant alienation’ of doing hard, low wage jobs if individually we might find ‘better jobs’, but we think that in the long run the alienation of doing a job, which is less connected to where we think ‘the working class might be able to rock the boat’ is a far worse prospect. We want to avoid the separation in life that often occurs between abstract debate about working class strategy and the individualised academic job or high-earning computer programmer – for which you increasingly have to compete for with your comrades anyway!
b) We’re not all white and from middle class backgrounds. A couple of us might have been to university but so have many of the people working in warehouses here from other countries. Some are –shock horror! – quite well educated, having done degrees and masters, but haven’t been able to find graduate level jobs. This has not been so unusual after 2008. So this idea that we have to ‘hide who we really are’ is a misnomer. The feeling of ‘not being yourself’ was much worse in those ‘good office jobs’ than in the warehouses. Some workers we meet would rather sweep the streets than sit in an office or would rather clean up dog shit than become a supervisor. So yes, even on the level of ‘individual choice’, which is limited in the first place and forgets about the competition aspect, it is not really so perplexing to do a working class job.
In this sense we think that the old anti-authoritarian left attitude of “let’s start politics from where we are” has become a bit of a wishy-washy excuse for de-politicisation and individualisation of our lives – in particular within a rather middle-class dominated left. To question and change our own position and location in society should be part of the collective process to question and transform it. We might be ‘ploughing a lonely furrow’, but unless we are orienting ourselves around working class life, we may as well be talking to ourselves…
4) Do you feel limited by the concentration of your work within a particular industry? Is there any particular reason why you have chosen to organise within West London’s warehouses?
To explain why we chose warehouses in west London, we make a small digression to explain our political starting point.
The power of state and capital is based on the fact that individual workers are brought together under their command in order to cooperate with others and produce this society. Capital and state seem to be the pre-condition for social production. They have to bring workers together in order to exploit their productivity, but they have to divide them at the same time in order to avoid workers’ collective power and struggle. This is the main political contradiction of the capital – labour relation. Therefore the ‘workplace’ is at the same time a place where various workers meet (if they want or not, if they have racist prejudices beforehand or not), where they have potential collective power, at the same time the ‘workplace’ is already part of the social division within the class. In this sense we have to criticise ‘workplace’ organising: we start where workers work together in daily contact, but we have to emphasise politically and in practice that they depend on collaboration with others beyond the workplace: suppliers of material, service workers, domestic work. Only once workers’ struggle manages to go beyond the separation of the immediate workplace, will it:
a) develop the necessary power and
b) develop a political criticism of the current system: why are we separated, why are there hierarchies between us?
This is where we see the political content of struggles: breaking down barriers within the class by referring to a cooperation or mutual dependency which already exists, but which appears as the power of capital. This is the main task of revolutionary theory and practice. This is the main perspective from which we analyse and criticise the struggles of our class and organisational efforts of the left: do our efforts strengthen self-organisation of workers and do they try to push beyond the given divisions? In most cases the trade union framework uses the given separations as an organisational framework and thereby actually strengthens the divisions: based on professions, companies, sectors, nations. We are also doubtful towards political proposals which claim to ‘unite the working class’ without materially breaking-down barriers within social production, e.g. by saying that ‘the organisation’/party can unite workers as individual members or individual groups of workers under common demands (guaranteed income, wages for housework).
There are no short-cuts, the working class has to overcome the divisions during struggle themselves. What do we do? We start from where we assume that workers already have a certain degree of collectivity, e.g. in bigger workplaces, and potential power e.g. because their work is necessary for the profit machine. It is fairly easy to find these ‘concentrations’, e.g. in our case big warehouse complexes. It is much more difficult to find the already existing connections between the ‘concentrations’ and the more isolated or remote conditions of the working class, e.g. the supply workers abroad or the unemployed at the job centre who are supposed to replace you. In many cases the connections are not direct, but workers find themselves thrown into the same social situation: the pressure in the labour and housing market, the benefit and migration regime changes, the zero-hour and minimum wage existence. We have to refer to these commonalities.
This is why we chose to be here. Between Heathrow airport as an import gateway and London inner-city supermarkets and shops there is chain of processing, packaging and distribution plants that rely on each other. Working here, you get a real sense of how capital is having to organise itself in the face of tighter profit margins, how their ground is shaky, where the weak spots are and where we can begin developing a collective counter response. People are pissed off. If something can kick off here, there’s a lot that people can relate to.
‘Logistics’ has been a buzzword amongst the left for a while now: global and expanding supply chains bring together workers in different sectors and countries. They are directly connected in the production and distribution of a single product – although they may never see each other. This global collectivity has the potential to turn into struggles of real solidarity. The growth of this sector marks a change of direction in terms of the trend in dispersal of workplaces into smaller units, which itself was the result of worker militancy of the 70s. It brings workers together in larger numbers, with poor pay and conditions despite being managed by multi-national companies. This has sparked some of the most militant struggles over the last decade, including in Italy. We say more about this in question 6.
We use ‘warehouses’ loosely though: we have also worked in big ready-meal factories that supply the main supermarkets, the Royal Mail distribution centre, computer hardware manufacturing plants and street cleansing depots – all for the same political reasons as above. So we don’t have such a ‘warehouse’ fetish as more of a focus on the bigger workplaces in our local area.
5) Your group seem to have specifically chosen to avoid working through TUC unions. Do you feel that your existence outside of traditional labour relations structures hinders your ability to build stable worker organisation in the industry?
We have not actively avoided the unions. Before we even started working in west-London some of us joined GMB and later on Unite, hoping that there would be local branch meetings where we could meet workers from various sectors. But in the last two years we haven’t come across these kinds of social spaces within the union structure. We don’t have a purely ideological resistance to working within union structures; but in our experiences, they have only tried to maintain their position, as well as the divisions between the temp and permanent workers. Where there has been union interest in our self-organised temp activity, it has first and foremost been for recruitment purposes, which did not do anything to assuage our mistrust. See our article that gives some snapshots of our union experiences so far.
The unions that are present inside the warehouses and factories around here have not been able to build real power amongst workers to stop sliding wages, let alone enforce pay increases and better conditions. They have, however, managed to create ‘stability’ in the sense that that they maintain the status quo… In our experiences so far: reps did not accompany us to our disciplinary meetings; temp workers, even when they articulated their own demands, were ignored by the union officials; they take union dues off minimum-waged workers for the privilege of getting 9 pence above the minimum wage.
If we thought it was worth promoting membership to our co-workers we would have. But it wouldn’t make any sense because paying the union fee on minimum wages when they are not improving pay or conditions (or even really defending them) would be a waste. In our experiences, the unions that are established presences inside warehouses and factories are pretty cosy with management. So unless they proactively addressed workers with a plan of action, there seemed little point in trying to use the unions as the main vehicle of organisation.
We wouldn’t be closed to the idea of ‘becoming union members’ as part of a general strategy of what workers can do on the job; however, the precondition would have to be that a substantial group amongst the workers is able and willing to analyse how unions work, what the labour law says, how union internal hierarchy works etc. They would have to understand the union apparatus and legal constraints as much as they have to understand the apparatus of capital and its weak points. Only on the basis of that type of collective discussion would workers be able to effectively ‘use the union structure’ for their ends – but then, once workers have this level of collectivity and analysis they would probably also manage without the main union support (and interference!).
We are also not ‘against’ syndicalist unions. One of us has recently joined the IWW. We remain open to the possibility that joining will somehow provide some support in given situations. But we will see. The main problem to establishing some stable worker organization has been the changes to production itself. The question is, what kind of organisational forms will address this? TUC unions in their current state don’t seem to be able to do this effectively. So for very practical, rather than merely ‘ideological’ reasons are we wary of putting our eggs into that basket.
Building stable worker organisation is difficult because:
a) some sections of workers move around a lot
b) where they are permanent and long-term workers, the union has not encouraged militant worker-led actions, nor have been interested in advancing temp workers’ pay and conditions
c) many of the Eastern Europeans in particular hate their existence in London and want to earn enough money to be able to settle permanently ‘back home’. As long as this illusion continues, and job situations in their countries of origin are still shit, they are less inclined to ‘fight where they are’.
d) there is a general disillusionment in unions, at the same time as unions being seen as the only option as an expression of workers’ power.
e) people have very few places to meet and discuss. This lack of social space keeps people quite isolated from each other.
If the unions were able to address these issues, they might be beneficial in terms of their ‘infrastructural capacity’. But we would also question the idea that you need big infrastructure and big resources to get anywhere – at least in the initial phases of class struggle. Up until now, this notion has acted as more of a hindrance rather than a catalyst for self-organisation.
We also checked out some union rank-and-file meetings, such as the annual National Shop Steward convention. We found that it was contaminated with Socialist Party politics in the background. While on the parliamentary level they tell people to put pressure on the Labour Party, on the trade union front they go on and on about asking the TUC for a general strike call. We tried to find people with whom we can exchange direct experiences, but found hardly anyone. We think the initial idea (e.g. around the now defunct magazine ‘Solidarity’) of a rank-and-file union structure was good, similar to Labornotes in the US, but it got taken over by social democratic power politics. Our proposal to publish a UK-wide ‘class struggle reflections’-newspaper still stands.
6) You take inspiration from the struggles of logistics workers in Italy organised through the SI Cobas union yet they are organised within an official (albeit radical and grassroots) union. Is there any reason you don’t do something similar and organise workers directly into either the IWW or IWBG?
S.I. Cobas were already a certain material force, thanks to their contacts with the social centres and militant activists, which meant that they were actually able to get enough external support at the warehouse gates to provide an impetus to workers inside. In our situation we think we just don’t have the left support to get 100 people outside the gates even if we did join the IWW or IWGB – the only thing that would really make a qualitative difference. We don’t want to create the illusion that once workers ‘join’ this or that organisation with this or that badge or flag, their problems will be solved when actually the IWW or IWGB in London are not able to materially support them. Therefore, we emphasise that we have to start from scratch: building workplace collectives and solidarity networks. Formalisation in terms of ‘creating a name and visual presence’ is secondary, even though we recognise that on some level, this may be reassuring to workers. Maybe we have to wave flags and give the individual worker some ‘symbolic strength’, but then this fosters the belief in some magical strength outside of what workers themselves are doing or the belief in activists and experts. If we had five full-time comrades, and the money to open up an office for legal advice etc., we could ‘organise individual workers;’ but we don’t, and in the long run, external organisers or resources won’t sustain things.
We would also feel awkward asking people to become members and pay subs: this is what the GMB does, and they deliver fuck-all. Workers know this and are suspicious. We could only ask fellow workers to contribute money or other resources once they know that it is for concrete struggle purposes. We are sure the Wobbly comrades will always emphasise the fact that subs only go towards that purpose, but it feels slightly different nevertheless.
In our text about our experiences and exchange with S.I. Cobas we touched upon some further structural questions regarding syndicalism:
- the problem that to individual workers only a ‘victorious’ organisation seems worthwhile joining; at the same time one of the main problems of the working class are organisations that compulsively claim victories and hinder a self-critical reflection about our class struggles – which we need if we’re going to learn how to beat the bosses better and overcome internal class hierarchies;
- the problem of delegates and representation: to institutionalise the fact that some workers are more active or eloquent or able to sacrifice creates more problems further down the line; people burn out, are victimised or sell out; we need an open debate about how to avoid this, even if it seems more challenging not to rely on delegate structures and the ‘legal benefits’ the state seems to guarantee for it.
We don’t want to piss on the parade of our IWGB comrades who do a great job with the cleaners and couriers, and we will try to get more involved despite things being far away from the edge of town. But we also see that what works for cleaners on the campus of a prestigious university, with the support of student unions or some central London museum, might not work as well for cleaners in some mouldy, tin-pot food processing plant in nowheresville Perivale! Or that the social cohesion between sub-culturally interested workers, such as bike-couriers, is probably a lot higher than between Gujarati women in their 50s and Somalian men in their 20s here at Bakkavor. These things cannot easily be compensated for by just ‘better organising’.
7) As it seems you’re not trying to build anything that would generally be considered a union, whether radical or traditional, could you explain what the sort of workplace organisation (in the broadest sense of the word) that you’re trying to build is?
We are grappling with that. We’ve made a dozen or so friends in various places who we’ve got on with personally and politically – and they themselves are from around the globe. They know that we write the newspaper, that we want to build a stronger solidarity network. We sometimes have dinner together, shoot the breeze, they occasionally come for the film screenings or other meetings. We somehow care for each other. On the most basic level we would be happy if we had more time to hang out together, all of us, not just in small groups. That might shift the dynamic and people would see: hey, we are actually a bigger bunch of people with experiences in the area, this could go somewhere. So yeah, it is the modern urban problem of finding time for a common picnic or whatever. That’s the basic step for us, to solidify these friendships and to think together how we can support ourselves and potentially others. This would give us more capacity to do all the other things like:
- building small workplace groups that can discuss the situation and propose activities to the wider workforce at the right time; only at the Sainsbury’s warehouse were we closest to achieving this;
- coordinating the workplace groups into some type of forum or assembly, with both a concrete practical purpose, e.g. a solidarity action, and some political and self-educational aspect (e.g. what we do at the film screenings); this meeting could formalise itself, give itself a name or visual presence; this ‘solidarity network’ would be able to support others e.g. for community based campaigns (save our leisure centre, sit-in at the temp agency), as well as leaflet and newspaper distribution outside each others workplaces;
- building a group of workers who agree more politically and who want to use the newspaper as a medium to organise their debate and spread the word; in the long-run we would try to take-over something like a ‘local responsibility’ within an international coordination: to report and reflect on what is going on here and to put forward an internationally debated position locally.
As you can see, these are not very original thoughts. The workers’ clubs of the First International probably already worked along these lines and most IWW or anarcho-syndicalist locals would try to do, if not the same, then probably similar stuff. The problem is that currently people get ‘bogged down’ locally and neglect sharing and debating their experiences with others, also outside their organisation, or they focus on some lofty networking and discussions without major local class roots, for example all this ‘transnational strike’ business. Our modest effort is therefore to systematically share our experiences and to put them into a bigger context, inviting others to collaborate. Please do so!
It goes without saying that where we are in Greenford means that we are geographically and socially isolated from the libertarian milieu in the rest of London. Getting more regular, direct support from the left is difficult because we are far out in zone 4 and there is no romantic, working class propaganda to entice people here! Energy drinks, strong Polish beer and a boxy sauna in the (soon to close – grrr!) local leisure centre are all we’ve got. But if and when things kick off around here we hope it will be possible that bigger groups of people would come and support. In the meantime we have an open invitation to anyone who wants to join us, or contribute in whatever way they can. We want to have a meeting about the migration issue soon and if people are up for a guided walk around Park Royal, get in touch!
Our texts on crisis in the UK:
Our interventions in the ‘strategical debate’
Introduction to our newspaper:
Background text on ‘logistics’-debate:
Good map of the 1717 companies based in Park Royal, unfortunately created by the state and not by communist militants:
Short text on Polish migration to the UK:
Text on the family crisis within the local working class:
Some actions – not all of them suitable for a victory tick-list:
Overtime strike at Waitrose
Slow down at Sainsbury’s