Nothing new under the sun? A response to Workers’ Liberty on the social strike

A recent article by Daniel Randall on the Workers’ Liberty website tackles the idea of the social strike, as promoted by Plan C. I’m not a member of either group, but I’ve found the ongoing discussion around the social strike idea interesting. The AWL critique is worth reading and engaging with as a contribution to this conversation; however, for reasons I’ll go into below, I also found it to be deeply flawed.

Dan’s* article begins:

“Recent strikes by Deliveroo and UberEats drivers are profoundly significant. They explode the myth, peddled by some on both left and right, that workers in the so-called “gig economy” can’t organise, and that the proliferation of those types of work is in the process of rendering labour organising historically redundant.”

This is entirely correct. I would take this point a step further, and add that it also explodes a second myth: the idea, common among much of British Trotskyism and implicit throughout much of Dan’s article, that the class struggle is something primarily waged through the existing TUC unions.**

The first objection Dan raises to the “social strike” idea is the slipperiness of the concept – the way it jumps between “a “strike” that does not actually involve a withdrawal of labour by salaried workers, but a more amorphous social stoppage or disruption, perhaps by unpaid caregivers or paperless migrants”,  “a more “traditional” strike that seeks to “socialise” itself by taking action beyond the boundaries of the economic relationship between boss and worker” or just “anything that isn’t an “official” strike by an established union”.

As an attempt to resolve this, I would suggest that it can help to see the social strike not as a discrete thing, but rather as a tendency, an ongoing tension within pretty much all strikes – just as all strikes tend to have some kind of bureaucratic or alienated features (and as proof of this, I’d point to the delegation of non-Deliveroo employees who met with the bosses during the Deliveroo strike – something that might well have been vital to protect workers from the kind of retaliation seen at UberEats, but which all the same represents a shift of power away from the Deliveroo workers themselves), they all have some tendencies that point in the direction of expansion and socialisation.

His next main objection is that a Novara article referred to wildcat strikes like those seen at Deliveroo and UberEats as “new”, whereas in fact they should be seen as being more prehistoric. There is something in this, but it seems like a rather narrow and pedantic point to try and hang an argument on. (At the risk of special pleading, I do think it’s also worth pointing out that the Novara article in question was written to raise the profile of a wildcat strike that was announced with less than 24 hours notice, and so is probably better read as being something like a hastily dashed-off flyer than a considered piece of theoretical analysis).

It is certainly the case that at the dawn of the organised workers’ movement, industrial disputes tended to take the form of wildcat, relatively spontaneous walk-outs with little regard for legality, very much like the recent food couriers’ strikes. It is also the case that, as that movement developed, it became increasingly institutionalised and tamed as forms of social partnership grew up that sought to contain these conflicts by giving workers’ representatives some kind of say in decisions***. For the last several decades, most strikes, from the big battles like the miners’, steel and printers’ strikes of the 80s or the more recent public sector pensions dispute, to all the innumerable smaller disputes in education, the railways, the post office or the civil service, have tended to take the form of management making some kind of offensive, and the recognised union in that industry or workplace trying to make some kind of a fightback, usually while being constrained by the need to operate in accordance with increasingly restrictive anti-strike laws.

Clearly, the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes have been notably different to the sorts of defensive struggles we’re used to seeing. They may have been defensive in the sense of reacting directly to an attack by management, but they’re most certainly not defensive in the sense of being struggles to protect an existing stronghold of workers’ power or union organisation from any kind of neoliberal offensive. In this sense, it is fair to say that they’re notably different from what we’re used to industrial disputes looking like, so it feels a bit pedantic to say that they can’t be described as “new” just because they’re not entirely unprecedented in human experience.

Dan’s counter-argument to this is that the distinction between new and old-new is important because “what’s required is not “new kinds of strike action”, or new forms of organisation, but rather a rediscovery and relearning of old lessons, ideas, and strategies, now forgotten or lost”, with “the period of “New Unionism” in the 1880s… providing models for how workers in so-called “new” industries, working with “new” kinds of employment arrangements… might organise.”

This may well be true, but it’s a point that remains to be proven. Are the lessons of the 1880s that it’d be a good idea to build workplace organisation where none already exists, which is such a vague point that it’d still be true even if UberEats and Deliveroo were the first companies in history ever to give anyone a crappy insecure employment contract? Perhaps we should be looking to the waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe working in garment sweatshops in London’s East End as providing fertile ground for the spread of socialist ideas? If there are genuinely useful and unique lessons to be learned from this period of history, ones that we’ll miss if we over-emphasise the novelty of the gig economy, it might be more useful for the AWL to share these lessons with the rest of us, rather than berating us for not already knowing them.

The next section of Dan’s argument is a consideration of what workplaces and the workforce look like today. He concludes that

“The issue in industries like transport and energy today, and in other hugely strategic sectors like education and logistics, is not that an objective process of “recomposition” (another term beloved of Plan C) has taken place which has rendered workers powerless. The missing elements are subjective: levels of organisation, and fundamentally, consciousness.”

It’s hard to say what exactly he’s responding to here – people who use the term recomposition in an overly mechanistic way? People who think transport and energy workers can never take action? Without wanting to deny that levels of organisation are important, and that all these sectors could be better organised, the question has to be asked: if the constituencies of the RMT, UCU or NUT are lacking organisation, how to describe the rest of us? The point is not to claim that transport workers can’t exercise power because of objective changes in the economy, an argument that I don’t think anyone was making, but to flag up the huge differences that exist between the old bastions of workers’ power that still exist in places like transport and education, and the very different conditions in places like the new logistics workplaces that have been brought into being by internet delivery services.

After this, Dan gets on to a more detailed critique of Plan C positions. One point he makes, which is pretty much entirely correct, is that “anyone in a workplace where a strike is taking place can participate in that strike, whether they’re a member of the union organising it or not”. This is broadly true, although it fails to take into account the full complexity of, for instance, action taken by certain grades or trades within a workplace – I haven’t seen many university cleaners or porters joining in with recent UCU strikes, or vice versa when uni cleaners have organised their own disputes. He adds “It’s not clear what the critique here actually is; perhaps it is that the mass public sector unions had failed to also organise strikes in the workplaces and industries where Al and his comrades worked.”

The implication here, presumably, being that mass public sector unions cover the workplaces and industries where proper real mass workers work, and that Plan C types are getting jobs in unorganised, precarious workplaces, perhaps out of sheer perversity, and then petulantly stamping their feet when the unions fail to organise strikes for them. If the situation was just a small handful of autonomist beatnik dropouts whining about the lack of union presence at their workplaces while everyone else got on the serious business of working, or indeed striking, in the public sector, it’d be one thing; but there are 25 million of us employed in the private sector. The mass public sector unions aren’t doing anything for us, and the mass private sector unions, with their 14% density, aren’t doing that much either. This is a real, serious failure.

As Dan expands his criticisms further, the working class=public sector worker logic is underlined:

“But the implied relationship between proto-Plan C and the strike itself is one of intervention from the outside. There’s no sense that any of the comrades involved in this work might have been strikers, or union reps, themselves (even though some of them probably were), intervening directly in their unions to attempt to build rank-and-file organisation and an alternative direction for the strike.”

Again, the point here seems to come down to: “it doesn’t sound like you work in a unionised public sector job”, as if this was something unusual and marginal, not the position of the vast majority of the working class. Certainly, I hope that any Plan C/proto-Plan C types working in those jobs would have been intervening directly in their unions. But for those of us who were working in the private sector, or retired, or on benefits, or in education, or full-time caregivers – that is to say, the vast majority of the working class – how could we do anything but intervene from the outside?

Next, Dan criticises what is indeed one of the most problematic aspects of the social strike concept, the tension between socialising a strike by collectively organising to meet our own needs – in other words, to ensure life goes on as usual to some extent – and the logic of a strike itself, which is to cause disruption, both to the functioning of capital and to our own reproduction, which is intimately bound up with capital – in other words, to stop life going on as usual. This is a real tension, and to their credit it’s one that Plan C themselves have taken up in their further writings on the subject – see this piece from BAMN #2, which discusses precisely that problem.

Next, we get a proper classic example of the magic trick where the working class goes into the hat and the membership of the PCS comes out:

“Back to 2011, and Al critiques the mechanistic calls from the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party for the TUC to “call a general strike”, but, despite identifying “the problem of power and counterpower”, the strategy he describes appears like a more-left-wing version of the same thing – an attempt to find a shortcut to “generalise the strike” without the existence of the subjective element necessary to do that: a consciously and independently-organised rank-and-file, acting as a counterweight to the power of the bureaucracy. That element cannot be conjured into being from outside, but must be developed within workplaces and within the existing unions.”

Whether you want to call it generalising, socialising, spreading or embiggening a strike, surely the key “subjective element necessary” is for people who aren’t already on strike to join in with the strike. In the case of the 2011 public sector strikes, better and more militant organising in the places where the existing public sector unions had a strong presence would have been all well and good, but there’s no substitute for building organisation in the places where the existing public sector unions don’t have a strong presence. That element cannot be conjured into being from outside, but must be developed within workplaces – but, crucially, by its very nature will need to take place outside of the existing unions. (To be clear, this point is not to say that all future organisation will take place through the UVW, IWGB, or IWW or SolFed for that matter – if someone starts a new branch of Unite or the GMB where one didn’t exist before, that is still working outside of the currently existing unions.)

Next we get another restatement of the “isn’t it weird to not work in the public sector” theme:

“Al says: “Traditionally power came from mass collective action at the point of production, but we couldn’t replicate that, because we ourselves weren’t involved in it.” It’s not quite clear who the “we” in this sentence is, but it seems rather solipsistic. It’s hard to read this as saying anything other than “me and my comrades didn’t work in workplaces that were involved in the strike”. Fine; when workers from a workplace in which we have no comrades go on strike, Workers’ Liberty necessarily relates to the strike “from the outside”, seeking to support it and help amplify it, and, if we can, to engage the workers in discussions about the strategy and direction of the strike. But we are still relating to it from within the broad labour movement (we can build solidarity with the strike within our own workplaces and unions), and we don’t extrapolate from our external position that “mass collective action at the point of production” might in some way be old hat because we happened not to be directly involved in it at that moment.”

Again, the assumption here is that being part of “the broad labour movement” – that is to say, unionised public sector jobs, and the minority of the private sector where union organisation exists – is the norm, and Plan C-types not working those jobs somehow equates to them being self-marginalising dropouts. But the great majority of the working class was not directly involved in the 2011 public sector pensions dispute, and has not been directly involved in collective action at the point of production since then either. This really doesn’t feel like it should be a controversial point to make – after all, earlier on in the same article Dan himself notes that “[s]trike levels in 2015 were the lowest since records began”. If we all agree that this is the case, why is it so risible to try and address this by starting from the perspective of people who aren’t currently on strike? If this is the position that the vast majority of workers are in, then how on earth is it solipsistic to take it as a starting point?

Dan accuses Al/Plan C of seeing “a permanently external, rather than integral, relationship between a strike and those trying to “socialise” it. But the agency most fundamentally capable of “socialising” a strike is surely the group of striking workers themselves.”

We can quibble about where exactly the inside/outside boundary lies – if we take the actions of Women Against Pit Closures as a classic example of socialising a strike, were the women of the mining communities external or integral to the strike? But this is a side issue: again, the point is that, whether we want to “socialise”, “generalise” or just simply spread a strike, the participation of those not already involved is crucial. From Seattle 1919 to Saltley Gates, whenever a strike has spread beyond its initial boundaries, it has been as a result of other groups of workers getting involved – that is to say, those starting off with an external relationship to the strike. Is the reason that the miners’ strike of 84-85 didn’t become a general strike, or that the Doncaster Care UK dispute never became a national struggle, just that the workers involved in those strikes were a bit lazy, and couldn’t be bothered to exercise their agency to socialise their strikes properly? Or are we better off looking for answers in those areas where the strikes didn’t spread to?

Next, Dan implores us to focus our energies on the “mass labour movement” because it “comprises seven million members”. That is undeniably a very, very big number. It’s also much smaller than the number of workers who are currently outside of that movement. Dan tells us that “it has to be gone through, not around; it is not possible, even if it were desirable, to build a new, better, labour movement from scratch.” This all might make perfect sense from the perspective someone in a workplace with a strong union presence; it’s a bit trickier for those of us working in workplaces, industries or entire sectors where there’s no existing organisation to go either through or around. If we accept that it’s not possible to build a new labour movement from scratch, then we are essentially writing off the majority of workers. Among most private sector workers, just like among claimants, any attempt at workplace organisation is going to be starting from scratch. A worker who decides that they want to try organising, and starts off as the only Unite or GMB member in their workplace, is not significantly less isolated than someone who starts off as the only IWGB, IWW, or for that matter SolFed member in their workplace.

This also feels like an extremely weird point to make in an article that started off by talking about the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes – strikes by workers who started outside “the mass labour movement” and organised at work in a way that completely bypassed the TUC unions, precisely the thing that Dan tells us is impossible. He says that “independent and minority-union projects like the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain and the United Voices of the World are in some sense defined by their relationship to the mass labour movement”, which I guess is true in some sense; however, it would seem fair to say that, in a much more important sense, those unions are defined by their ability to make some headway in unorganised workplaces, among workers who are not currently part of that mass labour movement.

Next, with the grim inevitability of a paper-seller at a demonstration, comes to the call to join the Labour Party, an invitation that seems to be issued with little or no regard for whether the Labour Party would welcome Plan C or whether they would be viewed as yet more unwelcome, dishonest entryists. Dan complains that Plan C (like, presumably, the entire left of Labour, up to and including the leadership of major unions like the RMT, NUT, PCS and UCU, not to mention assorted TUSC trots) “approach the actually-existing labour movement “from the outside”.”

I’ll let Plan C speak for themselves about whether they’re inside or outside of the labour movement, but the perspective that anyone who isn’t a member of the Labour Party is automatically “outside” the labour movement is a strangely formalistic one. Radical workers who don’t hold Labour membership cards stand side-by-side with Labour members on picket lines, demonstrations and anti-fascist mobilisations; we work with Labour members and supporters in our unions if they exist in our workplaces, and where they don’t, we still relate to them as fellow workers, we still include them in the snatched fag break or lunchtime conversations where we discuss issues at work and try and come up with ways to co-ordinate a collective response as best we can. In my experience, my friends, coworkers and relatives who hold Labour membership cards don’t limit themselves to discussing politics solely at CLP meetings, so the idea that not joining up equates to being outside the labour movement seems hard to sustain.

It’s a nice irony that while the right of the Labour party are setting up increasingly bizarre standards to determine who gets to vote in the leadership contest, the far left of Labour are hard at work coming up with equally arbitrary measures to determine who’s inside and who’s outside of the labour movement. Earlier on in the article, in quite an effective little rhetorical flourish, Dan declares that “If “socialising a strike” means “finding ways for people not involved in it to minimise its impact”, count me out.” I would say, with equal scorn, that if Owen Smith, Chuka Umunna, and John McTernan are inside the labour movement, but the rank-and-file workers organising their workplaces and fighting for better conditions at companies like Deliveroo and UberEats are outside it, then I’m very happy to stay out in the cold.

The next paragraph is yet another variation on the theme of how the minority of workers who’re currently organised are more important and have more agency than everyone else: we’re told that what is required is “a consciously transformative project within the existing movement”, and this is what will lead to organisation growing in “currently unorganised sections of the economy”. The idea of workers in those sections of the economy organising themselves, without first being led by those within the existing movement – to reiterate, literally the exact thing that we’ve seen at Deliveroo and UberEats – is once again missing from the picture.

After a brief whirl through some of Dan’s/the AWL’s favoured historical reference points and texts, we arrive at the conclusion: “without an orientation to the existing labour movement, the mechanism through which the vast majority of strikes will still take place and the mass social expression of class conflict in organisational form, and a perspective for transforming it, bureaucratic control of our movement will persist, and the growth of class power will be stunted.”

Unsurprisingly, this is just a restatement of the same old minoritarian logic, where a focus on one section is of the working class is stressed over trying to build organisation throughout the class as a whole. I’d reply that without an orientation to the existing working class, both organised and unorganised, the places where the vast majority of class conflict still goes on and the places where the sparks of those conflicts are snuffed out before they can ignite strikes or other forms of action, and a perspective for transforming this situation, “our movement” will continue to have little or no relevance to the lives of most workers.



*I feel slightly weird using first names when I insist on writing anonymously myself, but Dan’s article uses first names throughout, so it would also have felt a bit odd to use “Randall” in my reply.

** This point is quite central to my argument, and in a follow-up comment to the article Dan says it’s unfair to accuse the AWL of neglecting unorganised workers.  Obviously I don’t have the time and space to engage in a full review of the AWL’s theory and practice here, so I’ll just point to the “Change the World – Organise at Work” pamphlet, where they advise people looking for work to focus on “workplaces where there is already an established union, which an activist can develop and work in”.

*** This kind of periodisation is much neater and simpler when talking about the US, where Taft-Hartley gives a very clear date to base an argument around, but I think the broad thrust of this point should be uncontroversial.

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
This entry was posted in Bit more thinky, Debate, Strikes, The left, Unions, Work and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Nothing new under the sun? A response to Workers’ Liberty on the social strike

  1. Hi comrade,

    I have written a reply to this, here:

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