Dan Randall’s now published a reply to my comments on his critique of the social strike. The discussion strays quite far from the original topic, but is still worth a read for anyone interested in conversations about strategy across different tendencies. This does seem to be one of those conversations where every point made seems to spark off a number of different points in response, so hopefully I’ve struck some kind of balance between skipping over too much stuff on the one hand and making this unreadably long and sprawling on the other.
The first main point that Dan makes is that it’s unfair to say the AWL don’t do enough to share the lessons of the New Unionism, when they’ve written huge amounts of material on the subject and organised two events to discuss it. Fair enough; but at the risk of sounding like a literature professor or something, it’s important to make a distinction between things inside and outside the text I was responding to. The AWL may have done great things to educate people about what happened during the period of New Unionism generally, but in the context of the original point, which was a criticism of a Novara article for presenting the UberEats and Deliveroo strikes as being more new than they actually are, I think it’s fair to say that there’s a fair bit of difference between something along the lines of (to put it crudely) “you’ve said these things are new when they’re actually old, thinking they’re new will lead us to miss important things we can learn from old stuff” and saying “on the subject of the UberEats strike, I think there’s an important parallel to be drawn with the strike of rickshaw couriers at Ye Olde Telegraph-Powered Food Delivery service in 1899, where the workers made important gains by doing X, but ultimately the bosses were able to win because of Y”.
Dan’s next point – that it’s not fair to say the AWL only focus on already-unionised workers because they’re involved in supporting efforts by cinema workers to organise – is again a case of using something that went entirely unmentioned in the original article to reply to criticisms of the article. Again, it’s great if the AWL are supporting organising efforts at Picturehouse cinemas, that’s important work and definitely worth doing, but in regards as to what the article actually said, something along the lines of “The Deliveroo and UberEats strikes are all well and good, but what’s your strategy for workers in unionised workplaces?” is very very different to “Supporting the food couriers’ disputes is important, here’s what we’ve learned at Picturehouse cinemas, and here’s the general strategy we think unorganised or newly organised workers should pursue.”
Next, Dan takes up the question of whose perspective is more focused on minorities. This is, again, a result of the confusion that inevitably comes from effectively having two conversations at once. When we talk about What Workers Should Do, we’re inevitably talking about things that involve thousands or millions of people; if we acknowledge that, in practice, what we mean is What Those Workers Who Might Pay Attention To What We’re Saying Should Do, we’re immediately talking about much smaller numbers, to put it mildly. It’s fair to say that the chunk of workers who might be affected by an IWW/UVW/IWGB organising project is much smaller than the numbers who are members of the TUC unions, but it’s important to recognise that exactly the same is true of any “boring from within” rank-and-file network that we might care to set up.
The number of workers who pay dues to any given union, the numbers who play an active role in the life of that union in terms of things like attending branch meetings, and the number of those who might come into contact with a rank-and-file group set up by a small layer of activists are three very different things (or, in the context of a big strike, the thousands who might not show up for work, the hundreds who might turn up to the picket lines or the strike rally, and the tens or dozens who might attend the rank-and-file discussion forum on how to take things further). To be honest, I’m not sure that the term “minority union” is a particularly useful distinction to use – certainly the IWGB and UVW don’t have any special objection to recruiting over 50% of the workforce, and I have seen the argument made that most unions effectively function as minority unions most of the time. There may be some workplaces that are well-organised enough that the majority of the workforce play an active role at branch level most of the time, but that it would be hard to claim that such a state of affairs is the norm across most workplaces with a union presence. And looking at those places where the TUC unions are making real attempts to expand into new territory – the BFAWU’s efforts certainly come to mind here – they will definitely find themselves forced to act as “minority unions” a lot of the time.
So, getting back to the original point, pretty much any practical perspective for what the tiny numbers of revolutionary socialists/syndicalists/autonomists or whatever can do in the foreseeable future is only going to reach a small minority of workers. The only real difference is that a rank-and-file network that revitalises branches where union membership is weak and the officials are rubbish could potentially serve as an inspiration and an example, or at least have some kind of relevance, to the millions of workers who might be members of Unison, Unite, the GMB or whatever; a strategy that focuses on building new organisation where none currently exists could potentially serve as an inspiration and an example, or at least have some kind of relevance, to the millions of workers who work in entirely unorganised workplaces. This second constituency is considerably larger than the first, but you’d never guess that this was the case from paying attention to what most of the left say most of the time.
Next we move on to the question of how the task of building organisation in new workplaces is best tackled. Dan pulls some slightly frustrating moves here: we start off with the question of “what kind of “from scratch” organising”, and then swiftly move on to whether it’s possible for “IWGB, IWW, UVW, or SolFed organising projects in small workplaces… to supplant the TUC unions” and we then arrive back at “what [my] perspective for workers in the mainstream labour movement is.” And, just like that, we’re not talking about unorganised workplaces anymore, we’re back at that minority of workplaces with an existing recognised union.
To say that I need to set out my perspective “for workers in the mainstream labour movement” in order to have a discussion about organising workplaces that are outside of that movement feels a bit like saying “before we can discuss what these nineteen million workers can do, we need to discuss what these six or seven million workers should do”. I think it’s fair to call such a perspective minoritarian.
In terms of what I do think workers in those workplaces should do, I think the best contemporary examples of well-developed syndicalist dual-card strategies, at least in the Anglophone world, have tended to be in North America, as in the IWW’s intervention in the Wisconsin struggle or pretty much anything from Recomposition’s writings about the Canada Post. For UK examples, I might point to the Workmates collective on the London underground, Sussex’s Pop-Up Union, or this piece from the New Syndicalist. But all this is, in a sense, beside the point: I could have the world’s greatest strategy for transforming the existing unions, or I could never have given the matter a moment’s thought in my life, and neither outcome would change the fact that there are an awful lot of workers who have no engagement with those unions, beyond possibly grumbling about teachers’ or rail strikes when they’re on the news.
Dan then takes issue with my assertion that “a worker, or group of workers, organising their workplace from scratch would be “working outside the currently existing unions” whether or not they organised through IWGB or Unite” because “if you choose to attempt to set up an IWGB branch in your un-unionised workplace, rather than attempting to organise through the GMB or Unite, you are “starting from scratch” in a much more fundamental way.”
There may well be important differences between the experience of being an isolated GMB or Unite member at a workplace with no recognised union, attempting to persuade co-workers with no other points of contact with the union movement or experience of union membership to be the first ones to sign up to GMB or Unite, and the experience of being an isolated IWGB or IWW member at a workplace with no recognised union, attempting to persuade co-workers with no other points of contact with the union movement or experience of union membership to be the first ones to sign up to the IWGB or IWW, but, crucially, I think these experiences are much more similar to each other than they are to, say, trying to sign up more members in a workplace with an established, recognised union presence.
This point is repeated in the next paragraph, where Dan stresses that “someone joining a union of over one million members, with large branches in every city and town, would… be in a qualitatively different position to an individual joining a tiny union with three branches, all of which are in London (IWGB); or a strange party-union hybrid with less than 1,000 members nationally (IWW); or even what is essentially an anarcho-syndicalist political party and not a union at all (SolFed)”. Certainly, there are differences between all these things, Unite is not the IWGB which is not SolFed. But, in my opinion, these differences relate to things which are secondary to the question of workplace organisation, at least in unorganised workplaces.
There are a great deal of factors that can affect a workplace organising campaign: it needs to be initiated by workers who are known, trusted and respected by their co-workers, are confident enough to try something as ambitious as pushing for unionisation, have decent communication skills, and in turn are trying to push the idea of organising in a workplace where some kind of informal culture of solidarity already exists, where people are prepared to stick their necks out for one another to a certain extent, and the totally individualistic reactions that neoliberal culture tries so hard to build into all of us aren’t too prevalent, either in the pro-company version (“sure, we’re low-paid, but if I avoid rocking the boat and show how valuable I am I might be able to get ahead”) or the anti-company but still individualised and powerless version (“this place sucks, I’m off to get a job somewhere else”). Other crucial factors include the reaction of the bosses – are they skilled enough with the carrot that they can convince a big enough section of the workforce that it’s all one big happy family, are they ruthless enough with the stick that everyone’s too scared too try anything risky – the nature of the work, and the broader economic situation in the local area – when the boss tells unhappy staff that if they don’t like it there’s plenty of others waiting down the jobcentre to take their place, or is the work skilled and specialist enough that it isn’t easy replacing staff at short notice?
To be sure, the nature of the resources and support offered by external organisations can make this task easier or harder – is the recruitment material well-designed and attractive, do would-be organisers have to waste their time explaining to potential recruits that even though they’ve never set foot in a factory, they still qualify for membership of a union with “industrial workers” in its name – but ultimately, the key factors are internal ones. The fact that a union may have a huge number of other members across the country, or indeed that it can get its international affiliates to hold a solidarity protest outside the company’s offices in Poland, may help matters in some way, but it’s the nature of the relationships between workers on the shop floor (or inside the WhatsApp group, or whatever) that’s most important.
Or at least, to soften this claim a little, what I’ve said is certainly true for some kinds of workplace conflicts and organising campaigns; there might be others, such as the BFAWU/Hungry for Justice/Fight for Fifteen model, that are primarily driven by outside organisers, but conflicts like the UberEats and Deliveroo ones will continue to flare up, and there’s no guarantee that the organisations that are currently the largest will be the ones that will respond most effectively. At this point, I’m not sure how much more either of us could add that wouldn’t just be a repetition of existing political positions and statistics about union membership.
Next we come back to the question of the social strike, as Dan suggests that my definition of it is so basic as to not be worth the effort of using a special label*. Perhaps it is the case that “get more people from outside the strike involved” is a total banality, although I think there are still appreciable differences in perspective between a Labour Movement™ approach that seeks to mobilise other trade unionists as trade unionists and a more social-strikey one that seeks to involve claimants, workers who are currently outside the trade unions, and people who use the services involved.
Certainly, I’m happy to agree that we need “a rather more fundamental perspective for how we get more strikes in the first place, before we can attempt to “socialise” them”. But tracing this logic brings us back to the fundamental difference in approach: Dan thinks that to want more strikes “requires a perspective for transforming the labour movement”, which to me would seem to suggest a focus on those workplaces where the labour movement currently exists (again, we’re back to the public sector and a small minority of private sector workplaces here); to me, the question of “how we get more strikes in the first place” would more fruitfully be solved at looking at the places where the labour movement isn’t. What makes the workforces of other internet start-up companies different to those of UberEats and Deliveroo? Or, for that matter, out of the many grubby little private companies that are dividing up the care sector, why was it that workers at Care UK in Doncaster were able to mount such a fierce resistance, and what are the prospects for similar struggles happening anywhere else? What are the missing factors that would enable cleaners outside of London to act with the confidence and determination that we’ve seen in recent London cleaners’ disputes?
The next major point of contention is about the Labour Party, and Dan’s complaint that Plan C “seem to have no perspective for political intervention” inside Labour. Now, it’s understandable that a new group that has never really had an orientation to Labour has not yet found itself proscribed in the same way as a trot org that’s been practising entryism for decades; but we all know that, if Plan C were to read Dan’s article, collectively decide that he’s right about everything, and held an emergency general meeting tomorrow where they made it a group policy that they all had to join Labour, they’d be officially banned by the end of the week. It might be mildly diverting to see whether the Compliance Unit would come up with a special Plan C-specific reason for banning them or if they’d just be lumped into the category of hard left anti-Semites alongside the AWL, but that would doubtless be the result all the same.
Speaking for myself, I might be given some protection from such purges by the fact that I never write this kind of stuff under my own name, but it’s still the case that, were I to attend a CLP meeting, and someone were to ask me what I think of our local MP or councillors, I – just like a hypothetical Plan C-er who was called before the Compliance Unit and asked “Are you now or have you ever been a sort of autonomisty type who likes to use the phrases “social strike” and “social reproduction” a lot?” – would either have to lie through my teeth or give an answer that would give plenty of ammunition to get me banned. There’s no way to get around the fact that I straightforwardly view the people who have responsibility for implementing budget cuts in my area as my outright enemies, and no way to fudge that into being a comradely disagreement.
I don’t want to elevate absolute honesty into being an unshakeable principle – of course anyone who’s ever had a performance review at work knows the importance of keeping a poker face when needed – but I do think that, if you’re going to play a role in the life of a political organisation, you should probably have to uphold a minimum standard of decency with regards to your fellow members, and not constantly lying to them should be a part of that. I may not have any respect for my councillors or MP, but I do have some regard for rank-and-file Labour members; too much regard to want to enter into an organisational relationship that would require me to be systematically dishonest towards them. So that’s that put to bed, unless there’s anything to be gained by the specific act of me getting expelled.
Via a brief detour through the subject of paper-selling and vanguards, we get to the question of how we get the likes of Owen Smith, Chuka Umunna, and John McTernan, “or the ideas they represent, out of the movement – or, at least, out of a position of political hegemony – and replace them with other ideas”, which means “means taking on the likes of Smith, Umuna, and McTernan directly, on existing terrain – not attempting to build a new movement off to one side where their ideas can’t bother us”**. There is something to this, but to pose the question only at this level is to avoid the more difficult task of having to analyse what the existing terrain is, and the ways in which the terrain we wish to stand may be shrinking away beneath our feet.
To take one example, maybe Owen Smith gets to speak at the Durham Miners’ Gala, and maybe he doesn’t, and we may all be able to agree it’s better if he doesn’t, but just treating him not being invited as a victory can be a convenient way to duck the more difficult and uncomfortable questions about the current social relevance of the Gala compared to what it was in the past, the age profile of those attending, and so on. (I’m really not wanting to pick on the Gala specifically here, just taking it as a convenient example.)
The perspective Dan argues for is very much one that is orientated to the political task of winning arguments within the labour movement, but I can’t help thinking that, in today’s conditions, there’s an awful lot of people who first have to be brought into some kind of contact with the labour movement before those arguments can have any relevance to them – there’s no way of getting around all the difficult, unglamorous and unrewarding pre-political work that has to be done before the political arguments can have much meaning.
It feels like I’m beating a dead horse with this point by now, but still, it seems to be worth saying (if you like, you can imagine I’m doing that clapping after every word thing that people like to do on the internet nowadays): in a society with the level of union density that the UK has in 2016, making ideas hegemonic within the small layer of the working class that has active contact with the labour movement is not by any means the same thing as making ideas hegemonic within the working class.
The dig about “attempting to build a new movement off to one side where [the Labour right’s] ideas can’t bother us” feels like a return to the position where Ordinary Workers are engaged with trade unions and the Labour Party and to have a focus elsewhere is self-marginalising and subcultural, but still: even with all the recent upsurge in Labour membership and turmoil within that party, there are still an awful lot of people who don’t care about Owen Smith’s ideas, not because they have developed ultra-left or autonomist critiques of political representation, but because they are more or less totally alienated from all forms of organised political activity, including those variants which are or aim to be pro-working class.
Of course, writing this in late 2016, it’s worth noting that the Leave campaign initiated by the anti-EU wing of the conservative movement did show an impressive amount of success in engaging with some elements of this constituency. Engaging with Leave voters and the like may be more challenging than just fighting “the battle of ideas” within Labour or labour, where socialists can be confident that we’re talking to people who at least share some minimum of basic assumptions; but this work, while it may be more difficult, is no less vital. These are people we share our workplaces and communities with, which means that they can absolutely be found in “the existing terrain”, not “off to one side”.
Next we come back to the topic of an AWL pamphlet that aimed to “persuade young left-wing activists leaving education to get jobs “in industry”, as it were”, instead of pursuing some variation of the “ethical career”. This is one of those things that’s slightly difficult to respond to without sounding like a precarious worker version of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, and I appreciate that the job market is different in different places, but it was definitely my impression that, whatever things might have been like in the fabled years before the financial crash, young people leaving education with little or no work experience of the kind employers value, in the wake of a recession that left a lot of more experienced workers looking for work, did not have a tremendous amount of agency over where they were able to get jobs.
As an aside, it might be interesting to contrast the AWL’s Change the World… pamphlet with the class-struggle anarchist classic Give Up Activism, in that both are attempts to persuade politico types to focus their energies closer to home, but Change The World… assumes a reader who is currently outside of the workplace, whereas Give Up Activism’s critique is directed at an audience who are taken to already have jobs, or at least some kind of relationship with the benefits system, but choose not to direct most of their attention there.
Should young socialists leaving education “think politically” about where to look for work? Certainly on a basic level they should – that is to say, don’t be a copper, don’t be a bailiff, and don’t scab should be hard-and-fast rules, and as a general guideline I’d say the less you have to do with implementing things like debt recovery or DWP/UKBA/UKVI policy, the better. It’s a bit tricky with the way modern employers love coming up with policies designed to make even the most junior employees share responsibility for everyone else’s work, but I would also say it’s best to avoid any role where you have disciplinary or supervisory responsibilities over other workers.
For anything more substantial than that, things get a bit trickier. The question of activist energies and burnout is indeed crucial, and it’s possible that I may be unfairly applying a criticism of “salting” in unorganised workplaces, which is indeed an approach that comes with a high risk of burnout, to the very different strategy of getting jobs in workplaces that have a strong union presence, and so are presumably at least a bit more tolerable***. I would certainly recommend “the path less likely to burn you out”, which, broadly speaking, I think comes down to something like “do your best to get a job somewhere where you don’t hate the work too much, and try your best to find the best wages and conditions you can, because you’ll be spending a lot of time there so this stuff has a big impact on your life.”
But I think it’s worth making a clear distinction between individual survival strategies, in which case going for a job in the NHS or working for the council probably will get you an easier life than working for most private employers, and seeing these particular workplaces as somehow strategically privileged. I think the whole exercise of attempting to identify “the most strategic” workplaces is largely a waste of time – right now, it would be enormously useful to have a number of serious organising-minded militant workers employed at Deliveroo, but I don’t think anyone would have been able to make that call six months ago, or can say with any confidence where the next flashpoint will be.
As far as individual sectors setting the tone for the wider political picture go, I think the struggles that have happened over welfare reform the last few years have been enormously important, and think the development of claimants’ organisations, either through Unite Community or something more autonomous, is a vital task, but I wouldn’t recommend that anyone should make a strategic choice to sign on and deal with the jobcentre if they can avoid it. (For a reductio ab absurdum of this, see the current strikes in the US prison system, which I think are of enormous strategic importance – you can see where I’m going with this).
Approaching the end of this lengthy exchange, we get another reassertion of the fundamental difference in approach: “[Organising campaigns are unlikely to] develop very far, or consolidate any gains, if workers have no contact whatsoever with any “outside” organisation (i.e., a union). Until the infrastructure of the labour movement changes dramatically, there remains a reasonable likelihood that workers who are minded to organise at work will approach bigger unions, if for no other reason than they are more high-profile. Therefore the political and organisational character of those unions matters a great deal, even for workers in currently unorganised industries.”
In order to properly evaluate this claim, it might be worth breaking things down further into organising campaigns that are sparked by the active intervention of an outside organisation (the Fight for 15/Hungry for Justice model), ones that start off with workers inside a workplace deciding to organise and then contacting an external organisation for help and advice, and ones where workers more-or-less spontaneously come into some kind of open conflict with management, and external organisations only pitch up offering their support once these things have become visible, which is my understanding of the UberEats and Deliveroo situations. Reliable statistics for this sort of thing are very unlikely, but it would be very useful to have some kind of breakdown of what proportion of organising campaigns fall into each type.
Still, even if we agree that “there remains a reasonable likelihood that workers who are minded to organise at work will approach bigger unions”, this isn’t the end of the story by any means. This reasonable likelihood might exist, but we – as militant workers who are minded to organise at work, as people whose mates and relatives talk to us about the problems they have at work, as people who might use our spare time to promote specific organising campaigns – do have some kind of agency in some of these situations. To put it another way, it may not be in circumstances of our choosing, but we do have some power to make history. If a TUC union happens to be running a particularly good organising campaign in the relevant sector at that time, or if you happen to think your local grassroots syndicalists are a particularly flaky or untrustworthy lot of dilettantes, then sure, do what seems best. I’m not saying that hotel workers in London shouldn’t join Unite, although I am absolutely noting, because it’s very relevant, that the great work being done in London is not being evenly replicated across the country.
But to say that people should join the union that has a presence in their workplace is one thing, to say that, in the absence of a functioning union presence in their workplace, we should advocate for people to join USDAW instead of the IWW because USDAW is the only union that can ever have a presence in retail is quite another. The latter seems like an oddly conservative position for a revolutionary socialist to take.
I don’t want to harp on the US prison strikes too much, but it is the case that, a few short years ago, there was no union for the USA’s army of convict labourers, and now they’re in the middle of an unprecedented work stoppage affecting at least 29 prisons and 24,000 incarcerated workers. Revolutionaries put a huge amount of legwork into supporting and organising for this strike, with the IWW playing a vital role in co-ordinating actions. It seems unlikely that things would have gone better if our comrades in the US had taken the view of “well, there’s no prisoners’ union at the moment, but the AFL-CIO is pretty big, so why not give AFSCME a call and see if they fancy organising you?”
Finally, Dan ends his piece by proposing a potential point of agreement: “the central role of the working class in radical politics, and within that the central role of workplace organising”. I’d respond to this with a “yes, and”: “yes, class still rules everything around me, AND working-class struggles have never been limited to just the point of production.” From the unemployed workers’ struggles of the 20s and 30s to the role of the miners’ wives organised in Women Against Pit Closures, the high points of class struggle have always featured the active participation of those members of the working class who’re outside of the workplace, rather than just trade unionists acting as trade unionists, and that will still have to be the case for any serious challenge to the status quo today.
In closing, the memory of 2011 has been an important reference point for this conversation, which is unsurprising, because that was a pretty significant year. But that year didn’t just consist of the 30th of June and then the 30th of November. When thinking about that year as a moment when history failed to turn, the possibility that I keep on being haunted by is the potentials that could have emerged if the social forces that erupted after the police killing of Mark Duggan in August could have come into some sort of meaningful contact with the public sector strikers. Perhaps that seems like a sheer pipedream, but I think there’s a few moments that can point to how it could have been possible: the crossover between Black Lives Matter and Fight for Fifteen in the US is one obvious example, but closer to home I think it’s important to remember how the student/EMA protests of winter 2010 brought people who would later be fighting on the streets in August 2011 together with people who are now union members in their workplaces. Can such encounters happen in the future, and can they be made into the sort of transformative moment that would have a lasting effect on those involved? The social strike concept may or may not be useful for finding the answers, but at least it points us in the direction of some very important questions.
*This is one area where I can state, Groucho Marx-like, “this is my definition of the social strike, and if you don’t like it, I have others” – I think that another, equally valid definition might be to talk about a lineage of economic stoppages outside the workplace that could be traced through, for example, the Poll Tax, non-payment campaigns against Irish Water, and the recent student rent strikes. I appreciate that offering this alternate definition may not do much for the clarity and precision of the concept, though.
** As an aside, there is also a long-standing disagreement between anarchists and most Trots about how to understand the role of the Labour/union bureaucracy, with the majority of Trotskyism favouring a fairly individualist and idealistic approach that tends to see these people as bad individuals with bad ideas, whereas proper anarchist critiques take a much more materialist approach, seeing the ideology these people espouse as a product of their social role and material circumstances. Various differences follow on from this, but they’re secondary to the points I’m interested in exploring here.
*** As a sidenote here, Dan evaluates the Angry Workers of the World project in warehouses, which we both agree is deserving of a great deal of respect. He also says they don’t have any orientation to the existing trade union movement, which I think is broadly true, but a lot more justified and considered than he makes it sound; I’d recommend reading the piece they wrote specifically about their experiences of the unions, and attempting to do things like using the union structure to organise joint meetings between warehouse workers employed by different supermarkets, which makes it clear that their take on the unions is not just a product of what Tronti or Negri or whoever wrote in the 70s, but is also a product of attempting to go through the unions where possible and still ending up banging their heads against a wall.
Thinking about warehouses in this context also reminds us of the striking logistics worker who was just tragically killed in Italy, and the great work that’s been done by base unions like SI Cobas in that context, but that’s another conversation for another day.