Better luck next time

Marianne Garneau reviews Angry Workers’ Class Power on Zero Hours.

There is, at this point, a fairly long history of socialist or communist groups “infiltrating” the ranks of the working class and taking blue-collar jobs. When the student and social movements of the 1960s subsided, attention was turned back to workplaces. It is after all Marxist orthodoxy that the working class is the agent of history which will overthrow capitalism. And so, the International Socialists formally adopted a program of “industrialization” (taking jobs in the manufacturing industry) in the late 1960s; the Socialist Workers Party had a “turn to industry” in the 1980s; members of Sojourner Truth Organization took factory jobs in the Chicago area; the October League “sent young people into factories all around the country to build an organization.” Among many other efforts.

The goals varied, and were never that clear. Infuse the proletariat with revolutionary spirit? Create a more working-class base for the organization rather than a predominantly student membership? Develop working-class militants and recruit them to the Party? Try to run out in front of a rising tide of militancy? Provide an alternative leadership to moribund business unions? Despite paying lip service to worker activity, the aim was never really to organize workplaces. The approach was much vaguer, and generally routed through developing the political organization.

This strategy is now enjoying another moment in the sun. Books are being published looking back on its past use, and articles are recommending it again for the present moment.

One group is actually doing it. The “Angry Workers” in the UK recently spent six years working in factories and warehouses in West London. They just put out a book reflecting on their experiences, and the lessons learned, called Class Power on Zero-Hours.

The book ranges (over nearly 400 pages!) between articulations of theory, descriptions of their solidarity network and newspaper, and what they call “workers’ inquiries” – in-depth descriptions of the workplaces where they took jobs. These are vivid and detailed, breaking down the production process, workplace demographics and dynamics, the economics of the business, and the functioning of the existing unions. The inquiries are comprehensive and engrossing, outlining the horrors and injustices that pervade these jobs: constant speed-ups of production; draconian surveillance; “redundancies” (layoffs) and the replacement of full-time, permanent positions with temp jobs; brutalizing conditions while working for minimum wage. There is a great critique of “automation,” noting that production and distribution processes crucially depend on living, breathing workers: “We are cheap, so why replace us with a robot, which would have difficulty fitting the big banana boxes into the small cages anyway.” They point out how ethnic groupings are used not only to divide workers, but to bind them to particular shop floor managers; or how a ton of exploitation happens within migrant communities as more established folks become landlords or visa services for others.

Organizing trouble

What I am most interested in, of course, is the organizing strategy. And that part was difficult to read.

The approach seems to revolve around a very limited repertoire of tactics. First and foremost is distributing written communications. This includes handing out their newspaper at factory gates during shift change, postering a neighborhood advertising their solidarity network, and writing leaflets for coworkers when one of them has a job inside. Over and over they use this tactic – to meet coworkers, to start conversations with strangers, to call for direct action on the job… They do this despite acknowledging in any given case that it produced very little return either as an outreach tool or in terms of spurring workers to action.

There are many reasons why organizing by leaflet is a bad idea, and they are written all over these stories. At a ready-meal factory (which makes lasagna and hummus, etc.), leaflets are used to encourage workers to get in touch with the Angry Workers – one of whom already works there. They note “the response was muted.” This is predictable: organizing is first and foremost about building real relationships with coworkers, which can only be accomplished with face-to-face, honest conversations about their lives and how work impacts them. For that matter, it mostly involves listening, which is something a leaflet cannot do. But the Angry Worker defends the tactic anyway, shifting the goalposts: “Flooding the factory with physical leaflets [was] important symbolically: subversive messages had infiltrated the factory walls and were spreading inside.”

Later, the same Angry Worker tries to call a week-long overtime strike with a leaflet. A leaflet does nothing to build the kind of trust and confidence workers need to have in each other in order to undertake risky collective action. When “nothing much [comes] of it,” she again moves the goalposts so that the action was a success after all: “the important thing was, that we were… giving people an opportunity to discuss a common issue… It was the first time that workers had been addressed directly in a way that put them at the centre of things rather than just as passive victims of the pathetic alliance between the management and the union.”

There is confusion about what the leaflets might even accomplish. Even when they do get a few nibbles, the Angry Workers are surprised and disappointed that “no bigger groups came forward.” This is while they propound at length the divisions among the workforce: sexism and racism; ethnic and linguistic differences; staggered breaks and no overlap between shifts; temps competing with permanent employees; skilled versus unskilled; work that individualizes and turns workers against each other to keep production flowing. What ready-made groups were they expecting to materialize? At a warehouse, they distribute a leaflet “targeting” the drivers. “Some drivers liked the leaflets and sent us solidarity emails – which was great, but not enough to build mutual trust.” What exactly was the exercise?

Leafletting is at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive. Another worker spends about a year inside a 3D printer manufacturing plant.  He hears rumors of worker action and coworkers possibly even joining a union but passively says “it was difficult to know more about it all” because “you see each other briefly in the canteen or at the clock-in machine.” Organizing involves seeking people out, awkwardly offering to ride the bus home with them, inviting them to coffee after shift, dumpstering employee lists to get people’s contact information so you can visit them at home where it is safe to talk. Rather than reaching out to his coworkers (beyond his immediate workmates), he waits until he’s no longer employed there, and then leaflets outside of the factory, as part of the IWW, “proposing that workers set up their own union.” Predictably, the stunt results only in union-busting, as the employer responds to the whiff of a drive with both threats and bribes, setting any potential organizing back.

One of the most important aspects to an organizing campaign is what is called “inoculation”: you give workers a dose of the boss’s counteroffensive before he has a chance to roll it out. If workers hear the boss’s poison from you first, they are immune to it, and the campaign is strengthened. If they hear it from the boss first, the organizing is on the back foot. The Angry Worker’s response to the union-busting is to argue back, in a second leaflet. By the end of the book (and six years), the Angry Workers continue to solemnly avow that the role of printed communication “cannot be underestimated.”

Ambiguous rejection of unions

The Angry Workers’ organizing is littered with these kinds of strategic mistakes. Taking action without a demand attached, gathering signatures for a petition and not delivering it, delivering demands with no plan to escalate, talking to people on the job instead of outside of work, holding “boozy” meetings where nothing gets decided, taking haphazard action that exposes themselves and their coworkers to retaliation. There are two reasons for this.

One is that the infiltration strategy – going back to the 1960s – deliberately eschews unions. The Trotskyists and Maoists believed unions were reformist organizations that only accommodate workers to capital. The Angry Workers concur that they “jointly preside over [workers’] misery with management.” There is much to say about the degeneration of unions over the last few decades and the handcuffs of labor relations (we talk about that on this site a lot). The problem with the Angry Workers is that they throw the baby out with the bathwater, and assume they have nothing to learn.

But organizing involves a very specific set of skills and practices. It doesn’t just come naturally, or pour forth from good intention. It’s extremely difficult and extremely risky, because everything about the way that both work and society are structured militate against it. You’re supposed to feel disconnected from your coworkers. You’re supposed to feel afraid of getting fired. You’re supposed to accept disempowerment at work and find fulfillment elsewhere. It takes both wisdom and know-how to hack through all of these obstacles and navigate all of the pitfalls, like tipping the boss off to a union campaign with a leaflet before you’ve even had a chance to talk to your coworkers about it. Fortunately, other people have tried organizing before, and they have distilled their experiences into training programs. Unions, to varying degrees, offer these trainings, and they can be read about as well. If you think you have something to learn.

For those of us who do organize outside of the straightjacket of labor relations, it’s infuriating to see people paint that alternative as an unskilled, undisciplined, fly-by-night free-for-all. One chapter blithely ends, “Things didn’t work out this time, but that’s the class struggle folks! Better luck next time!”  

Despite the Angry Workers’ critiques of unions, two of them become elected representatives, at a loss for what else to do. They say they “hoped to be able to create some space for workers’ self-organization within the company union structure.” Of course it doesn’t work, because they still don’t know how to organize. One of them comes across fairly sympathetically as a hard-working shop steward. The other intervenes to stop a wildcat strike, out of fear of retaliation (actually, fear that the retaliation would tank support for the union’s official wage campaign). Yes, they forsake the capitalist state and the moribund business unions but can’t conceive of class power operating outside of the protection of labor law and union officialdom.

The collective action that we do see in the book is quite often something the Angry Workers have stumbled upon, not created themselves, and they don’t know what to do with it. They meet some workers at a sandwich factory and try to help them as external organizers, along with the IWW and other leftist “friends.” The workers have already engaged in an overtime strike and gathered a petition with 100 signatures. The Angry Workers collective have basically nothing to add to this, merely offering to write up grievances on workers’ behalf. They then note sourly “We didn’t have an easy fix for them, and as a result, only around 10 workers showed up for the [next] meeting.”

Not even trying

The second reason the Angry Workers are so unsuccessful is that, on a deeper and weirder level, they abjure organizing as such. “’Organising’ has become something of a fetish,” they say. In fact, they note explicitly in the introduction that “Our efforts in west London were not about ‘organising’ as such.” By getting these jobs, they meant to “intervene in the class struggle. This doesn’t mean going in and telling our workmates what to do.”

Their affirmative view is that class struggle pops off somewhat spontaneously and unpredictably on the basis of objective conditions. “Class struggle is not a gradual process, we have to avoid the traps of step-by-step syndicalism” (emphasis mine).

They reify “worker self-activity” to the point where they want to self-consciously erase their own role. “Our task is to foster [a] process of discovery” whereby the working class realizes its own power – I guess through leaflets and newspapers. The Angry Workers are afraid of seeing themselves as a vanguard trying to lead the working class, even though that is exactly what they are trying to be.

Straddling this line between organizing and not-organizing ties them up in knots, encouraging workers to rebel but passively standing back, or sparking action and then refusing to see it through. At times you can see them articulating their own confusion. The Angry Worker in the ready-meal factory describes an occasion where a fire breaks out. Upon returning to the floor, “the air smelt of smoke and chemicals.” She is surprised when only one worker joins her in refusing to return to work. “That they would continue to work with their hands over their faces made me see that this type of exploitation and bullying couldn’t be fixed by anyone else, other than those workers themselves, in exactly these types of moments. And how do we, as revolutionaries, encourage collective action at these crucial moments?” (emphasis mine).

Alibis and finger-pointing

There may be peaks and valleys in class struggle, but the “objective conditions” approach quickly becomes a convenient alibi for the failures of your own organizing. Strike didn’t happen? Conditions weren’t right. Workers didn’t join you? They “weren’t ready.” Again and again the Angry Workers take stock of their lack of success and conclude “you cannot ‘kick-start’ disputes and strikes if the conditions and workers’ confidence are not ripe.”

This becomes a slippery slope where you start to convince yourself that workplaces simply can’t be organized – you take the challenges and treat them as unsurmountable barriers. The factory can’t be organized because it puts out “a pretty unsophisticated product that doesn’t require an extensive and intensive co-operation of workers which they could easily identify as a source of counter-power.” By that logic, capitalists have just successfully reconfigured work so that it’s no longer organizable. Why try? No: the point of organizing is to notice the way bosses have arranged the workplace to discourage us from collective action, and change that. Or – they bang this drum constantly – workers are too afraid right now. Of course workers are afraid. They are taught to be afraid, and that fear is rational. It is your job, as an organizer, to help them overcome it through agitation and inoculation (those are very specific strategies and they have a track record of success).

Soon it becomes a blame game all around. The union is to blame, for being compromised. Union officials are to blame, for being pushovers (even though, per the Angry Workers, they couldn’t act otherwise). The company is to blame, for scaring workers. The rest of the class is to blame, for not leading by example. Other leftists are to blame, for not joining them in the factories. When no one comes to their political movie and discussion nights advertised with a leaflet, they conclude “In a cultural desert like Greenford, people didn’t seem to be too interested in short films and discussion evenings!”

What lessons?

The “objective conditions” approach also begs the question: what are they doing there? They very carefully chose Greenford (in West London) because it “typified capitalism’s main contradictions.”  If class struggle just breaks out spontaneously anyway, what is their role?

It seems to have something to do with very meticulously ideating about revolution. A later theoretical chapter solemnly notes the number of power plants and oil refineries in Britain, “patrolled by helicopter,” and that during a future uprising, “we would need to recreate bonds with insurgent farm workers on the mainland, while waiting for new apple trees to grow.”

At any rate, this mystification of class struggle blocks the Angry Workers from learning any real lessons. Very much to their credit, they are generally honest about what they did and did not achieve. But they see no reason to proceed otherwise the next time around. Their solidarity network was never able to expand the group beyond a small handful of activists (at the end, they only had “two or three” people taking on cases), but the chapter about it nonetheless draws up plans for a dramatic expansion, comprising 70 to 80 workers capable of challenging both local employers and local authorities (and expanding the number of people working on the newspaper to 20 or 30). How do you get from here to there? They reject the question. “[T]his process won’t be gradual and is influenced by ‘objective conditions’.” We must wait for things like inflation or migration policy to “force workers to go beyond their state of ‘fear and acceptance’ and to actively defend themselves and others.”

The book ends with six proposed steps for others: find other comrades (one will do), get jobs at a strategic target, leaflet, talk to workers (“This becomes the basis for further leaflets”), publish a newspaper. In other words, replicate exactly what they did.

I specialize in the “we tried to organize and failed” genre. I think it’s important to talk about losses, and getting things wrong. The authors of Class Power are right that there is far too little of this on the left. But this book is just more mythmaking.

Nowhere is this more evident than when they lapse into bizarre fantasizing about what would have happened had their organizing been successful. “If we had managed to break through these barriers, a potentially huge structural Power would have been unleashed, causing a ripple effect across the whole area.” What is the value of these kinds of wildly speculative counterfactuals?

If workers had managed to behave more independently and bravely, if a critical mass had developed and we’d have followed through with the strike ballot, and then won it and eventually gone on strike, the message it would have sent to all the low-paid migrant workers in the area would have been extremely important. Across Park Royal, and across supermarket chains, news of the strike would have sent a strong signal that workers were no longer prepared to rely on the benevolence of such multinational companies and that they were commanding some self-respect. It would have shone a light on this neglected bit of West London, home to tens of thousands of low paid workers that keep London running. Workers could have linked up with migrant workers struggles on the other side of London, challenging the idea that foreigners are accepting any old poverty wages and in big enough numbers to actually affect food supply.

I don’t know how to categorize this other than delusions of grandeur. It’s certainly of no practical use to anyone interested in organizing.

Admittedly, the book is not really meant to be an organizing guide – after all, the Angry Workers don’t believe in that. The audience is not ordinary working people, but other leftists. It’s part bravado about how they went out and inserted themselves among the kind of blue-collar workers that “many on the left just read about or claim to speak for,” and about how their own “organizational framework … certainly beats going to the usual left meetings where you’ve got five old men and a dog talking about Durruti.” And it’s partly an invitation to replicate their experiment, “to make common plans together and perhaps set up similar organizations in your areas.” It’s odd that they would invite people to replicate something with so little success, but then again they do partially lay the blame on the left: “we needed more people to join us.”

This is the conundrum of the infiltration approach. Living and working amidst the masses of the proletariat and finding no one to organize with.

UPDATE: Angry Workers’ response to this review can be read here.