Further debate on the "social strike" and workplace organisation

Submitted by AWL on 12 September, 2016 - 2:15 Author: Daniel Randall

Cautiously Pessimistic's[1] thoughtful reply to my critique of Plan C's "social strike perspective" is very welcome. Many of its themes were telegraphed in an exchanged of comments between me and Cautiously on the AWL website, under my original article (click the link above and scroll to the bottom). I'll try to focus here on issues I haven't already responded to. Their response, and mine, substantially move away from discussion of the “social strike” issue, into a more general discussion of perspectives and strategies. Although the focus is now rather wider, I think the debate is worth pursuing.

Cautiously says that, if we (AWL) think the period of "New Unionism" contains lessons for the current period, “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.” I find this a little unfair; to put it bluntly, we've been doing our best. We have published reams of material on this very topic, and organised two day schools, in 2012 and 2014, to discuss it. Perhaps not enough, and we can always do better, but the accusation that we are somehow simply stating that the period is significant, and expecting everyone else to automatically know why, isn't reasonable. The second of our two day schools on "New Unionism", in February 2014, was co-sponsored by the University of London branch of the IWGB, a branch that AWL members helped establish. This rather undermines a central claim of Cautiously's article – that the AWL thinks it is impossible for workers to do anything outside of TUC-affiliated unions.

Cautiously accuses me of performing a “magic trick where the working class goes into the hat and the membership of the PCS comes out”. They say that I collapse the entire working class into its currently-unionised minority, which is predominantly based in the public sector. But, to take just one example, AWL members and supporters are currently involved in a burgeoning dispute of Picturehouse cinema workers, immediately at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, both as direct participants and “externally”, building solidarity for the dispute within the wider labour movement. These private-sector workplaces, where young, precariously-employed workers on zero-hours contracts work do not much resemble the public-sector bastions of existing trade unionism that Cautiously accuses us of seeing as the only possible sites for struggle.

Cautiously says our perspective is “minoritarian”. It's an odd term for someone whose strategy is consciously based on the promotion of minority unions to use. The claim that theirs is a perspective for the whole class, while ours only focuses on a minority, is a posture. Functionally, theirs is a perspective for those sections of the class - in fact, much, much smaller than the six or seven million workers in TUC unions - who might be reached by an IWW, UVW, or IWGB organising project. This might or might not be a reasonable strategy: perhaps the struggles led by those unions will inspire millions of unorganised workers to form IWW branches in their workplaces, or inspire millions of Unison, Unite, and GMB members to leave those unions and join the IWGB. But whatever it is, it is absolutely, necessarily, "minoritarian", not a perspective for, as Cautiously puts it, “trying to build organisation throughout the class as a whole.”

Cautiously seems to have taken my argument that “it is not possible, even if it were desirable, to build a new, better, labour movement from scratch” to mean that it's not possible to organise an unorganised workplace, arguing that I “write off the majority of workers” not in currently unionised jobs. To make it absolutely clear, of course I believe it possible for currently un-unionised workers to organise “from scratch”. Any “socialist” who believed otherwise would be no kind of socialist at all. But the question is: what kind of “from scratch” organising, and what relationship should that “from scratch” organising have to the workers' movement which is already there, which is not starting “from scratch” (and, vice versa).

If it is Cautiously's view that the principled and strategically expedient socialist perspective is to attempt to “build a new, better, labour movement from scratch”, in the sense of attempting to circumnavigate or even ignore existing unions except where forced out of absolute necessity to engage with them, they need to explain exactly how IWGB, IWW, UVW, or SolFed organising projects in small workplaces are going to supplant the TUC unions – the older, implicitly “worse”, but (unfortunately, from Cautiously's point of view) extant labour movement.

And if it is not Cautiously's view that IWGB, IWW, UVW, or SolFed organising projects in small workplaces are going to replace the TUC unions, then they should say what their perspective for workers in the mainstream labour movement is. If their view is that “minority union” organising projects might have some kind of fructifying or radicalising influence on workers in TUC unions, which might, if expressed through independent rank-and-file networks within existing unions which have clear programmes for democratic reform, help to transform and recompose the existing movement, then I put it to them that we might, in fact, agree.

Cautiously does a fair bit of collapsing of their own, displaying more than a little rhetorical sleight-of-hand, when they arguing 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. In fact, they wouldn't be “working outside the currently existing unions” in either case, as both Unite and IWGB provide a level of existing infrastructure, resources (both human and otherwise), and accumulated experience and knowledge of struggle. But to pose the matter starkly, 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 might be plenty of good reasons for choosing the former option, but they are qualitatively different.

Similarly un-serious is Cautiously's claim that “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.” There are plenty of problems with a union like Unite, and there is frequently a substantial gulf between grassroots members and the structures of the union. But the idea that someone joining a union of over one million members, with large branches in every city and town, would not 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) is just not credible.[2]

Again, I'm not ruling out the usefulness of workers choosing a union like the IWGB or UVW as an instrument for organising their workplace. But the circumstances in which that choice would make sense are, in my view, quite particular. It's not simply the mass unions' superior resources that matter, it's that by joining a mass union, workers gain the potential to link up with hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of other rank-and-file workers, within a common organisational structure.

There is more sleight-of-hand at work when Cautiously says I believe it's “impossible” to “bypass” the TUC unions. I absolutely don't think that. On the level of immediate, day-to-day struggles, of course it's possible. In fact, it's possible to bypass the trade-union form altogether: if you felt up to it, you could just get your workmates together without any formal organisational infrastructure at all, and walk off the job until your boss agreed to give you what you want. But if one's goal is not simply a proliferation of small-scale workplace struggles but the building of a mass, revolutionary-socialist labour movement capable of conquering social and economic power, “bypassing” the existing movement, as if it wasn't there, is not possible. You have to have some strategy for relating to it, for transforming it, for revolutionising it.

To return to the subject of the “social strike” momentarily, Cautiously's conception of it doesn't suggest to me that it even merits a special label. Cautiously says, “the participation of those not already involved [in a strike] is crucial.” Yes, obviously. No strike can win without some level of “outside” support. No strike movement can break its banks, so to speak, and become a more generalised movement for working-class power, if the only people involved are the workers on strike. Agreed. But if that's all that's meant by the “social strike perspective”, I would suggest that one needs a rather more fundamental perspective for how we get more strikes in the first place, before we can attempt to “socialise” them. That requires a perspective for transforming the labour movement. Saying “strikes should be social strikes” isn't particularly helpful.

Cautiously isn't a Plan C member, and their brief isn't to defend them per se, so I'm reluctant to dwell too much on the elements of Cautiously's piece that relate specifically to their organisation. But to say just a word on this: Cautiously implies I'm dismissive of them, seeing them as “self-marginalising drop-outs”, for not working in unionised public-sector workplaces. If I appeared sceptical about Plan C (or proto-Plan C's) relation to the 2011 public sector strikes “from the outside”, it is rather because I am not at all convinced it was forced on them by necessity of position in the way that Cautiously implies. Perhaps I am extrapolating too much from my own personal experience of Plan C comrades, but the ones I have met have not tended to be, for example, Deliveroo drivers or Tesco warehouse workers. They seem to have a relatively high proportion of members in well-unionised, public-sector workplaces, particularly in academia. I'm not trying to have a dig about their sociological and demographic composition here; on the contrary, I wish they'd do more with it. They're as well placed as any other political group to attempt to develop a rank-and-file network of higher education workers that could be an insurgent force within the University and College Union (UCU), and it seems to me that it's their perspective, orientation, and focus, rather than the distribution of their human resources, that prevents them from trying.

Cautiously also accuses me of claiming that anyone who is not a member of the Labour Party isn't part of the labour movement. I do not think this. I very much believe that the IWGB and UVW are part of the broad labour movement; indeed, I would like to see those unions very much more oriented to the wider labour movement. Where there has been direct engagement between these radical, "minority" unions and sections of the "established" labour movement, members of both have benefited. Perhaps ironically, given the IWGB University of London branch's origins as a split from Unison, I think it's reasonable say to that they've had a mutually enriching relationship with neighbouring SOAS Unison. IWGB UoL is affiliated to Camden Trades Council: good. For me, this is where "minority union" projects are at their most effective - not as a sideshow attempts to construct an entirely new movement, but models of radical best practise within the wider, existing movement.

There are other historical precedents worth exploring: the integration of the International Union of Sex Workers, as a semi-autonomous branch, into the GMB, or the merger of OILC, a radical, cross-union rank-and-file committee that eventually cohered into a distinct union, into the RMT. I'm not suggesting here that merger into a bigger, existing union is the only or even the best course, but if it will help sustain and spread workers' struggles, it should be considered.

I mentioned the Labour Party because it remains the de facto political wing of the mass labour movement, and a site where, as I'm sure Cautiously has noticed, there is more than a little ferment at the moment. It has clearly shaken some comrades from previously-held positions: I do know Plan C members who have joined Labour. But as a group, they seem to have no perspective for political intervention there.

Cautiously says: “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.” This rather neatly expresses part of the problem: unfortunately, Owen Smith, Chuka Umuna, and John McTernan, and any number of other right-wing MPs and capitulatory, class-collaborationist union bureaucrats, are “inside the labour movement”, and in positions of not insignificant influence. The challenge is how we get them, 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 (certainly, including many of the ideas and approaches currently expressed by unions like IWGB).

The obligatory anarchist-versus-Trot dig about paper selling makes an appearance too. I hope Cautiously retrospectively applies the same level of scorn to Kropotkin's Freedom, or to the New York anarchists in the 1930s who produced - and, shock horror, sold - a newspaper called... wait for it... Vanguard.

That word has attracted some negative baggage over the years. But although it's perhaps not the first self-description I'd reach for, I am a vanguardist. And, whether they want to admit it or not, like all serious class-struggle anarchists, so is Cautiously Pessimistic. The role of the vanguard, which in anarcho-syndicalist discourse has sometimes been called the “revolutionary minority”, or “militant minority”, is not to lead the rest of the class in a military-commandist fashion, but rather to constantly enlarge itself by persuading fellow workers of revolutionary-socialist (or “libertarian socialist”, if you prefer that term) ideas. The revolutionary minority must have a perspective for making its ideas hegemonic within the class (otherwise revolution is an impossibility), and that 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.

Cautiously cites our pamphlet Change The World: Organise At Work as evidence that we focus only on workers in certain industries, to the exclusion of others. We're actually on slightly different terrain here; this pamphlet is an attempt to persuade young left-wing activists leaving education to get jobs "in industry", as it were, rather than, say, for "left-wing" NGOs or on the staffs of trade unions (or, now, the Labour Party). The pamphlet was written in the spirit of Peter Kropotkin's excellent “An Appeal To The Young”. It does recommend a focus on certain industries and sectors, “workplaces where a strike will have maximum disruptive power”, but makes clear that the recommendations are “not exhaustive”.

Hopefully Cautiously agrees with us that socialist activists leaving education should "think politically" about where they look for work. If so, there is a real issue of activist energies and burnout to consider. Does this represent a Catch-22 on some level ("don't get a job in a warehouse until the conditions for organising become better; but the conditions for organising won't become better until someone organises")? Yes, probably. But activists organising within existing unions to reform and transform them, and turn them outwards towards such workplaces and industries, have at least as much of a chance of success as small numbers of individual activists "salting" (to employ the American term for getting a job in a workplace in order to organise it) a warehouse or call-centre without the support of a mass organisation. If you have a choice, I'd recommend taking the path less likely to burn you out.[3]

These assessments might change. BFAWU's "Hungry for Justice" campaign, consciously modelled on fast food industry organising efforts in America and New Zealand, would undoubtedly be bolstered by a few militant-minded activists getting jobs in McDonald's.

Of course, most "from scratch" workplace organising campaigns aren't started by someone who has consciously taken the job with the intention of organising the workplace. But, despite the aforementioned possibility of bypassing trade-union forms altogether, it's rare that they will 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. Again: we have to go through the existing mass labour movement, not around it, nor attempt to construct a new, "pure" labour movement on the fringes of the existing one. Attempts to do anything “from scratch” must be seen within the context of that overall perspective for transforming and recomposing the entire movement, not as embryos of a separate movement that can supplant it.

I want to end on a point of potential agreement that I think this debate reflects, although Cautiously might correct me on this. AWL has long criticised and opposed what we see, to use Ellen Meiksins Wood's phrase, as the "retreat from class" across the far left. On a whole host of questions, large sections of the left have abandoned the idea that the working class, in all its social diversity but fundamentally organised at the point of production, has an irreplaceable, and in some senses "privileged", role to play in winning socialist change.

As I noted in the article that began this exchange, Deliveroo and UberEATS couriers' strikes explode the myth, peddled by advocates of no-privileged-role-for-the-working-class-type perspectives, including on the left, that new types of work have rendered workers' organisation and struggle impossible or obsolete. I think Cautiously agrees.

Reasserting the central role of the working class in radical politics, and within that the central role of workplace organising, seems an essential role for class-struggle revolutionaries within the broader left. Despite our differing, although, I would argue, overlapping, traditions and perspectives, I'd be happy to work with anarchist comrades like Cautiously Pessimistic to promote a return to class.

[1] Cautiously Pessimistic blogs anonymously. I refer to them in this article as “Cautiously”, and use the pronouns they/their.

[2] I am reluctant to open up another front of this debate on “the party question”, so I should clarify what I mean when I refer to SolFed, and to an extent the IWW, as “political parties”. They are, in my view, “parties” in the same sense that AWL, and indeed Plan C, are a “parties” - that is, a political tendency within the working class organised around shared ideas whose activity is based primarily around fighting to make those ideas hegemonic, through political education and direct action. A trade union, which relies for its maximum possible power on organising all workers, regardless of political affiliation, is a distinct organisational form. Our class needs both parties and unions to win power.

[3] On the subject of warehouses, I think the Angry Workers of the World (AWW) Workers' Wild West workplace bulletin project in some west London warehouses is extremely respectworthy, and in some senses a very good expression of the kind of work I think revolutionaries can and should be undertaking.

It too lacks any kind of perspective for transforming, or even relating to, the existing trade union movement. GMB and Unite officials often appear as walk-on villains in their stories, and it's obvious that some of their correspondents are union members, but there's no sense in which the unions themselves are seen as a potential terrain of struggle. Undoubtedly, that has a lot to do with the editors' political background in a particular tradition within workerist autonomism, which to attempt to engage with here would take us off in quite another direction.

I would also add that AWW's critique of Plan C on the “social strike”, which Cautiously recommends in comments under my original article, is quite valuable. I share many of their criticisms, although as Cautiously rightly says, draw quite different conclusions from them.


Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Wed, 09/14/2016 - 19:17

As I'm sure you can imagine, there's a much much longer response coming at some point, but I just wanted to check this point:

"...arguing 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. In fact, they wouldn't be “working outside the currently existing unions” in either case, as both Unite and IWGB provide a level of existing infrastructure, resources (both human and otherwise), and accumulated experience and knowledge of struggle. But to pose the matter starkly, if you choose to attempt to set up an IWGB branch in your unionised workplace, rather than attempting to organise through the GMB or Unite, you are “starting from scratch” in a much more fundamental way"

Should "unionised workplace" be "un-unionised" or "non-unionised" here? I don't want to have a cheap dig if it's not justified, but given that a lot of this conversation has consisted of me saying something along the lines of "you're mostly focused on workplaces where union organisation already exists and don't have that much to say about the places where it doesn't", and you saying "nah, that's not true, we totally care about unorganised workers" (paraphrasing wildly here, obviously), then for me to say "I'm not that convinced that the resources of larger unions make that much of a difference in places where they don't already have a membership base", and for you to respond with "but if we change this conversation to be about workplaces where the GMB do already have members then things look different" feels like a bit of a weak counter-argument. But if that bit is a typo and you actually meant to say "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" then that's quite a different point - just wanted to check which one I should be responding to. More to follow.

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 09/15/2016 - 11:22

In reply to by Cautiously Pes…

Yes, it was a typo, which I've now corrected. Thanks for picking it up and apologies for the confusion.



Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Mon, 09/19/2016 - 22:24

OK, I've finished off my reply to this. This does feel like one of those conversations where every point made raises a lot of other counter-points, so I've tried to keep some kind of balance between skimming over too much and making this even more unreadably long and rambling.

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 09/22/2016 - 19:52

In reply to by Cautiously Pes…

Finally, someone prepared to bring the legacy of the strike of rickshaw couriers at Ye Olde Telegraph-Powered Food Delivery service in 1899 in from the cold. I salute you, comrade.

Seriously though, good article. I will reply, eventually. I think the exchange is worth continuing, tangent-generating and rambling though it is.



Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Wed, 09/21/2016 - 19:51

By the way, if you have the time, this recent piece from the AWW, while very long, is also quite interesting about some of the themes that have come up in this discussion (and has a lot of proper stats in it).

A sample:

"In terms of more serious attempts to understand the revolutionary subjectivity and limitations of the uprisings, what is left is an unproductive separation of analysis: some people emphasise the increasing numbers of proletarians expelled from the immediate production process (surplus population, unemployed) and others focus on the productive collective power of workers in the emerging global supply chains (global working class debate). Some discovered the ‘era of riots’ [8], while others proclaimed the ‘global strike wave’ [9]. Both sides are able to provide ample sociological proof for their position – figures about slum dwellers or the global integration of production.

We can ask ourselves why this separation of political focus has emerged. While it has something to do with the social position, regional location, and political preferences of those who analyse, the main material reason will be the real separation within working class existence: how workers experience impoverishment and productive power is structured and diversified regionally, sectorially, in terms of gender etc. In that sense most theoretical analysis and their one-sided focus only mirrors reality, without questioning it...

This main contradiction of capital appears both as an internal character of production (separated cooperation) and its result (relative impoverishment). The championing of either ‘surplus population’ or ‘workers’ productive power’ separate these two dynamics instead of analysing how, in reality, the experiences of ‘impoverishment’ and ‘collective productivity’ coincide or are segregated within the global working class. The separation also leads to a different understanding of revolution and consequently of one’s own role. If we focus merely on the first aspect of the contradiction – the creation of an impoverished surplus population – we will mainly perceive the social process as a kind of automatic tendency: capital accumulates itself and churns out a growing numbers of discontented unemployed. While this results in a quite deterministic view on social developments on one side – which we can just observe and which has little to do with the agency of the exploited – it also results in a pretty superficial and mechanical view of revolution as insurrection and rupture: at some point there are just too many poor people to be controlled. Instead we should analyse how the experience of cooperation and collective productivity and struggle of workers relates to the experience of impoverishment."