For a response to this article by the anarchist blogger "Cautiously Pessimistic", click here.
For a further response from Daniel Randall, click here.
Plan C comrades have told us they also plan a collective response, which we will link to once it is published.
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.
Some on the radical left confer a particular significance on the strikes. An article on NovaraMedia by Plan C's Callum Cant frames them as "social strikes" – a “new kind of strike action”.
As a workplace militant and trade union rep, I'm always interested in exploring “new kinds of strike action”. Plan C write about “the social strike” as if it might be the key to overcoming the current weakness of organised labour as a social force. Strike levels in 2015 were the lowest since records began, so no-one could deny that we're in a weak position, lacking combativity. Therefore anything that purports to be a strategy for overcoming that deserves attention.
But despite some fairly substantial engagement with Plan C on this issue (I spoke in a workshop entitled "socialising the Tube strikes" at their "Fast Forward" event in summer 2015, and Al Mikey from Plan C spoke at Workers' Liberty's "Ideas for Freedom" conference on the topic some weeks earlier), I still struggle to understand exactly what the "social strike" is.
Part of my difficulty stems from the fact that Plan C and their co-thinkers deploy the term in a variety of not-always-consistent ways. Sometimes it seems to be used to describe 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. This is the model described by the Roberta Ferrari from the Transnational Social Strike project, in which Plan C is involved, in an interview she gave to our newspaper Solidarity in October 2015: “What we want is to go beyond these forms of organisation [unions], to really attack precarity in its several faces, connecting different figures of labour inside and outside the workplaces, in the sphere of reproduction, both formal and informal.”
Alternatively it is used to describe a more "traditional" strike that seeks to "socialise" itself by taking action beyond the boundaries of the economic relationship between boss and worker - for example, "revenue strikes" by transport workers in which they open ticket turnstiles at train stations, allowing the public free transport (something that was experimented with on the Tube, largely at the urging of Workers' Liberty comrades, in 2014; it had mixed results at the time, but I feel it should be experimented with again). As Al Mikey puts it in an interview with Callum on the topic, published on the Plan C website, the social strike is a "generalising process of antagonisms that goes beyond the initial conflict between labour and capital in production and into society."
Or, as in the case of the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes, it appears one can just slap the label "social strike" on anything that isn't an "official" strike by an established union, involving a ballot mandate, formal notification to the employer, and so on, and say it's not only a “social strike” but a “new kind of strike action”.
The concept might have some value. But that value will be hard to unlock and apply if the term continues to be employed to mean essentially whatever one likes.
When Callum says of the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes that "we're witnessing the birth of new kinds of strike action", he is just wrong. The "kinds of strike action" the Deliveroo and UberEats drivers have taken — basic, stop-the-job wildcats — could hardly be less “new”. They are the oldest and most rudimentary strike forms of all, and, as Callum rightly notes, often the most effective. A fetishisation of novelty can sometimes blind us to the fact that 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. We need, if you like, to get back to "the old new"; I'd emphasise in particular the period of "New Unionism" in the 1880s as providing models for how workers in so-called "new" industries, working with "new" kinds of employment arrangements (in fact, neither are truly "new") might organise.
There's something of a tendency amongst some on the left to both misidentify and overstate what's "new" in all of this. Read some of the analysis on the "gig economy", and the related concept of the "precariat", any you'd be forgiven for thinking that, very shortly, no-one in Britain will have a salaried job anymore, and no large workplaces will exist, but rather we'll all be, to use Nathan Barley's prophetic phrase, “self-facilitating media nodes”. To some that might even be a good thing, something to welcome; others argue it will render us incapable of organising against our auto-exploitation at a workplace level and in a collective way, because we don't have a workplace and aren't part of a collective.
But Callum is right to say that the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes should put paid to the idea that “gig economy” workers can't organise. And, beyond this, there are still plenty of mass workplaces around, and they are still absolutely essential to capitalist economic functioning. A university, a hospital, or a supermarket distribution centre has more in common with an old-style industrial combine or factory complex than it does with the "gig economy". The notorious warehouses of Sports Direct and Amazon are more like 19th century mills than anything “new”.
In industries and sections of the economy that still have the most strategic importance to capital, such as transport and energy, workers retain a high degree of what one might call "old-fashioned" industrial leverage. Certainly, precarious forms of work exist in these industries too (outsourcing and hyper-exploitative, bogus self-employment is rife on the railways, particularly amongst cleaners and track workers), but the extent to which these phenomena are entirely new is arguable: the dock workers in the 1880s, integral to "New Unionism", had acutely precarious forms of employment, but also immense leverage and power.
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.
In the aforementioned interview, Al discusses how he and his comrades related to the 2011 public sector strikes. "Only people already in unions could go on strike", he says. This is straightforwardly untrue: 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. 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.
Al describes the work the proto-Plan C group, then an “ad hoc collective”, did around the 2011 strike: “Following that we had multiple assemblies leading up to both strike days, and then on the days themselves we organised two blockades, one in north London, one in south London. The idea was that we would basically march from picket to picket. In the end it involved 200-300 people in each blockade, with sound systems and stuff. There was already this idea of opening up strike participation, trying to find our way towards a general strike.”
This is all admirable, useful, and necessary. 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. Indeed, at one point, Al even asks of the strike "who is allowed in, who's allowed to utilise the strike weapon?", as if the strikers were somehow acting in an exclusionary way by striking. There's a potentially very problematic logic to some of this; if we're aiming to make a given strike the property of the whole class, so to speak, and to generalise participation, we have to be careful we don't act in such a way as to undermine the impact of the strike.
These potential problems become more acute in other Plan C comrades' writing on the issue. In his article “On Social Strikes and Directional Demands”, Plan C's Keir Milburn writes, of a 1995 transport workers' strike in Paris, “the disruption of transport revealed a key point of leverage but also because the strike seemed to have made Paris more sociable in some ways. In order to deal with the strike people had to cooperate more, perhaps by car pooling or walking together and therefore getting a different perspective on the city. It was this increased sociability that provoked the title ‘social’ strike but this dimension seems to have been lost a bit in recent discussions.”
This treads an extremely fine line. It's worringly close to the “how Londoners beat the Tube strike”-type rhetoric one regularly encounters in the Evening Standard or on LBC during our strikes, which happily sneers that our strike wasn't that disruptive after all, as people took the bus, or rode a scooter, or... car pooled, even, to get to work. It also has echoes of the Green Party's community clean-ups during Brighton bin workers' strikes. If “socialising a strike” means “finding ways for people not involved in it to minimise its impact”, count me 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.
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.
The way Al seems to conceive of "the social strike" in this interview, or at least the way he describes conceiving of it in 2011, implies 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.
What is lacking from any of this is any perspective for transforming the existing labour movement. I'm well aware that for many in Plan C, this is not the starting point, and perhaps not a concern at all; I've met comrades in Plan C who reject the idea that the existing unions can be transformed; or that the workplace is structurally privileged as a site of struggle; or that the exploitative relationship between boss and worker is the fundamentally defining relation within capitalism.
But a mass labour movement still exists. It comprises seven million members, and represents the accumulated experience, for better and worse, of 200 years of struggle. It is the organically-generated expression of class conflict, given organisational form. It is profoundly, abjectly inadequate, but 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. To attempt to do so is like saying, "let's rewind history and do it again, only different." Even 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.
And in the current moment, when an immense political upheaval is taking place inside Labour, the political party founded by and structurally linked to the trade union movement, one might imagine that one way to explore the "socialisation" of strikes, to generalise the antagonisms expressed in them, might be to join that party, which provides an existing network of social organisation (certainly still moribund in some places, but in other revitalised and invigorated by the Corbyn surge). But any orientation towards the Labour Party seems absent from Plan C's perspective. There is a Plan C workshop on the social strike scheduled at Momentum's "The World Transformed" fringe event at Labour Party conference, and some Plan C supporters have joined Labour as individuals, but, again, as an organisation, Plan C appears to approach the actually-existing labour movement "from the outside".
Undoubtedly, in a high pitch of struggle the labour movement itself will be "recomposed". But to achieve that requires the development of a consciously transformative project within the existing movement - an insurgent rank-and-file which aims to radically democratise unions, make them more combative and militant, and expand them into currently unorganised sections of the economy.
Plan C's key historical reference point often seems to be the Italian workers' movement of the 1960s and 70s. I would urge the comrades to look at experiences such as the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation in the 1970s, and the work of Farrell Dobbs, Carl Skoglund, the Dunne brothers, and others in Local 574 of the Teamsters' union in Minneapolis (whose story is told in the book Teamster Rebellion) for other examples of how a coherently organised group of revolutionary workers within a particular industry and union can act as a lever to affect substantial transformation, catalyse struggles, and win victories.
The "Green Bans" movement of the BLF, and the 1934 Minneapolis teamsters' strike were surely "social strikes" in the best sense - industrial disputes and struggles that poured out well beyond immediate economic conflict at workplace level and posed the question of which interests should hegemonise society; of class power.
Plan C comrades might even recognise an early conception of the “social strike”, of the strike as “an accelerant”, which poses “the question of power and counterpower” in society at large, in Leon Trotsky's The Transitional Programme (1938). Responding to the factory occupation of auto workers in Flint, Michigan, in 1936, Trotsky wrote: "Sit-down strikes [occupations] go beyond the limits of 'normal' capitalist procedure. Independently of the demands of the strikers, the temporary seizure of factories deals a blow to the idol, capitalist property. Every sit-down strike poses in a practical manner the question of who is the boss in the factory: the capitalist or the workers?"
If that is what Plan C mean by the "social strike" - taking a strike "beyond the limits of 'normal' capitalist procedure" - then that is an aim we wholeheartedly share. To amplify what those of us in the Trotskyist tradition might call the "transitional" logic of every strike should certainly be the aspiration of revolutionaries. But 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.
Edited to add: Callum has since made it clear he does not regard the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes as "social strikes", and believes that my article misrepresents him. My apparent confusion arose from the fact that, in his Novara piece, the line describing the strikes as "new kinds of strike action" was hyperlinked to the interview about social strikes; I therefore assumed that this is partially what he meant when he referred to their "novelty". As my reference to his Novara article was merely a jumping off point for a wider discussion of the "social strike" concept, responding primarily to his interview with Al, I do not believe that this renders the rest of the article invalid.
So, this is an interesting article, and I intend to write a fuller reply in a few days when I get the time.
A few quick points (note, I'm not a Plan C member, though I have some time for their ideas, but nothing I say should be taken as representing their opinions):
You say "An article on NovaraMedia by Plan C's Callum Cant frames them as "social strikes" – a “new kind of strike action”... [I]n the case of the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes, it appears one can just slap the label "social strike" on anything that isn't an "official" strike by an established union, involving a ballot mandate, formal notification to the employer, and so on, and say it's not only a “social strike” but a “new kind of strike action”."
The only thing is, is there any sign Callum, or indeed anyone else, actually uses the term social strike to describe the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes? I can't spot it anywhere. If the argument is just that "some of Plan C throw the social strike label around quite enthusiastically, and Callum wrote an excitable article about the UberEats strike, therefore he must think that it's a social strike", that's some pretty sloppy reasoning.
More broadly, on the new/old strike debate, it seems a bit pedantic - if I looked out of my window and saw a wooly mammoth, I might well think something like "blimey, that's new", because it would be entirely unfamiliar to me, even though they existed millions of years ago. Likewise, if some workers carry out a strike in a way that's significantly different to the way that the vast majority of industrial disputes have been conducted during our lifetimes in this country, and someone writes an article pointing out that it's significantly different to the way that the vast majority of industrial disputes have been conducted during our lifetimes in this country, it seems a bit nitpicky to say "your hastily-written buzzfeed listicle which existed mainly to advertise the then-upcoming strike action failed to consider what conditions were like way before any of us were born when it was making the broadly correct point that this strike is significantly different to the way that the vast majority of industrial disputes have been conducted during our lifetimes in this country."
More seriously, your main argument seems to point in some quite minoritarian and substitutionist directions: the working class is folded into the minority of workers who're employed in workplaces with a recognised TUC union. If Al's interview lacks any sense that one can be both a striker engaged in the public sector pay dispute and a Plan C-type engaged in trying to socialise the strike, this piece seems to lack any perspective for what workers in the private sector are supposed to do, other than sit on our hands and wait for the "actually existing labour movement" to rescue us. This is especially perverse given that your piece starts off by talking about the action of the Deliveroo and UberEats couriers, workers who have actually done what you tell us should be impossible by going around, not through, the TUC unions, so that, at least in those workplaces, they are precisely building a new, better, labour movement from scratch.
I could say much more, but I'll stop for now to try and get my thoughts into a slightly clearer order. Also, some recommended reading on the social strike debate:
if you've not seen them already, the AWW's comments on the social strike idea are well worth reading.
And finally, being a bit cheeky and plugging my own writing on the subject:
Thanks for your response. I haven't read through the links you provided so this will just be a response to the points you raise here, rather than anything in those articles.
Firstly, on the question of whether Callum does in fact view the Deliveroo strikes as "social strikes", I'd draw your attention to the recent addition to the article, as follows:
"Callum has since made it clear he does not regard the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes as "social strikes", and believes that my article misrepresents him. My apparent confusion arose from the fact that, in his Novara piece, the line describing the strikes as "new kinds of strike action" was hyperlinked to the interview about social strikes; I therefore assumed that this is partially what he meant when he referred to their "novelty". As my reference to his Novara article was merely a jumping off point for a wider discussion of the "social strike" concept, responding primarily to his interview with Al, I do not believe that this renders the rest of the article invalid."
Hope that clears things up, at my end at least.
You say that it's okay to call something "new" even if what you actually mean is "it hasn't been seen for a long time". I don't agree. Two absolutely elementary duties of any socialist organisation worth its salt are 1) to strive for clarity, and 2) to attempt to be "the memory of the class", bringing before our fellow workers experiences that the movement has had in the past, and attempting to draw out any lessons for our current period. That's what we're trying to do by banging on about New Unionism.
Saying that something is a new development when it manifestly isn't might be forgivable on a journalistic level but if you're trying to raise the level of consciousness and understanding of the class around you (presumably this is also a goal Plan C sets for itself), then you have to be clear.
I find the accusation that, for me (or perhaps AWL more widely) "the working class is folded into the minority of workers who're employed in workplaces with a recognised TUC union" rather hoary, and not supported either by what I actually wrote in the article nor our wider writing or practise. We have written reams and reams of stuff about strategies for organising the unorganised, and been involved in plenty of campaigns around this (including, often, working with non-TUC affiliated unions). We were the first group on the UK left, to my knowledge, to promote the campaigns of Unite New Zealand in the fast food industry as a model (some of whose strategies are now beginning to be taken up by BFAWU), and we have a long record of engagement with migrant workers' struggles, etc. Given all of this it seems especially ludicrous to accuse me of arguing that workers in unorganised workplaces should "sit on [their] hands and wait for the 'actually existing labour movement' to rescue us".
If your view is that the Deliveroo and UberEATS strikes will result in the construction of a "new, better, labour movement from scratch", you are inverting the error you accuse me of. Is the IWGB/UVW going to "rescue" the six or seven million workers who are currently members of "traditional" trade unions? How? Will it replace them? Will members of a GMB branch in, say, Rotherham, read about the UberEATS strike on the Internet, realise how much better the IWGB is than the GMB, and leave their GMB branch to found a branch of the IWGB?
Would that be desirable, even if it were less fantastical? I don't believe it would. To do so would mean abandoning a terrain of struggle.
There will certainly be mass strikes, of the 2011 type, again, perhaps soon. "Build the IWGB" is not a strategy for developing an alternative, grassroots leadership and political direction for those strikes (or for "socialising" them, if you think that term has strategic value). Without an insurgent, independently-organised rank-and-file with a clear industrial and political strategy, we won't be able to do much more than "sit on our hands" and wait to be marched up and down by the bureaucracy.
I agree that, in certain situations, "minority union"-type projects can play an important role and might be the most effective strategy. But if one's aspiration is not merely for the sparking of small pockets of struggle here and there, but the revolutionisation of the entire labour movement, one can hardly ignore the 99.9% of it currently comprised by TUC-affiliated unions. If you want to transform it (and I mean genuinely transform, and probably organisationally recompose in some way; I'm not talking about an SP-style strategy, which dresses up leftists capturing bureaucratic positions as rank-and-fileism), it has to be gone through, not around.
In reply to Midrash by AWL
So, still working on a full response (I'm sure everyone's awaiting it with bated breath), but in the meantime:
Yeah, fair play on that first correction (for my part, I'll put my hands up and admit to not noticing the hyperlink in the Novara article, which definitely makes your assumption a lot more reasonable).
The point about how we define and use the word "new" still seems kind of abstract to me. Maybe if you can show what the actual specific lessons from New Unionism are that we can only learn from that period and will miss if we overemphasise novelty then I'll be more convinced. But still, in defence of that specific Novara article I think it is worth saying that (I'm pretty sure) on the afternoon of Thursday 25th it was announced that the strike was happening on Friday 26th, which meant people pretty much had a few hours to spread the word about it - under those circumstances I think it would've been fine to slap something up on Novara saying "this strike is happening tomorrow, here's where you need to go to support the workers, you can use your own brain to work out why it's important", but I can see why that might not have quite fitted their editorial guidelines. Still, I think under the circumstances it was always going to be a rush job.
On the unionised/non-unionised workers stuff: OK, let's agree to back up a moment and agree that you don't think we should ignore unorganised workers, and I don't think we should ignore unionised workers. But still, there's a definite difference of focus or priority here. You keep on throwing about the figure of there being six or seven million union members, and I agree, that's a big number, it's impressive, those people are important. But. It's harder to get figures for the proportion of non-union members, but based on the 2014 stats, I'd put it at about 19.2 million workers. That's a bigger number, so I can't help feeling they should be more of a focus. How are the existing unions going to rescue those 19.2 million people?
We could flip your example around: if members of your hypothetical GMB branch in Rotherham go out on an official GMB-organised strike and win, does that leave the workers at an unorganised call centre in Bolton any closer to having a recognised union presence in their workplace? We could go back and forth like this all day, but I don't know what's to be gained by it.
And considering how keen you are on precise terminology, are you using mass strikes in Luxemburg's sense there? They were undeniably very big strikes, and I'll admit it's been a long time since I read her on the subject, but I'm pretty sure the dynamic she described wasn't about people being led out for one day then going back to work while the union leaders negotiated a defeat.
But this is a side issue: the main point here is that the big public sector pensions disputes, as big as they are, were a sectoral dispute. For those of you who were or are employed in the public sector, sure, organising as a rank-and-file current in those disputes is a viable strategy. But for the great majority of workers who're employed in the private sector, it's not. Either we find some way of socialising/spreading those disputes out to the rest of us, or we're left as passive supporters at best, muttering about gold-plated pensions at worst.
The point here, at the risk of driving it into the ground, is that for the Deliveroo and UberEats workers, the choice of going "minority union" or working through the established TUC union with recognition deals with the food delivery companies was not an issue. That's not an aberration on their part, those are the conditions that most workers start off facing. The logic of your position seems to be to focus on the areas where most strikes happen, whereas to me - and this is especially so given the case seeing that you yourself mention that "[s]trike levels in 2015 were the lowest since records began" - it seems much more important to focus on the places where strikes aren't currently happening, all the places where class conflict is happening every day but lacks the collective strength to develop into any real challenge.
To flip your closing point, I agree that, in certain situations, TUC unions can play an important role and might be the most effective strategy. But if one's aspiration is not merely for the sparking of small pockets of struggle here and there (and mostly in the public sector), but the revolutionisation of the entire working class, one can hardly ignore the 75% of it currently outside of the TUC-affiliated unions.
I'll put it bluntly: organising the organised is as important as organising the unorganised.
Take the Grangemouth dispute; a massive private sector workplace in a hugely strategic industry with incredibly high levels of union density (organised by the biggest union in the country). Unite got completely turned over. That needs fixing. "Build the IWGB" does not solve the problem.
To give another example; the railway industry (which I guess is sort of public-sector-in-exile but with private employers). Another hugely significant industry in strategic terms. We do sometimes win victories there but we're a lot weaker than we should be. We should have the bosses permanently by the throat. But we don't, partially because workers' organisation in that industry is weakened by sectionalism, and the huge democratic deficit between unions' structures and direction and their mass memberships that exists in all unions (even in a relatively more militant and, in many ways, democratic union like mine, RMT).
Again, "build the IWGB" is not a strategy for addressing any of that.
It requires revolutionaries and other radicals who work in that industry to act as educators, agitators, and organisers for revolutionary class-struggle strategies and politics, with a transformative perspective towards our existing organisations (unions) that doesn't see their current composition as sacrosanct (e.g., arguing for industrial unionist perspectives even in Aslef) nor the power of the bureaucracy as unbreakable.
"Rescue" implies a degree of passivity and victimhood which I'm sure neither of us would be comfortable with. I would never counsel any group of workers to "sit on their hands". But I do certainly believe that better-organised sections of the class, with more strength/power, have a responsibility to the rest of the class.
The aspects of the "social strike perspective" I think might be worthwhile talk about workers who have high levels of organisation and leverage using that power beyond the limits of their immediate economic relationship with their employer, in a way that empowers wider sections of the class. But, as I said in the article, that fundamentally requires subjective agency and political will on the part of the strikers themselves. I'm instinctively uncomfortable with the idea that the "socialising" process is something that's "done to" a strike, "from the outside".
I also believe that we won't make significant inroads into organising the 19.2 million without an integral role on the part of the 7 million. With the best will in the world, the IWGB, UVW, or IWW are not going to organise Amazon warehouses or Tesco's distribution network. For workers there to do that will require resourcing and infrastructural support. Where will that come from, if not the existing labour movement? The existing unions are shit, they won't provide that support, or they'll do it in a shit way? Yes, they will - unless their existing members substantially transform them. So we're back to the centrality of "organising the organised".
Part of the issue with our argument here, I suspect, is that we're talking across each other and, to some extent, ourselves. We're both talking in quite grand terms about rebuilding class power on a mass scale, recomposing the labour movement, etc. But I think we're necessarily also talking about how a small group of revolutionary workers within that movement can most effectively dispose of its necessarily limited resources; that's obviously informed by the grand strategic assessment, but "build mass class power and recompose the entire labour movement" is obviously not an answer to the question: "how should AWL/Plan C/SolFed members [I have a vague recollection from a previous exchange that you're in SolFed, but I may be misremembering or it may no longer be true] prioritise and focus their energies?"
(By the way, in terms of the "mass strike" phrase, I meant it literally - i.e., a very big strike. I wasn't referencing the Luxemburg/Kautsky debate.)
Again - I'm not telling anyone to wait. If a group of, say, Amazon workers organise a fight with their management, the exigencies of their struggle take precedence. They don't have to "take one for the team" by waiting while the rest of us get our act together.
But even if your actual perspective is "fuck the unions, let's just start again in ones and twos in unorganised workplaces and build a pure trade union movement without any flaws" (I know that's not what you're arguing, but let's take that as a kind of hyperbolised version of the "build a new labour movement from scratch" approach), then at some point you're going to encounter the existing movement, even if only as an obstacle when some established union tries to sign a sweetheart deal with the employer you're trying to organise against, and nicks your members. How to prevent or undermine that? An independent rank-and-file in that union would have to rein its officials in.
Again: organising the organised is essential.
In reply to Pilpul by AWL
OK, so I finally finished writing up a full response to this article. Also if you ever get a chance, I really would recommend reading the Angry Workers' comments on the social strike idea - they're quite critical of it from a more classical Marxist/focused on the point of production standpoint, but their criticisms point in very different directions to yours.
Anyway, to respond to your specific points here - I don't think there's much to be gained from another round of "it's important to organise in places where the TUC unions don't already have a strong presence" "yes, but it's important to have a strategy for those sectors where the TUC unions exist" "yes, but it's important to organise in places where the TUC unions don't already have a strong presence", etc.
There is also an interesting parallel here between how you're uncomfortable with the idea of non-strikers intervening in other people's disputes from the outside, whereas I have the exact same instinctive discomfort with the idea that building organisation among unorganised workers has to be led by workers in the existing unions, rather than being primarily the act of workers in those unorganised industries themselves. (As an aside: are you equally uncomfortable with the way that AUEW members in Birmingham took it upon themselves to "socialise" the Saltley Gates dispute, even though they were definitely "outside" the coal industry?)
I think the really crucial point you make is when you point out that we're talking about how a small group of revolutionary workers within that movement can most effectively dispose of its necessarily limited resources. You raise the idea of "fuck the unions, let's just start again in ones and twos in unorganised workplaces" as a kind of joke, but I'd say that the revolutionary workers we're talking about are inevitably going to be starting off in ones or twos in unorganised workplaces in many cases, and it doesn't matter whether your attitude is "fuck the unions" or "I love the unions, I think the unions are great", those people are still going to be faced with trying to organise in places where there's not the protection of an existing union structure.
I don't think there's any getting around this - like it or not, we don't have a revolutionary HR department that can assign people to one place or another, and we can hardly ask a supermarket cashier or bar worker who develops an interest in anti-capitalist ideas to quit their job and retrain as a bus driver overnight, any more than we can blame people for failing to live up to their radical potential if they go for an interview with the council, don't get it and then have to settle for a horrible small employer's call centre instead. Given that this is the case, given that for the foreseeable future not all revolutionary workers are going to be working in the industries we view as being most strategic, even if that was desirable (not to mention the existence of benefits claimants, pensioners, students, fulltime caregivers and so on), I think any conversation about "what can the scattered forces of revolutionary workers do?" needs to include something along the lines of "how do we respond to disputes in industries we're not involved in?" I think the social strike idea has value as a way of posing that question, and beginning to suggest some answers; equally, I think a critique of the social strike that boils down to "hey, you're talking like you don't work in that sector, don't you realise it would be better if you did work in that sector?" doesn't help to resolve things much.
You're boxing with shadows if you think I'm arguing that it's not possible or desirable to engage with, or "intervene in", a strike or struggle in which one is not directly involved.
As I said in the original article:
“... 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.”
And I think I can say without too much ego that AWL played a fairly key role in sparking the Vestas struggle, in which (a section of) an entirely un-unionised private-sector workforce was persuaded to conduct a sit-down strike by a week's worth of factory-gate agitation by a bunch of Trots and a couple of others.
When we first found out that the factory was closing, we didn't go, "oh, we'd better see if we can get a Unite branch to pass a policy about this", a few comrades just got on a ferry and went to talk to the workers. And when it looked like a struggle might be sparked, we didn't say, "hang on, sit on your hands until a TUC union shows up". So I don't think it's fair to accuse us either of precluding the possibility of action outside the channels of the "official" movement, nor of the possibility of engaging with or even catalysing struggles "from the outside" (although again, I'd stress that while "outside" a given workplace or industry, we should still be relating to it from within the broad labour movement).
I think your Saltley Gate comparison is a bit daft, to be honest, and further evidence that "the social strike" can basically be used to mean anything anyone wants. A direct call from the leadership of the NUM to other unionised workers to take direct action to maximise the impact of the miners' strike doesn't seem to me to have much in common with anything we've been discussing, given that all the workers involved were a) unionised by "traditional" unions and b) had a huge amount of what one might call "old fashioned" industrial leverage.
To be quite honest, I'm not entirely convinced that the "social strike perspective" has any explanatory, strategic, or tactical value at all, but I am interested in the idea of, say, the 84/85 miners' strike as a "social strike" - in the sense of a strike that poses in an acute way "social" questions, that is, questions of who runs society and in whose interests; but solidarity action of the Saltley Gate type seems a different matter.
Finally, on "organising where you are", so to speak: If you're a revolutionary in a totally un-unionised workplace and you want to organise it, you'd obviously have to weigh up whether it was better to do that through a TUC union or an "independent" one. As I've said, I don't rule out the latter as a potentially useful instrument, although on balance I think the circumstances in which I think that would make most sense would be relatively particular and rare.
But either way, a revolutionary left that does not have a perspective for transforming the existing labour movement (whether or not the particular employment circumstances of the existing membership of your group allow you as much direct involvement as you might wish, and whatever else it says about organising the unorganised) would seem to me pretty profoundly strategically limited.
Anyway, thanks for writing a response to the original article. I'm looking forward to reading it.
Thinking about it, I suppose one of the more interesting points that's come up here is what we want revolutionary organisations to look like, and how we want them to reflect the make-up of the working class.
Thinking about our fantasy football ideas of what a communist organisation "should" be like, I suppose I would want it to reflect the composition of the broader class as closely as possible, not just in terms of the obvious stuff like age, race and gender but also in terms of things like employment status. Having the kind of labour movement focus the AWL argue for would presumably mean (trying to) function as an expression of the best organised sections of the class, which I suppose is quite a different ambition.
Following on from this, perhaps it's healthier to take an "ecology of organisations" view, and accept that no single organisation is going to be able to represent the class as a whole, but a group like the AWL can act as a more-or-less sectional expression of the most organised fractions of the class, and a group like Plan C acting as an expression of those sections of the class who have more precarious and insecure employment situation?
Don't fully know where I'm going with this, but it seems like a possibly more fruitful direction to think in than just arguing about whether "social strike" is a useful phrase or not.
In reply to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Cautiously Pes…
This is an interesting comment. I would also want my "fantasy communist organisation" to "reflect the class", in terms of gender, race, sexuality, disability, and employment status, as much as possible.
But in a period in which communist organisations are not mass parties (or whatever anarchist word you prefer if you don't like the word "party") but, essentially, what we've termed "fighting propaganda groups", our primary concern is not actually to "reflect the class" but to organise a minority of workers (necessarily, in this period, a tiny, tiny minority), not on the basis of where they work or how much industrial leverage they have, but on the basis of whether they adhere to revolutionary-socialist ideas and commit to fighting for those ideas in the wider labour movement and working class. This is essentially what anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist groups are doing too, no matter how much SolFed likes to pretend it's sort of also a union (sorry comrade).
The ultimate question for us (working-class revolutionaries) isn't just about how workers can organise at work and gain more industrial power, but about how to develop a mass revolutionary consciousness within the working class. In fact, communist organisations will probably always be in some sense "minority" organisations, even in a much higher pitch of struggle. I definitely agree that no one organisation, either party or union, will ever "be able to represent the class as a whole", and that even in a revolutionary upheaval there'd be a diversity of different groups and parties competing for ideological hegemony but working together on fundamental areas of agreement. The idea of the revolutionary party as a singular monolith leading the working class in a commandist fashion belongs to Stalinism.
Anyway... we're venturing off into quite different territory here.
I have actually finished a reply to your blog article, which I've uploaded here. It touches briefly on some of the issues in your latest comment. It's rather longer than I was planning on making it, so good luck wading through it. I've obviously linked to your blog, but if you'd prefer I am happy to also reproduce your article in full here on our site.
In reply to "Ecology of organisations"? by AWL
I think I pretty much agree with all of this, and would just add that (1) given that we agree that we can't reasonably expect to organise workers "on the basis of where they work or how much industrial leverage they have" but are essentially just gathering up ones and twos, it makes it all the more crucial to have a perspective for what individual workers in the less-than-ideal workplaces can hope to do, and
(2) just as we won't see One Big Party it's fairly unlikely, for better or worse, that we'll see One Big Union either, which I think is a useful note of humility to bear in mind with these kind of strategy discussions - we could end up by agreeing that everyone should join Unison, or everyone should join the IWW, or whatever, but odds are that future upsurges of workers' struggle will look much more like the recent waves of cleaners' struggles in London, with the mainstream unions playing both a positive and negative role, the politico syndicalist/minority union projects playing some kind of a role, and the struggle itself giving birth to new organisations like the UVW that don't fit neatly into the mould of either the mainstream labour movement or the traditions of syndicalists trying to create revolutionary anti-capitalist unions. I'll probably come back to this point in my longer response to your longer response, just wanted to say that reality will probably be a lot messier than whatever we decide the right answer might be.
But in fact isn't Plan C's base essentially postgraduates? (Apologies if I've got that wrong.) And does Plan C have more precarious workers than AWL? I think you make an interesting point that's worth thinking about nonetheless.