Change the world - organise at work!

Submitted by cathy n on 31 May, 2012 - 7:19
Alice's Egg Plant

An AWL Students pamphlet. Download the pamphlet as an attachment here

The UCU strikes of 2018 opened the eyes of a new generation of student activists. Fighting and organising against the employers has set thousands of students down a road of thinking hard about society and their place in it.

The natural revulsion of the young against injustice has been hardened into an understanding that capitalist society is rotten and shot through with irrationality and cruelty; and that the only dignified course of action is to fight against that cruelty, and change society – even, to do away with capitalism.

But as this generation of activists leaves university, their radicalism is going to be put to the test. Over the next couple of years, either the young activists who have come up through the movement against fees will find their place in a serious, long-term political project to liberate society – or the world will grind them down and disperse them, and their energy will dissipate.

This pamphlet aims to convince those people to become builders of a renewed socialist movement – to learn to organise at work, and to become revolutionary activists in the workplace.


The pressures of life after university can erode a person’s will to change the world. Being pulled one way and another by bills, flat-hunting and job-seeking, being separated from university friends and comrades, and feeling alone can make an activist feel that their old ideas of changing the world were irresponsible fantasies; that they had no idea of the size of the task; that it was just an indulgent daydream for a student with too much time on their hands; and that they should concentrate on getting a proper job and a career, to avoid being a failure by the time they’re thirty. Revolutionary ideas and desires get ground away week by week.

This is not an accident. Capitalist society is designed to do this to people. To overcome this pressure takes a renewed dedication to the ideas that first moved you to be an activist: and that takes courage, as much as it did the first time around; but above all it takes reading, learning and a clear idea of what to do.


For someone who wants to change the world, to help people, and to use their life to undo the violence of capitalism against society and the environment, it might seem obvious to take a job with a charity or an NGO: to work in a women’s shelter, a hostel for the homeless, or a lobbying group like World Development Movement or Friends of the Earth.

But charities and lobbying groups are themselves captives of capitalist society. A hostel can help some of those brutalised and made homeless by poverty; but it can’t help them all. It can’t do anything to eliminate poverty. A green lobbying group could, with some difficulty, change this or that law – but it can’t change the fact that it runs on the goodwill of its supporters alone, and has to constantly go head-to-head with the most powerful corporations on the planet, whose wealth is greater than that of many entire countries.

The problems that charities and NGOs face can’t be dealt with except through politics; they can’t be dealt with except through building a socialist project to confront capitalism. The honourable, understandable desire to do the thing which appears to reap more short-term benefits in fact condemns young people to spend their whole career watching suffering and irrationality mount up, powerless to stop it.

Working-class struggle

The project which can confront capitalism, disrupt it, and ultimately destroy it and replace it with a better society, is working-class struggle for socialism.

The working class not only has the power to confront capitalism and disrupt it at its core – but it is constantly driven by its conditions of life to struggle against capitalism, and it is the bearer of a higher form of society.

The workers’ movement is constantly driven to fight against capitalism, not by some special personal virtue of workers, but because in their day to day lives they are confronted at work with bosses who need to force them to work harder for less pay. The workers’ movement is compelled to wage collective fights simply to defend the selfish interests of workers – for decent pay, health, education, safety at work, a sense of dignity. And the struggles for these things open up a prospect of a new society. Workers’ struggles – consciously or unconsciously – always assert the right of democracy over the right of profit; of social responsibility and collective control over the dictatorship of management. And in society generally, the workers’ movement is forced to fight for laws, for welfare, that protect everyone, no matter how poor. In politics, the workers’ movement is compelled to speak and struggle in favour of a more rational organisation of society.

But the democratic, rational society, organised around solidarity and not profit – the socialist society – which the workers’ movement carries in embryo will not come about automatically. The working class needs to develop powerful organisations which are capable of taking on the capitalists and the government at the national scale – and forming a government of their own.

Transform the labour movement!

The labour movement as it is now falls far short of that requirement. The trade unions are bureaucratised and led by people who are far removed from the grassroots and dedicated to social partnership.

But the unions still remain the major organisations of the working class, the major vehicles of class struggle. There is no short-term prospect of them being replaced by new organisations. Socialists who recognise socialism as the act of the working class must focus on the trade union movement, rather than on "radical" movements without a working-class or socialist perspective. But we must develop the unions, transform them, reinvigorate them with socialism. This is the only way that the workers’ movement can be revived and move forward.

The backbone of this process will be the work of socialists in workplaces. The workplace is the core of capitalism – it is the central point that class conflict, class consciousness, class organisation flows from. The work of a workplace organiser is not glamorous and it does not happen immediately. But it is the fundamental process of creating a socialist movement, without which nothing else – no amount of flashy websites, protest camps, direct action stunts, public meetings or any other radical activity – can come to anything.

The creation of a strong workers’ movement with its feet in the workplace is the only thing that can advance our movement because it is the place which draws ordinary working class people into struggle – it is workplace struggle that takes workers’ day-to-day experience of exploitation and develops it into organisation and a will to fight. This is the base from which the strength of all oppositional movements flows. There is no ‘smart’ way through media tricks, clever arguments or sectarian party-building, that can replace the vital force that comes from the workers’ movement being organised and powerful in workplaces.

Activists needed

The people who do this, who take the raw materials of capitalist exploitation and mould them into organisation, are reps, workplace trade union activists. And in the UK, today, they are few and far between.

The average age of a workplace rep in the British trade union movement was in the late 40s on the most recent comprehensive figures (2004) and will be older now.

In other words, the average union rep is someone who probably came into activity around the time of the 1984-5 miners' strike.

The number of workplace reps across the economy has, according to best guesses, dwindled from 335,000 in 1984 to maybe 150,000 in 2004-9 - faster than union membership has declined. On the best guesses available, it seems that over the same period the proportion of paid union full-time officials to members has increased somewhat, though the total number of paid full-time officials remains small, perhaps 3000 across the whole movement. On the latest available figures, 81% of paid union full-time officials are over 40.

Today's older union reps who started activity in the 1980s are, in many ways, the best of their generation. They stuck with the movement while others fell away.

Yet many of them - on the evidence of the pensions dispute, a majority of them - have suffered an erosion of spirit, even if they are still nominally left-wing or revolutionary-minded. For twenty or thirty years they have been trained in union activity as damage-limitation.

This tired, depleted body of activists needs to be replenished with new blood. To put the workers’ movement back on its feet, to see thousands of workers in new workplaces join or re-join the movement, to see new industries conquered by the workers’ movement – to re-open the perspective of the working class being an insurgent power in society and to re-open the perspective of socialism – we need new activists to enter workplaces and take up their fight. Nothing else will do.

The workers’ movement, the only thing which can face capitalism down, shake it, change history and plant a flag for a better society, needs a new corps of young activists to bring their radicalism, their visions of a better world, their energy and impatience, into the workplace. They need to make mistakes, learn, and root themselves in the fight against exploitation at its source.

Where is this new influx of working-class activists going to come from? The reader of this pamphlet. A young person who has already made the decision to reject capitalist society’s received wisdom, its false heroes, institutions and hypocrisy; and who has given the last two years of his or her life, since the student movement of 2010 – and maybe much longer – to a vision of a better world. This pamphlet is an appeal to this generation of student activists to make the decision to become fighters for socialism; to reject the pressures that society puts on them to compromise, and to take the only logical course of action for someone who wants to overthrow society – to become a socialist organiser at work.

Where to go? What to expect?

1) Think about where to work – capitalism is a machine; and there are certain components of the machine where a strike can have a bigger impact than others. There are also certain parts of the labour movement where it is easier for a socialist activist to have a larger influence. These are workplaces where there is already an established union, which an activist can develop and work in; and workplaces where a strike will have maximum disruptive power. These are the industries and workplaces where the AWL encourages activists to seek work:
• telecoms (particularly BT)
• the post
• local government
• the NHS
• the rail
This list is not exhaustive – being a teaching assistant can be a good idea, as can other similar roles – but the idea is to find yourself in a workplace where you are not alone, isolated far from an urban centre and starting a union from scratch.

2) Be a socialist educator – the idea of being a trade union activist is not to limit yourself to routine trade union work. You will come under pressure to do that. The idea is to constitute a socialist movement rooted in workplaces. That means making an effort to talk to your colleagues about big politics, organising formal educationals and meetings where possible, and exerting a socialist influence in the local labour movement generally. Read! Find out about the history of the labour movement. Read Marx; read books like Teamster Rebellion by Farrell Dobbs to find out about the work of revolutionary workplace organisers of the past. Educate yourself so that you can educate others in turn – and challenge the orthodoxies of the “Marxist” left by thinking for yourself. Think about how to explain socialist ideas in an accessible way – too many student leftists have trained themselves to speak in theory-babble.

3) Be patient. You will not run into a workplace on the first day and lead everyone to war like a proletarian Braveheart. If you go in with that attitude you will burn out in a few months, or more likely, get sacked. Organising in a workplace takes time. Learn the job; be good at it; build relationships over a period of time; and learn about the union, trade union law and get to know figures in

the local labour movement. Trade union organising moves at a slower pace than student movement work – usually, at least. Do not let this demoralise you! Finding a job can be difficult as well – there is mass unemployment, and finding a job that allows you to earn enough to get by and be politically useful can take time.

4) Overcome hang-ups. Many student socialists can feel held back by hang-ups about their personal background – having graduated from sometimes quite a posh university, they can feel worried about being insufficiently “proley”. This can lead people in ridiculous directions – we all know student activists who put on “working class” accents, for example. Firstly, what matters from the point of view of building a socialist labour movement is not an individual’s background – Engels was a mill owner! – but their political allegiance, their ideas, and what they are prepared to do. Don’t be paralysed by middle-class hang-ups about one’s background. Secondly, the idea that in order to talk to “working class” people you have to conform to some double-denim-wearing stereotype is not just un-Marxist and un-scientific – it is far more patronising and offensive than the idea that a person from a “middle-class” background can be a good trade union activist!

Some case studies

“I am in a position to make waves”
By Kath Doherty, Tube worker

Working in a homeless hostel and a young offenders' charity after graduating from university, I concluded capitalism was flawed.

But how to fix it? Not through charity, I decided.

At the homeless hostel, I was frustrated. I wanted to fight as an equal, alongside homeless people, whereas in my job, I had topatronise and serve hot meals to hostel residents. I wanted to tackle the roots of the problems I saw, whereas my job was just keeping homelessness ticking over.

I came to see that it made more sense to pour my energy into the workers’ movement rather than charity. In a union- a collective of equals - I could fight alongside people. I could tackle the root problem of homelessness, inequality and poverty -capitalism – which the workers’ movement is uniquely well-placed to do.

So I left my charity job and went to work on London Underground, as a station assistant, so that I could take an active role in the rail union, the RMT.

In five and a half years, I have been involved with:

The cleaners’ living wage campaign. I helped unionise cleaners on London Underground and helped organise the living wage strike in 2008. It was the first strike of mostly illegal migrant workers in our history and when bosses hit back with immigration checks, I made arguments and organised protests against immigration controls in our union. I also helped feminist collective, Feminist Fightback, organise protests against the denigration of cleaning as low-waged ‘women’s work’.

Workplace organising
I am a workplace union rep. I encourage people to speak out and organise around their issues. Listening to people and encouraging people to fight, as an elected rep among equals, is rewarding and empowering.

Feminist organising
I fought for RMT to produce a survey on Sexism at Work, which revealed the extent of a problem, which we had been silent about for too long. This has been the spring-board for other women’s organising. We are now growing assertive in a heavily male-dominated union and industry.

For 20 years, Workers’ Liberty has produced Tubeworker, the longest-running workplace bulletin in the British labour movement.

I organise monthly meetings, where people in and around Workers’ Liberty discuss politics and the Tube unions. We compile the bulletin, which is distributed and respected across London Transport.

Tactics we proposed were successfully adopted last year when RMT won reinstatement for two sacked activists.

As an RMT activist on the stations, I am in a position to make waves within our union and in the workplace. Whenever I am tempted to leave for a more glamorous job, I think about everything I currently achieve, using inclusive and democratic methods. By working here, I feel my politics are making a significant, positive impact.

“Every job I did was an opportunity to organise”
By Sue Jones, teaching assistant

My first proper job was answering the phones for British Rail in an office on platform one of Coventry station. A member of IS (now called SWP) who worked there introduced me to the idea that the world was unfair and that it was due to class politics. I got really fired up about it. But became very pissed off with the IS’s attitude to working class people and to the need for political education. It was something I didn’t need to worry my little head about apparently. But the fact was I had been turned on to class politics.

By the time I got a job in the Post Office I had joined the forerunner of the AWL, Workers Action. I became a union rep and oranised a UPW women’s group. The Union of Postal Workers was the forerunner of today’s CWU. This was in 1979 and the Women’s Movement was in full swing. It wasn’t very working class but there were lots of working women who had issues to deal with; sexism, domestic violence, free abortion. I also set up a UPW Labour Party workplace branch. It was one of the first in the country. This was at the time when there was a left wing rank and file in the LP which was challenging the leadership. We had political debates in the workplace every week. We were doing this when the Miners Strike started in 1984. There was instant support for the miners in my Post Office, no question.

Ever since then, I have seen whatever job I did as an opportunity to organize and fight for revolutionary politics. I later worked in London as a Bus driver and became a T&G rep. We took strike action one year over pay at the same time that the Tube workers were on strike and brought the city to a complete halt. The whole of Hyde Park was turned into a car park the night before in an attempt to get city workers in to keep businesses running.

What I learned then was that, although most workers don’t always appreciate this fact themselves, it is they who keep society moving. It is they who create the wealth that the bosses pocket for themselves. And it is they who can bring things to a halt. If we are organised and led properly – not by the donkeys who lead the unions today – we can change the world. Which hurts the bosses the most where it hurts, in the pocket: a protest march, a riot or a strike?

Strikes today have been turned into mini one-day protests because we are led by people who have a stake in society staying the way it is. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

I led a dispute in my current workplace, a secondary school where I worked as a teaching assistant. We voted to take all out indefinite strike action against job cuts. During that dispute, all the admin workers in the building lined up in the staff corridor and marched across the entrance hall to the Bursars office and occupied it. We refused to move until he withdrew the plans. It must have been the shortest protest march in working class history. But it didn’t half work. That and the threat of all out strike was enough to halt the process. Not one job was lost.

In the same school we have just beaten off an attempt to make 13 people redundant, to cut the pay of support staff and to increase the workload of the teachers. This was a blatant attempt to make the lowest paid workers in the school pay for a budget crisis not of our making. This in a school that sits in the shadow of Canary Wharf where the rich are setting up free schools. We united the Unison and NUT branches, took strike action, and won every demand; no job cuts, no pay cuts, no increased workload.

The union movement, now more than ever, needs more people who take jobs in order to fight the bosses. Sometimes it seems we are fighting our own union leaderships. But so what? It has always been like that. We need to fight in the workplace and in the union meeting rooms against the ideas that prevail, which say that the system is the only one going and there’s nothing we can do about it. Oh yes there is. But it takes brave people to get in there and do the job.

“Expose the reality of capitalism”
By Hannah Roberts, DWP worker

In my short working life (I’ve been working full time since 2008, and part time during my studies before that), I’ve worked in the private sector in catering and retail, public sector for the Department for Work and Pensions, and for a small voluntary sector ‘NGO’/charity women’s refuge. When people speak to me about my work, their response to the latter is often ‘that most be so rewarding’ (which it is), but also ‘that sounds like it really fits with your politics’. By which they mean, they see me as a ‘right-on’ sort of person, a feminist, and therefore doing work which could be seen as innately feminist makes a lot of sense, right?

The thing is, socialism is about class, and that means that politically useful work is not about cleaning up the mess that capitalism causes (e.g. in charity or NGOs), but about addressing, and fighting that class relationship head on.

So when I tell people that if they want to change the world, they would be better off working in a big stuffy civil service office like mine, than in Oxfam, or a homelessness charity, they think I’ve lost it. But here’s the thing – the work we do, whatever it is, is still governed by the economic system it exists within. That means that whether you work for McDonalds, the local council, Barclays, or the NSPCC, you are still working for a wage, and your boss can still discipline or sack you. While that relationship exists there is only one way we can make a difference to the world through our work, and that is through workplace organising. My boss in the women’s refuge may be a feminist, may even consider herself a ‘leftie’, but she’s still my boss, and all of these things still apply.

In DWP, a lot of the work we actually do couldn’t be less ‘worthy’. We sanction benefits, screw people out of money, and push people on to workfare. But these things are all symptomatic of a class system that creates inequality. Through workplace organising, often through bureaucratic trade unions, we can change the system that creates the problems that create the push to workfare, or mass unemployment in the first place. Working for a charity that feeds the homeless when their benefits have been stopped doesn’t do this, it just puts a sticking plaster on the wound. Organising workers is important because it exploits the most powerful tool that the majority in our society (the working class) have to use. Striking – withdrawing our labour – when successful, is a method of using that power. This is the difference between ‘nice capitalism’ (working in NGOs etc) and ‘replacing capitalism’.

In fact, charities aren’t just a sticking plaster, they actually make the problem worse. Why is this? Well, that plaster, in its temporary fix, masks the issues that capitalism creates. Charity makes up for what the state should provide, of course, but more than that, it works as an apologist for the deficiencies of capitalism and in so doing, keeps capitalism going.

It is the primary role of a socialist to expose the reality of capitalism and agitate around this reality through class struggle. Workplace organising isn’t just something that is ‘one of many things’ we can do after uni, alongside working in a charity or an NGO, it is the only thing that works towards a class opposition to the current system.

Organise as a socialist!

The course of action that this pamphlet proposes is not easy to follow as an isolated activist or loose network of isolated individuals. It is necessary for socialist activists to organise together around a set of ideas, to support each other, educate each other, and fight for socialist ideas collectively, within the labour movement, at a national and international level.

If we want to plant a flag for socialism and transform the labour movement, it is necessary to organise a socialist group, and convince other activists to organise with us.

Workers’ Liberty, the socialist group who published this pamphlet, aims to create a rational, democratic, labour-movement-oriented organisation for Marxist activists. We want to break with the sectish, undemocratic and illiberal culture that much of the left has inherited from Stalinism. We want to create a left that is serious about transforming the labour movement and fostering open, rational debate about ideas.

If you agree with what we have written in this pamphlet and you want to become a socialist organiser at work – contact us and discuss with our activists about where to start. Look on our website for training and educational materials to help. Consider subscribing to our newspaper, Solidarity.

If you agree Workers’ Liberty’s politics and our project, then contact one of our activists to discuss becoming a member. If you disagree, let’s discuss.

Phone: 020 7394 8923 – 07981495541

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