A response to the Organizing.Work review of ‘Class Power on Zero-Hours’

A response to the Organizing.Work review of ‘Class Power on Zero-Hours’

Our book ‘Class Power on Zero-Hours’ has been beaten to a pulp by Marianne Garneau, a comrade from Organizing.Work, you can check out the review here:

https://organizing.work/2020/06/better-luck-next-time/

There are a few reasons why we’re responding to this review at length. There is a basic human factor, we aren’t robots! We think the review is pretty unfair. We think we get set up as a straw man by omitting facts and taking things out of context, just to be lectured and bashed around the head with an ‘organizing for dummies’ manual. If you have worked hard in a place for years, that can hurt, but that in itself wouldn’t really need a longer response.

We think we’re being used as a straw man in a wider debate within the ‘left labor’ and IWW milieu about the relationship between ‘organizing’ and political organisation. We think that this is an important discussion. We appreciate the Organizing.Work website a lot, but think that without a wider political debate and organisation that relates to the changes in objective conditions and the movements of the class, ‘organizing’ will be unable to overcome the structural attacks on the working class, and therefore end up rallying around the usual electoral circus.

———

1. The (mis-)representation of our experiences

We want to quickly summarise the main points that Marianne Garneau makes:

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

She sees the first reason in our ‘infiltration strategy’, which she compares to the strategies of Maoist and Trotskyist groups in the 1970s, who also got jobs in bigger industrial workplaces and were critical of the mainstream unions. Like other leftists we are not sure what we want, do we want to ‘organize’ the workplace or recruit people to our political organisation? Because we’re not sure about our motives, we don’t get the ‘organizing’ bit right, we rely mainly on leaflets and newspapers, don’t know if we should lead the workers or follow them. Facing our failures we start blaming others: objective conditions, the passive workers, the left.

We don’t want to go much deeper into why our approach is different from the Maoists or Trots of the 1970s, mainly because it doesn’t make much of a difference when it comes to the author’s judgement that anyone who approaches the workplace with a wider political strategy is doomed to fuck up on the ‘organizing’ front. Still, just to set the record straight, for us it is less about recruiting people to an organisation, but about understanding what workers are already doing and supporting self-organisation practically. Of course we also want to find politically interested workers who we can work with beyond the day-to-day struggle. We often come across the criticism that choosing your jobs out of political reasons is somehow weird and ‘external’. We wrote about this earlier [1], but want to say that we find it strange that the role of the (professional) ‘organizer’ is seen as less alienating or questionable than the working class communists who choose to work in big or strategically interesting workplaces.

In order to set us up as a straw man that she can whack around the ears, she has to distort our experiences pretty brutally - most people who have actually read the book will agree. We can’t recall taking action without a demand somewhere in there; we decided not to hand in a petition because we explain that our co-workers were not taking enough shared responsibility for it and we didn’t get enough signatures to guard against individual victimisation; we document quite a few escalations; we never got any of our co-workers fired, and the book specifically talks about how we emphasised actions where individual workers shouldn’t be ‘the hero’ in atmospheres where it would only lead to victimisation. We come to the question of whether all our efforts were complete ‘failures’ later on, as this is only partly a factual question, but also one of political interpretation and aims. Where do we think that she portrays our experiences unfairly?

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

As she has to see everything through the lens of ‘organizing’ she portrays our newspaper as a wrong tactic to spur workers to action. She therefore doesn’t find it necessary to tell the reader what we ourselves write about the function of the newspaper. We don’t see it as a tactic for ‘organizing’ but as a means to create an exchange amongst thousands of workers in various factories, warehouses, job centres or at the airport and to put forward a wider revolutionary position. We think many lefty newspapers are pretty bad, so we can understand the knee-jerk assumption that they’re anachronistic and solely function as propaganda to build a sect-like organisation. But we don’t think our newspaper is anything like this! We doubt the reviewer looked at them, so we invite you to take a look at previous issues and make up your own mind [2]. We can of course discuss if this was successful - and we reflect on it in the book - but it is lazy to mash it all up as ‘failed organizing’.

Did we even use leaflets that much in general? Was our ‘repertoire of tactics’ limited to them? During the three and a half years that one comrade worked as a van driver at a supermarket warehouse we distributed two leaflets. They were about strikes in the same company - something workers found useful to hear - and that the union hadn’t uttered a word about. We also have to bear in mind that this is not some vegan burger bar employing a handful of students, but a warehouse with 1,400 people out of which 600 are drivers who are out and about a lot. In the food processing company, which runs four different factories and a warehouse in the area, we used some leaflets initially but then shifted to a factory bulletin – translated into Gujurati and Tamil - primarily in order to get a communication going between different sites, employing over 4,000 workers. As becomes clear in the book, leaflets had a limited function and were not our primary way to ‘organize’.

“Despite the Angry Workers’ critiques of unions, two of them become elected representatives, at a loss for what else to do. They say they “hoped to be able to create some space for workers’ self-organization within the company union structure.” Of course it doesn’t work, because they still don’t know how to organize.”

“There are many reasons why organizing by leaflet is a bad idea, and they are written all over these stories. […] Organizing is first and foremost about building real relationships with coworkers, which can only be accomplished with face-to-face, honest conversations about their lives and how work impacts them.”

Here we honestly don’t know if she’s actually talking about the same book! If so, then she must have read about the various ‘tactics’ we used, primarily during the four years in the food processing factory. It’s true, we try not to bore the reader with every mapping exercise we undertook and every ‘inoculating one-on-one’ we engaged in. But no doubt, we talk about the fact that the comrade spent hours on end speaking to the immediate forklift driving work-mates and organised various ‘work-to-rules’. Yes, we even organised BBQs in our garden for her work-mates and two of them vomitted in our neighbours hedge (though we listened to J Hus and didn’t sing ‘Solidarity Forever’). As a union rep she spoke to dozens of women on the assembly lines at work, after work, at night or on Sunday morning on the phone, about all sorts of issues. We opposed the corrupted union rep structure and forced through new rep elections - we explain the way these ‘patriarchal’ union rep figures are used by management to keep the largely female workforce in check. For the first time in 15 years of union recognition at this plant the comrade managed to open a door to an industrial dispute with a unifying wage demand of £1 more for all, instead of the usual divisive skill-based percentage peanuts that the union used to dish out. The comrade organised family outings for the women workers, cricket matches, meetings with women migrant strikers from the 1970s to encourage the women workers from the same background. She organised a combine meeting with cleaners from all four sites, she mobilised other trade unionists to attend the gate meetings in the run up to the ballot. And all of this was more or less sabotaged by the corrupted union rep circle and only supported by one official union organiser, who was isolated within the union apparatus himself. Despite the union’s attempts at undermining these collective efforts, a huge majority of workers rejected the company pay offer three times and management and union ‘leadership’ had to grind workers down by dragging things out. We describe similar activities at the Tesco warehouse, from helping to organise beach trips for workers families; to dozens of new relationships forged through representing workers in disciplinaries; to collective steps by loaders and pickers; to mass petitions against a union that signed a partnership agreement that prohibits collective bargaining and industrial action.

We could make this list of omissions and distortions much longer, but want to limit ourselves to three:

“The other intervenes to stop a wildcat strike, out of fear of retaliation (actually, fear that the retaliation would tank support for the union’s official wage campaign). Yes, they forsake the capitalist state and the moribund business unions but can’t conceive of class power operating outside of the protection of labor law and union officialdom.”

It would have been only fair if Marianne Garneau would have made the effort to describe the wider context of this situation. We speak about a wildcat action of one department of 40-50 people amongst 4,000 workers. They were led by two supervisors who were otherwise not experienced as workers’ militants. The comrade did not just ‘intervene to stop’ a wildcat action that would have been used by management to smash the slowly growing confidence amongst the wider workforce. We spoke to the workers and explained the situation, encouraging them to take time to expand their base beyond their department. In the next factory newsletter we praised the first wildcat action (which management could not retaliate against, as workers chose not to come in on a bank holiday) and spread the news amongst all 4,000 workers - while the union denounced it. The author herself must understand this, as she herself wrote:

“In the IWW, we talk about “hot shops”: workplaces where the workers are very agitated about conditions and spoiling for a fight. These volatile situations seem perfect for organizing, but in reality they are worse than going in cold. The volatility doesn’t translate into committee-building or discipline or even taking action. Surprisingly, people who swear that they don’t care if they get fired tomorrow are actually pretty reluctant to march on the boss with a simple demand.” [3]

We wouldn’t even go so far as to prefer a ‘cold situation’ to an unruly angry one - that sounds quite control-freaky to us!

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

Again, some major omissions here. We won’t list the collective actions that we think primarily happened because of our intervention (collective slow-down, overtime boycott etc.). Honestly, who cares? When it comes to this example we approached the situation in a text-book IWW style. We spoke to each of the 60 workers who came to the initial meetings and tried to understand particular grievances and made suggestions how to collectivise them. We used two main issues that all were facing and tried to build an action around it. We laid out a clear time-line and practical steps that we and workers could take together in order to force the company to recognise the IWW or to engage in a wage dispute. We made clear suggestions what workers can do on an individual and collective level between meetings. We followed this up through phone calls. We met workers individually outside the meetings. We went to workers at a second production unit and at the companies warehouse and talked to them. We doubt that these workers at this point would have taken further steps without a big apparatus and law service who had their back. The GMB, a mainstream and well funded union, tried to organise them after us and ‘failed’. We could say: ‘Hey, workers just do what they want to do’, and that is of course right. The tragic element is that the whole company went bust during the Covid-19 crisis, sacking 2,000 workers who didn’t put up a fight and only received the minimum redundancy payment. There we go.

“Fortunately, other people have tried organizing before, and they have distilled their experiences into training programs. Unions, to varying degrees, offer these trainings, and they can be read about as well. If you think you have something to learn.”

“There is much to say about the degeneration of unions over the last few decades and the handcuffs of labor relations (we talk about that on this site a lot). The problem with the Angry Workers is that they throw the baby out with the bathwater, and assume they have nothing to learn.”

This is bollocks. We spend page upon page laying out the general historical problems of trade unions; then looking at syndicalism as a specific form with its merits and flaws, reporting on recent examples in Italy and Poland that we are familiar with; then analysing differences between the trade unions that we have been shop stewards of, both in terms of the general apparatus and the local rank-and-file structure. We don’t think that there are many recent accounts that have looked at trade unions in such detail. We actually describe the union training of the official unions that we took part in as shop-stewards and we also took part in the usual IWW organiser training.

The Organizing comrade accuses us of blame games when it comes to finding reasons for our failures. This has partly something to do with the fact that she thinks that ‘objective factors’ are more often than not used as excuses - we come to that later. Maybe she is right and we haven’t looked deeper into mistakes we made during the last six years. We mention some in the book, e.g. the fact that we relied on the USDAW trade union instead of establishing an independent warehouse newsletter; or that we should perhaps have tried to organise with the cleaners and forklift and truck drivers independently in the IWW, instead of trying to go through the already recognised trade union at the food factory. We definitely did not neglect to speak to co-workers or workers around the solidarity network directly to encourage them to take part in our collective process.

At this point we have to ask ourselves why she misrepresents the experiences written down in ‘Class Power on Zero Hours’. We can also ask ourselves why she doesn’t engage with the concrete examples and tell us about what she might have done differently - beyond saying that if we had just locked each worker into a dungeon for hours and inoculate them with some ‘one-on-one’ treatment we would have cracked it.

2. Background: The dispute between ‘organizing’ and political organisation

We need to look at the wider current and historical dispute between ‘syndicalism’ and ‘political organisation’ here, otherwise we won’t understand why the review was written the way it was. If you are used as a straw man, at least don’t be ignorant about the reasons. It is also necessary to clarify if we mean the same thing by ‘organising’ or if our differences in perspectives mean that while using the same words we actually speak different languages. Some background.

During recent years there have been disputes within the IWW in the USA about which direction the union should take. Although a small union, this is not just a struggle over principles, but over a material organisation with considerable resources. The main division was between people who thought that the IWW should try to become an actual union and focus primarily on workplace organising and workplace issues; and, on the other side, people who emphasised the need for a political direction when it comes to organising work and the combining of workplaces with wider issues of the class, e.g. the struggle against fascists or environmental issues. This dispute formalised into actual factions within the IWW. Organizing. Work and the author are on the side of people who say that workplace organising should be the focus. They have written many articles about the pathetic track record of the US left when it comes to workers’ organising, despite the left’s lip service to ‘the working class [4].

Funnily enough, we share the view of the Organizing.Work comrades when it comes to what the IWW should be. In 2017, a comrade in the US wrote a text for the debate within the IWW. We discussed the text together with friends of Workers’ Initiative in Poland and comrades in Spain and wrote a reply. [5] We supported the idea that the IWW should primarily focus on workplace organising, rather than becoming (or remaining!) yet another leftist pet project:

“Behind this is our own grappling with the concept of a ‘class union’ (probably more a Spanish/Italian term). A union as a body of workers’ association that can operate within the legal limits of the labour law etc., that can call for official strikes etc. has to be a formal structure. That’s by default, the legal circumstances prescribe it, and the potential mass base requires it. For us the question is if there is a role for such a union structure that can be used by workers as one (!) means of self-organised struggle. A ‘class union’ would be open to workers of different political persuasions and professions etc. to conduct their struggle on the official level, as self-organised and unified as possible – which wouldn’t mean that there aren’t any other levels of struggle. Different political tendencies and organisations can relate openly to the class union, offer debate, education, strategical suggestions. […] Some of the formalism (“let’s just be a rank-and-file union for everyone”) is an expression of wanting to stay focused on the sphere of production or rather, and that’s the problematic bit, ‘the workplace’. It is a reaction to the fact that most activists come from student and middle-class backgrounds, for who it comes easier to get engaged in ‘political struggles’ than to get rooted in daily lives of workers.”

We expand our thoughts on ‘class unions’ and syndicalism in our book. The difference between us and the author’s perspective is that:

1) we don’t think that workers can organise their struggle only and primarily through such kind of formally ‘organized’ structures and (which is more significant),
2) the working class cannot simply ‘organize’ their way out of misery without having to face the question of political power and how to bring about a fundamental social transformation. You can organize and win concessions from the bosses, sure, but then at some point, they close the workplace, outsource your work, or make you redundant. Then what? In short, we see the need for a larger social rupture for which workers have to organise themselves politically.

The author of Organizing.Work seems to have wilfully ignored many organising descriptions in the book in order to be able to put us neatly into the box of the ‘deadbeat politicos’ and secure her own monopoly when it comes to proper ‘organizing’. In the final part of this response we want to briefly summarise our criticism of the ‘organizing’ approach, both at the level of the workplace and when it comes to the wider social struggle of our class.

3. Our criticism of ‘organizing’

The dilemma that Marianne Garneau describes - the revolutionaries who say that ‘the working class has to emancipate itself’ and then want to help workers to do this - is an actual issue that is hard to grapple with. We’re used to getting shit from all sides, from comrades who are better at compartmentalising social dynamics than we are. These tend to be ‘anti-vanguardist’ or ‘programmatic left communists’ on one side, who accuse us of ‘substitutionalism’ and of meddling too much in the actual organisation of day-to-day struggles, or of blurring the line between ‘real radical workers struggle’ and the more messy grounds of dubious syndicalism. Or on the other side, people like the Organizing.Work people or Labour Party folks who say that because of our ‘ideological’ position that focuses on self-organisation, we are not able to take the lead and provide workers with some successes. Is it all very complex, or just a big fudge?

We try to clarify what we mean by self-organisation and political struggle by criticising a few assumption of the ‘organizing’ approach, referring to some of Marianne Garneau’s remarks in the review.

* ‘Organizing’ quickly degenerates into social management techniques

If you look at ‘organizing’, it tends to treat workers as a group of individuals that need to be brought together around a common demand. ‘Organizers’ don’t waste time looking at the already existing practical relations and hierarchies that are given through the fact that workers work together. What it boils down to is the right social technique to convince people that ‘they are strong as a group’. A potential strike is seen as just one tool of many. From the review:

“One of the most important aspects to an organizing campaign is what is called “inoculation”: you give workers a dose of the boss’s counteroffensive before he has a chance to roll it out. If workers hear the boss’s poison from you first, they are immune to it, and the campaign is strengthened.”

“It is your job, as an organizer, to help them overcome it through agitation and inoculation (those are very specific strategies and they have a track record of success).”

“Having said that, if you can somehow corral those workers into following a plan and taking some collective action, they most often win. I’ve seen a lot of quick wins with what were in truth loosely organized groups of workers.”

We don’t think that it is opposed to self-organisation of workers to support and encourage individual workers; to suggest some common problems as a focus; to share knowledge and contacts; to put forward ideas for actions and explain where they come from. We’ve done all that. We just think that the focus on workers as a group that is created through ‘organizing’, rather than a group that exists already in a segmented and messed up form through working together has longer term weaknesses. Workers become dependent on the ‘organizers’ or the idea that in daily life, outside of ‘organised actions’, they cannot do much to undermine the power of bosses. It might take longer to discuss with co-workers the fact that ‘we are already organised’ and that the company tries to display our working together as their power. But that is a political process necessary to undermine the basic strength of the system.

* ‘Organizing’ can often only convince with an apparatus in the background

‘Organizing’ is often done by people who are somehow forced to show some success, either because they do the job professionally or because they need a reputation, e.g. for being re-elected. The result is the primary importance, the process secondary. Workers are not stupid, it is rarely the ‘one-on-one’ that Marianne Garneau talks about that convinces workers in a structurally weak situation to take action. More often than not it is the fact that there is a union apparatus in the background that promises legal or material protection. Rather than just a group of workers it become the organisation that seems powerful. We think it is dishonest if the Organizing.Work author says that you can compensate for the material clout of mainstream unions by diligent and disciplined ‘organizing’. There is an inner feedback loop between the fact that the mainstream unions dominate the main industries - leaving IWW and others to insignificant fringes - and the passivity these unions instil. This deadlock will not be broken by gradual ‘organizing’, but by a movement, a rupture. This in turn depends a lot on the wider social and ‘objective’ conditions. Which brings us to the next problem.

* ‘Organizing’ tends to underestimate the ‘objective conditions’

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

We think this subjectivistic view that reduces the effort to understand why workers are having trouble organising themselves to ‘making excuses for failures’ is dangerous. It contributes to burn-out and militants blaming themselves when things don’t go their way, despite following the ‘organizing’ mantra that ‘with the right plan and discipline’ you can kick things off wherever and whenever. Again, we don’t want to hide from scrutiny, but the fact that there were hardly any strikes amongst 300,000 low-waged workers in west London over a six year period hints at problems that go beyond our or someone else’s bad ‘organizing’ skills. This is also why we take some pains to describe the composition of the workforces, precisely because we have to know what specific barriers different groups of workers are facing e.g. immigration issues – rather than just tritely say, ‘all workers are scared, so what of it?’ More significantly, it contributes to workers thinking that once their particular department or company is united and prepared, their struggle will always be successful. Our group of workers might be solid, but can the company outsource work to other units when we take action? Can workers take action at any time, or does the economic cycle of the company play a role? We have seen enough ‘well organised’ workers being beaten by factors beyond their immediate workplace. To encourage workers to analyse the wider ‘objective conditions’ is actually a prime task - including the ‘objective conditions’ that limit the scope of day-to-day struggles on a social scale.

* ‘Organizing’ has no answer to the wider social forces that limit ‘day-to-day’ struggles and therefore ends up searching for state allies

Connected to the issue of ‘objective conditions’ is the fact that ‘organizing’ tends to ignore the ups and downs of class movements and the qualitative differences between a series of organised struggles and a class movement. In the end everything is ‘organized’, innit? This leads to various political issues. First of all, ‘organizing’ might mean proposing steps that support a limited struggle in the short run, e.g. relying on the charisma of an ‘organic leader’, a local politician, church organisations, journalists or official trade unions. These stepping stones for limited struggles turn into stumbling blocks once workers’ struggles go beyond the formal boundaries of ‘organizing’. We’re not saying that there is no relation between day-to-day organising efforts and the upsurge of seemingly ‘spontaneous’ struggles. The challenge for working class communists is to refuse to be opportunistic and use certain methods, propose certain steps, foster certain slogans that might help you rally people in the short-term, but create traps in the long run. Marianne Garneau doesn’t say much about ‘the long run’, about a wider political vision:

“In the big picture, organizing is about building up our power to be greater than the boss’s. It’s about being able to take action again and again, being able to escalate, and persevering through retaliation and yes, losses.”

For her, like many syndicalist comrades, the path forward is pretty clear, a gradual progression of increasing power. She doesn’t worry much about whether that power has to change in form, about state repression, about closures and global relocation of production, about the impact of crisis. She doesn’t worry about the structural limits of the system to grant material gains to even powerful workers. The problem is that only very few stubborn syndicalists actually stick to this view of ‘we just have to keep on organising and focus on workers’ power’. Confronted with the wider social atmosphere, with sectorial developments, with the issue of labour migration and legal changes to trade union laws, most syndicalists, sooner or later, seek support from the political class and the state. And who can blame them? If the working class doesn’t need more than ‘organizing’ and not a political organisation of its own, then the state is the only authority that can impact on the social sphere beyond the workplace. We don’t know if Marianne Garneau and Organizing.Work endorsed the Bernie Sanders campaign, but we assume so.

She does not refer to our criticism of democratic socialism in the last chapter of our book. She also does not discuss the problem we raise, of the division in recent working class uprisings between street protests and strikes. As an ‘organizer’ she doesn’t have to say anything about revolutionary strategy or uneven development of the global working class or the current composition of essential industries in our region. She limits herself to a cheap parody of the last chapter:

“The “objective conditions” approach also begs the question: what are they doing there? They very carefully chose Greenford (in West London) because it “typified capitalism’s main contradictions.”  If class struggle just breaks out spontaneously anyway, what is their role? It seems to have something to do with very meticulously ideating [sic] about revolution. A later theoretical chapter solemnly notes the number of power plants and oil refineries in Britain, “patrolled by helicopter,” and that during a future uprising, “we would need to recreate bonds with insurgent farm workers on the mainland, while waiting for new apple trees to grow.”

At this point we are happy to have made ourselves vulnerable by writing honestly about both the actual experiences in modern large-scale industries and political speculations about what a revolutionary process could actually look like in the 21st century - and what this would mean for us, practically, daily, as communists. Better to be ridiculed than stuck with a ‘know-it-all’-attitude that prevents you from thinking together about the current moment we are in. Still, this doesn’t stop us from admiring the Organizing.Work project, something that is missing here in the UK - a reflection of actual experiences of workplace organising.

4. Conclusion: A lot of failures?

“It’s odd that they would invite people to replicate something with so little success…”

You can see that ‘failure’ and ‘success’ means slightly different things for us and for the author. We don’t want to hide behind some kind of ‘we didn’t actually want to organise anything anyway’ ultra-leftism. We don’t say that ‘material gains’ are not a measure for success either. Nor do we want to list all the ‘little successes’, although you can read about them in the book. Yes, we didn’t manage to organise a strike in the two main workplaces. Yes, it was difficult to get a group of co-workers together to talk about collective steps. Yes, we think the reason for this goes deeper than just some missing ‘organizing’ ingredients, e.g. did we have the right demand, did we talk convincingly and enthusiastically enough. Because we want to encourage a new generation of comrades to work in and around the largely neglected bigger workplaces of the essential industries we want to be upfront that it is not an easy ride – and yes, we maintain that this is partly due to structural reasons.

When we mention the issue of capacity as a reason for why we were not able to unearth a lot of potentials we don’t hide behind the fact that they just weren’t enough of us. It was also in part down to the fact that we weren’t concentrating on one specific issue, e.g. the campaign to keep the local library open, and this was due to a clear political decision: we think it is important to see the solidarity network, workplace activities, the local newspaper and the debate as a political collective as different, but interrelating levels of organisation. By focusing on one single layer and one issue we might have been able to pull off one of the widely revered ‘victories’ that unions enjoy regaling us with. But it would have compromised what we see as an organic unity of an attempt at working class communist organisation. Outside of actual class movements, this will always be a balancing act. Similarly, we could have chosen some tin-pot company with 40 people and focused our organising efforts there, in order to be ‘successful’. Instead we chose big workplaces, because for us it is less about the influence of our organisation, but to be amongst many workers in the heart of the beast, to understand what they are doing and to discuss what can be done.

For Marianne Garneau the fact that we didn’t win the wage campaign and that there is no new union branch is sufficient to declare the six years of experience as a failure. We, on the other hand, are pretty happy about the fact that with a handful of comrades we managed to support dozens of fellow workers, established contacts in dozens of larger workplaces, contributed to the wider discussion about the current society and the struggles for a better one amongst hundreds of local workers and comrades around the globe. We think that in the end social change will depend on a combination of an upsurge of class movements, which is not in our or any organisation’s hands, and organised cores of political workers within it. At least we managed to get ourselves better prepared for this. We found comrades who are up for getting rooted, for reflecting self-critically and for bridging the gap between day-to-day organising and revolutionary strategy. That ain’t bad.

If you want to read some other reviews of ‘Class Power on Zero Hours’, that have slightly more bearing on the contents of the book, check out these links:

https://brooklynrail.org/2020/06/field-notes/Class-Power-on-Zero-Hours
https://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/three-class-struggles-and-fu...
https://peopleandnature.wordpress.com/2020/05/04/from-a-ready-meals-fact...

And of course, we urge you to read the book yourselves, see what side of the fence you’re on, and contribute to this important debate. You can order here:

https://classpower.net/order/

Some
AngryWorkers

[1]
https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2019/12/10/in-defence-of-working...

[2]
www.workerswildwest.wordpress.com

[3]
https://organizing.work/2020/04/the-myth-of-the-present-moment/

[4]
https://organizing.work/2020/05/the-leftwing-deadbeat/

[5]
https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2017/08/25/some-thoughts-on-the-...

Posted By

AngryWorkersWorld
Jun 19 2020 15:17

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  • We need to look at the wider current and historical dispute between ‘syndicalism’ and ‘political organisation’ here, otherwise we won’t understand why the review was written the way it was. If you are used as a straw man, at least don’t be ignorant about the reasons.

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AngryWorkersWorld
Jun 19 2020 16:52

Forgot to add this review to the main text, but it takes ages to get edit approved smile

https://freedomnews.org.uk/what-a-way-to-make-a-living-class-power-on-ze...

R Totale
Jun 20 2020 10:14

By the way, I can appreciate you may not be feeling the need to be entirely fair and balanced at this point, but just to mention that I'm pretty sure this bit is wrong:
"We don’t know if Marianne Garneau and Organizing.Work endorsed the Bernie Sanders campaign, but we assume so."
Perhaps "only very few stubborn syndicalists actually stick to this view of ‘we just have to keep on organising and focus on workers’ power’", but the Organizing.Work perspective can hardly be accused of not being stubborn enough. What they've had to say on the subject has been pretty solid, in contrast to the New Syndicalist lot who seem a bit more starry-eyed (or Starmer-eyed) about elections.
In general if you're writing a sentence that starts "We don’t know if Marianne Garneau and Organizing.Work endorsed" it's probably safest to end it with "but we assume they said "this isn't proper organizing, you need to get back to the workplaces and apply proper IWW methods".

AngryWorkersWorld
Jun 20 2020 14:21

That's fair enough, we should not assume - there are exceptions to the rule! And that's why we like the project in general...

Ragnar
Jun 21 2020 01:28

On https://organizing.work/ you can check the podcast about not happy opinions of elections or even Bernie's fans:
“Wobcast #4: Crises, elections, and working class power”
https://organizing.work/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/WobCast-4.m4a
Nice article from Marianne Garneau btw

comradeEmma
Jun 20 2020 19:05

I don't think Organizing Work(OW) are always wrong on a short-term perspective, there are a lot of people on the left unwilling to organize in their workplace or even really talk to their co-workers. The issue with OW-ism is the long-term perspective because there really is no none, its just radical trade unionism.

OW also seem to primarily have experience with small workplaces, specifically restaurants and cafés, and I think it ties into their rejection of building a sustainable union apparatus, both in terms of having shop-stewards or written material, as opposed to just using local organizing committees. One-on-ones are vital and should go without saying but what do you do when a workplace has hundreds or thousands of workers spread out over different sections and shifts?

syndicalist
Jun 23 2020 18:18

Is the book actually available?

Khawaga
Jun 23 2020 18:57

Yeah, though not in North America yet (unless you order directly from AAW).

syndicalist
Jun 23 2020 20:15

Peeps are asking over here. Where can they get it from the UK publishers if they wish?

syndicalist
Jun 23 2020 20:15

Peeps are asking over here. Where can they get it from the UK publishers if they wish?

AngryWorkersWorld
Jun 23 2020 20:47

Hiya comrades,

you can pre-order the book, but PM won't be able to deliver before August:

https://www.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=1164

If you want to order more than five we can sort something out from here, could be with you within a week, just drop us an email:

angryworkersworld@gmail.com

syndicalist
Jun 23 2020 21:48

Thanks

Ragnar
Jun 24 2020 12:35

About the OW article, you can say that the language or the way of exposing it is more or less adequate, but in the deep criticism, where it fails or is wrong? because personally I don't see that it does.

Besides, AW's response not only does not invalidate the criticism, it makes it more evident. And it doesn't diminish either the effort or the honesty with which AW has been able to work on their project.

There are quite clear issues, AW does not have a model of union building and this is reflected in its commitment to an activist model with solidarity networks.
In the conclusions, there are details such as "we could have chosen some tin-pot company with 40 people and focused our organising efforts there, in order to be 'successful'" which are curious, if you could organise 40 workers and you didn't it shows a clear lack of perspective. Especially when you are constantly talking about objective conditions. Even more so when we talk about building solidarity among workers. If you are sure of was able to start and organise 40 workers that were a symbol of victory in the area and advance with it to other companies, what´s that means for us? that there is a failure as a project even if it is later sweetened with an ideological choice "Instead we chose big workplaces, because for us it is less about the influence of our organisation, but to be amongst many workers in the heart of the beast, to understand what they are doing and to discuss what can be done". Where am I wrong in this logic?

comradeEmma
Jun 24 2020 13:35

I don't really understand the objection here. The fact is that OW only focuses on small workplaces, they can not scale it to a factory or other lage workplace, or even for a long period of time outside of direct conflict. Trying and failing in a large workplace, and drawing lessons from it, is worth more than walking the same steps over and over again. Even if we take OWs strategy at face value, how will it ever revive any type of industrial unionism? The shock troops of industrial unionism was never, to be crass, café workers, it was organisation among industrial workers, forestry workers, food production workers, auto-workers, and so on. This does not mean that workers in small workplaces don't play a role but their role is not as a spearhead or something you can only focus on.

R Totale
Jun 24 2020 14:34
Ragnar wrote:
About the OW article, you can say that the language or the way of exposing it is more or less adequate, but in the deep criticism, where it fails or is wrong? because personally I don't see that it does.

Besides, AW's response not only does not invalidate the criticism, it makes it more evident. And it doesn't diminish either the effort or the honesty with which AW has been able to work on their project.

On a very basic level, surely it matters whether OW/MG have described the book accurately or not? To paraphrase, but only slightly, the OW argument is "AW don't understand proper organising, they just rely on giving leaflets out, they need to understand that real organising involves building face-to-face relationships with people". Which, if it was an accurate description of the book, would hold some validity, but, as this reply shows, it's a complete distortion of the actual efforts described in the book, and so any criticism based on that description falls down.
As OW/MG themselves mention, the OW website has plenty of stories about unsuccessful IWW organising campaigns. It's one of the things I really respect and appreciate about them, that they're not just dedicated to heroic mythbuilding. But it also means that, if someone wanted to, they could gather up all those stories and say, with exactly as much validity as the OW/MG review: "look, the North American IWW don't understand how to organise at all, all they do is make these mistakes and have these unsuccessful campaigns." I hope we can all agree that would be a completely pointless thing to do, so why is it any better when they engage in the same kind of misrepresentation?

On the small vs large workplaces thing, I would mention that the OW crew, like Recomposition before them, do have some good and important stories about organising at Canada Post. But, on the other hand, they mainly do their organising there as a rank-and-file network within the existing union, CUPW, much like how AW organised through GMB and USDAW (way too many acronyms in that sentence). So, by the standards of that review, I suppose it would be fair to say that they also "can’t conceive of class power operating outside of the protection of labor law and union officialdom." Again, see how useless and unhelpful it is to just describe stuff in the most negative and loaded terms possible?

Actually, thinking about wobs at Canada Post, this article on dual-carding is interesting to revisit, not least for this bit: "The most important thing is that the workers themselves claim the victory, not the IWW." Which sounds really very close to the dreaded AW approach.

AngryWorkersWorld
Jun 25 2020 14:59

There seems to be a misunderstanding or unacceptance underlying this discussion. AngryWorkers was never about 'forming a union'. We don't start from 'our organisation', as the tool for workers' struggle. We are a political collective that looks for all possible ways and spaces for workers' self-organisation. As agency workers this space might have been 'informal', in some work-places and for certain moments it might be possible to use the IWW as a legal vehicle, under different conditions first steps might be made witin the mainstream union - being conscious about the limits they pose for overcoming sectoial etc. boundaries. The problem with the type of syndicalism that Ragnar defends is that your starting point is not what workers doing every day - in the work process, as colleagues, as political beings - but the starting point is your idea of 'what an organisation should look like'. This neglects the fact that the small unions will never 'out-organise' the mainstream unions through 'better organising'. The strong-hold of the mainstream unions is based on a certain passiveness of workers who in a situation of generally low levels of class struggle look for the backing of resourceful organisations, with legal departments and so on. Only leaps of struggle will break this deadlock, but the rupture will neither come 'purely from outside', nor through a rival organisation. A lot of wildcat actions built on certain elements of the rank-and-file union structure. As a political organisation we want to look at each of these situations fresh, together with our co-workers, and propose steps that widen the potential for workers' autonomy and encourage workers to discuss the 'objective conditions' of the system beyond their workplace. That's how we see our role. Ragnar is right when it comes to the IWW campaign we co-organised, there it might have made sense to start with smaller companies, not those with 100 plus people - but we mention that in the book and it is really more of a side note. In order to make this discussion more fruitful there are two possible paths:
a) Making the effort to really engage with the organising experience at, for example, Bakkavor or Tesco and discuss in detail what could have been done differently
b) Discuss if it makes sense to form a political organisation whose aim it is to organise 'within the advanced' struggles or sectors, rather than building an organisation that claims to be the advanced section (be it a syndicalist union or a political party)

comradeEmma
Jun 26 2020 18:34

Organizing Work has come out with another article in the same "series": Salt: the flavor, not the meal

AngryWorkersWorld
Jun 28 2020 14:46

From a comrade:

To Marianne Garneau,

Dear Marianne,

I have just read your review of the Angry Workers’ book ‘Class Power on Zero hours’. I knew nothing about the Angry Workers till I bumped into them at a meeting in London last November. I bought their book and read it and I think most the points you raise in criticism also raised questions in my mind. However my response to the problems in their book was rather different from yours. You poor scorn on their activities and in response to their admitted failure to build unions in their places of work you sarcastically say ‘Better luck next time.’ My response was I want to talk about these things with them.

I’m a pensioner living in the north of England but I was a trade union organiser/activist for much of my life. I started work on building sites in London. A site starts up with a new work force and the first thing you have to do if you are one of the first people on site is work to get the union going. I did this on big sites – hundreds of people – some are already union members others aren’t. You work to make the site fully union, even having to fight the leadership of the union who collaborated with the employers to undermine the 100% membership. But we did it and many other people on similar sites did the same thing. This was late 60’s early 70’s. Today most building sites in the UK are non-union or only partially unionised. Better luck next time building workers!

I left the building trade and became a sheet metal worker. I worked in the aircraft industry building Concorde and military planes. These were fully unionised factories and I became a senior shop steward. At one time we shut down most of the UK aircraft industry with an occupation in pursuit of a wage claim which was then won in full. Then the UK aircraft industry started to contract. Factory after factory shut, efforts to keep jobs failed. Better luck next time aircraft engineers!

I then worked in Rolls Royce Motors. The London factory where I got a job was such a well organised union place that the management could only employ people nominated by the union so if we had blacklisted members who had been fired from other places as soon as a vacancy came up they were taken on at Rolls. That’s how I got my job after being sacked from the aircraft industry on a framed up charge of violence against a manager.

The day I started at Rolls I was waiting for somebody to show me the job when a senior steward came up to me and asked if I was new. ‘Get your coat on’, he said, ‘we’re all going home for the day.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘We had a meeting scheduled with management at 8am and at five minutes past they hadn’t shown up. We’re not taking this kind of rudeness.’

I later became a senior steward. When the Labour Government brought in a freeze on wages due to the financial crisis we went on strike for three months.

When the Arab Israeli war sent oil prices soaring the demand for 9 miles per gallon Rolls Royces dropped and lay-offs started with the eventual closure of the London factory. Better luck next time Car workers.

A group of us then got jobs in an artificial limb factory, one of the most skilled and highest paid sites in London and fully unionised. Miss a factory union meeting and you got fined. Miss two meeting – a double fine. Carry on and you’d lose your union card and would be out of the door. The firm had been started by a Colonel Hanger who lost his legs in your Civil War. Now it got taken over by an international conglomerate called British Tyre and Rubber – BTR – you might of heard of them from the famous BTR Samcol strike in South Africa which because of the link I went over to and began a collaboration with South African trade unionists – but more of this later. BTR straight away began work to make the limbs by a different process that didn’t need skilled labour. Once they’d cracked it they provoked a strike, shut the factory and moved production overseas. Better luck next time prosthetic technicians!

Back to South Africa where I became friends with some of the people who had built the unions there. If you know anything about those unions organised into the Federation of South African TU’s (later becoming COSATU) you would know that they were probably the most militant, democratic, un-bureaucratic unions in the world. They were built under the brutal apartheid regime. They not only organised millions of workers, their militants became the centre of community organising and work amongst the unemployed, the youth etc. At the same time there existed something called the South African Congress of Trade Unions which had existed for many years as a front for the ANC and the SA communist party. While it had representatives around the world it had no members on the ground inside the country. The apartheid regime was being destroyed by the militant unionised workers and it began to do a deal with the ANC, with Mandela who was still in prison, to end apartheid. But they couldn’t weaken the state oppression as long as the workers union’s were powerful so ANC and SA Communist Party set about getting control of them and subordinating the unions to the ANC and then to the ANC government once apartheid was abolished. Now the unions became junior partners of government. The union democracy vanished and with it the militancy was stifled. Union leaders became government ministers. Cyril Ramaphosa who had been leader of the mine workers became a millionaire businessman and Moses Mayekiso, one of the most militant leaders from the Metal Workers union became director of the state electricity company and began to oversee the disconnecting of people who couldn’t pay their bills. Striking miners, members of the union Ramaphosa used to lead, were shot at by his government troops and over 40 were killed. Living standards have fallen, unemployment has rocketed. The COSATU federation split apart. Better luck next time South African workers.

Do you see where I’m coming from? Workers can and do build powerful organisations by one means or another but its not enough. Unions are to defend workers against the bosses and pro-boss governments. But over and over again they fail when employers, because of economic or political circumstance cannot cut a deal. Globalisation ripped up the old order. You go on strike they move production overseas. You have to organise globally but that has so far not happened in any serious way. And even then its not enough. What happens to your unions, even if they are the most democratic work place organisations, when financial crisis hits a company, or a country or as is more and more likely the whole world? An organisation for defence is not much use if the person you want to screw a deal out of is bust. Now maybe you hope that just the fact of having developed a really strong work placed organisation will be a good foundation to fight this kind of situation from. I’ve been giving you all these examples to say its not enough.

Now let me say straight away I don’t know the answer to this problem – not in the concrete sense of workplace organising. I do know a general answer – get rid of the bosses, get rid of the mad world whereby all production takes place not for the benefit of the workers but for the continual recreation of capital. That’s why I’m a socialist, a communist call it what you like. And have been since I was a teenager. That’s why I became a union militant – to fight for the working class to take control of production but during my life time I’ve seen all the various strategies that people had for this fail and come to nothing. So for me there has to be a discussion amongst working class militants about the strengths and limitations of trade unions. How do workers go from defensive actions to offensive when the existing society can no longer tolerate their efforts to organise themselves. To not prepare for this is to my mind to do a great disservice to working class organisation. In effect to lead it to slaughter.

That’s why I am interested in the Angry Workers, because they are very open and honest about not just other people’s failures but about their own. However I do feel I have common objectives with them and here I suspect is the real source of your sarcasm and totally negative criticism – you don’t like their aims. Why else such vitriol? You’re successfully organising in the US, what impact can a tiny group of people in the UK – people according to you making no headway - make on your operations? If I were in your place and had your opinion of the book I would toss it in the bin, not waste my time writing a criticism. So maybe there’s a sore nerve here. I read your review and then I searched through your web site and I fail to get any clear picture of what you think your organising is for apart from fighting the bosses. But apart from all the examples I’ve given already this attitude has historically failed over and over when confronted with a crisis in capitalism. The syndicalists in Spain in the first part of the 20th century, militant, heroic dedicated to their class yet trashed and murdered by the combined political forces of fascism and Stalinism. And so on and so on. You ridicule the Angry Workers for doing something that failed and then saying ‘lets do it again’. Well your trade unionism without politics has failed big time but you propose to do the same again. The difference is that as I have found out Angry Workers are up and ready for a discussion about how not to do the same thing again. From the tone of your article I’m not sure you are that open to re-flexion and dialogue.

Finally, just on a small note, you start off by ridiculing left wing groups for infiltrating industry. Well I grew up in a middle class family, could have gone to university but at the time with the Vietnam war going on, with Apartheid in South Africa, with American nuclear weapons on our soil I thought the world sucks. Why would I want to make it up the ladder in such a society. So I left school as soon as I was able and went to work as a builders labourer with my socialist outlook. Those massive militant unions in South Africa didn’t just grow out of thin air. They came about because the long work by a handful of revolutionaries working illegally suddenly paid of when a spontaneous strike wave ripped through South Africa in 1973. It took both things. Not a blue print but worth reflecting on.

Comradely

Khawaga
Jun 28 2020 16:23

Well that's a mic drop post.