Workmates: direct action workplace organising on the London Underground - Review

Track maintenance staff at work

A review by Steven Johns of the Solidarity Federation pamphlet Workmates: direct action workplace organising on the London Underground.

The first pamphlet in Solidarity Federation's new "theory & practice series" is on the Workmates collective - an informal organisation of tube track workers including both directly employed and contractor staff, and both inside and outside the trade union, the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union (RMT). (The second in the series is a reprint of the excellent Anarcho-syndicalism in Puerto Real from shipyard resistance to community control.)

This is an excellent short pamphlet, and one which I have been eager to see for some time - I have pestered some Solfed members for a few years to get something in writing about this group!

Based on conversations with the leading figure in Workmates, Andy, a Solfed member and RMT rep, the pamphlet charts the origins of the Workmates collective in late 1998/early 1999.

The background to its creation was the Company Plan in London Underground in 1992, which opened the door to widespread use of private contractors in track maintenance, and was left largely unopposed by the RMT.

In 1998, the intention to privatise the Underground's maintenance infrastructure via Public-Private Partnership (PPP) was announced. Widespread anger from rail workers and union members, unhappy over their union's capitulation to the Company Plan, pressured the RMT leadership to resist.

As one-day strikes against privatisation approached, Andy and some of his colleagues were busy organising. They argued that RMT union meetings of the 100 track maintenance workers should be opened up to the 200 nominally self-employed agency staff to build solidarity between the two groups. Assistant general secretary of the union at the time, Bob Crow, agreed and the joint meetings began.

On the first day of strike action, of thes directly employed track maintenance staff, about six or seven crossed picket lines, whereas not a single one of the agency workers came in to work. "This changed the attitude of the permanent staff towards the contractors" the pamphlet says, and Workmates came out of these events.

The pamphlet goes over in detail how Workmates organised, and how the union leadership reacted to it, and then recounts examples of remarkably successful direct action, organised directly by the workers themselves. The most imaginative of these being a "piss strike" when management attempted to introduce new working practices.

The workers unofficially instituted a work-to-rule where instead of urinating on the track as usual they would walk all the way back to the toilet in the depot. Health and safety regulations prevent workers walking along the track alone, so colleagues had to go with them - effectively bringing work to a halt. Management backed off within two days.

The pamphlet then recounts how Workmates as an official group wound down around 2001, due to staff turnover, Andy being too busy and other workers not taking on key organisational tasks. However, its legacy remains today in the all-worker meetings which still occur and still help organise action today.

Despite overall being a great text, the only minor weak point I noticed was in its conclusions. In analysing the decline of Workmates, the "failure to develop new militants" was identified as a key problem. In response to this it is stated that "in the longer term… this problem can only be solved by creating permanent organisational structures in the workplace: for anarcho-syndicalists, we see this as being the revolutionary union."

The text subsequently states:

no matter the conditions, militant workplace organisation cannot be achieved by political groupings organising outside of the workplace.

The first sentence I quote I believe underestimates the problem we as revolutionaries face at work. With high staff turnover, and a low number of active revolutionaries or those who see the need to organise outside and in addition to the trade unions, it is extremely difficult to set up any sort of formal organisational structure in a workplace which do not rely on particular individuals, and which can survive the departure or burnout of those individuals. We can, however, help create a culture of resistance and solidarity comparable to the culture of mass meetings illustrated here.

As for the second, while I agree with the statement, I think it addresses a strawman. Who would argue that militant workplace organisation could be achieved by an outside political group? However, this text does illustrate the important role that one individual member of a revolutionary organisation can have in his/her workplace. It does not mention how the organisation supported the Workmates initiative, or how it could play a role in future similar initiatives - or if indeed there was a way it could have done anything to support it. Thus it fails to demonstrate the practical difference between a political grouping "outside of the workplace" and a revolutionary union.

This is something I have thought about a fair bit - I also organised all-worker meetings in my workplace under the auspices of union meetings, bringing together agency and permanent workers, union and non-union members. And I am a member of a revolutionary organisation, the Anarchist Federation, but other than sharing my experiences and learning about the experiences of others, it's not easy to see how your organisation can support your workplace organising efforts, especially with our numbers being so few. Relatively apolitical co-workers won't be likely to join a tiny political group, whether it calls itself political-economic or not. And being publicly associated with a revolutionary organisation can be problematic due to the risk of victimisation by management.

Now I really don't mean this as a criticism of Solfed - this is a problem which we face collectively as a movement, and I don't have the answer. Despite numerous lengthy discussions on here I still don't understand the qualitative difference between what Solfed terms "revolutionary unions" and an anarchist political organisation. Hopefully this will be made clearer in future pamphlets.

In conclusion, this pamphlet brilliantly recounts an interesting and important example of workers in a modern, heavily casualised workplace, organising together, taking direct action and winning, improving their conditions and their working lives. Workmates, if not a model which we can all copy directly, should be an inspiration and a lesson to us all.

We hope to have the text of this pamphlet on libcom soon, however I'm told that Solfed need to recoup their publishing costs first, so please buy it from their website, where you can also donate via PayPal:


Jun 16 2011 17:21

Just to flag up that the pamphlet this is a review of has now been posted on libcom: