Croydon Solidarity Network – One year on

Submitted by AngryWorkersWorld on March 18, 2021

We publish the following reflection of our comrades from Croydon Solidarity. We discussed the text together and raised some questions regarding the problems of ‘getting rooted’ in the current moment. We have to deepen this debate, here are just some preliminary thoughts:

* During the pandemic it was difficult to set up physical meeting points for the solidarity network, which made the leafletting first and main point of contact. That limits longer-term interaction.

* How can we develop the other main physical presence in a working class area, through direct contacts in local workplaces? Here one of the problem is that the main group of workers the group was in touch with is in itself relatively precarious, e.g. the self-employed Amazon drivers.

* We are still uncertain how to balance some of the main practical activities, e.g. the solidarity network, with the need to build a local political core that can hold things together and give things a direction. This is, last but not least, a question of time and capacity.

It’s just over a year since a few of us set out to map, speak to, and engage with the working class of Croydon. All locals to Croydon and wider south London, with backgrounds in trade union organising and other types of left-wing activism. We attempted to articulate why we set up this project in a blog post in January, but broadly we were following the practice of Angry Workers in West London and were somewhat disillusioned with what we had been involved in previously. A lot has happened in the past 12 months, for us as a group, but also globally. It was quite the year to start this endeavour, that’s for sure. In this article, we want to briefly set out what we have achieved so far, what we could have done better, and where it leaves us for the months ahead.
In the early days of the project, we set out to simply understand what capital and labour looked like in the area. We walked the many industrial and retail parks of Croydon, Mitcham, and along the Purley Way. We found an array of industries, food production and packaging, pharmaceuticals and electronics, as well as the large logistics warehouses of Amazon, DHL, and the like. It was daunting but exciting, and in early February we began visiting workplaces. Since then, we’ve undertaken roughly 50 visits to many of those workplaces we first walked past in early January. Distributing leaflets, and also two issues of our newsletter. Some of the early plans we had were shelved due to Covid and we’ve had to adapt. For example, we had hoped to hold cross-industry meetings in local venues, which is not feasible in a lockdown. However, we’ve had small to significant amounts of engagement with several workforces. Tesco, where two of our members worked for a period, Amazon, which seemed to offer the perfect conditions for a struggle against appalling conditions, and Pizza Hut, which led to a relatively successful campaign. We have also tapped into the local response to the wider Black Lives Matter movement, and the financial apocalypse that has hit the local council (across the UK, Croydon Council is perhaps the furthest in the red).

In April 2020 at the height of the chaos of the pandemic and lockdown, we came across a group of Pizza Hut workers in the wider South London area who has been screwed over by a franchise owner. Approximately 100 workers across six stores in Croydon and surrounding areas had lost their jobs after the owner unilaterally decided to shut the stores in late March. The workers had been expecting their final pay-checks, but when these didn’t arrive, they started to suspect something was up.

We met up with them as they began to visit the main franchise store, which doubled as the owner’s house, and mounted impromptu pickets, pounding at the building and shouting at the owner to come out and speak to them. It soon became clear that the owner was in some kind of inebriated state and was constantly lying to them to fob them off. Together with the main group of 40 or so workers that we were in touch with, we decided to run a series of pickets outside of other franchise stores and to simultaneously start an online publicity campaign targeting Pizza Hut. Eventually, this led to thousands of pounds being paid to the workers and offers of jobs at other franchises. Much of the owed wages were lost though. Involvement from the workers also dropped off sharply throughout the campaign as people were either paid off or forced to find alternative work. The experience was a good example of what can be done by a small group of local workers and supporters if people keep their ears to the ground. It also gave a sense of the connections that exist geographically amongst local groups of working classes. We’ve come across workers in Royal Mail warehouses, Amazon drivers, and elsewhere who heard about what had happened at Pizza Hut. Full reflections on the campaign can be found here.

Angry Workers in West London mostly conducted their inquiry and organised workplaces in which their members worked. A significant part of their model placed an importance on being ‘rooted’. This meant holding some kind of standing in the workplace and/or community. This is in contrast to those groups or unions who are seen as ‘parachuting’ in. Of all the workplaces on our radar, the Tesco distribution centre in Croydon perhaps offered our best opportunity for turning our attention to somewhere we could be genuinely rooted. One of us who had first tramped the streets of industrial Croydon, got a job at the large building on Factory Lane. This site is where the majority of this part of Tesco’s south London online food shop deliveries set out from each day. Quite quickly, an existing Tesco worker also got in touch and became involved, meaning we had two Tesco employees feeding back to the rest of us on what it was like to work for the food giant. This helped us tailor our leaflets, articles, and conversations, making them more relevant.

For several months we visited regularly, hearing workers talk about problems with management, concerns regarding discrimination, and a less than adequate regime of covid safety measures. However, these early signs of engagement and trust being built, eventually petered out. This was even before our two members had left Tesco. From early on, management was quite hostile to our visits, on two occasions calling the police which seemed to put off some workers from stopping to chat. Those who did stop and engaged in conversation seemed unwilling to go to the next stage and either share a phone number or get in touch with us after our conversations. We also struggled to maintain the momentum which perhaps compounded the fact we didn’t seem to get beyond the surface level. At one point we agreed to make weekly visits, but when this appeared to be overly ambitious we reduced them to fortnightly. Unfortunately, this wasn’t sustainable either. This mostly came down to the individual circumstances of those in the group, with people having other commitments that prevented them from keeping to the regular visits. This probably affected the trust we were able to build, as ultimately, other than a more consistent period across a month or two, three Saturdays might go by where we didn’t have a presence at the workplace. With a workforce of that size on such varied shift patterns, we probably barely scratched the surface.
Overall where we’ve put most of our efforts has been the Amazon warehouse on Purley Way. In the early summer, when there were a fair few of us, we formed two groups each focusing on different workplaces, mainly the Tesco distribution center, and Amazon. Eventually, when our numbers dwindled, we focussed on the Amazon warehouse. This was mainly because of the progress we felt we’d made there, but also the international scope that the Amazon struggle presented. From our first visits, we made contact with several delivery drivers who were working like crazy during the first lockdown and most of them were pretty pissed off with the company. They were all the more annoyed after the £2 bonus the company was paying to drivers and warehouse workers for their essential work was scrapped after just a few months and in the worst of the pandemic. Sometimes we had just a couple of minutes (sometimes even seconds if they were in a rush!) to hand them a leaflet and ask them what was going on. The answers from workers being pretty much always the same, the workloads keep going up and the money they make keeps going down. At the same time, you could tell that many of them were afraid to lose their jobs so they were reluctant to take action. The majority of the drivers are migrants from East Europe and South America, so on top of losing their job, they were also afraid of getting in trouble, which made things even more difficult.

Despite all this, we managed to make some lasting contacts and for a while, we had the feeling that something could come from it. In the last couple of years, Amazon has been constantly in the news both for their huge profits and their union-busting practices against their workers, especially in the US and Central/East Europe, that have been organising in independent unions (Amazon Workers International and others) to try to fight back against the Dickensian working conditions. The thing is, that most of these ad hoc unions have been organising in the warehouses, and up until now, we’ve not managed to make significant links with any warehouse workers, just drivers, and their status is quite different since they’re supposed to be ‘partners’, not workers. They’re self-employed so they get pay per drop and have to either use their own van or rent it from agencies.
One of the things that we’ve been insisting the most in our visits was the different examples of grassroots organisation against Amazon in different countries, printing leaflets about protests in warehouses in Poland and encouraging the drivers to get in touch with these groups of workers in different parts of Europe and the US. After a few months of visiting regularly and after talking with many drivers who were fed up with their working conditions it seemed that the time was right to call a meeting in the parking where they gather before their shifts start. We tried two times in two consecutive weeks but it never happened. A few drivers said they would show up but at the last minute, they changed their minds or got cold feet. Since then we felt like the momentum was lost and we needed to rethink our strategy. We also felt that we needed to take a break from our visits to Amazon but trying to keep in touch with some of the drivers and keeping an ear to the ground for possible workers ́ actions in the future. You never know when it’ll happen but you can be sure that eventually, it will happen.

Another important part of the work we’ve been doing has been coordinating with other groups in the UK. This has been through Lets Get Rooted, an initiative of people that have been collaborating with Angry Workers over the last few years and who wanted to create a network of groups with a similar approach to working-class politics.
“This isn’t a call for a new organisation so much as a call for a new practice. We need collectives that contribute to the struggles of our class based on an analysis of the concrete conditions and of what our fellow workers are already doing.” (A Call For a New Working Class Strategy, May 2020)
At the moment there are groups in London (East London, Heathrow and of course, Croydon) as well as individuals in Leeds, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Belfast… We’ve been meeting online regularly and a few of us had the chance to meet in person last autumn in London. Always with the aim of bridging the gap between theory and practice, and using all the tools at our disposal, from workers inquiries or reading groups to podcasts and agitprop. It has also allowed us to get plugged in to, and attend, the picket lines at Tower Hamlets Council and Heathrow Airport.

Our first 14 months or so have clearly been a mixed bag. While the Pizza Hut campaign had tangible results, our efforts in Tesco, Amazon, and elsewhere have not ended in anything more substantial than a handful of contacts. That seems like a minor return for the early morning factory visits, weekends spent shivering in dank cap parks, and putting up posters. So we thought it would be worth us putting in our own words why we think this is still worth the effort. Ultimately, it comes back to a motto of a Polish street cleaner mate of ours who has supported our project in the past. “If you’re not going down to speak with the Romanians in the warehouses, then what the fuck do you actually know about the working class?” For us, our practice of factory visits, discussions, and circulation of experiences is the basic starting point of political action. It doesn’t have to be warehouses or Romanians. In the past, we’ve focused on Punjabi sandwich makers in West London, Colombian cleaners in Kensington, or Afghan delivery drivers in Maida Vale. But the point is starting from the cold, hard, and messy realities of working-class experience in the neighbourhood and the workplace.

Unfortunately, the British ‘Left’ is still obsessed with political and cultural arguments that are not grounded in the experiences mentioned above. Without these, the assumptions and declarations cannot be examined, tested, and either abandoned or strengthened. Perhaps this gives a sense of why it seems that people are happy to keep repeating the same mistakes without any critical reflection – whether this be faith in the Labour Party, TUC unions, or the turf wars of the small syndicalist organisations. Although it can be frustrating at times and we are well aware of the risk of burning out, we are not looking for the immediate ‘satisfaction’ of results, because those are illusory anyway. We think that the purpose of revolutionary groups is to test/experiment/build knowledge and get rooted in the class instead of simply waiting for a shift in the objective conditions.

After one year with ups and downs we still in a process of self-critique and exchange of ideas with other comrades to identify the limits of this kind of practice and our mistakes, keeping in mind that the last year has been especially challenging in many ways for circumstances beyond our control.