Tales of work and struggle in a large Swedish bakery under threat from closure.
For almost two years I was employed at a bakery in southern Sweden, together with about 160 others; bakers, cleaners and mechanics included. From the first day of work, I was told that the bakery was under the threat to be closed down, and, indeed, with time, we got dismissed and the bakery shut down. Of course this affected the mood and ways of struggle at the bakery, and may be worth to keep in mind while reading the text. For example, it meant that the turnover of employees was rather big, and that many of the older people went looking for new jobs.
Several of my work pals were also involved in the autonomous movement, or acquaint left-wing activists from other groups. In addition to that, we were engaged in trying to get more comrades inside the bakery. We also arranged lectures with a comrade who was working at a bakery in Stockholm, and one who had been active in a large nucleus several years ago. Together, we constituted a group of friends, which, in a more or less active and regular manner, exchanged experiences and information between the different sections of the bakery. It could be added that there existed similar groupings of other employees acting in a similar way.
The methods of struggle that we used were in most case things that we had learned in other jobs, or from other employees. It was methods of struggle that is seldom written about, since it doesn't appear in such a "big" way as a strike or an occupation. However, I hold that the direct, non-unionist, everyday resistance is the fundamental struggle, and that unionist or representative "struggle" don't have the ability to be successful without it. Through small, disrespectful steps you can transform the general mood on your workplace, from a place without hope to a place with a fighting spirit. This everyday struggle we, in Kämpa Tillsammans!, has chosen to call "the faceless resistance".
We chose this name because it describes the hidden mass militancy that is so widely spread in the workers struggles. It is faceless because it is digging itself underground just like a mole, only to reveal its face on the surface from time to time. It is faceless because there are no official leaders or representatives who can be blamed or take the credit. It is faceless and insidious - you are nodding and listening to the instructions of your boss, only to do as you self please in the end. A prerequisite for making the faceless resistance an important factor is that there are solidarity between the workers. It can sometimes be found on workplaces or sections of workplaces but for the most time it isn't there. And then it has to be created.
The "group of friends" often plays an important part in this effort. Some buddies begin show solidarity with each other. They set a general standard with an element of class struggle, which slowly affects others who eventually, joins up. You back each other up, you take extra breaks in turns and when the boss ask for someone that has taken a extra break, you say that she has gone to fetch a new ear protection to replace her broken pair. In the process of creating this kind of solidarity, the breaks are really essential, but not because you sit down to discuss the "ways to Struggle!" as because the simple fact that you are getting to know each other.
What is to be done?
As everybody else I started at the place with numerous short-time temporary employment's as a "stand in", which all in all lasted for about a year. These were located in very different stations and sections, a fact that soon resulted in a lot of contacts inside the bakery. You quickly got an overview about which section was involving heavier work than others did or which one that had good work pals. A thing that the Left always kept on about was that you should handle all conflicts in a brave and direct manner, and that you always should protest if something is wrong. Maybe it works for someone who has a none-time limited contract but as a "stand in" it is pure fantasy. If you argued too much with the bosses (or the union-representative for that matter) and didn't behave, you had been forced to search for new jobs on the moon. Furthermore, new girls were forced to work extra hard on the sections of the bakery that were dominated by men, in order to be recognised. In this situation the thing is to find methods of struggle that makes the boring and monotonous labour bearable. Then, longer breaks are important. Not only to regain one's forces, but maybe more important, to be able to talk with your work pals.
The first day on job you got instructions that all breaks should be timed. These instructions were quickly demented by the bakers who'd been working there for a longer time than we had been. All in all, we had one hour break a day, and if you didn't punch out your break on the clock, the salary-office would take one hour from your paycheque. If you punched out during your break, but stayed longer than one hour, they would take more from your salary, but if you didn't punch out at all they took the hour anyway. In that way, you could only loose if punching out. Instead, we took longer breaks in turns. It worked well and everything was just fine. The boss couldn't argue much, because no one was punching out. If anyone was asked why he or she didn't punch out during the breaks, that person answered that he or she had forgotten it, or that "somebody" had told him or her that it wasn't needed. Then the boss would say that you should punch out in future, and you would say "Yes" and then keep on don't giving a shit about it.
This way of pretending getting along with the ideas of the boss, only to do what you want in reality, can be resembled by Aikido. If it isn't really necessary to stand up and argue an opposite view with the boss, you just simply slip away, doing totally different than what he instructed you to do. If it was important for the boss to go around believing that he was in charge, we let him do that - as long as we were in charge in reality.
The idea was that it should be as short time between different kinds of bread as possible. But because we all realised that all our arguments, about this being more stressful and hard for us by the troughs and ovens, and especially in packing, wouldn't change anything at all, we pretended we really tried to do everything as fast as possible. In practice we were saying that there were problems with the old machines, that it was a "wheat stoppage" (something that were impossible for them to investigate), which was sorted out after a while, or we just lagged behind and pretended that we were lousier than we really were. It is always positive not to put a full effort on the job, so that you have some reserves left for an occasion when they are needed.
"Someone" - The Usage of Mythology
For the bread to come out as good as possible it was necessary to set the machines on a mode on which they had to be constantly supervised, something we were supposed to do. Since we, in addition to this, were placed on several lines at the same time, the working conditions became absurd - if the dough got stuck on one line you had to fix it, while the dough on the other line could get stuck as well. Which it mostly got, according to the law of "Everything gets fucked up". Naturally, the solution was to run the machine on a totally different mode on which the dough never got stuck. When the foreman discovered it, we always pretended to be really surprised and complained about the machines: they were probably malfunctioning. Or maybe some "bastard" had changed the settings: there were so many people who had been working at this post earlier on, and when they passed by perhaps they taught they could change the settings the way they wanted them. Of course, no one was pointed out for these misdeeds, but it went so far that the foreman himself went around mumbling about it, trying to figure out who was responsible for running around changing the settings all the time.
We used our knowledge of the labour process in a two-edged way. When there were bosses who knew more or as much as us, we referred to our lack of knowledge. At the same time, we were making up reasons about things they knew nothing of ("the dough was too sticky"), when explaining why the settings were changed for the bosses who lacked the right knowledge. And because they were the bosses they wouldn't ask us further. We also made usage of terms the bosses wouldn't understand. We, for example, called coffee breaks "to pencil". When they asked us how much work there was to be done, we would say that we just had some pencilling left, and then they were tricked to believe that this was the name of some important task.
Other, alien, factors of usage were bosses from other parts of the bakery. The fact was that our boss never spoke too some of the other bosses, whom he was in disagreements with, while we claimed that they had given us other instructions, and that we didn't know better than to obey them, because we were new.
The State Health Department was another great authority. I don't know if they would have said anything, but we said that they had some remarks on the way the bosses said us to do the cleaning up anyway (you got a lot of wheat in your lungs using their procedure). And because the law and the Health Department reasonably stood over the authority of our bosses we couldn't take responsibility for this way of cleaning up.
Solidarity-lacking work pals
As in many other workplaces there was a little traitor and ass licking bastard in our section of the bakery. He refused to show solidarity with the work pals by skipping work himself while the others got more work to do. While we had a common effort for less control and a lesser work burden, him running away from work affected us all. Furthermore, he was licking the boss's arse and got the best working hours and holidays, and at a few occasions he was even acting as an informer for the boss when people took longer breaks than they were supposed too. Especially he had an interest of trying to boss around the newcomers.
There were many ways trying to deal with him; somebody threatened him, we told all new ones not to let him play the chief of and we refused to help him out when he had problems. He was almost totally isolated in the workplace and was disliked by everyone. He was a constant problem, that didn't end before he quit the job, but at a certain point we had developed a kind of balance. For example, he stopped snitching, and then we stopped controlling his acting and when he took his breaks. In a kind of way, we had a use for him, as an intimidating example for the newcomers: in him, they saw what consequence disloyalties to ones work pals brought with itself. Namely, to get mocked, ridiculed and totally frozen out.
Not being on the level (or "No pure wheat in the bag")
At the same time as our work team produced about 3000 breads a hour, that was sold for 15-20 crowns (about 1,5-2,0 Euro or US-Dollar) a piece, the bosses were walking around with the misconception that we should have to pay for the bread we brought home. Kindly enough, we were only obliged to pay half the price. But luckily enough, the people on the floor saw it with a bit clearer perspective. Everyone improved their economy by bringing bread and cookies to their families, friends, neighbours, collectives and people's kitchens, or to sale/exchange with the small stores. In theory we were supposed to write everything down in a book, but this was forgotten when you were on your way home. Anyway, you could just get a key to open the box yourself and take whatever bag of bread you wanted, when you were supposed to buy something. After a while, it went so far that we even provided ourselves with bread when a boss was around. This was motivated with the notion that labour itself was something that were depriving us workers, and anyway, the bosses were probably also stealing. When an angry placard appeared, with the announcement that something big and expensive was missing, and that the boss of that part of the bakery demanded it to be returned, it wasn't a long matter of time before somebody had written "You could always check in your own garage!"
"Stop making a mess, ooooooooooor else the Boss will come!" - To communicate and to ridicule
For those who didn't have a permanent contract it was, as I mentioned earlier, somewhat hard to protest. Then a more anonymous form of communication got an important function, especially scribble on the toilets. There were some brilliant examples of working class culture, for example in the form of poetry, limericks and drawings. Following is a poem, written by Aspes:
Blank lottery ticket
When I got a job I was happy
But probably couldn't have been unluckier at all
For as soon as the next day
The boss came and said
"Toil on, you big bastard,
you have to make more profits"
Yes, the owners get rich and fat
Without being obliged to work themselves
But when the business go back
Then the General Manager attacks
Cuts a couple of thousands of jobs
Just like a fucking snob
And you can hardly trust the employment office
When we at the bakery is forced to quit
No, when we got sacked
Our sole chance is a bingo lottery ticket! Nitlotten
När jag fick jobb blev jag gla'
Men större otur kan man knappast ha
För redan nästa da'
Kom chefen och sa
"Slit, din store skit,
du måste skapa mer profit"
Ja, ägarna blir rika och feta
Utan att själva behöva arbeta
Men när verksamheten går back
Då går VD:n till attack
Slaktar några tusen jobb
Som en annan liten snobb
Och AF kan man knappast lita på
När vi från bageriet tvingas gå
Nej, när vi väl sparken fått
Är vår enda chans en Bingolott!
This poem was so popular that other bakers printed it and spread it in the bakery. Another pearl was a drawing showing the bakery as a concentration camp, with foremen sitting in machine gun turrets. After a while, I started to go too different toilets, just for the fun of looking at the writings on the walls, the mock drawings and the political debates that went on.
Another important aspect of the scribbling on the toilets was how they made fun of the bosses. With the help of this, their authority was undermined and our mood was improved. Instead of asking if the boss had done his daily inspection route, you were instead saying things like: "Has the old bastard shown his fat arse yet?" Once, when I was called down to the boss's office for some reason to have a yelling, some anonymous hero had put in a screen saver that said "The Boss and the foremen = Suckers!" (The boss was no ace in computers and couldn't change it.) This ruined the grave mood that was meant too be prevalent in this particular yelling.
Work morals - a two-edged sword
For keeping your job you better had to learn as much in the shortest time possible. At the same time, it was hard keeping the balance between "showing your feet" and pure arse licking. No sane person wanted to smile his way in to the bosses heart, increase the work pace or to get work assignments that you barley mastered. But at the same time, the older employees were better listeners, when you were talking about your opinions, the better you were (if you weren't cocky that is). Many of those who presented themselves as loyal too the management, and preached themselves warm about work morals, still acted in a totally opposite way. The confession of the lips can be used as a defence mechanism, a smoke curtain and facade for saving one's own skin, making it easier with getting away with things and to be spared from getting shit from those on top. The bosses encouraged the "work morals" and were talking about almost mythological former bakers, who could feel the difference between dough 28,5 degrees Celsius and dough 29 degrees, with their bare hands. The answer was simply to try to show that you could do your job without it affecting anyone else through an increased work pace. If we youngsters would have worked hard, we could have made others unemployed, by opening up the "sacking people"-alternative for the management or the one where they wouldn't have to hire stand ins.
Like a fucking kindergarten…
The labour itself was rather boring and also, in many instances, quite physical demanding. You could be standing on the same spot, packing bread or laying tins on a production line, all day long. Too stand this there was a brutal sense of humour and several kind of pranks. You were warmly poking fun with each other and in a not as warm manner with the bosses ("Let's call the customs and tell them that he has half a kilo amphetamine in his arse!"). Once, when we had many people on learning, we cleared away the dough pots, made a ball out of tape and then had a soccer game with three players in each team. Sometimes we had daily battles with dough as projectiles (of course, we didn't use that dough for bread). Besides being fun, it was hard for the boss to put his foot down, when you are just fooling around and playing all the time.
Nontenured employees as shields
After a while, the comrades that had a nontenured employment or that was educated with a fixed assignment were given the task to act as "shields" for the others. They had too take demands too the boss and could argue more openly against him, because they couldn't get sacked just like that.
When new persons came, the foremen liked to say to them that we were their "bosses", because we had been on the bakery longer than they had. We tried to take this notion out of them, with the quite good argument: we had the same salary as them. The fact that the foremen called us the newcomers' bosses could easily be turned against the management. When they new employees were assigned to do meaningless shit-jobs, we told them that they could do something else, funnier, or take a coffee break instead. And if the foremen complained the new workers could just refer to us - the bosses.
In the final days of the bakery there were not very much to do there, so we wanted leave with a full paycheque before the working day had ended. The boss refused, and told us to do the cleaning up in an extremely minute way instead. Most would think that it would get a proper cleaning when the whole building would be turned down… Some days after they had told us that we couldn't go home before the working day had ended, there was an big breakdown on an other bakery, and the whole of southern Sweden were risking a stoppage on some types of our bread. When the boss declared this, he said that it probably would mean five-hour overtime for us workers. We just nodded in reply, while we all agreed afterwards, to go home by the end of the regular working hours. Soon people began titling-tattling about that we shouldn't finish all the bread, because we had told them in packing, that it would be no overtime when they asked us for how long we should work. Grown-up men, twice as old as us, ran around looking either worried (the bosses) or giggly (the bakers). When the boss of our section of the bakery called to ask us what was happening we just told him that we had quit working for the day and just had do the cleaning to go home. We were expecting the yelling of the year, but instead he got all worked up and all he said was "Ok". It was a wonderful feeling going home that day.
At one occasion the management wanted to change the working hours for some of us, adding three more hours, a three hours earlier working day once a week - something we were absolutely opposed to. The union wanted us to have more salary during that time, the company wanted us to have the same salary as we had, while we demanded extra paid vacancy if we were to accept this at all. When we arrived at work one day we found out that the union representative-bastard had signed papers without our approval (they could and can do that legally - he had right to negotiate even if we didn't want it). When he came to work we went to the room were we had our coffee (were else…) and confronted him. He told us that he had accepted the new working hours, but that he and management wasn't in an agreement (hmm…). All this grew too an argument of gigantic proportions and we got so excited that we didn't notice that more and more workers came along. Anyway, we told him that we refused to show up before our regular working day began - something another worker happily remarked was a wildcat strike. In answer, he suggested that we perhaps were in the wrong business if we couldn't handle this kind of working hours. Others, newly arrived listeners, half-joking began to nominate a new union representative. Finally we left him with the words that he could approve whatever hours he wanted to, but that we would come and go in accordance with our regular hours. It never came any instructions on new hours, so I guess he ran to the boss and that they agreed not to carry it trough. Well, then we agreed not to carry trough the project of painting his car in the yellow colour of the class traitor.
Finally the decision to close down the bakery came. It came, as a relief for many who had been walking around waiting and who just wanted to know. Because of the fact that the same company had closed down so many other bakeries in other places without meeting any resistance, there was no one who was ready to pick up the fight for keeping the place. In general we thought that it was a shitty job, and it that case, we could take any shitty job.
The faceless resistance is very much about small everyday conflicts, and is a form of struggle that anyone can be involved in. Because of this, this way of struggle can also combat the hierarchies within the working class - it gives practical possibilities for struggling together. Instead of waiting an eternity for some big red union guy that will fix everything, you can just get it started yourself. It could be a question of you gaining from it, of acting in solidarity with one's work mates or other workers (for example the workers who bought the bread we were producing), of being driven by a burning political conviction, of wanting to have a vengeance on the management or individual bosses, of simplifying the labour process, or simply because it is fun!
Varg I Veum, a member of Kämpa Tillsammans!