Making the most of spontaneous rebellions at work

Advice on how to react when a big issue immediately angers a large number of people at your workplace, in order to try to organise effective action and build collective confidence for further disputes.

Submitted by Steven. on November 11, 2006

It would be nice if we always had tested and trusted structures in place able to respond to unexpected situations at work. Unfortunately this doesn’t describe many workplaces where structures tend to be weak and disorganised or slow and bureaucratic. The situations that upset us the most are likely to be unanticipated. Sudden rebellion is most likely to develop as a response to unexpected decisions or circumstances i.e. unfair sackings, shift changes etc, and our actions need often be rapid and ad hoc. What follows is a few tips on how to make the most of these spontaneous rebellions at work:

1. Act quickly. In our experience the response to such things needs to be very quick. If we wait to ask people to go to a meeting a few days later then the incident will no longer be at the forefront of people’s minds, the decision may have gained reluctant acceptance just by having been applied for some time, the initial fury will have passed, and so probably will the time to act.

2. Think carefully. Although we’ll need to be acting quickly we have to think carefully and responsibly, which can obviously be hard when we are likely to be really angry. Is what we’re doing going to lead to improvements or just lead to more job losses? Never is it more important to think as workers rather than political activists. Also, inform people as best you can, be honest about what the likely consequences of an action are and avoid giving people false hope.

3. Get everyone away from work. The next most important thing is to get everyone away from work, to stop doing the things we are supposed to be doing. Serving customers, answering phones, backing off coaches, stacking shelves, these things become ingrained responses and to get everyone to stop doing what they are supposed to be doing is a massive step that opens the door to various possibilities. As soon as we get away from work we are effectively on strike. Then they have to get us to go back and the longer we can stay away the harder that is likely to be. Also, don't be put off if you work somewhere with fewer staff. Small places can sometimes mean you have more chance of success. If two of you make up 2/3 of the workforce, management are going to be a bit stuffed if you start refusing to work. However, this might depend on how easy it is for them to bring in new workers at short notice.

4. Don’t talk to management. It is never a good idea in these early stages to enter into dialogue with management. It seems a very sensible thing to do but in doing so we inevitably get drawn back into the discourse of the company. It moves debate onto where they're strong; our strength is in our collective ability to stop working. Going to management makes us argue with them on their terms, not ours. In ten minutes of respectful dialogue you’ll go from refusing a decision with collective power to asking management if they could change their mind (please), and inevitably to submission. Also, don’t assume that going to a ‘good manager’ will bring you any more success. Even the ‘good manager’ can only act out company policy. Entering into negotiations with any set of bosses or bureaucrats stalls momentum and so is a bad move. Your best bet is to collectively refuse whatever decision has sparked off the rebellion.

5. Spread the struggle.
Try to spread the strike through the company and the geographical area you work in, across industry. Go to different parts of your workplace telling them what’s going on and try to get them out as well (or at least taking some sort of on-the-job action). This might seem an absurdly utopian suggestion but workers in a coffee shop in a bus station (for example) are inevitably going to be pissed off about something themselves and might join a spontaneous bus workers’ strike, bringing their own demands to it. Regardless, a failed attempt to involve them might make them go away and think about the idea of getting involved should the situation arise again (whether at their current job or somewhere else). It’s important to attempt to create a culture in which workers joining together in such a manner isn't seen as unusual.

Even when they aren’t totally successful, these sorts of revolts can make management back off quite a bit, or at least take a more soft line, which opens up a certain amount of space for workers. To put it bluntly, unless they're thick as shit management won't be causing trouble for a while. And this will be a direct result of your actions.